It was a few years ago, before the US government started banning online poker for cash. There was a site, now defunct, where I used to play for play money and "bonus points" that could be used in lieu of cash to enter some tournaments.
As an inducement to get in in on the action, the site offered 800-player freeroll tournaments with a prize pool of $100. The top prize was $10. I cashed in a few of these tourneys, usually to the tune of ten or fifteen cents for finishing in maybe 25th place.
One evening I signed up for a $100 freeroll, but before the tournament started, my wife said "Let's go out for dinner." I left myself signed up for the tourney, hoping to get home before all my chips had been blinded off. As luck would have it, I got home with about two big blinds left. If I'd been five minutes later, I'd probably have been out of the game. But I wasn't quite.
I got K-10 off suit, and moved in behind two limpers for my two big blinds. I got three calls, and hit top pair to win the hand and quadruple up. A few more lucky hands, a few well-timed bluffs - it's amazing how many people think that because you've been on a rush for three or four hands, you're more likely to have the goods on the next - and I was back up to ten, then fifteen, then twenty big blinds. Still well below average but no longer short stacked, I was encouraged by my comeback and determined to give it my best shot.
By the next hourly break, I was up to a slightly below average stack. Before it was over, I found myself at the final table; I watched players bust out one by one, more than one of them by my own hand, until there were three of us left - and I was sitting there with the chip lead.
I'd like to tell you that I won that tournament, but I'd be lying. I finished second, maybe third; but I was there at the end with a chance to win it. You've probably heard that all you need is "a chip and a chair;" I've experienced it first hand. I won three dollars and change in that freeroll, and over the next few months I parlayed it into a $90 bankroll. Alas, I had not learned the art of bankroll management, and I soon got cocky and started playing for higher stakes than I should have. The first time I hit a cold streak, my bankroll dwindled to nothing. But I learned two valuable lessons from that tourney: it's really true, you aren't out of a tournament until there's nothing in front of you but felt; and no matter how small your chip stack, you have to play aggressively to make a deep run.
I still haven't played for anything approaching real money, but I'm going to someday; and when I do, I'll have a wealth of knowledge gained from my experiences online. But the game that I learned the best lessons from is the one I was almost out of before I even started playing.
This story is participating in PokerListings “My Most Memorable Poker Game” story freeroll.