-"How was Italian football before Sacchi?" -"Like now." submitted by
Just two words are enough for Arrigo Sacchi to disarm your face-to-face strategy and leave you out of the game like a beginner. Three words that, however, do not strictly correspond to reality. They are only half true. Only by digging deep into his footballing imagination can one discover how the man who built one of the greatest teams of all time is able to disregard his legacy and blur it in the timeline of the evolution of the beautiful game in Italy. Despite his modesty, there is no doubt that Arrigo Sacchi and his Milan team mark a turning point for Italian football, although from the manager's point of view it is not a turning point but a mere parenthesis. Italian football changed during his time on the bench, but recovered its natural course as soon as he stepped off the pitch and into the offices. "Clearly there has been some change, but not like in the rest of Europe. The televisions have made us see that a different kind of football is being played. 'They've changed all over the world except in Italy,' Costacurta told me a few years ago when we were watching the Italian U-21s against Denmark," explains Sacchi. What are the reasons for this lack of evolution in Italian football? Sacchi is able to recite them with the confidence with which a surgeon points out the ills to be removed. "In Italy, you don't know what the merit is, you just want to win. The fans and the journalists don't ask for the show or the fun, they ask for the victory. -And then how do we seek this victory? -We seek it in the way we know best, through cunning or the art of achieving what we set out to do. Then, our football is a football that costs to be updated and to evolve". Like a wharf which, however much you stretch, returns to its original form, Italian football always tends towards its most primal concepts. And to find the origin of those concepts, you have to do some archaeological work until you get back to the embryonic stage of football in Italy.
World football is roughly divided into four schools. First we have the direct style which was born in England and is still representative of British teams nowadays. Then we have the cheerful, colourful and lighthearted way of life that the Brazilians have been able to bring to the pitch to the height of artistic movement. Thirdly, there is the Dutch philosophy. The so-called total football with which Rinus Michels overtook Herbert Chapman's WM team to surprise the world, generating an idea of play that still has imitators, as is the case of Barcelona in recent times. Finally, we find the Italian style, baptized under the term of Catenaccio, which means lock in Italian. A nomenclature, by the way, quite illustrative of the ideals of the game. In its most basic concepts, the Italian is a football mostly defensive and disciplined, where the result prevails over any commitment to aesthetics. In line with Niccolò Machiavelli's 'Prince' ("the end justifies the means"), Italian football has always assumed that anything is permissible as long as victory is achieved.
Ironically, Catenaccio has no Italian parents. It is not clear who invented this style, but none of those who claim paternity were born in Italy. According to the accomplished historian Brian Glanville, the Catenaccio was invented by the Austrian coach Karl Rappan during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1940s, Rappan developed a tactic that the press christened Riegel (lock, in German) and consisted of having one of the five men on the WM front line move in behind the three defenders. The job of this sweeper would be to keep an eye on the opposing forwards who were running away from their marker. Helenio Herrera, however, not only proclaimed himself the inventor of the Catenaccio but claimed to be the first player to play the role of a sweeper. "It occurred to me when I was playing in France," explains the Argentine coach, as Simon Kuper relates in Football Against the Enemy. "We were playing with the WM formation then," continues Mago Herrera, "and in a game where we were winning 1-0 with 15 minutes to go, I left my position to get behind the defense. I had these ideas in my time as a player and when I became a manager years later I remembered them." Glanville believes Rappan invented the Catenaccio, Nereo Rocco introduced it to Italy and Helenio Herrera perfected it. Whether it was one or the other who invented it, both versions agree that the key piece of this style is the figure of the Libero. Without it, there would be no Catenaccio.
The success of the ultra-defensive Inter Milan during the 1960s, which razed Europe to the ground with two consecutive European Cups (1964 and 1965), made the Catenaccio the book that rested on the bedside table of any self-respecting Italian coach. Anyone who wanted to win had to resort to defensive football. Nereo Rocco's triumphs with Milan in the late 1960s and Giovanni Trapattoni's triumphs with Juventus in the 1980s did not invite the idea of an alternative. That was the context in which a discreet footballer who had not managed to get out of the lower ranks of Italian football decided to hang up his boots to become a coach. At just 26, Arrigo Sacchi sat on the bench for the first time. At Baracca Lugo, a team in the neighbourhood where he worked as a shoemaker. "I was 26, my goalkeeper was 39 and my striker was 32. I had to win them" It was the start of a rise to the elite with stops at Bellaria and Rimini and the youth teams of Cesena and Fiorentina. But fate awaited him at Parma, with whom he would achieve promotion to Serie B in just one season and leave him three points behind the top flight of Italian football. During that season, a 1986-1987 Italian Cup play-off would change his life forever. He would beat AC Milan by the smallest of margins, playing a game that caught the eye of the Rossoneri's top executive. It was on that night that Silvio Berlusconi was enthralled by Arrigo Sacchi. Silvio Berlusconi
had recently became the owner of Milan. After a failed attempt to take over Inter Milan, he ended up buying the Rossoneri on 20 February 1986, ready to build the best team in the world. Although Milan did not seem to be the most suitable club to do so. The golden years when Europe was painted in red and black had already long survived only in the history books. In the early 1980s, Milan was going through its most traumatic period. Former president Felice Colombo, members of his board and some players were involved in the 'Caso Totonero'
(blackjack), the illegal betting and match fixing scandal that rocked Italian football in the 1979-1980 season. As a result, Milan were administratively relegated to Serie B and began a dark period from which they could not escape. Despite the arrival of stars such as Paolo Rossi, top scorer in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, or the hiring of symbols such as Nils Liedholm to the bench, Milan did not get off the ground again. Berlusconi would become the end of Rossoneri's troubles.
He took over from Giuseppe Farina in the presidency, brought optimism to the stands, millions to the coffers and, above all, a new philosophy for the team. He set himself the goal of becoming the best club in the world by always opting for attacking football that would be attractive to fans.
To achieve this ambitious goal, he relied on the coach he had fallen in love with when he faced him in the Italian Cup. He trusted Arrigo Sacchi.
An unknown, with no past as a footballer, he was in charge of one of the most successful teams in Europe, making front-page coverage in the Italian press. The headslines that considered Berlusconi's gamble to be wrong were multiplying. They accused him of losing his mind. It was too shocking that someone who had not previously been a professional footballer should take over one of the giants of Italian football. That was the first obstacle Sacchi encountered in his promotion to the elite. It was a rare thing at the time. Ottavio Bianchi coached Napoli, Rino Marchesi coached Juventus, both of whom had a history with the Italian national team, and the illustrious Giovanni Trappatoni
, who was a European champion in Rossoneri colours, sat on the Inter Milan bench. However, Milan's fate was in the hands of a rookie who was not known for his footballing skills. Replacing a myth like Liedholm didn't make things any easier either. Sacchi defended himself as his Milan would later, knocking out the critics with a simple phrase: "I didn't know that to become a jockey, you first have to be a horse"
Despite the doubts of the surroundings, there was total confidence in Arrigo Sacchi at the club. Silvio Berlusconi gave his new manager full powers to build a team to suit him. "My work at Milan is made possible by a great club. A club that was positively impressed by what I did at Parma, that believed in a few things and followed me completely. They even threw out some players who were undoubtedly valuable, but who were not functional and others who were not professionally as I wanted them to be,"
says the Italian coach. Sacchi does not give out any names so as not to reveal the identity of these non-functional or unprofessional players, but to draw your own conclusions you need only look at the list of players who left Milan that summer in 1987. Agostino Di Bartolomei set out for Cesena despite being the player who had played the most matches the previous season. Dario Bonetti, Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley, among others, followed the same path.
But the key of that summer was not in the departures, but in the arrivals. Sacchi marked a clear line in the transfer policy. "I believed in ideas and work,"
says the Italian coach, "and to do this I needed to have reliable people, people who were enthusiastic, generous, a culture of professionalism, perfectionists, and we looked for these kinds of people. Then, that they were functional to the technical project we had in mind and that they were complementary to each other."
It was within these parameters that Sacchi brought Walter Bianchi and Roberto Mussi with him from Parma, requested the signing of Carlo Ancelotti
and was given two top stars by Silvio Berlusconi's checkbook: Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. The former arrived from Ajax in exchange for 1.75 million euros. For the second, 13.5 million was paid to PSV Eindhoven. Both would become the totemic symbols of their Milan. "Van Basten was the best, but Gullit was the emblem. Without being the best he was the one who helped me the most"
, Sacchi confesses. Together, they formed the basis of the team along with promising youngsters such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Roberto Donadoni. Frank Rijkaard, the Holy Trinity's companion from the Rossoneri tulips
, was not due to arrive in Milan until the following summer.
After a summer of avoiding criticism and disdain while transmitting to some heavyweights that they should make the suitcase, Sacchi managed to build his Milan and this had its first test in official match in the Coppa d'Italia against Bari. The business card could not have been better. The Rossoneri won 5-0 with goals from Donadoni, Virdis, Van Basten, Gullit and Massaro, and that 23 August 1987 has become a holy day in the history of Milan. It was the moment when the team that changed the destiny of the entity was born. Three days later it would beat Como, then Monza, and then make its Serie A debut with a win over Pisa. Milan had become a machine, from the beginning, that was very difficult to stop. Disappointments such as the early elimination from the UEFA Cup against Espanyol and some unexpected results injected doubts in Berlusconi, who even flirted with Johan Cruyff to give him the Rossoneri bench, but negotiations with the Dutchman did not bear fruit. Sacchi held on to his position and ended up building one of the best teams in history.
ideas were the reconstruction of tactical values not only in Milan and Italian football, but also had a great impact on the world stage. His tactics marked a complete break with the style that was being imposed in Italy and, therefore, also in Europe. It was a tactical revolution and, as such, it required some sacrifice. Marat's death set fire to the French revolution and the assassination of Martin Luther King accelerated his 'dream'. For his own revolution, Arrigo Sacchi murdered the Libero
. The Libero represented the icon of the Catenaccio, the figure with which the hitherto unquestionable WM formation was overthrown to create a new style in which defensive concepts were varied. "Italy has a defensive mentality in general, not just in football. For centuries everyone was invading us. When I arrived, most of the attention was on the defensive phase. We had a libero and a line of markers. The offensive phase was left to the intelligence and common sense of the only creative element in the team, the number 10,"
he says in 'Inverting The Pyramid'.
Sacchi changed everything. He abolished the law of the sweeper to form a very forward four-man defensive line
that was perfectly synchronised to zonal marking and managing offside when necessary. Franco Baresi was in charge of the back line and marked the line over which the rest of the defence was to be deployed.
Such a forward defensive line meant that spaces were reduced, providing a key safety net for the other two lines to push the opposition's ball out of their control. Thus, if an opposing player crossed a line, he immediately crashed into the next one. "We wanted to get the ball back as quickly as possible,
" says Sacchi, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. However, every move of that pressure was totally studied. To the extent that there was a false pressure, like the striker: "Sometimes we practised a false pressure. We pretended to put pressure, but in reality we used that time to recover our strength".
That kind of defensive work was the first necessary condition for a footballing bet that depended solely and exclusively on ruling the game through possession. Without the ball there was no plan. So it was necessary to get it back as soon as possible. In a way, it was a reinvention of Rinus Michels' total football. "We had the presumption, also the hope, of knowing how to do everything. We wanted to get the ball away from our opponents quickly and when we had it, we wanted to know when to have possession or when to play a vertical game. We defended by attacking, by running forward,"
explains Sacchi, "and when we had the ball we knew when we had to play upright or, on the contrary, when to pass backwards, change sides."
As he talks about his tactical ideals, Sacchi seems to have moved into the dressing room for a moment. He looks down, forgets about the camera, the focus and even the journalist in front of him, and stands in front of an imaginary team he's coaching before a game or during a training session. He speaks without resting. Having a tactical conversation with Sacchi is the perfect metaphor for the game that Milan played on the field: he takes possession, monopolises the words and leaves hardly any space for the interlocutor to interact.
He is the unequivocal master of the dialogue and one can only shut up, listen and learn. "We trained believing that pressure was important because it allowed us to grow our self-esteem and personality and impose on others a rhythm of play they were not used to. We also tried to condition them when they had the ball. But when we had the ball we had to know how to manage it and understand if it was time to play vertically or start again with the ball, change the game or change the zone. It was a team that I think knew everything and was played by excellent performers, with a great club behind them. We had the interpreters and they were all functional. For me, they were the best players in the world, all 18 of them. I knew that wasn't the case, but I wouldn't have swapped them for anyone else,"
he concludes, before taking a breath. By way of false pressure, we intuited.
Paradoxically, that Milan that needed the ball so much to represent their football ideas on the field, often worked out without it. The ball was not a usual assistant in Milanello, training center of the Milan team. Sometimes, Arrigo Sacchi designed purely theoretical work sessions in which the players did not even need to jump onto the field. At other times, he encouraged positional play and Sacchi forced his disciples to show him where they should be on the pitch depending on where an imaginary ball was.
The coach would walk around the pitch and the players would have to correct their position with millimetric precision. His tactics revolutionised Italian football to the point where the foundations of the game were called into question. Italian teams were divided internally according to the characteristics of their players. Some had the responsibility to defend and others were in charge of attacking, being exempt from running backwards. With Sacchi, although this had already happened with Michels, both parties merged to reward the block. They all ran to get the ball back and they all represented basic pieces in the creation of attacking football. With Sacchi came the supremacy of the group over the individual in the Serie A.
Sacchi's Milan reached its peak in the European Cup. During his time on the Rossoneri bench he gave Silvio Berlusconi a Scudetto, an Italian Super Cup, two European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and, above all, two European Cups.
But, above the titles, key moments are remembered, matches in which Milan was consecrated as one of the best teams of all times. Probably one of those matches was the one that pitted them against Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the 1988-1989 European Cup.
Sacchi was facing his second season at the head of Milan. After winning Serie A, he had to export his success to Europe, where Berlusconi's most coveted ambition lay: the European Cup. After beating Bulgaria's Vitosha Sofia (2-7 on aggregate), Red Star on penalties and Werder Bremen with a solitary goal from Marco van Basten in the second leg, he would face Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Although the Merengue players barely remembered those European Cups that Di Stefano won in black-and-white television, they had brought together a generation that had been thrilling the stands: the Quinta del Buitre.
The Butragueños, Michel and company were joining international stars like Hugo Sanchez to dream again with the trophy with big ears. There was plenty of talent in Madrid and it was, along with Milan, the fashionable team in Europe. It was unquestionable that the Spanish capital smelled of the Seventh, but the first leg generated doubts. After 90 minutes, the score was a 1-1 draw, but the feeling was very different. Sacchi remembers it clearly and confesses that even Butragueño recognized to him years later that he did not know how they had obtained that draw in the Bernabéu. "Butragueño told me when I was at Real Madrid - when he was vice-president and had been a great player since he was little and therefore knew everything about Real Madrid - that he had never seen in his life, having followed football and having played it, "a team that came to the Bernabeu to do what you did. We managed to recover a draw not knowing how. You looked like twenty and we looked like ten or eleven. You attacked even Buyo"
, recounts the Italian.
The key to Milan's dominance in Madrid was once again pressure, the hallmark of Sacchi's Milan. Such was the superiority shown by the visitors that, when adding up an insufficient result, the Milan players went into a state of depression. Sacchi had to work as a psychologist to lift the spirits of his team and show them the way to seal their qualification for the European Cup final. "I remember that in the following 15 days I was telling the players: 'Remember that at certain levels, when you have to win and you don't win, you lose nine times out of ten. So either we make a masterpiece or we lose here"
. That work of motivation was the first stone to build what later has been considered the Opera Prima of Milan
. Milan has given three artistic jewels to the world: the Scala, the Duomo and the Manita to Real Madrid.
Milan came back with a 5-0 win at the San Siro, although things did not start off well. So much that as soon as the match got underway, Sacchi considered removing his main star Marco van Basten from the field. "When they came here, Madrid started well, we didn't start so well; van Basten was static, so much so that I immediately got a striker warming up. I remember Ramaccioni saying to me: 'Arrigo, calm down a bit',"
said Sacchi. Then came the stroke of genius. All it took was a tactical move and the game changed in favour of the Rossoneri. Carlo Ancelotti was the embodiment of the strategy. To find the origin, you have to go back a few days before the meeting. "Carlo unlocked everything,"
analyses Sacchi, "and that's how I see football. On Tuesday, Evani had been injured in a clash with Albertini; because we trained on Tuesday as if it was already the match, with that strength. I had many solutions to replace him: to put Donadoni as a winger, who although many journalists put him there, we didn't use as a winger. We used him as a midfielder, the fourth central player, because if he ended up on the right or left wing, he bothered the wings, which were Evani and Colombo. Or putting Virdis in attack with Van Basten and Gullit as a midfielder in Donadoni's place, but Gullit didn't guarantee me on a tactical level what Donadoni guaranteed me... In the end I played the player least likely to replace Evani, who was Ancelotti, but he was the most available and gave me his 100%."
The gamble proved to be perfect: "The prize was that the first goal was scored by Ancelotti. And then he played the final in that position too. What did the Steaua coach do? He put Hagi in that area, but he didn't know that we never had a marker, we had two or three, because our team was, in that way, compact, short in that period of time compared to the others, but we were always going to mark with two or three men. And this happened against Real Madrid, where we had a numerical superiority in the pressure on the ball." Sacchi believes that the basis of the victory over Real Madrid was, as it was throughout his career, the importance of the team over the individuals. "They had players with great technique, probably better than us, but we were a great team. They had a group, but less of a team than we did. And in football the collective achieves more than the individual. You have to know this,"
says the Italian. That victory marks the definitive explosion of Milan, who went on to become the dominant force in European football.
After that, they won the Intercontinental Cup
against Nacional de Medellin and went on to reach the footballing heavens. However, that match also represented the change in the way teams faced Milan. The Colombians were the first daring ones who forced Arrigo's thoughts to change. "With Nacional of Medellin they were the ones who made things difficult for us because for the first time we were up against a team that attacked us a lot. Then, of hunters we became hunted. It took us tranquility, security. This requires patience, which is a virtue I have not always had, but at that time I had it. I remember that at half-time Van Basten said to me: 'We are not well, we are not in shape, we have to have patience'. It wasn't a pretty game, but I was amazed at how many people said it was bad. Those people never understood that Milan were playing great football. I have to say that it was a game similar to reading a Kafka book: heavy, difficult,"
says Sacchi for El Enganche about that 1-0 win for Evani in the last minute of extra time, which represented the club's second Intercontinental and the first one to be shown in his living room. Milan, however, were already a despotic side who had challenged the previously dominant footballing laws and turned them to their advantage.
Despite the successes achieved with his Milan, Arrigo Sacchi was not lacking detractors. His style was so far removed from Italian traditions that some were unable to digest the change. "Even now it is said that when Milan played well it was because they had good players and when they played badly it was because Sacchi was there,"
joked the Italian coach, seeking complicity. Gianni Brera, the legendary Italian sports journalist, was one of his fiercest critics. Brera, an exquisite connoisseur of football and tactics, professed admiration for a doctrine that was antithetical to that represented by Sacchi's Milan. His attacks on the ideas of the revolutionary coach were commonplace in the Gazzetta dello Sport. Although Arrigo was intelligent to take advantage of these criticisms and reverse them in his favour. Before the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest, he used an article by Brera to motivate his players. "I remember before the final with Steaua, that the greatest Italian sports critic, the poor Brera, an excellent writer, very good indeed, but with footballing ideas very distant from ours, said: 'Milan will play against the champions of dancing football, against the champions of possession of the ball, they will have to wait for it, defend it and go on the counterattack'. On Tuesday before the match the best Italian sports journalist wrote this and I read it because I needed to know his convictions. You cannot say 'do it because I say so'. According to him, we had to use that strategy. Gullit stood up and said 'we'll attack them from the first second until we have the forces. Okay, everybody? And we did."
However, Sacchi's most surprising enemy was not Brera, but was hiding in his own dressing room: Marco van Basten.
Known to all, the relationship between the two was not good. So much so that the Dutchman often questioned him in front of the group.
Sometimes he found it hard to see the logic in his coach's approach, and so he let him know. "Van Basten asked me why the others were winning and why we had to win and convince them. He also told me that we worked too hard and didn't have any fun. I always told him: 'You're a clever boy and you have to have fun in a different way. We're here to make sure the audience has a good time. He never understood that you can't get a lot without giving a lot. Van Basten has been an extraordinary player for me, not easy to manage, but extraordinary,"
says Sacchi. Years after their paths diverged, Sacchi and van Basten crossed paths again and the Dutchman acknowledged his mistakes: "When World Soccer recognised not too long ago that Milan had been the best team of all time, from when football existed, I said to him: 'Did you understand why we had to win and convince? And he said: 'I understood. And I understood something else too. Now I am a coach and I understand how many problems I created for you"
. And I said to him: "If I can console you, I didn't solve many of them."
Nevertheless, Sacchi admits that he wouldn't have swapped van Basten for any other player, either of the time or of the present. "When they tell me 'between Ronaldo and van Basten who would you have signed,' I have no doubt: van Basten. But not because van Basten was more talented than Ronaldo, but because he was more functional in terms of our style of football and was a professional who gave more guarantees than Ronaldo, who was an unimaginable talent."
While the estrangement with Marco van Basten was evident, Sacchi had a close relationship with another Dutchman in the team: Ruud Gullit. He was his main support in the dressing room and the player through whom he injected his philosophy to the rest of the players. "Gullit was considered the emblem, for me he was a phenomenal player and an extraordinary person; probably the one who helped me the most without being the best, because the best was van Basten, but he had personality while van Basten hid himself, he was discontinuous. Gullit helped me a lot in making Italian players who always ran backwards run forward. He was the most convinced of this,"
he says. Sacchi changed the philosophy of Italian football, but Gullit transformed the philosophy of the Milan dressing room. The combination of the two Italian players made Rinus Michels' total football a success, building a Milan that would go down in history.
After winning everything with Milan, he took over the reins of the Italian national team
with whom he was second in the 1994 World Cup. He then went through an erratic career with a brief return to Milan and a few stints with Atletico Madrid and Parma before making the jump to the offices. With the perspective of his entire career, it's time to ask the same question as at the start: what was Italian football like before Sacchi? How have things changed since his revolution? Sacchi himself answers: "There has clearly been some change, but it is not linked to globalisation. Capello said it: 'We've rediscovered the Libero'. Most teams play with a fixed sweeper in the back." With Sacchi, Italian football learned that everyone must defend and attack as one, as a whole, without the previous attack-defence division. But it has forgotten everything else, and that takes its toll in Europe: "More and more we are getting slapped around and then we say: 'Why don't we spend? Why don't we use more start-up money? Then it happens that Borussia Dortmund reach the final and spend less than most of the big Italian teams or that Atletico Madrid reach the final of Champions and spend less. Our clubs are full of foreigners, full of fear, full of an eminently defensive football, playing with a sweeper. Then the result when they play at international level, where they find themselves with one less player in midfield or in attack, with the rival having players of level and leaving the ball and the initiative to them... well, they put you in difficulties". "Also because outside the country, in general, they're much better at attacking than defending. So, if you want to put them in trouble, you have to attack them, not stop their attack. But all this requires work, organization, time, planning, programming and less improvised teams, teams that make some sense. What does a sense mean? Putting each value in its place. Since we are talking about a team sport, let's start with what unites the team: the game. What is the game about? From ideas and work. And without ideas and work, you don't have the game. If you don't have the game you rely only on individuals, and no individuality will ever have the power of a team. In some teams, this tendency to improvise - which we call fantasy - causes total disorganisation, with the consequence of losing the team,"
he adds to close a precise X-ray of the ills that Italian football is suffering from. Three decades after the birth of Sacchi's Milan, Italy has forgotten everything it has learned. There is no trace of the game with high pressure, offside is just another resource and even the sweeper, whose assassination triggered everything, has come back to life. Sacchi is a revolutionary without revolution. No one has been able to pick up on his witness. Italy has forgotten him, but football hasn't. Football just cannot forget the creator of one of the best teams in its history. by Massimo Callegari & Francisco Orti for El Enganche.es (2016).
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Previous: Inside Underground NY Poker #8 Spades — 1.8
Walking into a casino, for the first time, can be quite an overwhelming experience. There’s so much going on — all of the flashing lights, various sounds, the diverse amount of people flowing throughout, the list goes on. No matter where you look, there’s always something going on that can potentially pique your curiosity. Of course, at this time in the midsummer of 2007, I hadn’t a clue of what to expect. I had yet to step foot inside a real casino.
When Chris called and invited me to go with him on a road trip up to Turning Stone, my mood was not only of excitement, it was also flowing with curiosity. I figured that making the drive up to Turning Stone would not only be a great deal of fun, but would also be an excellent opportunity to learn more about professional casino poker.
During my phone conversation with Chris, we agreed that we would make the road trip up there after we finished our Sunday shifts at Spades. This gave us about 24 hours to gather up our buddies and put together a crew. Our main goal was to crush some live action cash games there, but we also wanted to let loose and party. I didn’t yet know it, but my version of partying was vastly different from Chris’ version.
I made some calls and sent some texts, and not too long after, had a few of my closest friends confirm that they were going to come on the trip. I was the youngest of my social circle in high school, still being only 17 at the time. All of the other guys were already 18, so legally, they wouldn’t have a problem at Turning Stone.
If you don’t know, Turning Stone Resort & Casino is located on an Indian Reservation, and as such, the gambling laws of New York state do not apply there — the legal gambling age there is 18, as set by the law of the land.
Now, since I was still only 17, this presented a potential problem. However, I looked a bit older than I actually was, and I also had a fake ID that I had been using for a while. Chris was also incredibly confident that it wouldn’t be a problem whatsoever — he even offered to lay me a bet with 3 to 1 odds for $100, that at no point would I be unable play because of my age. I declined the bet of course, not wanting to jinx myself.
In 2007, Turning Stone was a “dry” casino, which meant that they didn’t serve any alcohol. However, you were allowed to bring your own, and could indulge yourself to your own desire. As of today, this is no longer the case, but that’s the way it was back then.
We calculated that the drive would take us about 4.5 hours, not entirely too long by road trip standards, but could be enough of a mental strain that could potentially effect our ability to play poker, upon arrival. Given that both Chris and I would be dealing right up until our departure, we had made arrangements to take two cars in order to accommodate our entire crew. In exchange for each of us paying for the gas and tolls on the drive up to Turning Stone, neither of us would have to drive — this would allow us to rest up a bit.
My group of buddies consisted of four of my closest friends — Brian, Theo, Max, and Scott. I had brought Theo around to Spades more than a few times, and he regularly played poker, unlike the others. However, he wasn’t very good, but he was very lucky, and he had no interest in studying the game. He got better the more he played, but was by all means, a fish. He loved to gamble, and blackjack was his favorite game — most likely not a coincidence.
I had invited Andy to tag along as well, but he wasn’t interested and declined — he instead made me a standing offer, an open invitation if you will, to go crush poker in Atlantic City, where there was better action and nicer casinos. However, the offer was only good if we would be going to seriously grind poker. This was an offer that I would later redeem.
Chris had assembled his boys just as I had — three experienced poker players and gamblers, each in their early 20’s, just like Chris. The youngest of his crew was Rich, who was 21, and the two others were Derek and Joe, either 23 or 24 years old.
Finally, our plans were set and the rooms were booked. We’d all be staying for 3 nights and 2 days in two, separate, 2 queen bed suites. I was anxious, yet excited, and I seriously wanted to book a win in the poker room, considering it would be my first casino poker room session.
Sunday finally arrives, and I had decided to wake up a few hours early so that I could stock up on booze and weed. My buddies and I had agreed to split the cost of everything — 4 bottles of Smirnoff, an ounce of Sour Diesel, and four 24-packs of Coors Light. In retrospect, this was probably entirely too much for 3 nights at a casino, but what did we know? I wasn’t a big smoker at the time, although I would partake, but I did enjoy drinking when the time was appropriate to let loose.
While on my way driving to Spades, I hear my phone ring — it’s Chris.
“Hey dude, you on your way to the club?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in about 15 minutes. I just finished running some last minute errands, stocked up on booze and weed for the trip.”
“Awesome. I’m good to go on my end, too. By the way, my plan is to splash around in the $1/$2 or $2/$5 games Turning Stone spreads. I’m bringing $10k.”
“What?! $10k??? Why?!”
“Well, dude, I’m gonna hit the pits too and play some blackjack and craps. We’ll crush some poker first, then afterwards maybe you’ll hit the pits with me.”
“I dunno, man. I’m only gonna bring $2k in total, and that’s for all my costs. Maybe I’ll assign half of that to my poker roll for the trip.”
“You should probably stick to $1/$2 then, and save some of your roll for blackjack, to try and run it up.”
“Alright, sounds good. I’ll see you at the club in a bit.”
I wasn’t convinced about hitting the pits to play table games, but then again, I surely wanted to make the most out of my first casino experience.
I arrive at Spades, set up for the Sunday afternoon tournament, and put in the hours for my shift. I wind up dealing the final table, and the tournament ends at around 11PM. Chris was dealing cash, but we had both made sure to get Vinny’s approval to leave early and take off for the next few days. It wasn’t really an issue for me, being that once the tournament was over, it meant my job was done, and I was free to have a good night. However, Chris made sure to get another dealer to cover for him, both the rest of the night and until we got back from our trip.
Chris and I walk outside to the parking lot — it’s time to go pick everyone up. We each get into our cars and drive off to scoop up each one of our buddies. An hour or so later, I shoot Chris a text letting him know that I’m about to start the drive up to Verona, NY, which was where Turning Stone is located. He responds, telling me that he had already started the journey about 10 minutes prior, and that he’ll call me when he gets there.
I have Theo take the wheel and get into the driver’s seat, as I jump into the back to close my eyes to try and clear my head for what’s about to come. Without making any stops, we finish the drive in just under 4.5 hours. We can see the illuminated, brightly colored sign — “Turning Stone Casino”, and my heart begins to pump just a little bit faster. I’m beginning to get excited. At this point, it was around 4:30AM. Sure, I was a bit tired, but the excitement and novelty of my first casino experience was keeping my adrenaline pumping.
I give Chris a call, letting him know that we’re about to park our car, and head into the casino towards the check-in area.
“Chris, we’re here man! This place is awesome!”
“I know dude, we got here about a half hour ago. I’m in my room changing, getting ready to go play some cards. Did you check-in yet?”
“Not yet, we’re about to head over to the check-in desk and get our room keys. I’m pretty tired man, are you sure it’s a good idea to go play right now?”
“Don’t worry about that, I already scoped out the room. There’s some good action going on in both $1/$2 and $2/$5. I already put our name’s on the lists. Text me when you’re done getting settled in, but drop by room after. Make sure you come alone.”
“Okay… I’m gonna tell my boys that we’re gonna play some poker for a little bit, while they hit the casino floor. My buddy Theo might want to join us. I’m not sure though, I have to ask him. My boys will probably want to get nice and toasty before they head out of the room.”
“Sounds good dude, don’t take too long. See you in a bit.”
My friend Scott handles the check-in, puts the incidentals coverage under his credit card, and I make sure to get a copy of the room key for myself. We head up to the room, we all change into presentable, formal, evening attire, and I crack open a beer, along with everyone else. I ask everyone what they plan on doing for the next few hours, while suggesting that I’ll be preoccupied playing cards in the poker room. This was nothing but expected, they all knew how often I played poker.
Everyone unanimously agrees that they want to hit the pits and gamble, of course, after they get hammered in the room. I casually ask Theo if he’s interested in playing poker with Chris and I, but he declines, saying that he’s not in the mood and would rather play tomorrow night, if at all.
I finish my beer, but not before forcing everyone to agree to a bet, in order to make things more interesting — whoever comes back to the room as the biggest loser gets $50 each from everyone else. We unanimously decide that it’s actually a decent idea, and everyone agrees. I leave our room and head towards Chris’ suite.
I arrive at Chris’ door, and I give it quick, but firm knock. A few seconds later, the door opens, and I find that there’s nobody in the room except Chris. All of his buddies had already gone downstairs, and were gambling on the casino floor. I tell him I’m pretty tired, and then I ask him why he wanted me to come alone.
“Chris, I’m pretty tired, man. You sure we should go play?”
“100%. I told you, I already scoped out the games that are running. The stacks are big and there’s some good money to be made.”
“Alright, fine. But, why did you want me to come here alone, by the way? Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, dude. Here, I wanted to give you this. Take two of these, you’ll be in the zone while you play for the next 8 hours.”
“What kind of pills are these? What are they going to do?” — I had never really taken drugs or pills before, other than drinking and smoking weed occasionally. I did, however, try Mushrooms earlier during the summer, and that was fun, but was completely inexperienced when it came to pharmaceuticals, or any other drugs for that matter.
“It’s Adderall, it’s a stimulant. They’re 20mg each, take two of them. It’ll make you much more focused and able to concentrate on the game for the next 8 hours or so. You might feel a bit more chatty, and it’ll kill your appetite, but I promise you, it’ll give you an edge. All those players down there right now are tired and worn out from playing. These will put you in the zone, if you know what I mean.”
“Fuck it, I’ll give it a shot. We came to have a good time anyway. I’m not gonna lose control of myself, am I?”
“Hah, no, dude. It’s nothing like that. They prescribe this stuff to people who have trouble focusing and paying attention. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’ll feel them start to work in about 45 minutes to an hour.”
Chris hands me two, orange-colored, oval shaped pills, and I swallow them dry. I had stashed $1k into the safe in my room before I left, and I had the other $1k in my pocket. We leave his room and head downstairs to make our way through the casino and into the poker room.
I was in a state of awe. This was by far the biggest poker room I had ever been in, up until this point. There must have been at least 30 tables. There were only a handful of games going during our arrival, but still, seeing everything all neat, organized, and ready for action, made me think about what this place would be like during peak hours.
I check out the $1/$2 game that’s going, and I see that the buy-in structure is not at all what I was expecting. It’s a $50 min and $200 max. Sure, there’s a few deep stacks on the table, but I felt like this game was much smaller than what I was used to playing. I decide that it’s going to be far too difficult to make any significant amount of money, unless I end up on the good side of a cooler. Overall, it would be a bad move to sit in this game.
On the other hand, the $2/$5 game that was running had a $200 min and $500 max buy-in. This was definitely more up my alley. Several players had stacks with at least $1k, and the average was probably right around the max, conveniently right around $500. With several players sitting deep and a couple of short stacks on the table, I come to the conclusion that this is the game I want to play, as I’m fairly certain that I have a decent shot at making some money at this table.
Chris had already put our name’s on the lists for both games when he had arrived earlier, so it wasn’t too long until our names were called. We were going to be sitting at the same table, and of course, made an agreement that if we were to get heads-up in a hand, either of us would make only one bet, and then check it down the rest of the way if the other called the bet. We weren’t there to take each other’s rolls, but if there were other players in the hand, then we weren’t going to soft play each other, nor try and sandwich anyone out of a pot.
Finally, my name is called, about 20 minutes after Chris had taken his seat, and I head over to the cage to buy $500 worth of chips — $280 in red, $200 in green, and $20 in white. Something I’ve always liked doing, still to this day, is buying at least a full stack of $1 chips.
The poker room had relatively nice chips, and I found them to be most excellent. They had a comfortable weight, handled nicely, and displayed a decent aesthetic design on them. They were definitely of a higher quality than any of the chips that the underground clubs used. That’s not to say that the clubs used cheap chips — of course, a few did, however only the casinos would purchase Paulson chips, which are the industry standard, despite them costing over $1 each chip.
I take my seat at the table, and all of a sudden, I feel this intense rush of energy. It felt like someone had turned my brain up to 11. Woah — I felt my eyes widen.
I introduce myself to the table, and I notice that I’m much more talkative than my normal self. However, I was able to maintain and participate in a fully-engaged conversation, while not missing a single detail of the action that was unfolding during each hand. I could multi-task like never before. I was faster at thinking through hands, I noticed more tells being telegraphed than ever before, and I was aware of the fact that my observations were razor-sharp. It felt like I had been wearing blinders up until this point, and now they were gone.
I was more astute than I had ever been before, accurately being able to predict who was going to play a hand, and who was going to fold, before they even made their action. I was paying attention to the game in the same way I would as if I was dealing it. I’d observe each player in turn, then move on to the next when their action was made.
I would also catch things out of the corner of my eye — a player’s posture suddenly becoming erect, while they would then immediately try to look disinterested, as they used their hands to protect their cards in such a manner that was subtle, yet distinct from their normal method of handling their cards. It was blatantly obvious to me now, when a player would deviate from their normal patterns of playing, behaving, speaking, bet sizing, time usage, and so forth.
I was playing really well. All of my value bets were getting called, my bluffs were getting through, and alarm bells would ring in my head, either to alert me of a perfect spot to make a squeeze play, or if something about the hand didn’t “seem right”. Something I definitely noticed about the Adderall, was that it made me feel much more confident in the plays that I made. It was much easier to pull the trigger, and when I did, I felt certain that my timing was right.
My range was also wider than it normally was. I was playing more hands, going for thin value on the river when I would normally check back, and had no problem laying down strong hands preflop, when I was sure I was behind, but would normally be too stubborn to let it go.
My session was going very well. Incredibly well, in fact. I made several huge hero calls, and I applied intense pressure on opponents who I deemed capable of folding, only to pick up pots I could never win at showdown.
About 3.5 hours had gone by at this point, and within the last hour a new player had taken a seat. His name was Duke, at least, that’s what other players were calling him. This guy was super aggro. He was opening every other hand, raising every C-Bet a player would make, and would just bully people out of the pot by shoving the river or bombing the turn with a $300 bet.
The majority of the table was getting annoyed with Duke. Whenever they would fold, they felt like he was bluffing with air, however, when they would inevitably get frustrated and make the call, he would actually have it, and get massive value. During the course of about an hour, he amassed a stack totaling around $900. He had absolutely no fear, and the money at stake, to him, was evidently insignificant. From his perspective, it seemed as if he was playing for, what you and I, would consider pennies.
I folded quite a few strong hands to his preflop 3-bets — AQ, TT, 88, and QJs. I would open to $15 or $20, and he would re-pop me to 4x or 5x. I even open folded AKo on an Ace-high, 3-flush board on the turn when he check-raised me all-in, only to show me complete air.
That was enough for me, this wasn’t going to continue — not tonight. I had now decided that I was going to be as patient as necessary, and only get involved in a pot with him if the situation was favorable to trap him. You can’t bully a player when the money at stake means far less to him than it does to you. Subsequently, you can’t get value from that same player who is good enough to recognize that you’re only showing him aggression when you have it — they’ll just fold instead of blasting off, knowing that you’re praying that they’ll come over the top.
About an hour and a half later, it was around 10AM now, and I had built my stack up to around $1200. Duke was sitting on just about the same, though slightly less, about $1100. He was still bullying people out of pots, and the majority, if not everyone else at the table was clearly annoyed with him. Low limit players often become angry when they encounter an opponent whose style of play isn’t within the same paradigm as their own. The key is to be capable of adjusting your own style of play.
Finally, preparation meets opportunity, and I pick up pocket Aces in UTG+1. I raise to $15, and of course get 3-bet by Duke in the Lojack to $60. The button cold calls, and for a split-second, I almost 4-bet, but I resisted what almost felt like a reflex, and decided to just call.
The flop comes A5A — I flop Quad Aces! That was the first time I ever flopped quads, let alone quad aces. I stick to my game plan of trapping, and I check my quads over to Duke, who also checks. The button checks as well, and we see a turn of a black 4.
The board now being A5A4 rainbow — every fiber of my being is burning on the inside, trying to tell me to start getting some value and make a bet to build a pot. Again, I resist, and check it. Both Duke and the button check back.
The river comes in, a red 9. The complete board run-out is A5A49 rainbow.
I check, again, for the 3rd time. Duke fires out $200 into the pot of $187, the button snap folds, and I immediately snap-shove on him for a total of around $1140. He looks completely perplexed, and then goes deep into the tank. Not a single player had yet displayed this level of aggression against him.
He’s now been thinking for about 6 or 7 minutes, and he announces to the table that he’s sorry he’s taking so long, but he needs some more time and has a decision here. Some random player chimes in, telling him to take all the time he wants, it’s the biggest pot of the night.
Another 3 minutes go by, and I’m starting to get agitated now. It’s been at least 10 minutes, the dealer is clearly annoyed, enough is enough. I call for the clock. The floor comes over and gives Duke the “countdown” speech, informing him that he has 30 seconds to make a decision.
Before the floor even begins the countdown, Duke announces, “CALL”.
Under the influence of the Adderall, I assume, I inexplicably get the impulse to table my hand similar to the way a blackjack dealer would table their cards.
I pull both cards adjacent to each other, now sitting side by side. Using one finger, I flip one of the Aces face up, and then use that same Ace to slide it underneath the other, and flip up the remaining facedown Ace. I somehow managed to pull this off with such finesse, that it all happened in one, smooth, fluid motion. It was most certainly a rare form of poker showboating, and it was an incredibly cocky, and unnecessary thing to do, however I just couldn’t help myself. I had just decimated the guy who was running over every single player.
The entire table is shocked to see that I reveal flopped quad Aces. Even more surprised, is Duke. He is absolutely stunned to his core. He tables Jack high. I immediately stand up from my chair, and lean in closer towards the table, while rubbing my eyes to confirm — yes, indeed. Jack high.
“You triple checked flopped quad aces.” — the tone of his speech indicating a statement, not even close to what asking a question would sound like, as if he was in disbelief of what had just happened.
“I just called you with Jack high.” — again, it seemed as if he was confirming, for himself, the reality of the situation that had just occurred.
“Yeah, you did, but why?”
“I couldn’t put you on a hand, and I thought that you had finally had enough of me pushing you out of pots. It didn’t make sense, how could you have anything there when you checked the whole way?”
“I took a risk, and I just figured that you would eventually try and steal it.”
“I’m not even mad, kid. Well played, very clever. I salute you.”
The dealer ships me Duke’s entire stack, plus the pot, and I toss him two green birds. I quickly start to stack all of the chips while I fold the next hand, and then I get up from the table, as does Chris.
“Dude! What a sick fucking play! What in the fuck! Triple checking quad aces?!!?!?”
“I know, right? I was waiting all night for that moment. I got stupid lucky that he called. I have no idea why he called me with Jack high. I mean, I heard what he said, but still, why? How?”
“You figured him out, dude. Plain and simple. Really nice play, I’m impressed. I don’t think I could ever have triple checked that.”
“Thanks, Chris. I think it was just the Adderall. I just felt like I absolutely knew that he was going to do exactly the same thing that he has been doing all night. Whenever he senses weakness, he bombs the river. I wasn’t expecting him at all to call my shove, but I knew that if I bet into two players while out of position, on an ace-paired board, after calling a 4x 3-bet from Duke with the button cold calling, they would both fold.”
“That actually makes a lot of sense. Great play, dude. Seriously, that was just sick. Let’s get out of here and see what the other guys are up to.”
Chris and I cash out, and we leave the poker room. I ran $500 up to about $2300. Chris booked a nice win himself, running $500 up to $1.1k. We both tipped the cashier behind the cage $10 each.
The two of us are still wired from the Adderall, but now only physically stimulated, and not at all under the influence whatsoever. Sleeping is not going to be an option, so we decide to head back to my room, and get to work on polishing off a few beers.
I insert the keycard into my room’s key slot, and slowly open the door, as I hear a circus of ruckus coming from inside the room.
All of the guys are inside — Theo, Brian, Max, Scott, Rich, Derek, and Joe — they’d gone through two bottles of Smirnoff, a bottle of Jameson that Rich had brought over, a 24-pack of Coors Light, a ton of the weed, and had now moved on to blow, which one of Chris’ buddies had scored from someone in the casino.
As far as I knew, none of my friends had ever done coke before. I certainly hadn’t. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves, though, and who was I to judge? I had just played an intensely long poker session on some drug I had never heard of before, I won a bunch of money, all was good, and so I just went with the flow and chalked it up to an isolated incident on a vacation-like casino trip.
I asked my boys who had lost the most money, both as a way to settle the bet, and to make a subtle brag about how much I had won playing poker. I wasn’t surprised at all — Brian was the biggest loser, totaling a net loss of a measly, yet exact, $100.
He was by far the cheapest person out of all of my friends. He would always argue down to the penny when it came to splitting checks, or getting reimbursed for fronting money for a purchase. Indeed, he sure was cheap, but he wasn’t at all stupid. He made sure that the other 3 guys — Theo, Max, and Scott — lost less than he did so that he could come out ahead on the bet. Of course, he took a gamble by not knowing the status of my winnings, but the worst that could happen was that he would either lose $100 or book a win taking a gamble with it. The 4 of us each paid up, $50 each, and he offset his $100 loss with a $200 gain, for a net profit of $100.
We all continued to drink, I tried a few lines myself, and everyone stayed up until the upcoming evening — it was now time to go gamble again. So, what did we do? We drank even more, smoked a blunt, and finished off the 8-ball of blow.
The 9 of us were thoroughly bombed. Any and all traces of our decision making skills were completely distorted.
Joe was playing $100 flips with Derek — they would cut a deck of cards and whoever cut to the higher card would win. Rich was playing beer pong with Scott for $50 a match, Theo, Max, and Brian were playing $20 rolls of C-Lo with dice that they had bought from the gift shop, and Chris and I were having a pipe dream discussion about how much we were going to win playing blackjack in the next hour.
About 30 minutes later, all of us, while undoubtedly lacking full consciousness, head down to the casino floor and make our way into the pits.
This time, I brought my entire roll, and so did Chris.
The first thing we did was stagger over to a roulette table, only to sloppily introduce ourselves to the dealer.
“Hey sweetheart, listen, we need your help. Black or red?”
“Are you trying to ask me whether I think you should bet on black or red?”
“Ya, of course. You know how you’ve been spinning that ball. Black or red? Which are you feeling?”
Chris and I both take out our rolls and count out $1,000 each.
“Whatever you pick, sweetheart. If we win, you get 10%. If we lose, you think you could get us a comp for 9 to the Wildflowers restaurant?”
“Put it on black, boys. How about we just concentrate on winning for the time being?”
“Let’s do it! $2,000 on black!”
With a quick flick of her forefinger, the dealer launches the tiny ball into motion, and it begins to spin around and around the track of the roulette wheel. The dealer waves her hand over the table to close the action.
“No more bets!”
To be continued…
Next: Inside Underground NY Poker #10
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