Playing a new game
Editor's note: Jordan Farmar was eliminated during the third level of play on Day 3.
For a lot of lifelong poker players, the very idea of making it to the third day of the main event of the World Series of Poker is little more than a pipe dream. Many of us don't have the money to find our way into the $10,000 buy-in event, and for many who do, the skill set just isn't there.
For Jordan Farmar, the journey to Day 3 has been an unusual one. Although the WSOP is the dream for so many, the former UCLA Bruin and current Los Angeles Laker had never played Texas hold 'em until his agent was contacted by online poker room Pokerstars.net with an offer to put Farmar in the series in exchange for representing it in the tournament. Now, as one of 2,044 players remaining in a field that started with 6,494, Farmar is getting a fast education at the tables with a little hands-on training.
"I'd never played poker before," said Farmar in a phone interview prior to Day 3. "I went to the Hollywood Park Casino in Los Angeles and played to get the hang of the game. I didn't know anything about what kind of poker they played here. I just knew what hand beat the next one."
That kind of inexperience usually makes for a short venture at the poker tables, but Farmar took a cautious approach. "I've been learning a lot. You sit there for 10 hours straight and you'll learn a lot playing against the best in the world. I didn't play a lot of hands early, but I got the hang of it. I watched the other players play, learned from their mistakes and started to get what was going on."
Starting the event on Day 1D with the standard $30,000, Farmar managed to steer clear of major trouble before finishing the day with $48,175. On Day 2B, Farmar experienced more ups and downs as he found a comfort zone.
"I was much better on Day 2," Farmar stated, acknowledging a steep learning curve. "I was up to $150,000 for most of the day, called some folks in some big pots and took some hits to finish at $75,500. Since I started the day at $48,000, I'm happy with where I'm at now."
It's not unusual for companies like PokerStars.net to put celebrities into the WSOP, poker's most-watched tournament. The value of airtime on the ESPN broadcasts is worth far more in terms of online traffic and the resulting poker rake (a small percentage taken from each pot as a fee for hosting games) generated than the $10,000 buy-in, travel expenses and appearance fees. In addition to Farmar, actors Jason Alexander and Lou Diamond Phillips are still in the field and sponsored by 'Stars.
"When 'Stars spends money to put these guys in, not only do they get poker media attention, but also that of the mainstream media," said 2004 world champion Greg Raymer. "We get People magazine and the like coming here because the Jason Alexanders and Matt Damons are here. We wouldn't without them, and that grows the game."
Farmar was just looking for an excuse to get away.
"My agent set up the relationship with them," Farmar related. "I'm sure they invited a bunch of people out. I figured it would just be a good excuse to hang out in Vegas for a couple of days. I'd seen poker on TV but never tried it before and just figured I'd enjoy it. It turned out to be a really cool decision. I've ended up having a great time so far."
In Farmar's short time at the felt, he's developed an understanding of what's going on around him. Learning at the WSOP main event isn't a typical education and he's received some pointers even during play. Just as a player needs to do in basketball, Farmar is adapting and adjusting quickly.
"I think poker's got both luck and skill," said Farmar. "Any game in life has to have both, though I guess it's more so in games of cards. I know a lot of great basketball players who weren't playing at the right time or in the right place to make it. I happened to be in the right place and time to show what I could do. That's what I mean by luck. In cards, you can be the most skilled player, if you don't get the cards, do something risky and get called on it, you're going to lose.
"All you can do is have a good reputation, throw your money in when you have a good hand and win off your reputation. I think a lot of people do that. For me it's scary. I just learn what people do at the table. I don't know these guys' names. I don't know who they are. I just wait for the good hands and get my chips in."
When he says he doesn't know who the players are, he's right. Farmar sat next to a member of last year's final table, Darus Suharto, and had no idea that he was playing next to one of the top players in 2008. One edge Farmar seems to hold over the competition is his relative indifference to massive success in the tournament.
"I can be dangerous because I'm not afraid to lose," Farmar admitted, seeming to grasp the advantages of wielding the chips without consequences. "I've seen a lot of players at my tables who have played afraid. I don't like losing. I think my history as a competitor, as a professional athlete, is big, but I'm just out there to have a good time. Throw my chips in there, get a few looks, if I have something good, I'm not afraid to call."
Despite the common goal shared by all players, Farmar doesn't see himself blending into the crowd here at the WSOP.
"I haven't been able to fade in, but it's been cool though," said Farmar. "I think the best part is getting to stand out in a world that isn't my world. Having a good time, being on camera a lot. Every time I call the cameraman is over, that makes someone call. I see how good a time people are having -- being on TV is the fun part. They all know who I am, but I don't know much about them."
Does that recognizability put a target on his back?
"I'm not sure if people are taking extra shots because they know me," he said. "We've been having a good time at my tables. We've been hanging out all day until it's time to make a big decision. We're all having a good time. People have been taking shots at me my entire life. I mean, if you're a basketball player, everyone wants to beat the best. If you're ranked top 20 in the nation, they want to show they should be ranked too. They're going to come at you. It never stops. [The Lakers] are the NBA champions now. I expect they're going to keep coming at us."
If you ask around the poker world, Farmar isn't the Laker most would have expected to see in this position. Lakers co-owners Jerry Buss and Frank Mariani have been regular faces in high stakes poker for years now, with Mariani finishing fourth in this year's WSOP seven-card stud high-low world championship.
"I can't talk trash about [Buss and Mariani]," said Farmar. "I'm just out here to have a good time. I'm just learning. I probably won't ask them about their home games. I make good money, but not as much as some players."
Farmar's reported salary last year was $1,080,000. Winning the WSOP main event is worth $8,546,435. As he prepared for a third day of play, Farmar reflected on poker games to come.
"I'm definitely not nervous about Day 3," Farmar insisted. "I've sent about 12 people home now. I'm just going to take it as it comes. I think I'm going to continue playing poker in the future. I enjoy the game. I've been playing for hours and hours every day. Hopefully I'll be invited back a few times."
As for the attention? He said with a smile "I never thought I'd be on ESPN.com for poker."
Now he is.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.