02/22/2006 12:00AM

Witness to a pro's version of liar's poker

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I went down to Atlantic City, N.J., last month when the World Poker Tour made its stop at the Borgata for the Winter Open - 10 days' worth of tournaments and a $10,000 buy-in main event. I made it down just in time to lose all my money in a couple of $1,000 satellites and never even saw the main event.

But the trip wasn't a complete washout as I made some cash and learned a lesson. A buddy of mine went down a couple of days earlier and plunked down the cash to play the $2,500 buy-in no-limit event. By the time I got there, he had made it through the first day and a field of 366 players and was in a position to cash. Going into the second and final day of the event, there were 45 players remaining. The payoffs ranged from $4,000 for 36th place to $280,000 for first place.

It's not that I was rooting for him because he's my buddy. He owed me money from bad football bets, and in lieu of the cash I took 6 percent of him in this tournament instead.

So even though I was broke, I was in action and spent the rest of the trip sweating his action. As the field slowly whittled away, I stood there with my cell-phone calculator and figured out my cut as each player got knocked out. When it was down to 36 players and he made it into the money, his end was $4,118 and my cut was $247.08. Not yet a profit, but at least gas money to get home. At 18 players, I was up to $384.30. Woo-hoo.

I just kept telling him to fold, and he listened. Everybody else knocked each other out, and I kept moving up the ladder. It was like I was playing the best poker of my life and wasn't even in the game.

At this point of a tournament, when it's down to two tables, the strategy is to play the same tight-aggressive manner that got you there in the first place. No confrontations, few all-ins, and very little bluffing, if any at all. It's the old squeeze-push-pray gambit: You squeeze for the nuts (the best possible hand at the moment), then push with your chips (put the other guy to a decision for all his chips when you have the best of it), then pray to the god of your choice that if your opponent calls he doesn't suck out.

And in reality, you really don't even want a caller, and certainly don't want a call from somebody who has more chips and who can then knock you out. While the goal of course is to win, the real money in these tournaments isn't until the final table, and you can't win unless you get to the final table.

By simply picking up pots here and there, you're not in danger of suffering through a short stack and it leaves you in a position to keep going forward as the others get eliminated. A wuss mentality? Maybe. But it's still the correct way to play. If you choose to be the tough guy, you end up instead as a target, and then it's the eight against one, as every other player at the table wants to knock you out. For some players, that's the role they prefer, giving them a built-in excuse when they get knocked out, which in fact makes their wuss factor even higher. Their excuse is always the same: that the other guy never should have called.

When play was down to 14 players (my end $549, woo-hoo-hoo), there was one of those big-name pros playing at the table with my buddy, raising or re-raising pretty much every other hand. Earlier in the day, this big-name pro was busy giving a pre-game interview and was quoted as saying how "the players in this tournament were weak" and how he really couldn't lose "unless one of these amateurs makes a bad call and gets lucky."

Then I watch as this guy gets knocked out. And almost can't believe it.

In late position, my buddy picks up pocket jacks. Keeping with his squeeze-push-pray strategy, he overbets the pot. My buddy wants no action. He clearly has a hand and is saying as much by the size of his bet. It's folded around to our pro, whose chip stack was about the same as my buddy, and he promptly re-raises all in.

The play here by the pro is to put my buddy to a decision for all his chips. He thinks that my buddy is weak - in character, not in the cards - and should of course fold to a player of such great ability as his. As my buddy had clearly committed himself to the hand by his original raise, he immediately called. The big-time pro turned over a 2 and a 7. The jacks held up, and our pro was out in 14th place.

Good play or bad wasn't the question, even though it was a really bad play. But what came into question was his post-game interview, where everybody was so shocked by our pro's early demise by such a seemingly inferior player. And his version of the hand perpetuated the non-sense.

According to him, he made a brilliant positional re-raise and the "amateur didn't know enough to fold and called off all his chips with a bad A [ace with a poor kicker]." The guy lied. Just outright lied. He played badly, lost, and then made up a story to defend his image of how only weak players call and the good players like him are at the mercy of luck.

I ended up with more money than I started with, didn't even play a hand, and watched as a so-called professional embarrassed himself so badly trying to defend his tough-guy status even though squeeze-push-pray was the better way to play.

My buddy, the wuss, made it to the final table, played his heart out, and was finally eliminated in fourth place - good for $64,050 for him and $3,843 for me.

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.