WSOP rookies living out the dream
You've played golf for a while and you love the game. You and your buddies will shoot a round, put a few bucks on it and more often than not you come out a little bit ahead. Win for a few outings in a row and your mind starts playing tricks on you. You ignore the fact your winning score was a 95 and start to wonder what it might be like to play in the Masters.
That's the World Series of Poker main event.
Day 1A, the first of four opening days, played itself out on Monday, with the starting field of 1,125 whittling itself down to 766 through nine hours of play. Among those throngs were more than a few home game heroes who finally opted to take their shot at "The Big One," chasing the dream of playing in the biggest tournament in the world and competing with the best. One stood out above the crowd.
"Man, this is fun," said Shawn Marion, during the second break of the day. The 33-year old member of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks was giving the WSOP his first shot and had a blast in the process. "The butterflies are gone. It's cool. I'm not really a big tournament guy but why not play the World Series of Poker?"
The 11-year NBA veteran, accustomed to the security of teammates to lean upon, was one man against the world when he sat down to play, but the weight of that reality was outdone by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm he had for what he was doing.
"I love playing poker," he said. "The guys at my table are pretty cool. We've had a few big hands, but for the most part the first couple of days is really easygoing. I think we all want to keep our chips and stay alive. I'm trying not to get my head cracked."
For athletes and other celebrities, the poker table offers a reprieve from the sometimes burdensome attention of stardom. It's an opportunity to sit down, mix with a few people and trade stories regardless of station in life.
"Its funny, I don't think they look at me as an athlete," said Marion. "They know I'm an athlete but at the same time, they're trying to win just like I am. It's cool to sit at the table and just have normal conversations. I'm really approachable, so I just take it in and have a good time. There are fans and spectators watching as well, and I'm seeing some familiar faces from ESPN of course. I'm just really enjoying myself and taking it all in."
While Marion is used to the star treatment, for 44-year old Nashville, Tenn., native Donna Jetter, it was an entirely new experience.
When I first saw Jetter, decked out in khakis and a navy tank top as if she'd been readying herself for battle, she was signing a contract in the hallways of the Rio. It was the first break of the day, she was at her first main event and she was already being approached with sponsorship opportunities and interviews.
"I signed a deal where, if I make a feature table, they'll pay me $15,000," said Jetter with eyes and smile both still wide in the aftermath of the negotiation. "It's pretty exciting to be asked. I won a ladies' event in Tunica and they still didn't ask me to do that, so it's pretty neat.
"My nerves are going a hundred miles an hour," Jetter continued. "It's exciting to be here. The atmosphere is electric. It's even better than I thought it would be more than I thought it would be. When [Tournament Director Jack Effel] announced 'Congratulations everybody for making it here' that was pretty awesome."
Nerves were the common theme among the rookies.
"I'm still feeling the butterflies," admitted Christopher Vadsmo, a 22-year old from Stockholm, Sweden. "It's great to be here. I'm just kind of happy to be playing what happens happens. Of course I'm focusing, but I can't have an expectation. The field is huge. I'm just trying to play my best poker. I haven't really started thinking about the possibility of winning yet. For now it's just great to play."
28-year-old Brazilian Rodrigo Berteloni echoed the sentiment through translator Narson Saho. "Playing the main event is different from every other tournament," said Berteloni. "It's been very exciting to play in the tournament. For the first few minutes, I was shaking a little bit." Berteloni wouldn't survive the day, thanks in large part to having to stare down table into the eyes of big-stacked Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi all day.
Amidst the excitement, there's poker to be played. The common theme in these conversations was that the reality of the first substantial pot confirmed that this dream was indeed real and focus had to be maintained.
"I had butterflies in the first half an hour, but I got into a few pots and realized it was for real," recalled 22-year-old Dhruba Mukherjee. "They were small pots, but it still made me realize I had to play poker. My primary goal is to survive each day. I used to read Bernard Lee on ESPN and he talks about just surviving each day, so that's what I'm trying to do."
Mukherjee was among those who were surprised by the level of play they found at the tables. While play obviously gets stronger as the days progress, with everyone and their brother looking to take a shot at the main event, some of the competition in the early stages tends not to be so competitive. "I was surprised," he said. "The skill level is like a $50 tournament online. I expected it to be really tough, but that's about what the level of play is."
"I thought the competition would be better," agreed 24-year-old Frenchman Marc Bariller. "I'm surprised it's not. I like this very much, my table is a very good one for me."
Regardless of the level of play, with this being a war of attrition, some of the rookies didn't survive the day. Marion was cruising along before suddenly losing his stack with less than an hour left in the day's play. Berteloni suffered a similar fate. Jetter was a little more fortunate, nursing a shrinking stack, but extending her trip at least four more days. She advanced, as did Vadsmo, Bariller and Mukherjee. For them, now that one dream has been realized, the odyssey to the next one has only begun.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
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