Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Heads-Up and Humility

Wanted to share a short thought I had related to that Masters championship that concluded on Sunday. Actually the thought was inspired from both an impression of the ending of the golf tournament and after following the last live updates from the PokerStars Championships Macau Main Event final table, also taking place on Sunday.

I say the latter took place on Sunday, although in truth while it was Sunday morning and early afternoon here, it was Sunday evening and Monday morning in Macau, as the tournament didn’t conclude until around 2 a.m. their time. That reminded me of my lone visit to Macau back in late 2012 and the very long and late final day of the Asia Championship of Poker.

That day play didn’t end until around 3 a.m. I’ll skip over the details -- all recorded here in a blog post written after I’d gotten back -- but what followed was a kind of mad scramble by me afterwards to make my plane out of Hong Kong that morning. In fact, I didn’t make my flight, but things worked out in the end.

Much like happened back in 2012, heads-up lasted an inordinately long time at inaugural PSC Macau Main Event. In fact, it lasted about twice as long, as the final two in my tournament went about six hours while the final two last weekend -- Tianyuan Tang and eventual winner Elliot Smith -- went something close to 12 hours before finishing.

I followed the updates while chatting online with some of the fellas there reporting. I also noticed some of the talk on Twitter, with a few judgments passed along here and there about the heads-up skills of the final pair.

Televised coverage of the final round of the Masters began just about the time play ended in Macau, and as you know that ended up with a kind of protracted “heads-up” finish between Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. By the last few holes those two had broken ahead of the chase pack, then both missed some big putts down the stretch before Garcia managed to take it down on the first playoff hole.

Heads-up is hard, man. No relaxing. No matter if it lasts a few minutes or hours and hours.

Garcia’s a poker player, as many readers of this blog probably know, regularly playing at the Bahamas each January and also turning up in tournaments in Spain. Has even cashed a handful of times, including in the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event once a few years ago, although I’m not aware of him ever making it to heads-up in a poker tournament. (He does have a third-place finish, though.)

When Garcia and Rose were battling at the end -- and especially after each missed big pressure-packed putts -- there was also some censure of their play. I’m remembering someone describing the play as a “disgrace” and comparing some missed putts to what amateurs might do when playing a round for $20. That’s part of the fun of following major sporting events, though -- the armchair quarterbacking and coaching, I mean. Adds a lot to the overall entertainment.

Anyhow, the combination of these two “heads-up” matches and the crowds of onlookers made me think a little bit of my own experience, in particular that recent poker tournament I played in which I made it to heads-up and with dozens of people watching and cheering came up short of winning the sucker.

I’ve gotten to heads-up in poker tournaments plenty of times before, winning some and losing others. That might’ve been the first time there was a significant rail, though. I remember thinking afterwards that I’d played heads-up okay for the most part, though obviously second-guessed a few decisions and concluded I could’ve handled it differently. I might have thought as well for just a moment or two about what others might have thought about it all, but didn’t waste a lot of time with that, to be honest.

I’ve watched countless number of players going at it heads-up to conclude tournaments before, and I know it’s always very tempting to cast judgments as an observer. Sometimes it’s obvious enough when a player makes a mistake or poor play. In that case, criticism is essentially going to be objective and informed. A lot of times, though, it’s harder to know from the outside all the variables making up the context of each decision and/or action.

Over what is now approaching a decade of reporting on poker tournaments, I’m a long way away from having the judging instinct when watching and reporting on hands. There’s always more information than can be understood or appreciated by a spectator, even when you know the hole cards.

All in all, I’ve become less quick to jump on even the more obvious mistakes competitors will make to betray themselves as less than graceful under pressure. Especially when they’re heads-up.

Image: “one on ones,” Jurgen Appelo. CC BY 2.0.

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