Have You Got Gravitas?
(If anyone has a published story written about their poker exploits, and want the world to see it, send it to me)
Herb Montalbano knows when to hold, knows when to fold ‘em. And after piling up $1.2 million in chips at a Las Vegas poker tournament, he learned something else: You never count your money ‘til the dealing's done.
By Angus Lind
Herb Montalbano Jr. will tell you that a few months ago he didn't know Texas Hold'em from Texas Tech.
The 46-year-old Metairie advertising executive had been in casinos, sure, but he had never been in a poker room, didn't play in a regular Thursday night game with the boys, wear a green visor, smoke stogies and do card tricks.
Amarillo Slim and Chris Moneymaker were not names he tossed around in conversations.
Then he started watching the World Series of Poker on ESPN and his life changed. He became mesmerized by everything about Texas Hold'em, the card game that is white-hot popular and growing faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind.
"Point blank blame it on them for introducing me to the game and stimulating my interest to learn how to play," Montalbano said the other day.
"TV flat did it. Because I was watching some of these guys and to me a lot of them possessed a glorious absence of intelligence. They were making all kinds of money doing what I considered ignorant plays and they had a horseshoe up their butts in many instances."
So Montalbano took some cash and headed for Harrah's a little over two months ago to take his shot at Texas Hold'em. At the highest levels, this game requires an incredible amount of intelligence, strategy, psychology, statistics and memory. Not to mention luck.
"I got clobbered, lost a couple grand," he said. But he told the guys he was playing with, "Look, y'all can take my money now -- I'm looking on this as tuition. I'm gonna learn this game and I'm gonna come back and kick your butts one day."
The games you grew up playing -- seven-card stud, five-card draw -- they're dinosaurs. Texas Hold'em is it. And in this game everybody at the table is dealt two cards, then bets are made. In the center of the table there are five community cards. The first three that come out are called The Flop. The fourth card is The Turn. And the fifth card is Fifth Street. There are antes, mandatory bets called Big Blind and Little Blind, and bets between the cards.
Montalbano studied. He read. He watched. "I was fascinated," he said. "I said, ‘I can do this.' "
He decided to pony up $25,000 to enter the Bellagio Second Annual Five-Star World Poker Classic in Las Vegas. The game: No Limit Texas Hold'em. Last year there were 130 entries. This year, there were 343 entries, some who got there by winning satellite tournaments and Internet tournaments. There was a pot of $8,342,000, with $2.7 million going to the winner and payoffs to the top 50 players.
Players came from all over the world: Paris, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Japan, China, Hong Kong. Many of them were millionaires and many were brilliant with great minds and an uncanny feel for this game. Some were celebrities. Ben Affleck came to play. So did James Woods.
The tournament lasted five days, at least for six people who made it to the final day. Players received $50,000 in chips. They played for nine hours a day from noon to 9 p.m. There were 90-minute sessions, 10 players at a table and 15-minute breaks. As the tournament wore on, the stakes escalated.
On the first day, Montalbano told himself, "I'm a rookie. I probably have the least experience of anybody in this whole place. I'm going against guys who are world champions, who make a living out of this and have literally made millions and millions of dollars off of it."
So what? A journalism major and 1982 graduate of LSU, he had studied hard, read a ton, crunched numbers and done his homework.
In the field was Gabe Kaplan of "Welcome Back Kotter" fame, an excellent player whom Montalbano would bust out of the tournament on the third day. He told Herb, "I've been playing poker for 30 years and nobody has set me up or trapped me like that in my life."
That did not exactly hurt Montalbano's confidence.
At the end of day one, Montalbano was in 91st place out of 343 with a bankroll of $70,675. On the second day he went to $107,300. At the end of the third day he went to $440,000, putting him in 19th place.
Now you might ask, with $440,000 in tow, why not cash in? Answer: It doesn't work that way. If you get to $100,000, you can't say, "I quit." It goes down to the last man standing and he's got all the chips in front of him.
"Believe me, after day three when I had $440,000, if they had given me an option to cash out, I would have left," said Montalbano.
"I'm thinking on day four," he said reflectively, "the tournament started on April 19th, my birthday. My birthday present to myself was to just make it through the first day and see if I could play with this caliber of players, the world's best.
"On day four, I'm in 19th place out of the 343 and it's down to 31. I'm telling myself -- and I'm not superstitious -- OK, my birthday's the 19th, the tournament started on the 19th, today's the fourth day and I'm in 19th place. I'm saying maybe there's something to this 19-19-19 omen."
Montalbano, when he is telling a story, is a highly animated, gregarious person who gestures a lot. But at the poker table he's a stoic.
"I don't blink. I sit there for five minutes if I need to. They got guys fidgeting but not me. You know, you look for the signs. You look at their mannerisms. And they cannot read me because I am like a statue. What I like about this game and the part where I excel, I think, is making people think I have something when I don't."
Thirty minutes into the fourth day, Montalbano said, "I'm catching cards left and right. I started out with $440,000. Within 30 minutes, I'm at $1.2 million and in second place." And on the brink of poker immortality.
But then the poker gods that had been watching over him took a break. In a big heads-up moment with a guy named Russell Rosenblum of Bethesda, Md., he gambled on a hand and lost $600,000, leaving him that same amount.
"I tried to keep positive," he said. "It would have been sweet popping this guy out, I would've been close to $2 million. But it just didn't happen. The card gods were not with me on that hand and the way my mojo was going at the time, I just felt it. It was in my bones, I was in the zone."
The $600,000 dwindled down to about $400,000-plus. In an ensuing game, everybody folded except a man named T.J. Cloutier of Richardson, Texas.
"He has won more poker tournaments and he has won more money playing poker than anyone of the face of the earth," Montalbano said. "He is an icon, a guru, call him what you want but the guy walks on poker water. He's also a top notch guy."
Montalbano and Cloutier went head-to-head.
Montalbano's two cards were an unsuited Jack and 9. The flop came out Jack-9-King. "I'm on the threshold of euphoria again. I got two pairs which in many cases is a great hand."
Cloutier bet $250,000. Montalbano said he had his opponent pegged for holding Ace-King.
"The only sensible thing for me to do is to go all in. (Put up everything you've got.) So I'm all in for $500,000."
After the bet was called, the players turned over the two cards they were holding. Cloutier was holding King-8.
"That's better for me than him having Ace-King. Statistically I'm sitting in a great position." The fourth card that came out was an Ace. "I'm in a phenomenal position. The only card that can help him out, I'm thinking, is a King or an 8 because if he gets an 8, I got Jacks and 9s and he wins."
The fifth card was dealt.
"He ends up with Aces and Kings, I end up with Aces and Jacks and I'm out of the tournament."
Montalbano said the other guys at the table were pulling for him. "They wanted to see the guy who has been playing for two months beat the crusty old pro. These guys could not even look at me, all eyes were down on their chips."
So the young whippersnapper sucked it up and folded his tent. "I took the classy way out. I said, ‘It's poker, the poker gods weren't with me on this hand.' But I exceeded all my expectations and I had a great time.
"I told them, it was a pleasure playing with them, good luck and I hope somebody from the table wins the tournament."
He collected his money and left, finished 29th overall. Positions 21 through 30 were awarded the same amount, $49,899.
When he got back to his office in Metairie he sent checks for $5,000 each to the SPCA and Children's Hospital. "It was something I wanted to do. I really wish I could have written them each a check for $270,000. I said at the beginning I was doing that, giving them 10 percent of whatever I won and I would have liked nothing more. That would have been sweet."
Regrets? Second guesses? Not really.
"When I was at that $1.2 million, if I would've played ultimate conservative poker, there's no question that just sitting there the rest of the day just putting up my antes and blinds, I would have ended up in the top 12 or 15, but . . .
"I had the spectrum of emotions covered. In an hour I went from giddy euphoria to, ‘What the hell happened?' "
He walked away from the Bellagio Hotel with a positive attitude even though, he says, he had "a 90 percent chance" of winning that showdown hand.
"But you know, it's called gambling -- and I went for it. I had an opportunity to turn that $1.2 million into $2.5 million. And statistically, if you do the number crunching, most of the time it would have happened."
But it didn't.
"They've got all these percentages, but what it really gets down to is this: It's not percentages of 90-10; it's 50-50.
"You got the card or you didn't," Montalbano says. "It's that simple."
. . . . . . .
Columnist Angus Lind can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (504) 826-3449.
© The Times-Picayune. Used with permission.
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