Monday night, The Lovely Becky, our friend MSF, and I headed out to Tama to play in the biggest live poker tournament any of us had ever played. We had qualified for this event by making the final table at an earlier $65 satellite tournament, and now we hoped to parlay our modest buy-ins into some big money. But as the night unfolded, we ran into a perfect storm of poor planning and peer pressure that produced quite a unique spectacle in the poker room.
The tournament was billed as a World Series of Poker satellite. Previously at this casino, that meant the winner received a seat for free at the WSOP main event. However, this year, the casino changed the format, and the top seven players out of the field of 140 would each get $5000, which they could use toward the WSOP or keep as cash. Considering that the main event at the WSOP has a $10,000 buy-in, the advertising was a bit bogus. It was also very odd to have all of the players in the money get the same amount. No one was very happy about the payout or the lack of a true WSOP seat, but for a chance at $5000, they didn’t argue too hard.
The structure, however, caused problems for everyone. We all got 2500 in chips to start.* That’s not a lot but not uncommon for poker tournaments. However, the blinds—the automatic bets two players have to make every hand—went up with lightning speed. Just over two hours into the tournament, the blinds reached 1000/2000, meaning that $2000 was the minimum bet to get into a hand, and 4000 to make the minimum raise. But because we started with 2500 in chips, everyone had fairly small chip stacks, with no players above 30,000. This transformed the game from poker to an all-in fest, where players simply pushed their chips in a prayed. We may as well have played a poker scratch off game. All the talk at the break centered on this screwed up structure.
There were 37 people left when someone first called out, “Let’s chop it!” Chops in poker games are fairly common, but they usually happen at the final table between that handful of players at most. In fact, this tournament was essentially pre-chopping the pot among the last seven players. But chopping among nearly forty people seemed preposterous. Everyone chuckled, with a few “yeahs!” thrown out for good measure.
The same guy said, “No, I’m serious, if we split, we all get $950.”
That caught everyone’s attention. Because no one really felt comfortable with how many chips they had, the guaranteed money sounded pretty appealing. About 75% of the players raised their hands in support of the motion. The poker room manager entertained the notion, but a few players said they wanted to play and not chop. We had to have 100% agreement to split it.
After several others busted out—including our revolutionary hero who had started the idea—the prospect got even more interesting. With 32 players left, we would all get $1093.75. The cutoff for having to report your gambling winnings to the IRS is $1100. If we waited for one more person to bust out, we would go over that. Not only would we have to pay taxes, the casino would have to fill out tax paperwork for all of us. They definitely did not want to do that 30+ times. The poker room manager paused the tourney to let us know it was now or never.
At this point, only two players said no. One guy, wearing a Marshall Tucker Band t-shirt and holding just over 20,000 in chips, said he wanted $1300. His friend who had considerably less chips pulled out $200 and said, “If I give you the extra $200, will you chop?” Marshall Tucker man considered and agreed.
That left one woman who said she didn’t want to. The timing was crucial for us, because TLB had a mere 3000 chips left. MSF had only about double that, and my 13,000 chip stack probably wasn’t going to last long unless I caught some cards soon. So we grabbed our pitchforks and joined the other villagers in pushing for the chop.
Our holdout held her ground for a couple of minutes. But as 62 eyes bore into her, you could see her wilting. The room became filled with calls for her to give in. We may as well have been chanting Gobble, gobble, one of us, one of us! After some discussion with the poker room manager, she caved. The Tama Chop Party of 2007 entered the poker history books.
No one in the room, including the dealers, had ever seen anything like it. Everyone seemed pretty jazzed to walk home with a grand each, even the people who had initially opposed our poker pool collectivization. TLB, MSF, and I were more than happy to collect our money instead of driving home with nothing.
Still, as we waited for the casino to divvy up the pool 32 ways, I couldn’t help but be a little perturbed at what happened. Beyond the absurdity of playing a tournament where 32 people “won”—imagine stopping the NCAA basketball tourney after the first round—I wondered what would have happened if someone had refused to cooperate. How would the crowd have reacted?
“You know,” I remarked to TLB and MSF as we walked to the car, “Now I think I understand how Sacco and Vanzetti got executed. Somebody says, ‘Hey, I don’t think we can sentence them to death.’ The rest of the crowd says, ‘Oh yeah, well maybe we’ll kill you too,’ and the first person decides, ‘You’re right, death it is!’”
I don’t think anyone would have done anything except complain, as the Tama crowd is pretty tame, but I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.
*Note: The chip amount here is arbitrary and not actually tied to the money we paid or how much was in the pool. It's just what we got to play with.