LAS VEGAS -- Just as it appears on TV, the World Series of Poker is nothing but glamour and cool. I can testify to this from personal experience.
It was about 6 on a classically lovely Vegas morning, and I was sitting at a half-empty table in an almost completely empty Horseshoe, marveling at the beauty of the sunlight streaming in.
The occasion? The usual -- five or six evil-smelling, serial-yawning, projectile-flatulating desperados praying for one last chance to throw some hard-earned money away, in this case at a $225 buy-in one-table no-limit hold 'em satellite mini-tournament, winner take all. How desperate were we? One clean-cut-looking kid in his early 20s was offering sleepy-eyed passersby $5 rebates on their buy-ins.
An unapologetic leftover from the '60s, in a Cuba logo T-shirt, Army camouflage hat, jeans, sneakers, long hair and unkempt beard made a counter offer: If anyone waiting for the game to fill would buy a silver dollar from him for $15 -- "Hey, the silver alone is worth seven or eight dollars" -- he would stay and play. While waiting to see if we would take him up on his proposal, he whiled away a few minutes doing pushups with his feet on the ground and his hands on facing chair seats. Finally, Rebate Kid bought one, whereupon the '60s guy announced he'd stay ... for 10 minutes. If we couldn't get a quorum by then -- 10 players -- it was adios, amigos.
The six of us who had fully committed -- me, Rebate Kid, Chuck (a dealer from another casino with an encyclopedic knowledge of lame poker jokes -- "What's the difference between a puppy and a poker player? Eventually, the puppy stops whining."), the sulky and menacing Hamid, a hyper kid from the Philippines and Mike, who, despite his wispy beard looked like he might be underage -- were into some serious weenie waggling.
Chuck: "The greatest thing about this place is the wall of champions. Man, I'd love to have my picture up there."
Mike: "I've taken money from all those guys."
Chuck: "What the (bleep) are you talking about? A couple of those guys were dead before you were born."
Mike: "So. I took some money off guys who took money off the dead guys."
As we waited for our satellite to fill, Sammy Farha wandered by, his big-money pot-limit Omaha side game having just broken up. "Hey, Sammy," Mike yelled. "Want to try some real players for a change?"
"How much?" Sammy asked. When he heard about the $225 entry fee, he snorted with contempt. To put it mildly, Sammy's a major player. How major? The runnerup in last year's World Series of Poker (winnings: $1.3 million or so), he'd famously said in an interview with ESPN which ran during one of its WSOP broadcasts, that he'd have to win the WSOP (first prize: $2.5 million) just to break even on his 2003 trip to Vegas.
Finally, at about 7:30, we got our minyan. Six of us were in our 20s, one about 30, another about 40, Chuck (who's in his 50s) and me. Among us, there were five baseball or golf caps festooned with the logos of poker internet sites, and two pairs of Louisiana state trooper reflective sunglasses. Two of us were Asian (one from the Philippines, one Chinese) and two Middle Eastern (Hamid and the 30-year-old guy, who bore an eerie resemblance to George Clooney, if Clooney were a Palestinian).
Early on, Chuck the voluble and Hamid the ominous got into a disagreement about a weird situation nobody had ever seen the likes of before. Suffice it to say that everybody else at the table, including the dealer, thought Hamid had tried to pull a move that, if not technically against the rules, was at the very least deep into a gray ethical area. When Tony, the veteran floor man, made a ruling that wound up costing Hamid the pot, things got a little ugly, with Hamid darkly accusing the other players, the dealer, Tony and even a few onlookers of having "turned on" him.
No sooner had Hamid busted out, much to the relief of all, then Chuck and the kid from the Philippines decided to indulge in a long bout of macho posturing. Chuck claimed some early-life greatness in the fine art of pool playing -- supposedly, in his youth, he had played some of the greats, like Earl Strickland, to a virtual standstill (according to Chuck, Strickland had once spotted him the break in nine-ball and lived to regret it).
The kid, undaunted, kept barking at Chuck, "Let's play something for money right after the game. C'mon, I've got a car. I'll drive. Want to play one-pocket? Nine-ball? Ping pong? Billiards?" And no amount of ridicule, sarcasm or out-and-out rudeness could shut him up.
When he couldn't get a rise from Chuck (who kept indicating that he would have been thrilled to play for any amount of money, if only he had thought to bring his special cue with him to the Horseshoe), the kid turned on the kid from China, whose grasp of English was still in its formative stage. After an innocuous but hard to understand comment from the Chinese kid, the other kid turned to the table and asked, unkindly, "What language is he supposed to be speaking?"
Needless to say, this irritated the Chinese kid. They got into a huge argument, with violence threatened on both sides. Thankfully, just at that moment, I went all-in, got busted by the kid from the Philippines on the river, and got to head back to my hotel for some peace, quiet and much-needed shuteye.
Poker. I LOVE this game.
Oh, but why not be generous? Why not think of these young poker players as identity-seeking pilgrims who have been given the twin gifts of speech and chip shuffling? Who among us wouldn't do almost anything to get into the Cool Guys Club?
Still, as one dealer pointed out, things were different in the old days -- like five years ago -- when the big-money tournaments and side games were dominated by good ol' road warriors who long ago had figured out who they were.
For example, I was sitting at a table with a couple of experienced vets who began discussing a promotion offered by a poker internet site.
"Hog, you going to Paris?"
"Ron, I got to be honest with you ... I'd rather go to prison."
* * * * *
ATTENTION, IRS -- HOW JAY IS MAKING OUT IN HIS NEW CAREER:
Days 1-7: plus $434.
Day 8: minus $135; Day 9: DNP; Day 10: plus $2,745; Day 11: DNP; Day 12: minus $2,750; Day 13: DNP; Day 14: plus $5,175.
Las Vegas total: plus $5,469
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.