Updated on 09/17/2011 11:59PM

Caught between sharks and fish

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Mixed it up against the big boys earlier this month in the main event at Five Diamond Classic at the Bellagio in Vegas, a $15,000 buy-in and one of the majors on the World Poker Tour circuit with its first prize of more than two million bucks.

First order of business was raising the $15K. My total stake was $3,500, so the only way in was through a satellite. For the uninitiated, almost nobody pays the actual buy-in into these big-money events. Seats are won by playing in satellites, mini-tournaments with buy-ins that range from as high as 10 percent of the actual tournament buy-in - for example, 10 players put in $1,500 each and the last one standing wins a seat - to on-line tournaments where it can cost as little as a $1 and all you have to do is beat 15,000 other players to win a seat.

My way in was through the $1,500 super-satellite run at the Bellagio the day before the tournament, where 485 players put in $1,500 each, and they gave away a seat for each $15,000 in the pot. Minus the juice for the house, they gave away 47 seats, and mine was one.

I got seriously lucky midway through the tournament and quadrupled my chips. One tough guy was trying to outmuscle another tough guy, and I re-raised all-in with pocket 8's. It was part really good play and part really bad play. The good part was that I had the correct read on the two players in front of me and that my 8's were best; the bad part was that there was a player behind me yet to act, and that guy had AA. The lucky part was that everybody called, and then an 8 came on the flop and my set held up.

The top 47 players win $15,000, but No. 48 wins nothing - a format that turns into a nightmare adult version of musical chairs. Where it took six hours to reduce the original field to 54 players, it took an additional three hours to lose the last six.

Players stall, there's collusion, there's fighting. It's sheer ugliness. When the thing was finally over, two fistfights had to be broken up, and it took three security guards to escort an 86-pound Asian lady from the premises. She was tough.

The format for the main event is a good one. Players begin with $30,000 in chips, and the blinds begin at $50 and $100, and squeeze and muck for a while without that horrible feeling of sinking desperation that comes when the blinds get so big that you are forced to push with any two cards that resembles a hand.

For a player of my caliber - middling (most of the time) to good (some of the time) - not wanting to get involved is pretty much my tournament strategy. The goal in these things is to make it to the next level, not to get knocked out while increasing the size of your chip stack. But that's like saying all you have to do to win at Wimbledon is to hit the ball over the net every time. It's not that easy.

Especially if it's Roger Federer on the other side of the net, or in this case, any one of the top 100 players in the world who were in this particular tournament or that one guy who is probably in the top five and who was sitting at my table. Getting involved with that guy is simply not a good idea.

Of the 555 players who started, half consisted of the best players around, and the other half were the fish, some of whom barely knew the rules. But for those middling players out there, getting involved in a hand with either of the two groups can equal bad news. The good players beat you up, and the bad players knock you out.

For the first two levels, I played a grand total of three hands. I won all three and never even saw a flop. Each time, I had a hand. But all I wanted to do was not to get involved. So each time I overbet the pot, and each time everybody folded. There was one hand where the player under the gun (the first to act) called the $200 blind, and the top-five-in-the-world player raised to $800. One player called, and it was around to me. I had AA. With $2,000 in the pot, the prudent play would have been to raise about $3,000. I raised $23,000. I wanted no action, and that's how you overbet a pot. Everybody folded.

By the end of the third level, I had increased my stack to $34,000. By no means can this be considered good playing, but for somebody who hasn't played at this level in a very long time and whose game can be described as rusty, at best, I was thrilled.

But by the end of the next level, unable to win a hand after trying a few frivolous raises, my stack was down to around $24,000, and I was beginning to panic. The blinds were going up, and my stack was going down. A new player came to the table, and he had a stack of around $125K, and there was already a player at our table who had a stack about the same size.

Whereas these two were supposed to avoid each other, they didn't, and each hand was raised and re-raised. On one of these hands, I was on the button when again the one tough guy raised, and the other tough guy called. I had pocket 7's. As they had raised and re-raised each other the five previous hands, I thought my 7's were best.

The bet was $1,200 to me, and I raised to $10,000. The first tough guy mucked, and then the second tough guy gave me one of those stares and then re-raised me $15,000 more, all my chips. I was absolutely convinced that my hand was best, and this guy was just playing out his role as tough guy - which, by the way, was working.

He put me in a spot for all of my chips. If I were a better player, and thought that I could fight back in another hand with my remaining $15,000, I would have folded. Absolutely and without question I would have folded. But without the confidence to be able to fight back, and with half my chips already in the pot, my only hope was that he had AK and that my 7's would hold up.

I called. He had AK. Pocket 7's held up. Whew! Good playing? No. But I did credit myself for making the correct read and ended the first day with $54,000 in chips. I managed to win a seat in a $15,000 event and outlasted some of the best in the world to make it to day two.

I would love to finish this with tales of brilliant play or monstrous suck-outs, but neither was the case on day two. I played middling at best, getting my stack up to a high of $74,000 and lasting though most of the day. But all I did was last. I played poorly, getting involved not only with the bad players, who sucked out on every turn, but with the good players, and they just beat me up.

The top 100 players got paid, with 100th worth $24,000. The scoreboard said 163 players remained when my last chip went into the pot, which was good for $0 or three days of work for zero return. A tough way to make an easy living.

Kurt Paseka, a former turf writer, is a regular at New York City tracks and has cashed in the main event at the World Series of Poker.