Wednesday, October 06, 2004

WSOP article

The following is the article I wrote in May after attending the WSOP. It goes with the previously posted picture. I'm working on an article to run in The Tuscaloosa News this weekend about the imfiltration of poker tournaments into local bars and the legal and social ramifications of above ground poker here in Tuscaloosa.


Poker face
Card sharks gather in Vegas for the annual World Series of Poker

By Johnny Kampis
Staff Writer

May 16, 2004
Email this story.

This city is known for dancing water fountains, erupting volcanoes and more neon than the strained eye can stand. But at this time of year it’s poker that’s the draw.

On April 22, the World Series of Poker kicked off at Binion’s Horseshoe for the 35th time. The event is a month-long series of tournaments culminating in the $10,000 buy-in championship event that will start Saturday -- an event in which the winner may earn up to $4 million this year. Held in a city that is the center of the gambling universe, the WSOP attracts thousands of players from across the globe -- many of them professionals, and many of them amateurs like myself, albeit good amateurs.

Even so, it was not without some trepidation that I plunked down 10 Benjamins --that’s $1,000 -- to enter the No Limit Texas Hold’em tournament held on April 28. It sounds crazy to casually hand over $1,000, but this is not food money or the mortgage payment. This is money that had been won at poker, and money won at the table can be lost at the table. I’d had success in the Mississippi casinos and the backrooms and kitchen tables of Alabama. It was time for a trip to the major leagues of poker.

After paying the entry fee, I was given a card for Table 38 Seat 3. Until the tournament started at noon on Wednesday, I had no clue how stiff the opposition would be. Before the day was through, I would face a former nine-time WSOP champion, the runner-up for player of the year in 2003 and two recent finalists in World Poker Tour tournaments. And I relished it.

A popular game

Poker has long been a popular game, although one enjoyed mostly in the shadows of society. In the past year, poker has enjoyed a renaissance, becoming the cool game of the moment. Actors Ben Affleck, James Woods and Mimi Rogers are among the regulars at major poker tournaments. The increased popularity was largely ushered in by the start of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel last year. For the first time, viewers could see the hole cards, or unexposed cards, of the players through the use of cameras on the table. Now that viewers could see what cards the players held, they could watch the trick plays, bluffs and mind games that are at the heart of poker. The WPT quickly became the most popular program on the Travel Channel.

ESPN followed suit by airing the championship event of the WSOP over the course of seven episodes last summer. The network is taping more WSOP tournaments to air this summer, beginning in June.

Texas Hold’em, now easily the most popular poker game, is the variety played in most of the televised tournaments, but is much different than the poker games most people grew up playing at home with friends or relatives. For starters, each player receives two unexposed hole cards. There is an initial round of betting. Then three community cards used by all the players are dealt face up in the center of the table. Another round of betting follows this deal, also known as the flop. A fourth community card, or the turn, is dealt and a third betting round ensues. The dealing of a fifth and final community card, also known as the river, results in a final round of betting. Players use five of the seven cards available to them to make the best hand. Because several community cards are used, the differences in the hands are often slight. As one saying goes, Hold’em takes a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.

I had about four years under my belt when I flew into Las Vegas two weeks ago with longtime friend Brian Wright. Before diving into the WSOP head first, we decided to play in some smaller tournaments around town. The difference between a regular cash game of poker and a tournament is that as long as you have money, you can buy more chips in a cash game. But if you lose all your chips in a tournament, you are out. Tournaments are played until one person has all the chips and a small percentage of the players earn money according to their high finish.

It was at a tournament at the Sahara, on the northern edge of Las Vegas’ famed Strip, that I met Mike Toal from Boise, Idaho. The 37-year-old, dressed in the popular poker gear of a baseball cap and sunglasses, had only been playing the game a week, but he had won the previous night’s tournament at the Sahara, pocketing a cool $2,700. He picked up the game, like so many others, after watching it on television.“It’s kind of the hype, isn’t it?" he asked.

Toal used to be a ranked professional darts player, but gave up the game. He said playing poker tournaments gives him the same rush of competition that darts did. I told him if he wanted a rush he should take his tournaments winnings and play in a WSOP event at the Horseshoe.“I know better than to do that," he replied.

The tournament

No poker tournament compares to the spectacle of the WSOP in the old-school Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, with its ornate woodwork, bolo tie wearing dealers and late-night steak and eggs special for $3.99. Imagine more than 100 poker tables spread over two floors, all filled with players riffling clay chips, wearing headphones and trying to look as cool as possible. On the second floor, ESPN had set up a mini-studio, with its specially designed table with the hole card cameras flanked by larger television cameras and metal benches for spectators.

The Horseshoe, at 128 East Fremont St. in the heart of downtown Las Vegas, was founded by Benny Binion in 1951, but ran into financial problems and was closed down in January. Gaming company Harrah’s purchased the casino and re-opened it April 1, ensuring that the WSOP would continue.

The WSOP officially began in 1970, but its beginning can be traced back to 1949, before the Horseshoe even opened. That summer, as the story goes, inveterate gambler Nicholas 'Nick the Greek’ Dandolos approached Binion with an unusual request -- to challenge the best in a high-stakes poker marathon. Binion agreed to set up a match between Dandolos and the legendary Johnny Moss, with the stipulation that the game be played in public view. During the course of the marathon, which lasted five months with breaks only for sleep, the two men played every form of poker imaginable. Moss ultimately won an estimated $2 million. When the Greek lost his last pot, he rose from his chair, bowed slightly, and uttered the now-famous words, “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go." Dandolos then went upstairs to bed.

Only a handful of players participated when the WSOP made its official debut in 1970, but the number grew to 839 for last year’s championship event, and more than 1,500 are expected this year. Thousands more players participate in the smaller buy-in tournaments and cash games that are also held at the Horseshoe. Last year, Tennessee native Chris Moneymaker won his seat in the championship event by winning a $40 satellite on a poker Web site. He then proceeded to capture the $2.5 million first prize.

The WSOP was looking for its next Moneymaker. Would it be me? Not unless I could find someone willing to donate $10,000 toward the effort. While I didn’t have the bankroll to buy into the championship, I figured I could take a stab at one of the other tournaments. I decided the $1,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em tournament was my best bet. I just hoped to sit with at least one top pro. I would eventually sit with a table full of them.

Game time

The tournament began at noon -- high noon -- on April 28, with 538 players participating. I was clad in a black baseball cap, dark sunglasses and the gaudiest poker shirt I could find at a local gift shop. It was made of black polyester, with playing card suits all over it, and flames, dice and aces around the sleeves and shirttail – pure Vegas cheese.

I struck up a conversation with the dealer, Dave Dobyns, as we waited for the tournament to start. Many poker dealers travel across the country from tournament to tournament because the money is good. Dobyns, a nine-year dealer at the Ameristar Casino in St. Louis, just started the circuit, having driven the 25 hours to Las Vegas with two fellow dealers the week before. “I had a couple of buddies that do it, so I decided to do it," he said. “I love Vegas. So I figured, why not?"

The table began to fill. To the right of the dealer sat Amir Vahedi, last year’s sixth place finisher in the WSOP championship event and runner-up for Card Player player of the year in 2003. Three seats to his right was Charlie Shoten, who finished second at the Borgata Open in Atlantic City, a WPT tournament, earlier this year. After about 15 minutes, a player quickly busted out and was replaced by Dewey Tomko, a two-time WPT finalist, who was moved from another table.

This was going to be fun. Unfortunately, I had little with which to work. I was down to about $500 from my original $1,000 when I raised all-in with ace-three, hoping to steal the blinds, or forced bets that rotate around the table in place of an ante used in other poker games. The player to my left quickly called with ace-king, also known in Hold’em parlance as Big Slick. Unless I caught a miracle three I was a goner, less than an hour into the tournament.

The pros

Many of the pros playing in this tournament could probably use $20 bills to start fires. Some have tournament winnings in the millions and even bigger victories in cash games. At heart they love to play games. Many grew up playing bridge or chess, like top pro Howard Lederer, picking up poker later in life.

Andy Bloch, a two-time WPT finalist, is the reigning rock, paper, scissors champion. (Yes, there is such a thing.) The Connecticut native began playing poker when the Foxwoods Resort Casino opened up in his home state 10 years ago. He started playing low-limit Hold’em games, like $3-$6, and saw a flyer about a poker tournament. “I looked at it and said, 'Wow, what’s a poker tournament?’ I ended up winning it and I was hooked," he said.

Now thanks to the WPT, people stop him on the street and ask him for his autograph. Suddenly, professional poker players are celebrities. That increased popularity has caused the tournament fields to grow in size, which has both positives and negatives, Bloch said. “It puts more money in the pot, but it’s also harder to make it to the final table," he said.

After my ill-advised all-in raise with the ace-three, the final table was the last thing on my mind, but the dealer flopped a three and I won the pot when no king fell, doubling my chips. I barely escaped a bear trap laid by Vahedi a few minutes later when I held queen-ten and the flop was ace-ten-four. He and another player checked, I bet $200 and only Vahedi called. A second ace came on the turn and he checked again. I gathered my remaining $800 in chips in my fist, preparing to go all-in and bully the pro out of the pot, but at the last moment I changed my mind. “Check," I said. The river card was a king. Again, Vahedi checked and I checked behind him. He showed ace-eight for three of a kind, or trips.“I thought you would bet when the king hit," he said with his thick Iranian accent. I made a motion as if pulling in a fish. “You nearly reeled me in," I said.

A tough table

Unlike most other tournaments, this event allowed rebuys and add-ons, which meant that players who busted out could buy back into the tournament for $1,000 or add more chips to their stack at the first break two hours into the affair. I was going to have to make do on my initial $1,000. After Shoten lost, rebought and lost again, he got up from the table. In his place came Phil Hellmuth, one of the most recognizable names in poker. Hellmuth, at age 24, became the youngest WSOP championship winner in 1989 and has won nine WSOP tournaments, which ties him for most all time with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. The winner of each tournament gets a gold bracelet. Hellmuth bragged to Tomko that he was going to win his 10th bracelet, giving the fellow pro a high five. Hellmuth is known unaffectionately in the poker world as the “Poker Brat."

Shortly afterwards, we arrived at the 15-minute break. I had managed to build my chip stack up to $1,100, but it was a pittance compared to some of the large stacks at the table.My friend Brian walked over to talk to me and couldn’t help but laugh when he saw the players at the table. He informed me of his own good news. He had just won a seat in a $220 super satellite, giving him a chance to win a seat in the $10,000 event. One out of every 50 players in the super satellite would win a seat in the championship.When I returned from break and waited on the action to begin again, the new dealer smiled at me and spoke. “Tough table, huh?" he asked. I just chuckled.

Playing in T-town

A poker game isn’t hard to find in Tuscaloosa if you know the right people. Just don’t look in the Yellow Pages. District Attorney Tommy Smith said that courts have generally ruled that private poker games are legal as long as someone doesn’t profit from the game’s operation. “Private individuals having a poker game, the courts have said they can do that," Smith said. “If there’s a house that’s getting a cut, that’s illegal."Smith said he couldn’t recall anyone being prosecuted in the county for running a poker game.

Poker games appear to be particularly gaining popularity on college campuses.There’s often a full house at Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity on the University of Georgia campus -- in more ways than one. At any time, day or night, fraternity brothers and their friends are playing poker, putting aside studying for class to instead learn the tricks of Hold’em and other games. “If everybody has nothing to do, we’ve had seven-to eight-hour sessions. It’s so addictive," said Marshall Saul, a sophomore whose room is decorated with a poster of dogs playing poker. Some online poker companies are targeting students with tournaments such as the first College Poker Championships.com, which began free qualifying rounds in January. Prizes range from $500 to $50,000 scholarships, and student winners also can donate up to $100,000 to charities of their choice.

“You mention Texas Hold’em two years ago, people maybe wouldn’t have known what it was; now it’s part of mainstream culture," Saul said. Students spending so much time playing poker, betting and acknowledging that the game can be addictive is of concern to gambling advocacy groups. The 18-to 24-year-old age group has some of the highest rates of gambling addictions, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. Online tournaments such as College Poker Championship.com are “extremely troubling" because they target students and do not put out warning signs or post helpline numbers for addicts, he said.

Tom Strong, dean of students at the University of Alabama, said what he calls “penny ante" games probably occur on campus, but he’s not aware of any serious violations of the university’s anti-gambling policy, such as a large poker ring. “I’m not aware of anything that goes on involving more than a few friends," he said. But the campus newspaper has reported anonymous sources talking about underground games where hundreds of dollars sometimes exchange hands.

Knowing when to fold

When we returned from break, I was dealt ace-queen, both of them hearts, and promptly raised to $300. Hellmuth looked my way, appearing to size me up. I slowly turned my head towards him and we were locked in a stare, both hiding behind sunglasses. A few moments later he folded. Maybe he had nothing. Maybe it was the shirt. It didn’t matter, as a king and no ace on the flop, and a bet by another player caused me to fold.

The winner of the tournament earned $365,000, but I couldn’t even sniff the money. I was finally put out about 370th when I called all-in with ace-eight and lost to a pair of sevens. At least Vahedi was put out of the tournament on the same hand. I played a few hands of blackjack as I waited for Brian to finish. He fared no better than me, but did share some good news. After he lost and headed across the casino to meet me, he spotted a busted Hellmuth, walking down Fremont Street.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Reach Johnny Kampis at johnny. kampis@tuscaloosanews.com.

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