Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Almost there...

Ok, so I made it sound like I was about to start daily installments. I know. Ain't I a disappointment. Anyway, I've been busy. The good news, however, is that I've nearly caught up with all my post-WSOP work, and will be making a proper blog entry later this week, followed by - I promise - regular entries. Meantime, I thought I'd post this little WSOP 'diary' I was asked to do for one of my newspapers. I know it's cheating, but it's better than nothing. Maybe.

Anyway, here it is:

Of all my poker-related regrets (which we don't have enough pages to go into, let alone words) my greatest is that I didn't get into poker when I got into poker. When I played my first hand of Hold 'em back in 1995 if I'd only then followed that up with a trip to Las Vegas I would have found myself with only 273 players to battle against for the chance of winning a million dollars. In its day the WSOP was the biggest poker tournament in the world. It's amazing to now think that most lunchtime online 'fun' tourneys have more entrants that the WSOP did ten years ago.

The sad truth is that it's taken me this long to make poker a big enough part of my life to justify heading out for the WSOP, but not as a player' yet. Unless you fancy dedicating weeks of your life to one single game of poker, with about the worse odds you'll ever face, the main event is hard to see as a 'value' event. And yet they came; all 8,773 of them, armed with $10,000. Once Harrah's had taken their cut, the prize pool stood at $82,466,200 - not bad for a little game that started up in 1970 with 38 players. Someone would walk away with the winner's gold bracelet and $12 million. And I was there...

Arriving in Las Vegas in July is a bit like turning up at a tropical hair-dryer convention - and that's just the weather. Once you feel the oppressive 109° heat smack you in the face like a big hot sponge, you realise that spending the entire seven weeks of the WSOP in a big air-conditioned room isn't such a bad idea. Pulling up at the convention side of the Rio there's nothing to do but marvel at just how big this event has become. The main room holds 2,000 players and is an absolute hangar of a room. Two hundred tables, two hundred dealers and fleets of floor managers and waitress staff fill the room... and then the players arrive. Imagine an insect war to end all wars, fought between crickets and grasshoppers. THAT'S the sound 2,000 players collectively shuffling $20,000,000 in chips make. It's ludicrous and wonderful all at the same time.

Each of the four "day one"s required to accommodate the number of entries is a fan-boy's dream. I stand in the centre of the room, spinning around in the middle of this madness, clutching onto my press credentials and the privileges they bring as if my very life depended upon them. Every table seems to home a player you've seen somewhere before. Chan, "Jesus", Brunson, "Devilfish"... the list goes on and on. In conversation, they all say they have absolutely no expectation of wining, but some aren't as convincing as others. Especially Helmuth.

One thing I'd not prepared myself for was the amount of spectators. They fill the isles and roped-off areas, line the corridors outside the main hall, and gather in autograph-hunting packs as soon as anyone vaguely recognisable steps outside the protective barrier of the players' area. On the first "day one" the organisers end up kicking all the spectators out for the first few hours as the players are unable to climb over the crowds to their tables. I now receive filthy looks from the 'normals' every time I flash my press badge at the security guards for entry, while others smile at me and pass me their cameras, asking if I'll take some pictures of all the players they've seen on the TV.

In addition to the players and fans, drop-dead gorgeous dolly-girls from Bodog, Doyle's Room, Ultimate Bet, Full Tilt et al line the corridors, dressed in very little and handing out the sort of tat that wouldn't be seen dead in your local chemist but seems very popular in the USA. I can't imagine that these overweight, 50 year old lawyers would ordinarily go quite so mental over a free t-shirt, but here they are prepared to whoop, dance and generally humiliate themselves for even the smallest of key rings.

However, a battle of this magnitude produces a steady stream of casualties, and the 'walk of shame' from the tournament room to the exit is like a long military hospital ward, with the walking wounded shuffling towards the light like the ghosts of the deceased. Cell phones that had been forbidden are switched back on, and a stream of bad-beat and hard-luck tales fill the corridors. Walking along-side them, I feel I'm learning more about the WSOP in this short trek than I would watching pocket kings crack pocket aces for 15 hours straight. As I hold the door open for a weeping 60 year old ex-WSOP competitor, I'm just glad I'm only here for the taxi stand. See you next year.

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