This is a guest blog post written by Ken Hrankowski, who appeared as the amateur guest player during a few episodes of the TV show Pokerstars’ The Big Game. This post recounts his experience getting onto the show and what it was like playing with big-name players like Phil Hellmuth, Tony G, and Daniel Negreanu.
I started playing poker after the “Moneymaker Effect,” as they called it. I found it difficult playing online, as I still do, and I started playing live in the casino. Live seemed more real than on a computer, anyway. I made the trip to Las Vegas twice a year, grinding away and doing ok. I met many pros and socialized with some over lunch or at the bars. I was forced to slow down and almost stop playing due to a family business I had to commit my time to, as well as holding down a full-time job as a police officer. I watched from afar as players battled it out on TV on shows like “Poker after Dark” or “Pokerstars’ The Big Game.”
From time to time I picked up the computer, when I couldn’t play live, and played on Pokerstars, where everyone seemed to be playing. After season one of “The Big Game,” in 2010, Pokerstars began holding online tournaments for participants to qualify for season two. These “free roll tournaments” were usually nothing more than all-in donkfests but I decided to give it a try. You can’t win if you don’t try right?
The rules were, you had to come in, I think it was, in the top 100 for three tournaments in a row Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There were many tournaments to choose from and there were over 10,000 players in every tournament. As luck would have it, I succeeded at doing this. (And this was even after I played half of one tournament at work, packing up the computer in the car, and finishing the tournament at home.)
I was now officially in the contestant pool…along with some thousands of other qualifiers from the tournament series. Quite the long odds for only 6 spots on the show. If selected, contestants would get a 100K stake and play 150 hands against five pros at a televised table. If you lost the stake, you’d be out. And whatever you won above the 100K, you’d get to keep.
There were to follow numerous screening steps, each step of which you had to pass, while all the time selling yourself. Going through the process, I had to do a three-minute promo video, a written questionnaire, then a phone interview with analysis of hands I’d played, and finally a Skype interview. Then one of the longest waits of my life. Finally I got an email with “congratulations” in the heading. I was in! I beat the odds.
A local article was run in our newspaper: “Coffee shop owner lives out poker dream”. My wife and I were treated like royalty by Pokerstars. We were flown to Vegas, met at the airport by a limo driver holding up our names, put up in the hotel where the show was filmed, given spending money and loads of Pokerstars clothing and duffle bags. We met many pro players in the green room while the other contestants were playing. We hung out with the hosts: Amanda Leatherman and Joe Stapleton. (An experience in itself if you’ve ever met Joe).
When it came time to film, I found out who I was playing against: Phil Hellmuth, Jennifer Tilly, Tony G, Nacho Barbaro and Joe Hachem. All obviously very experienced and distinguished players.
Everyone wants to play with the biggest pros in the world. But that comes with the pressure of not wanting to lose money to them. Five pros, all world class poker players, all trying to get MY stack. What chance did I have? I realized at that point how hard this was going to be. I felt like every hand I played, they were going to be in the pot, trying to outplay me.
I felt I was familiar with their play, somewhat, from watching them on TV and they knew nothing about me. That was my only edge.
When I got to the table, it wasn’t like any live game I was used to. There were over one million dollars at the table. I looked down at my 100K in chips and had to figure out which was which. They were not the red $5 chips I was used to. I immediately had to answer their questions, endure the cameras and lights, AND pay attention to the game. The blinds were 200/400 with a 100 ante. Well above my comfort level.
They say when you play poker, you win money from the players worse than you and lose to the players better than you. If you get to the table and look around and you can’t pick out the sucker, it’s you. You should then leave and find a softer game. That wasn’t going to happen here. I was the sucker and HAD to hang on and endure 150 grueling hands over the next 10 hours. I tried my best to keep up with the action and tried to observe my opponents for any tells they may have been broadcasting. Not easy. Perhaps not even possible.
After the friendly banter, mainly for the TV audience. On one of the first hands, Tony G flopped a straight and took most of Hellmuth’s stack right there. Tony G began immediately giving Hellmuth the gears and berating him nonstop. I felt uncomfortable because I knew their history but I still didn’t know if it was real hate or just Hollywooding for attention. I know part of the game is sometimes intimidation to get your opponent off his game, but this was intense. [Note from Zach: here’s the video of the first episode featuring Hrankowski. In the first hand you can see the uncomfortable verbal sparring between Hellmuth and Tony G that Hrankowski is referencing.]
I played straightforward and was blessed with some great hands early on. QQ, AQ, JJ, TT. It seemed that all my hands hit and if I folded a suited connector or a weak A, it didn’t hit the flop anyways. The poker gods were with me. I won a few pots in some straightforward ways: raising, c-betting, and taking down the pot.
My nerves, however, got the better of me. I made a lot of mistakes, making some of my hands obvious. Over-betting a set on the flop, acting out of turn with a good hand, not announcing my raises. It may look easy but it wasn’t just a straight-up friendly game of poker I was playing. I felt like I made a lot of rookie mistakes that allowed them to read me like a book.
After I lost a hand to Hachem’s two-pair, I was afraid of it happening again. I misheard Hellmuth tell me how many chips he had left and I folded a good pair when overcards hit on the flop and turn. He was, I thought in the moment, trying to act weak by telling me how little of a stack he still had. Seeming as if he were trying to coax me to call, so I folded, but I was wrong.
As play went on, Hellmuth got busted by his nemesis, Tony G. Of all the players in the world, Daniel Negreanu took his place to my left. My luck couldn’t be any worse with such an aggressive, experienced player to my immediate left. Goodbye money, is what I was thinking.
During the course of play I endured many ups and downs and make a lot of mistakes I later regret. I played a very tight game as I knew they would eat me alive if I got too out of line. They could reload, I could not. If I went broke, I’d be heading home to tell everyone that I had failed. The day before, I watched another contestant playing aggressively and winning for most of the show, only to lose almost 100K in as little as two hands. I told my wife that wasn’t going to happen to us.
I finally hit a much needed monster. Pocket jacks, flopping quads. If I played it wrong, like my previous strong hands, they’d see my strength and I wouldn’t get paid off. I played it real cool, checking, tanking, and calling. I almost died when Hatchem pushed all-in on me on the river: I couldn’t believe it. I quickly called and I was up over 175K.
I almost blew it though. I couldn’t resist making a speech before my turn call, which most people know is a show of strength. Hachem didn’t catch it though, thankfully.
I was now in the money in a serious way. I just had to hold on to it. Phil Laak was hanging around and, on a break, told me not to let Tony G suck me in. He said, “Just call him, don’t raise him.”
This stuck in my mind all night and actually saved me when I had AQ and flopped a Q. Tony flopped 2 pair and rivered a boat. I called 5K on the flop and snap-called 10K on the turn. I felt pretty sure my top pair top kicker was good. [Note from Zach: here’s the video of this hand, at 40:00.]
On the river, Tony bombed the river, betting 35K into a 35K pot. I tanked. He started to tell me how I was losing all the nice money I had just won. He was right that I had won some nice money: I was up about 170K, so the money I was betting with now was MY OWN MONEY. I knew when he said this, he was trying to talk me into calling so I folded, thanks to the little Phil Laak on my shoulder.
I sat there thinking that the money I lost in that one hand was 15K, enough for a new car, but I tried to get rid of those thoughts. If I started having those thoughts, I was only going to play more tight and scared. If this was a home game I would have packed up and left but I couldn’t. I had to play out 150 hands.
I suddenly went card-dead and decided only to play premium hands and not to chase with second pair. The shift in my play was obvious to the table. Everyone started to straddle and they were trying to coax me into straddling too. Before the show the producer told me to play my game and have fun. I didn’t have to straddle if I didn’t want to and I didn’t. I could tell some of the players were ticked that I was playing like a nit. I remembered other pros at the table in season one, like Barry Greenstein, being berated for playing tight and he’s a pro. That’s his game and that’s how he makes money. So I decided to play tight and follow suit.
After it was all said and done I took home 53K. I lived my poker dream. Played with pros on TV, and WON!
I told Pokerstars in my interview that I wanted to win the money to retire, live in the Caribbean, and play poker full-time. I just retired a year ago. We went to Mexico for 6 months, cruised the Caribbean looking for our island, but didn’t find it. We are back home now.
And now I’m concentrating a lot more on poker. I have a daily routine of studying videos, reading books, and playing in my local cardroom. I plan on going to Vegas for a minimum of one month during the WSOP where I plan on giving it a serious shot. I’m going to play cash games and tourneys daily, with the hopes of continuing to live out my poker dream and perhaps make a WSOP final table. And maybe once again play with the pros on TV.