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San Diego bar owner relishes playing with Ivey, Hellmuth

8 Jul 2015

By Dan Podheiser
LAS VEGAS – He had Phil Ivey to his left, Phil Hellmuth to his right, and a host of poker pros sprinkled around the table. But Marco Rodriguez was not fazed.

The 29-year-old restaurateur and bar owner from San Diego played in Day 1C of the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event on Tuesday, and sat down in the Pavilion at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino confident and ready to go.

Then Ivey, a 10-time bracelet winner and the consensus best player in the world, sat down two seats to Rodriguez’s left. After the dinner break, Hellmuth and his WSOP record 14 bracelets joined the table.

Most recreational players would be shaking in their chairs at the thought of sitting in between two of the most feared poker players of all time. But Rodriguez knew better than to let that alter his game plan.

Marco Rodriguez (left, black hat) plays on Day 1C of the 2015 WSOP Main Event with Melanie Weisner (center), Phil Ivey (right) and Phil Hellmuth (center, backwards).

Marco Rodriguez (left, black hat) plays on Day 1C of the 2015 WSOP Main Event with Melanie Weisner (center), Phil Ivey (right) and Phil Hellmuth (center, backwards). (photo by Dan Podheiser/Casino City)

“You see the pros on TV and think they’re playing at a different level,” Rodriguez said. “But once you sit down with them, you’re still playing the same game. So I just played the same game that I’ve been playing for the past 13 years.”

Rodriguez is not a professional poker player, but he’s no slouch at the tables. He’s been playing Hold’em since he was 16 years old and played throughout college. When he graduated and couldn’t find a job, he kept playing to pay the bills. And in 2012, Rodriguez finally hit his first big score when he came in 31st place in a $1,500 WSOP event for $17,054. He used that money to enter more tournaments in the Los Angeles area, and ended up making about $40,000 that year on the tables.

“For me, it’s a hobby that pays,” Rodriguez said.

This year is Rodriguez’s third Main Event. He’s never cashed, but he’s gained experience that has helped frame his mindset for the $10,000 tournament. When he saw Ivey sit down at the table, he immediately came up with a plan.

“I played very carefully around him, just because I knew he was a good, strong player, and I wasn’t going to try to make any moves,” Rodriguez said. “If I had a strong hand, I’d play against him, but if not, I’d pass it along.”

By the end of the fourth level of the day, Rodriguez had just played one hand against Ivey after the flop, and he won the pot fairly easily.

“I bet and he folded,” Rodriguez said. “I was shocked. It was like, wow, it was that easy. But it’s really not that easy because poker’s a long-term game. There’s a lot of strategy; it’s not just one hand.”

Hellmuth, who was officially the 6,417th player out of 6,420 to register for the Main Event on Tuesday night, showed up to Rodriguez’s table after the dinner break and got right into his patented “Poker Brat” persona.

Rodriguez quickly played two hands against Hellmuth, which he thinks may have irked the 1989 Main Event champion.

“Given his reputation, he got a little upset that I kept playing with him,” Rodriguez said.

In their first hand against each other, Hellmuth raised before the flop and Rodriguez called with queen-jack. The flop came ace-10-9 and Rodriguez called Hellmuth’s continuation bet. The turn was a king, giving Rodriguez the nut straight, and after Hellmuth checked, Rodriguez took down the pot with a bet.

“He said he had pocket jacks,” Rodriguez said with a smile. “And he started complaining about the way I played my hand.”

It’s difficult enough to be situated in between two of the game’s all-time greats. But Rodriguez also had the pleasure to be playing with Keith Lehr, a two-time bracelet winner, and Melanie Weisner, a pro who has appeared on NBC’s Poker After Dark.

But knowing he was one of few amateur players at the table didn’t bother Rodriguez too much. Instead of bemoaning his misfortune of having quite possibly the most difficult table at the Rio on Tuesday night, he simply relished the moment.

“I think it’s a cool story,” Rodriguez said. “For $10,000, that is worth the experience. Win or lose, this has made my World Series.”
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