Off in the distance shortly before the bewitching hour of midnight, a muffled sound resembling a mixture of clapping and two squirrels fighting echoed from the far side of the room. Someone won a pot at one of the outer tables and their friends on the rail celebrated wildly spilling beer on each other and acting like baboons during a spring mating ritual. The hand would be beamed around the world thirty minutes later via ESPN2, but for the moment, the loser sat idle and looked at the unfortunate river card. He was stunned and dazed, sort of like a boxing match when a fighter catches a glancing uppercut to the chin and falls to the canvas, only to pop up two seconds later, and wondering where the fuck did that come from? The film crew, dressed in black, captured his dazed expression as they circled his table, while a couple
of field reporters scribbled down the final details of the hand in their own version of poker shorthand.
“Who won the pot,” whispered the oblivious railbird in front of me.
“Obviously not the guy who just high-fived his friends on the rail.”
With three or four tables left in the Amazon Ballroom, the number of media circling around the tables began to outnumber the remaining players. Add up all the tournament staff and railbirds, and the players were grossly outnumbered. They sat inside the ropes out on the floor or either on the secondary table and the massive, gaudy set inside the Mothership. Alas, for the first time since I started covering poker, agents were not slithering around the rail or trying to chase down big-stacked players on the break. The lack of online poker rooms vying for the hearts and minds of Americans and other poker fans deeply affected the endorsement cottage industry. The cold war is over after a swift round of indictments from the federales. As a result, millions of dollars in potential endorsement deals dried up. Without seven figures of free money in play, the vampires remained in the shadows — there’s no juicy and vitamin-enriched blood to suck dry.
On day 1 of the Main Event, I wandered through the Pavilion glimpsing at a poker tournament filled with thousands of dreamers, delusional gambling addicts, bucket listers, Vegas sharks, semi-pros with a chip on their shoulder, and a horde of amateurs. If I was a tournament player, I’d be drooling like Pavlov’s frothing dog at all of the dead money sitting around in a
poker-themed circle jerk.
By days 2 and 3, what was once a poker tournament had turned into a spectacle. By day 7, the tournament became its own reality show as the lines between sports and entertainment were blurred once again. The WSOP is definitely entertainment, but with a competitive edge, which is where the argument splinters off — is it a sport or is it gambling disguised as sports entertainment? Regardless of which side you fall in that debate, the Main Event is the ultimate reality show and the only actors appearing in the tournament are the ones whom use their real names. Sure we might reference Everyone Loves Raymond or AJ Soprano, but that’s just the roles we’re used to seeing actors portray on the little box in our living rooms (and these days, with more people viewing/streaming programs on their laptops, those portrayals are beamed to their portable devices). The real life persons (Ray Romano and Robert Iler) dug into their pockets and plopped down $10,000. Doesn’t matter if you’re an NBA player, an electrician from Garfield, NJ, or an former internet pro who lives down the street at Palms Place. They each purchased a ticket to the bacchanal of poker.
As Hunter Thompson once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
For more on Day 8 at the World Series of Poker’s Main Event, follow Paul McGuire on Tao of Poker.