December 16, 2017

Rick Smith’s luck-fueled journey to World Series of Poker

One of my poker buddies had an amazing route to the WSOP a few years ago, outlasting about 100 players to win his entry into the most popular tournament in the world. Here’s my story for my gambling column in the SF Chronicle. Click here to read it at SF Gate.

I thought I’d enter and see what happens.”

That was the approach of Santa Rosa’s Rick Smith when he entered a satellite tournament at Petaluma’s 101 Casino in 2004, hoping to win an entry for the World Series of Poker.

Typically when beginners enter tournaments they don’t last long, but Smith, a parks supervisor and plumber, says he believes in “luck for new players.” And luck was with him: Smith won his single-table tournament (10 players) and made it to the satellite’s final table. The winner of that table would earn a $10,000 entry to the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas.

Smith said his wife’s family, who are Jewish, didn’t understand why he had to leave a Passover seder for the final table in Petaluma. At the 101 casino, Smith made it to the final two and was heads-up against a police officer from San Francisco. On the ultimate hand, the cop had an ace and the flop came A-2-3.

Smith had called with 2-3; his two pair beat the aces. The officer went ballistic, Smith said, appalled that Smith would stay in pre-flop with 2-3. Smith won the entry into the WSOP’s Main Event plus $1,200 for expenses.

After Smith’s triumph, his wife’s family forgave his early Passover departure and began calling him “their favorite poker player.” He traveled solo to Vegas, but ran into a friend from Petaluma at Binion’s Horseshoe, the storied casino where the WSOP was held before moving to the Rio.

The scene was dazzling: bright lights from ESPN’s television cameras, Chris Moneymaker who’d won the Main Event the year before two tables away, the electric anticipation of a $5 million top prize.

Smith stayed cool and played tight on Day 1. As the first day neared its close, Smith got pocket queens and went all-in. When his opponent called him with pocket 8s, Smith was on the verge of doubling up.

On the flop, Smith saw a queen for trips and began to leap out of his chair. Then he saw an 8, and finally a shocking, horrifying sight he’ll remember forever: a fourth 8 to give his opponent four of a kind. Smith still had hope for quads, until another player told him he’d folded the only other queen.

A disconsolate Smith got up and “bounced through the crowd like a pinball,” en route to the bar. “Suddenly there was a big arm around my shoulder.” It was Smith’s friend from Petaluma. “I was almost crying,” Smith said.

His friend tried to help him see the big picture. “Dude, you’re so lucky,” the friend told Smitty, as he’s known to his poker buddies. “You got to play in the World Series of Poker.”

Once the shock wore off, Smith agreed. Playing in the WSOP, he said, “is indelibly etched into my brain for all eternity.”

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