What does a bracelet mean?
LAS VEGAS -- Leave it to the articulate, compartmentalized mind of Phil Gordon to reduce the categories of poker players to two:
"Those with bracelets and those without,'' Gordon says. "I'm in the group you don't want to be in. I've made six World Series of Poker final tables and I've yet to find my way to the bracelet.''
And just how badly does Gordon, the co-host of Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown'' and author of the new "Phil Gordon's Little Green Book'' want one of the coveted gold bracelets that is given to the champion of each World Series of Poker event?
"I'm playing Omaha today,'' he said before a tournament last week. "I hate playing Omaha, but anything to get a bracelet. I really hate Omaha, but I'm here on a Wednesday, tired -- I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. for a photo shoot -- and here I'm going to play all day and give it my best because of a bracelet. If this were any other poker tournament except for the World Series of Poker I would be sitting in front of the pool relaxing today. But because you've got the chance to win a bracelet, it's why we play the game.''
Everybody sees the money. Everybody saw Greg Raymer, the erstwhile patent attorney from Connecticut, win $5 million in capturing the main event last year. And yeah, the money's nice -- heck, it's great -- but Raymer sees the bracelet. Sees it for life.
"It's kind of like boxing,'' Raymer says. "When you win the world heavyweight title, they call you the champ. Later, even if you become a crappy boxer and you're broke and everything else, they still call you champ. The guy's 80 years old and he's on crutches. He's still the champ. That's the nice thing about the main event: They call you champ forever.''
Erik Seidel is sitting in the hallway outside the Rio poker hall during a break in a tournament. He just won the $2,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold'em event, good enough for $611,795 and his seventh gold bracelet.
"I think this one in particular was worth a lot to me because of the fact I've had some TV seconds and with 'Rounders,' coming in second as well [in the famous scene of him losing to Johnny Chan that inspires Matt Damon's character to up and try his luck at the World Series],'' Seidel says. "It was nice to win one, a big one in a national forum.
"This was the best of all. It was the most money I've ever won in a tournament. I've come in second a bunch of times on TV. It was good to finally bring one home. I finally get to play the hero.''
Maybe they'll make a movie out of that.
"Yeah, have them make a sequel,'' Seidel says with a laugh. "We can wake up the writers. This is important.''
The actual World Series of Poker bracelet that is being given to players this year contains four ounces of gold and some diamonds, and costs Harrah's about $3,000 apiece to have made, hardly the price range you'd expect for all the envy it generates. But the reason for those driven feelings is the World Series traditionally has the best structures for playing. The blind levels usually increase slower here. There is more play. It's not just raise-it/take-it poker. Skill matters.
"This is where reputations are made,'' Seidel says. "It's important in that way. You may have a tournament with the same buy-in in a different venue with as many people, but people just don't respond to it in the same way. This tournament has a history to it that no other tournament has.''
Just then, Mike Matusow walks by, and Seidel can't resist needling his fellow pro, who is five bracelets behind him.
"There are donkeys that walk around that only have two bracelets,'' Seidel says.
"When I was first coming up, I didn't know it meant so much,'' Matusow says. "I had an 11-1 chip lead over Scotty Nguyen in my very first tournament and we made a deal, and I was like, 'I got the cash, I got the cash.' I didn't care about the bracelet. Now the cash means zero; the bracelet means everything. For some reason, no matter how many places give away bracelets or give away rings, when you win at the World Series, it means everything. It's something you work your whole life for."
Says Seidel: "I know many players who would pay a few hundred-thousand dollars for a bracelet. Forget about the prize money; they would pay to have it.''
Says Matusow: "Pretty soon my bracelets are going up on eBay.''
Says Jennifer Harman while walking by: "I want to make a dog choker, so I need a few more.''
But seriously, folks.
"Bracelets are the most coveted thing,'' Harman says. "They're so important. You feel like you accomplished something when you've won a bracelet. It's history.''
And players keep track, believe me.
"Only Phil (Hellmuth) has won more bracelets than I have since I've been playing,'' Seidel says. "So it's a big deal to me to put a little heat on those guys.''
Hellmuth was tied with Chan and Doyle Brunson for the all-time bracelet lead at nine until Chan roared to his record-breaking 10th bracelet early Monday morning in the $2,500 buy-in Pot Limit Hold'em event. The late poker great Johnny Moss has eight. Longtime pro Billy Baxter has seven.
"I'm a bracelet guy,'' Hellmuth says. "That's all I'll tell you. A bracelet to me makes my year. If I win one bracelet, it makes my year. If I win two bracelets, I'm really happy. If I could ever win three bracelets or win the main event again, it would be 'Wow.'"
Speaking of "Wow,'' one year, Chris "Jesus'' Ferguson walked into the WSOP with three bracelets strung together as a band around his black cowboy hat. Just in case you weren't sure who you were competing against.
And if winning even one bracelet seemingly reaches quest status for many players, the missed opportunity of coming so close gnaws at them. Respected pro Mel Judah still regrets a decision he made at the final table 15 years ago.
"Mike Hart and I were tied and we'd each won a bracelet,'' Judah says. "We made the money deal and put it all in the middle and turned over five cards, and I lost the bracelet. I had 4-6, he had king-high. I had a gutshot straight draw. That's how it went down.''
Here's the killer part for Judah: "I could've outplayed him. That's what hurts me. Flip of a coin.''
And yet, for some players, the bracelet has lost its appeal, especially in the main event, which has been won by so-called "dead money'' each of the last three years and figures to end up that way again with some 6,600 players expected to ante up for the championship.
In his book "The Best Hand I Ever Played,'' to be published by ESPN Books in September, longtime pro Bobby Hoff says: "In '79, when I came in second, when I started the tournament, I thought I was playing for the money, but when I came down with a real chance to win it, I realized I would've given all the money to win it and get the bracelet. But I no longer feel that way. Now I wouldn't be moved by the bracelet. The bracelet wouldn't mean anything to me. It's the cash. It's different now. It's probably going to be a non-poker player who's going to win the tournament. They're like the Chinese army. There's thousands of them. It's more like winning the lotto now. It's no longer a way to identify anyone as a great No-Limit Hold'em player.''
So Hoff plays in tournaments, plays for the cash, plays with one mantra:
"You can't lose playing with bad players.''
Steve Rosenbloom is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and writes a syndicated poker column for the Chicago Tribune.