Changing the level of play


Editor's Note: This column contains information about winners of some events in the 2005 World Series of Poker that will be televised later this year on ESPN.

Friday, July 8, 2005, 12:15 p.m. WSOP Daylight Savings Time:

A British TV channel called Pokerzone.tv is one of many outlets covering the World Series of Poker with a video camera that streams on the Web and files segments for broadcast. As Day 1-B of the main event got underway, a Pokerzone production crew noticed that one of the participants was Tobey Maguire, the star of "Seabiscuit'' and the "Spider-Man'' series, and a good poker player.

Naturally, the Pokerzone camera crew starting shooting Maguire. What the crew didn't realize is that Maguire hates the media with the white-hot intensity of pushing with kings against aces.

So, when Maguire noticed the camera trained on him at the table, he immediately brought his hand to his forehead and covered his face.

Yo, kid, this is a poker tournament, not a perp walk.


Mark Kriegel at Table 116 is using a card protector of Homer Simpson dressed in a robe and crown. "It's from my Simpsons chess set,'' Kriegel says. "Krusty the Clown might come out Sunday is I make it.''


There's the familiar green Boston Red Sox hat askew atop the head of 1995 world champion Dan Harrington moving up the hallway during the first break for the second group of some 1,900 players.

"It's like a herd of cattle,'' Harrington said. "It's unbelievable.''

And this is only one-third of the players registered.

"I know,'' Harrington said. "This is a joke. Whoever wins this tournament will be deemed the luckiest person this year in any sporting event, I guarantee you.''

Harrington, whose two volumes of "Harrington on Hold'em'' are among the hottest poker books going, has run into the predicament that Doyle Brunson faced for years after producing "Super/System.''

"The one thing is, too many at my people, even though they're all strangers, they read the book, so they know me,'' Harrington said. "I think they're betting their hands more for value and also they're defending better.''


The first break is lengthened from 20 to 30 minutes because there are so many players and so few bathrooms.


Entrants who drew the random assignment of playing on Day 1-A of the main event set the schedule for the remaining two Day 1 fields. The Day 1-A competitors had to play down to 650 players, however long it took because tournament organizers had to make sure that when the survivors reconvene Sunday for the nominal Day 2, they all had to fit into the room that holds about 2,000.

It took until about 2:30 a.m. for the Day 1-A players to get down to 650, meaning the other two Day 1's have to play that long, even if they cut down to 650 players in less time.

"We have to treat it like it's all one big field where they all start at the same time and they all finish at the same time,'' tournament director Johnny Grooms said. "If they were all one big field, we wouldn't let this side of the room play shorter than another side of the room.''

This set-up has angered those players scheduled to play on the third Day 1 Saturday and here's why: The survivors will have to play at least until after 2 a.m., at least -maybe longer if they can't get down to 650 by then - and have to come back at noon on Sunday to resume the event and face the prospect of playing a week straight if they are to reach the final table.

What's more, they will have to do it against opponents who have had one or two days off before the so-called Day 2, and they will do it with considerably less sleep because, face it, no one who survives a Day 1 goes to sleep in an hour. No, those players are wired, so they'll still be awake for a couple hours, at least, which means that many of them will get less than seven hours sleep before a potentially long Sunday.

Seems unfair to me. Fair would be starting Sunday at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. from here on out.

"Then everybody's got to play until 3:30 or 4 o'clock the next day,'' Grooms said, "which, yes, it does screw all the players equally, but I'm not setting it up to screw the players. There's a lot of situations that there's no perfect solutions for.''

Look, if they have to go until 3 or 4 in the morning, fine. Poker players are used to that.


Here's something else for you: The tournament officials miscounted on Day 1-A. Making players get down to 65 tables, they assumed they actually had 65 tables in play at 2:30 in the morning. But no. They had more tables and finished with 663 players. No matter. Day 1-B players had to play just as long, and finished the day-slash-night-slash-morning with just 620 players.


Chris Moneymaker wins a pot worth about $2,600, and looks a lot slimmer doing it. In my upcoming book, "The Best Hand I Ever Played'' to be published by ESPN Books in September, Moneymaker says that when he had a party to watch the conclusion of the main event that he won in 2003, everyone was taken with his gusty, dramatic bluff of Farha. But what Moneymaker remembers is watching himself on TV and thinking, "Good Lord, I'm fat.'' So he went on a diet and dropped 40 pounds.

Says Moneymaker Friday: "This tournament will cause me to lose another 40.''


Table 75, Seat 6, Michael Liberman. He is wearing an orange Brian Urlacher jersey and using a baseball trophy as a card protector. It's over a foot high. He's from Northbrook, Ill., home of notorious Cubs fan Steve Bartman and the Glenbrook North High School powder puff girls team that orchestrated a hazing incident that included fecal matter and pigs intestines, or something sick like that, so you have to watch these people from Northbrook.


Young Phan rivers a flush to wipe out Maguire's pocket K's that turned into a set on the flop, and so, young Mr. Maguire can cover his face for the long walk up the Rio hallway out of this year's World Series.


Paul Phillips, an insightful, quirky and quality tournament pro, brings a Games book to the table to amuse himself between hands.

"It's just something to do so I don't play out of boredom,'' Phillips says. "There's only so much focus you can bring to the table, and early in a tournament like this, you want to be playing only the best hand. You don't want to get creative. Creative is for later.''

Phillips is another pro who believes that the tournament doesn't really begin until the antes come in at Level 4.

"That's when a concerted strategy of aggression can really take you a long way,'' Phillips says. "Aggression at this point is just asking for trouble because you can't win enough. The blinds are too small. All you can do is get involved with people who have better hands than you. I really just want to have as many chips as possible when the antes start without risking many. But more importantly, you don't want to be anywhere near desperate. I don't want to have just 12 big blinds where my only move is to move in.''

But he does have to move all in, and he gets moved all out.


At Table 64 is William Rockwell, he is playing in his first World Series and he is playing with his feet. What I mean is, he is checking his hole cards and betting and raising by using only his right foot, and mostly just the big toe of that foot. He has no choice.

Rockwell, 34, from San Diego, has no left arm and a shriveled toothpick of a right arm that sits across his lap and is of no use. So, he plays with his foot.

But wait. There's more. Rockwell's right foot is sponsored by GoldenPalace.com. No lie.

Here's how he does it: While waiting for his cards, Rockwell rests his chin on the bent knee of his long, bony right leg. He checks his hole cards individually by deftly placing his big right toe on a card and sliding it up a wooden triangle that is about an inch high and allows him to see its value. Then he slides it down and performs the same maneuver with his second card.

"I invented the idea and told my buddy what I needed to do with it, and that's what he came up with,'' Rockwell says.

After checking his cards, Rockwell slides his medallion of a card protector over his cards and waits for his turn to act. If he elects to play, he is equally adept with his right big toe at pushing the correct chips into the pot.

He doesn't know what other players at the table think of his unusual style because he listens to his headphone the entire time. No matter. It is inspiring to see. So much so that when Rockwell's table was breaking, the dealer turned to him and said, "Sir, it has been a pleasure.''

And it will continue to be, at least for another day, as Rockwell survived with a little over $5,000 in chips to play again on Sunday.


Table 108, Seat 6, Capt. John Dvorak, U.S. Army. He wears a bracelet in memory of his senior scout who was killed in Iraq when they were stationed there in 2003. "I won my seat last Friday and took some leave,'' Dvorak says. "I can defend my country; now we'll see if I can defend my blind.'' He re-raises to $1,000 preflop, catches a ace and bets out $500 to win the pot. Carry on, soldier.


Antonio Esfandiari is out. "I was short-stacked, so I moved all in with A-J and ran into kings. That was that.''


Men "The Master'' Nguyen has chips, unlike last year's main event. "Don't remind me of last year,'' he says. "I had aces and lost to a flush. A guy calls my all in (of $18,000) with a draw. He hit a heart on the river and broke my heart. The camera followed me to the garage.''


Tournament officials are telling spectators to clear the Rio poker hall with 10 minutes left in each level so players can use the bathrooms. It gets so bad that the Rio turns the women's room into another men's room. So much for gender equity.


Phil Hellmuth bets $1,200. Seat 4 moves all in for $3,600. Hellmuth is apoplectic, even though he has him covered. "Buddy,'' Hellmuth asks, "are you the kind of guy who pushes in with Q-7?'' Hellmuth doesn't find out. He folds.


Much ballyhooed Internet player Eric Sagstrom busts out. Wouldn't it be great is he complained like the pros about how Internet players play any hand and you can't read their betting patterns and they're all landmines?


Hellmuth is moved to ESPN's featured table and appears to be acting like a big boy, then lost with A-K when a player holding K-J sucked out with a jack on the river, and here we go: Hellmuth taking a walk around the stage, carrying on with cameramen and reporters, and declaring that some people in the room can't even spell the name of the game and proceeds to utter "P-O-K-E-R.'' Thankyouverymuch, now S-I-T D-O-W-N.


No. Wait. With less than a half-hour before closing time, Hellmuth moves in with A-Q. Paul "X-22'' Magriel has pocket 7's. The board comes J-9-4-9-5. Hellmuth gets his buh, Hellmuth gets his bye – Hellmuth get his buh-bye.


One of the players who survived Day 1-B is named Peter Pan. No lie. Then again, poker is filled with lost boys.


Wait'll next year: Negreanu, Esfandiari, Lindgren, Hellmuth, Duke, Cunningham, Cernuto, Gordon, Ng, Violette, Awada, Liebert, Habib, Tomko, Pescatori, Phillips, Williams, Hennigan, Men "The Master,'' Helppi, Bonetti, Todd Brunson.


Thursday, July 7, 2005, 10:45 a.m. WSOP Daylight Savings Time:

The terrorist bombs that rocked London's subway system reverberated at the World Series of Poker.

"I don't have any family in London,'' said David "Devilfish'' Ulliott, a native of Hull, "but it's disgusting.''

Americans, of course, know the feeling all too well after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York - the feeling of fear, the feeling of shock, the feeling of anger.

"If you want to have a go at it, you should have a go at it with the army, not civilians,'' Brit Paul Maxfield said. "Obviously, they're not brave enough to have a go at it with the army. They want to have a go at it with women and children.''

Joe Beevers, one of the four members of the famed Hendon Mob, lives close to the area where the bombs exploded.

"We basically heard it when we woke up,'' Beevers said. "My girlfriend told me. She got a text message or a phone call that came through on one of our London mobile (phones).

"Where we live in Hendon is in north London. It's about seven miles from Kings Cross and Russell Square and all the places where the bombs went off. I have a great number of friends that travel through that area and work in that area of London.

"I'm sure that some of our friends would've been close to where it happened. I had some e-mails from some of my closest friends and they all seem to be circulating and people were being copied in and copied in, so from a personal point of view, everyone's OK.''

A good sign. The mores that get added to the e-mails, the more people who are unhurt.

"But that doesn't take away from the fact that a lot of people would've been affected by what happened,'' Beevers said in a quiet tone. "It's a very, very sad thing.

"It makes you very sick inside. It makes you very sad. We spent quite a while phoning people, checking the news, surfing the Internet to see what happened.

"It's still very new news in our heads. We're still very shaken by it.''

The people he managed to reach back home - what were they saying, how were they dealing with the terror?

"People were worried,'' Beevers said. "People felt sick inside. It's one of those things that you don't like to hear about. As soon as something like that hits the new, the magnitude of that . . .''


Players pour into the Rio poker hanger. And pour in and pour in. So many faces. So many faceless players. And the odds are, one of these faceless players will become the most famous face in poker.


Some guy walks in with a floppy hat that has conical things dangling from the brim. Are you kidding me?

There's another guy with blond hair who had "Dynamo'' dyed red on the back of his head. And there's another guy dressed in a kilt.

Mommy, make it stop.

Turns out, some guy wanted to show up in a motorcycle helmet with a tinted visor. No. Sorry. Uh-uh.

"It's more of a surveillance issue,'' said Ken Lambert, Harrah's director of tournament poker. "We have to be able to identify at some point who that person is. There has to be some way you can be identified through surveillance.''

A helmet with a visor - that's good. It would certainly make a player tough to read.

"There are other issues,'' Lambert said. "It might be somebody who's been barred from the casino before.''


Two-hundred tables are in play. Spectators line the velvet cordons, some three- and four-deep. Seventeen minutes into the main event, the first player is out. This is actually later than some people expected.


Some Random Guy wearing an Everything About Poker shirt is racing down the corridor. Looks like he didn't know everything about poker, such as that the event started at 11 a.m. today instead of the usual noon.


Some Random Guy at Table 117 gets a 10-minute timeout for dropping an F-bomb, and the reason he dropped an F-bomb is because he, too, showed up at noon instead of 11 a.m. So, he got blinded off for the first hour, and then got blinded off for another 10 minutes. Me, if I had invested 10 grand, I think I'd take the time to make sure I know what time kickoff is.


A Jerry Garcia-looking guy at Table 5 has long, gray hair, a gray beard, sunglasses and a Harley shirt, and I'm thinking, that's not a guy I'd check-raise.


Table 10, Greg Raymer has his lizard specs on.


1 p.m.: this is the deadline for the main event. No more sign-ups. The field is above the 5,500 that more than doubled last year's field, but didn't hit the max-out mark of 6,.600. Even thought there are still two more Day 1's to be played, and conceivably space for another 500 players, Harrah's cut off the walk-ups at 1 p.m.

Because here's the angle a sharp player with money would shoot if sign-ups were extended to the last of the Day 1's: Play it as a re-buy event, betting and raising aggressively to try to build chips, and if that player went broke, he or she would simply sign up the next day for another $10,000.


A press release went out saying that Doyle Brunson offered Steve Lipscomb $700 million for the World Poker Tour. Imagine, just two years after the WPT hit the Travel Channel airwaves after Lipscomb and some others scraped together seed money for the venture, it apparently is worth eight zeroes. Or more.

The idea of a news release announcing ongoing negotiations, not a completed deal, seemed to irk Lyle Berman, and with good reason. He's the chairman of Lakes Entertainment, the company that pretty much funded the WPT, so he would certainly be involved in such discussions. Playing in the first day of the main event, Berman maintained a good poker face, but admitted he was surprised that news of such a fluid situation was made public.

"I have no comment,'' Berman said. "We'll have to deal with it. Our board will meet.''


First break, and Scott Fischman is lucky to be alive. "I had an overpair - a pair of kings and raised from the big blind. He had a pair of 5's. The flop came 7-7-5. Lost a lot of chips on that one. I had A-Q and the board was A-A-J-something-something. The guy had A-J. I stayed alive. I was down to $1,000. I'm the happiest guy with $5,500 in the room, for sure.''


A 20-minute break instead of the usual 15, and it's still not enough for players to get out of the poker hangar, through the crowds and use the bathrooms.


The line for the men's room vs. the line for Chris Ferguson autographs. Discuss.


Raise, re-raise, and Chris "Jesus'' Ferguson moves all in preflop with pocket aces. His opponent thinks, then calls with K-9 offsuit. You heard me: K-9 offsuit. The flop comes K-9-4. Oops, babe. The turn comes a blank, and Jesus is about to go broke before the second break when his aces get cracked. But the river comes a 4, giving Jesus a higher two pair. SFX: big exhale.


1:45 p.m.: Jennifer Harman is gone, the first big name out of the Big One. She turned top full - Q's over 10's - when her opponent rivered a straight flush.


Here's a stat for you: Most Series cashes this year - Marco Traniello, the star hairdresser married to Harman, who does this poker thing for a living. Traniello cashed seven times, and it'll stay that way after he also got broke Thursday. That's some family plan they signed up for.


Line of the World Series: Tournament director Johnny Grooms, talking into Mr. Microphone early in Day 1-A of the main event: "For all you Internet qualifiers, the raise button is located on the right side of your chair.''


Johnny Chan wears a shirt with the day-glo green message: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.''


2:40 p.m.: Amy Calistri and Sharla Lehrmann, two bloggers from pokerpages.com, have dubbed the hallways outside the Rio poker hangar the "Vestibule of Bad Beats.'' And just then, Josh Arieh walks over, all pumped up.

"I called a third of my stack with middle pair, and won,'' says Arieh, last year's third-place finisher in the Big One. "If I called and lose, I'm down to $2,300. If I call and win, I have $18,000. With third pair. He bluffed with J-Q on the river. The board came 9-10-7-4-deuce. I had A-7. That was nice. Now, I'm going to get the rest of their chips.''

"Vestibule of Good Beats,'' too, apparently.


3:30 p.m.: Barry Greenstein looks up and holds his right index finger and thumb about an inch apart. Short-stacked. Like, $4,800 short-stacked. And it is not just the $10,000 buy-in that's at stake here. There's another $75,000 in play, and here's the deal:

Erik Seidel offers people the even money proposition that they won't have $20,000 or more at the end of Day 1. You want in? Bring 50 grand to bet. But because Greenstein has finished Day 1 with 20 grand of more for 10 straight years, Seidel made it 3-2, meaning Greenstein had to lay $75,000 to win $50,000.

"It's not looking so good,'' Greenstein says.


Very few big names are playing at a table with another well-known player, almost like this is a charity event where they stagger the stars and put a bounty on them. Actually, that is very much the case. The unknowns consistently call with questionable hands based on the 50-50-and-a-story theory. If they think they have half a chance of beating a big name, they'll make the call, knowing that even if they get beat, they'll have a story for the folks back home about how they got busted by "Devilfish'' or "The Unabomber'' or Doyle.


The guy sitting in Seat 10 at Table 5 looks like just another poker player who spent $10,000 buying in for a chance to win poker's biggest prize - likely $7 million or $8 million this year. You'd never know that the guy in Seat 10 at Table 5 manages a mutual fund worth $22 billion.

"I enjoy playing poker,'' says John Rogers, who heads up Ariel Mutual Fund out of Chicago, "but when I play in a poker room, I'll never lose more than $100 a day. That's my limit. So, this is really a stretch.''

Rogers says he played poker during free periods in high school and on bus rides while playing basketball at Princeton. But he became inspired to try the Big One last fall when Money magazine published an article on how poker and money management have a lot in common. The magazine selected Rogers and three other money managers to play poker against two-time world champion Johnny Chan and Jennifer Harman.

"It was so much fun,'' Rogers said. "The themes of discipline and patience are the same. We're patient investors, and that's what poker's all about. And the courage to take a big risk.

"We have had a lot of success over the years in gaming stocks - Caesars Palace a couple of times, International Gaming Technology. We like to get out here and do research on companies. We think it's an exciting industry where we can make money for our shareholders, and this whole poker craze is a new, exciting thing. So it's good for us to understand how it impacts the casinos, how it impacts the slot machines.''

So, the $10,000 buy-in can be considered a write-off under research and development?

"I wouldn't go that far,'' Rogers said.

OK, then, how about some gaming investment predictions or tips?

"The merger activity - Caesars was acquired (by Harrah's), Mandalay Bay was acquired (by MGM-Mirage) - I think some of these companies are going to do extraordinarily well, but you have to get it at the right price,'' Rogers said. "They've moved up a lot because of all the merger activity. They've had a good run the last couple years. We've been watching IGT, hoping it gets cheap again. But so far, it hasn't met our criteria yet. We like to buy things when they're a little out of favor, and right now Vegas feels like it has a lot of attention on it. It would be better if things got a little quieter for us to initiate new positions.''


At one end of Table 24 is Crandell Addington, the impeccably dressed, tonsorially precise new Poker Hall-of-Famer. At the other end is Phil "The Unabomber'' Laak, trademark gray hoodie not covering his unkempt blond-tipped hair. Now there's a party.


4:45 p.m.: The crowds are so big that Grooms asks spectators to clear the aisles five minutes before a scheduled break so players could get out of the room.


Jennifer Tilly's out. Her boyfriend, "The Unabomber,'' passes along the bad news about "The Unabombshell's'' run: "She had a full house and her opponent had four jacks. She lost half her stack. The she had a straight and lost to a full house.''


Level 4 brings the $25 ante into play, and that's really when a tournament starts because that's when it's most profitable to raise preflop. "You want to make as much money as you can without seeing a flop,'' Greenstein says. Which makes it pretty boring because it turns into raise-it/take-it poker.


Seat 6 moves all in. Paul Darden has him covered and calls. Seat 6 has K-K. Darden has A-A. the flop comes blank-blank-A. Ballgame.

And now Darden has chips, about $27,000. "And I'm going to have chips on Day 6,'' Darden says. "Plenty of them. I want to end up with all the chips. That's the plan.''


Greenstein is down to about $2,300 and it looks so grim that he has begun writing in the "bounty'' edition of his new book "Ace on the River.'' Greenstein, who gives all his tournament winnings to charity, brought this copy of his book specifically to sign and present to the player who knocks him out of the main event. Greenstein's inscription will say "World Series of Poker Main Event,'' and will include the date, his hand, the other player's hand, and the board, along with his signature.

"This is like the old days when they made you dig your own grave,'' Greenstein says as he begins the book's inscription, and I'm thinking, with just $2,300 left, maybe Greenstein shouldn't be signing the book as much as reading it.


Down to $2,100, Greenstein is suddenly looking up at an ESPN camera crew. "You came to watch me die,'' he says. Greenstein moves all in twice, once with A-A, but gets only the blinds and antes, and even with those, he's up to barely $1,600. Medic!


Darden re-raises to $4,700. Seat 6 calls. The flop comes 8-5-5, two diamonds. Darden bets out $5,400. Seat 6 thinks for a long time.

A. Long. Time.

And then he says "Raise,'' and then he throws out $9,000. Uh, no. Can't do that. Your raise must be at least twice the bet.

Oh, OK, so now Seat 6 wants to just call. Uh, no. Can't do that, either. Here's the deal, Seat 6: You can fold and lose the nine grand you've already thrown out there or you can put out another $1,700 to complete the raise. Seat 6 completes the raise, and then, bang, Darden re-raises all in for almost $2,000. Seat 6 calls. Darden has him covered.

Darden also has him dominated - A-A vs. Q-Q. The board comes 8-5-5-3-8. Buh-bye, Seat 6.

And here's a tip: Know the betting rules and know what your opponent bet.


A guy at table 135 is using a $25,000 Bellagio chip as a card protector. Yes, a card protector. Must be nice.


Jesus is moved to Darden's table, and he moves all in for $28,000 on a flop of Q-8-5. Seat 10 calls. Jesus flips over J-J, Seat 10 had Q-10 of diamonds. The turn brings a jack. "Jesus has arrived at the table,'' Darden proclaims.


9:20 p.m.: Greenstein moves in for $2,575 preflop. Seat 1 calls. Greenstein has Q-9, Seat 1 has K-K. Yikes, babe. The board comes 6-Q-6-10-3. No help. Greenstein shakes Seat 1's hand to nice applause from spectators.

Then Greenstein finishes the inscription in his book, asking for his opponent's name, and signs it and presents it to one Michael Cribb, to some nice applause again.

Greenstein then stands up and prepares to leave the table, getting another round of applause not only from fans, but also from players at three nearby tables, quite the sign of respect.


Gus Hansen is sitting in the seat once occupied by actor Brad Garrett. Guess he got cancelled.


Like always, Hansen re-raises. He gets a call, then moves in on the flop and takes the pot. The thrill ride that is Gus Hansen is up to about 10 grand as he covertly speaks into a digital recording device he pulls out of his pocket.

Next hand, Hansen raises on the button, the big blind re-raises $2,000, Hansen folds, and he's back speaking into the recording device.

Two more hands, two more Hansen raises, two more pots won. "This is the last time I'm going to raise,'' Hansen says with a laugh, then, of course, raises the next hand, wins it, and he's back to the recording device. What's the deal with that?

"I just record hands,'' Hansen says. "You can't remember all of them.''

So, it's an audio notebook you can review after each session?

"If I get really unlucky - that means no girls afterward - then I'll review it at night,'' Hansen says with a broad smile.


They play until almost 2:30 in the morning because they need to get down from almost 2,000 players to 650, which is the number they have to get down to on each of the three Day 1's so they can shoehorn the 1.950 survivors into the same room on Sunday for Day 4, or would it be Day 2?


Wait'll next year: Harman, Chan, Arieh, Greenstein, Fischman, Seidel, Grey, Forrest, Sexton, Deeb, "Devilfish,'' Brenes and Jesus.


Wednesday, July 6, 2005, 10 a.m. WSOP Daylight Savings Time:

The thrilling conclusion for the coveted Prop Bet bracelet comes down to the spelling bee this morning.

To recap, Erick Lindgren, Mike Matusow, Ted Forrest and Robert Williamson III all anted up $2,500, with each choosing some weird competition -- but one that would look good on television because ESPN has been taping it for use on its World Series broadcasts this year -- with the winner taking it all.

What's more, Williamson and Forrest have a side bet of $15,000 on who between the two does best.

A couple weeks ago, they had the air hockey and card-pitching-into-a trash-can events. And this morning, they just finished Ping-Pong. The way it stands, with Forrest winning the Ping-Pong competition, he is tied with Williamson overall heading into the spelling bee. Lindgren is drawing dead. Matusow didn't bother to show up.

Each player wore a placard around the neck that listed his name and elementary school. Matusow's placard was hung on an empty chair, with the "S'' in Matusow fittingly backwards.

"If you see Matusow," Lindgren cracks, "have him spell 'quitter.'"

In a pre-bee interview, Lindgren says, "This is possibly the most embarrassing event we have."

Thing is, Lindgren is the guy who chose this competition.

And then it rocks Williamson's world that Forrest is the child of two college English professors. This, after Williamson found out that Forrest has a reputation as a Ping-Pong hustler -- a guy who once beat an opponent using an ashtray as a paddle.

Doing his best Lou Holtz poor-mouthing, Forrest says, "I have to get very lucky to beat Robert today."

Says the interviewer: "Spell 'lucky.'"

Says Forrest: "I-D-I-O-T."

Finally, it's on. The players enter form one side and take their seats. ESPN poker analyst Norman Chad enters from the other side. He will moderate the breathtaking finale. He will be the sole judge, but says his rulings can be subject to financial considerations.

The order drawn at random goes Forrest, Lindgren and Williamson, so Williamson has position. Forrest correctly spells trips. Lindgren is next. His word is ante.

"Ante," Lindgren says. "A-N-T-E. Ante. YES!"

Williamson gets "donkey" correct.

"Matusow's word," Chad says, "would've been WNBA."

Forrest gets "all in," Lindgren gets "bluff," and Williamson gets "check-raise." Then it gets interesting.

Forrest's word is broccoli.

"Broccoli," Forrest says. "B-R-O-C-A-L-I."

"Both of your parents were college professors," Chad asks. "Must've been junior college."

And Forrest is out.

Lindgren spells "handkerchief" correctly, then Williamson has to spell "subpoena."

"Subpoena," Williamson says. "S-U-B-P-O-E-N-A."

Lindgren jumps up and acts like he has won.

"That was right?" Lindgren asks incredulously.

Yes, it was. Now, sit down, junior.

Lindgren and Williamson each miss a word, Lindgren slamming Chad's dictionary to the floor in anger. Then Lindgren misses "Chihuahua" and Williamson gets "onomatopoeia." He's thinking for a long time. Maybe someone should call a clock on him.

Says Chad: "You could save us all time by misspelling it quickly."

And he does.

Lindgren is hit with "hypotenuse" and gets it right.

"No!" Williamson screams out.

Williamson's word is "luge.'' He is taking a long time again. And someone does call a clock on him.

"Luge," Williamson says. "L-O-U-G-E."

No. Wrong. Lindgren wins the spelling bee. He's so proud. But so is Williamson, who wins the overall competition and the 10-grand that will get him his buy-in for the main event. Plus, he nailed Forrest for the 15-grand in side bets.

Chad places a yellow-paper Prop Bet bracelet on Williamson's wrist. And of course, there's the obligatory money shot, Williamson posing with the three dollar bills so generously supplied by ESPN.

"It was never about the money," Williamson says. "It was always about the bracelet."


12:15 p.m.: Poker Stars throws a lunch and poker tournament. Cold cuts, egg salad, tuna salad, blah, blah, blah. The stars of Poker Stars are Greg Raymer and Erin Ness, he of the reigning world championship, she of Maxim photo department fame who got deep into last year's tournament.

Last year at this time, Raymer was a patent attorney from Connecticut. This year's he's the champ. From unknown to target.

"What I've learned over the last year is I don't have as much steal equity or bluff equity as I used to have," Raymer says. "In other words, if you're in a pot and you're drawing dead, even if you didn't know it, you might have some bluff equity. So, you might be sitting there with 4-5 offsuit and the board reads 3-8-J-Q, and your opponent has A-8. You'd have no outs. You can't beat his 8s no matter what comes on the river. But with a queen and a jack on the board, you easily might bluff him off the pot. So, you still have the ability to win this pot.

"I don't have much bluff equity or steal equity anymore because I tend to get called down a lot more often than I used to. I double up easier, but I go broke a lot easier than I used to.

"I just have to play differently. The hard part now is figuring out each individual opponent, whether they're going to give me too much respect or not enough respect. They'll play really weak hands with me knowing they're behind because they want their story. They want to knock me out, or if I knock them out, they go back and tell their friends, 'I got knocked out in the middle of Day 1 of the main event, but it took the world champ to do it.'"

So, who wins it this year -- an unknown or a well-known?

"I would say there is about a 20-25 percent chance that a well-known player will win this year's main event," Raymer says. "I'm thinking there are about 300 players who you'd say, 'We know who this guy is' when they win the tournament. Those people have roughly four or five times the average chance of winning. So, I'm thinking they have 1,500-1,600 chances of winning out of 6,000. So, that's about 20 percent, 25 percent."


12:30 p.m.: Dang, I'm late for the launch of Phil Gordon's "Final Table Poker" instructional DVD over at the Palms. Rushing now, part of the Rio's hallway is cut off because of a girls' dance competition, so you have to walk through the WSOP Lifestyle something-or-other. Booths. Stuff. Like a flea market. You get the idea.

Now getting through the Rio's casino, I finally found out why they have the best-looking cocktail waitresses: The hotel contracts with an entertainment company, so they are all singers or dancers who are taught to cocktail. The Rio has them perform on different stages every half-hour or so.

Walking to the Palms, and I'm thinking, it's hot. In the desert. Go figure.

Gordon's launch party is in "The Lounge" -- finger sandwiches, fruit, veggies, cheese, big cookies. Big, big cookies.

Not only is this the launch day for Gordon, but it's his 35th birthday, too. "Do I have great timing?" he asks, and man, is he pumped up. "I drew Day 2 (of the main event) so I can party like a rock star tonight (at his party at the Rio Wine Cellar, another engagement where I fear I'll have trouble remembering what happened).

Hey, look! Marcel Luske! Don't you just love the guy, singing at the table the way he does?

"I sing for a hobby," Luske says in The Lounge, "but I have a poker song coming out. It's called 'Song of the Outlaws.'"

Luske and everyone else head from The Lounge and walk through the casino, past the food court to the 12-screen Cineplex in the Palms. Turns out, "Final Table Poker" was making its debut on the big screen. Turns out, it was very appropriate, and here's why:

Gordon's DVD is done like a TV poker show, but it has the gritty feel of a movie, nothing close to the video I was expecting. And let me tell you, there has never been a teaching tool this compelling.

The while thing is set at a final table, with Gordon narrating his thoughts as he folds, bets, checks, raises and check-raises against a table full of opponents with wildly different styles, the point being lessons in how to play against different players with different hands from different positions.

This is like sitting behind a great player and getting expert insight -- Expert Insight, by the way, is another company that Gordon has his long fingers in -- only you're getting it in real time, and having sat next to Gordon for another World Series final table that included the likes of Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth and heard him analyze what was going on when he didn't know what the hole cards were as Ivey outplayed Hellmuth, I'm here to tell you that Gordon's analysis is not just acting. I know what the real deal sounds like, and this is it.


2:15 p.m.: Hop a cab to Strip Liquors. It's across from the Stardust, not far from the Love Boutique and Déjà Vu strip joint (and not far from the Spearmint Rhino strip joint, which I really ought to check out). This is all so Vegas. Anyway, I have to get a bottle of wine for Howard and Suzie Lederer. Can't go to a party without something for the hosts, right?

But it can't be just any wine. Oh no, it needs to be Red Zinfandel. Specifically a 2001 or 2002. And definitely from the Napa-Sonoma area. Howard says those vintages are ripe with the peppery richness that marks a good Red Zinfandel. Or something like that. Who am I'm to argue?

Anyway, I find a 2001 Red Zinfandel bottled by St. Francis and ask the woman behind the counter for a gift bag. Nope. Sorry. Don't have them.

But you're a wine store. All wine stores have them.


Thanks, lady, I can feel the love.

Now my driver Frantisek drives me back to the Rio, covering seemingly the entire property, and I'm thinking, we just set a world outdoor record for speed bumps.

Things I think I remember from the Full Tilt Poker gala in some hoity-toity club downstairs at the new Wynn resort:

  • Talking with Ron Livingston, star of the spectacular cult hit "Office Space.

  • The Shiraz.

  • Andy Bloch in a jacket, paisley shirt and solid tie, standing with his parents, looking like a bar-mitzvah boy.

  • Daniel Negreanu saying MTV is doing a show on his new video game "Stacked." For the younger readers, MTV is a cable channel that used to show music videos.

  • The Shiraz.

  • Negreanu trying to speak street. I like him better when he speaks Canadian.

  • Phil Laak and Jennifer Tilly, the "Unabomber" and the "Unabombshell."

  • Many women trying to get into their slinky outfits or out of them, I couldn't tell. How would you like to be a woman who spends time and money to get decked out, look all hot, fit for babe-a-palooza, and then you walk in and find out Jennifer Tilly's in the house. She has the looks and she has the bracelet. Talk about drawing dead.

  • The Shiraz.

  • Full Tilt auctioning off signed jerseys and a poker table, raising more than $100,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Las Vegas.

  • The Shiraz.


    3:30 p.m.: Big news conference at the final table area of the Rio's poker hangar. Some numbers get thrown out about pokerpalooza sweeping the country: Approximately 35,000 players will have anted up in 45 events and create a prize pool of $100 million. You know, $100 million here, $100 million there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

    The event also includes Doyle Brunson essentially presenting Crandell Addington, a Texas oilman and longtime high-stakes gambler, and Jack Binion, scion of World Series of Poker creator Benny Binion, for induction to the Poker Hall of Fame.

    Brunson, a Hall of Famer himself, is asked about the main event in light of the big number of pros who have won earlier events.

    "I'm surprised the pros have done as well as they have," Brunson says. "I don't think an established pro will win. When I sit down at a table and a player tells me he's an Internet player, I have no idea how he plays."

    Harrah's executives quash some rumors. First, there are no plans to increase the $10,000 buy-in for poker's biggest tournament. Second, there are no plans to move the show to Caesars Palace, another Harrah's property, so it will stay at the Rio next year. And three, ESPN has exercised its option to broadcast the World Series of Poker for the next two years as Harrah's and ESPN negotiate new terms for a new deal (Harrah's probably wants more money and ESPN likely wants more years).


    5 p.m.: The celebrity/media charity poker event gets started. Andrew J. Feldman is representing our ESPN.com. Andrew J. is the producer of our poker section - "producer?" -- and he got to take this big-boy road trip.

    I'm off to the Lederer "World Series of Barbecue." But it's not at Lederer's house, it's at Steve Z's, a longtime friend of Lederer's whose last name I don't want to try to spell.

    There are security gates at the front, and you understand why once you're inside the compound.

    Un. Believe. Able.

    A long rambling ranch house seems to go on forever, there are two guest houses, at least, there's something that looks like a geisha house, too, and a pool with a waterfall, and a four-piece band playing near the 20 or so tables that have been set up near the two grills and a couple tents serving shish kabobs of filet, lamb and chicken with shrimp, crab claws and sushi inside -- pause, take a breath -- and there's another band setting up on a stage elsewhere in the backyard and none of these things feel like they are dominating the space in the backyard, just in case you wanted to know how big we're talking. I mean, you'd need a search party to get to the croquet course.


    9 p.m.: Back at the Rio for Phil Gordon, Part Deux . Holding his birthday bash at the Wine Cellar is a terrific call. Lots of poker players, even Phil Hellmuth, if you can believe that, and an open bar. For journalists, one of the four major food groups is open bar.


    11:30 p.m.: Big smile. You might remember a couple blogs ago -- I think it was a couple blogs ago, maybe more blogs ago, maybe I'm going all Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" -- I went looking for the best player who hadn't cashed, hadn't so much as sneaked in on the bubble, and David Grey raised his hand.

    Grey said he didn't know if he was the best player, but he knew for sure he hadn't cashed. He was stuck for the Series.

    No more. The likeable and insightful Grey cashed. But not just any cash -- this one was for the most cash. Late Wednesday night, Grey overcame a 3-1 chip deficit in about three hands and broke John "World" Hennigan to cop the gold bracelet and $365,135 in the $5,000 buy-in Deuce-to-Seven re-buy event.

    Now who's the best player who hasn't cashed?


    Time Unknown: Antonio "The Magician"Esfandiari is leaving Gordon's birthday bash. Are you ready for the Big One?

    "I was born ready," Esfandiari.


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    Steve Rosenbloom is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and writes a syndicated poker column for the Chicago Tribune.