Thursday, July 07, 2005

Poker stars and celebrities

Have you ever took a stick and jabbed it in a fire ant mound, watching the little insects scatters this, that and every direction? That’s what it’s like at the World Series of Poker right now. When there is a 15-minute wait for the MEN’s pisser, you know you’ve got yourself an event.

The online qualifiers have descended upon the Rio Convention Center, as have those who had yet to win their seat and wanted to give it one more shot. There were upwards of 1,000 in each of the two mega satellites yesterday, providing hundreds more with seats or an extra $10,000 cash. The main event is not expected to fill up, however, as tournament directors announced in a press conference that as of that morning 5,200 had signed up.

I didn’t bother, not gambling a cent yesterday. I did play poker in the media/celebrity event, but was trying to earn $10,000 for the Tuscaloosa United Way, rather than money for my own wallet.

I met up with a couple of Tuscaloosa gentlemen when I got to the Rio yesterday, one of them, Aubrey Day, well known among the old road gamblers. Aubrey was among the group that helped start the WSOP, way back in 1969. I spotted him talking to Crandall Addington, as Addington, dressed in cowboy hat and suit, waited for his induction into the Poker Hall of Fame. This was Aubrey’s first trip to the WSOP in eight years, and it was a delight to see the smile on his face as he talked to his old friends and shared poker war stories.

Explaining why he stopped coming to the event, Aubrey told me, “I got tired of fighting it all. I never could play anyway.” This from a man who owns two WSOP gold bracelets.

He was going to try to find Doyle Brunson to introduce us, so we walked back toward the lifestyle show, where earlier in the day Brunson held a press conference with actor James Caan, in which they announced a new poker network.

“Let’s go find Doyle,” Aubrey said, as he led me back there. “He’s starting some poker network with some movie star. I don’t know one star from the other.”

Brunson was nowhere to be found back there because he had already headed toward the press conference, where he would present Addington and Jack Binion with their plaques and announce their hall of fame inductions.

I headed to the back of the tournament room, where the ESPN TV table is, for a front row view, as the masses began to gather. The event was emceed by WSOP media director Nolan Dalla, who discussed how exciting the event had been so far, with Brunson and Chan winning their 10th gold bracelets and actress Jennifer Tilly capturing one as well.

“The real winners here are the players, who come here expecting the biggest, best tournament we can provide,” Dalla said.

Illustrating in numbers the growth of the WSOP, officials said that more than 540 press credentials had been issued and more than 100 vendors had set up at the poker lifestyle show. In 2003, 7,500 entrants competed for more than $22 million in prize money during the WSOP. In 2004, 14,000 players vied for $47 million. So far in 2005, 28,000 players had fought for $50 million through 39 events. About 6,000 will seek $50 million in prize money beginning today in the main event.

Harrah’s presented a $1 million check to the Meals on Wheels program during the press conference. That organization provides food to needy seniors, delivering it to their homes. I had wondered why a nun was on stage. Now I knew.

“God bless you and thank you Harrah’s,” the sister said as she received the check.

Phil Gordon, who started a program called Put a Bad Beat on Cancer, in which he raises money for the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation, said 250 players had signed up so far to give 1 percent of main event winnings to the foundation and he hopes to sign up 750 more before the main event ends. He said $75,000 was raised last year.

“We have some big names on the board,” Gordon said of the paper pins posted on a bulletin board with players’ names on them. “We hope it will give us a great chance to raise a lot of money.”

Brunson then started the hall of fame inductions. “Crandall came in the WSOP twice so he gets to be first this time,” he quipped.

Brunson talked about the old road gambler days.

“We went around the country and he got all the girls because he was so good looking. I was left to pick up the pieces,” he said.

“I look back and wonder how we did it and why in the world we did it. It was quite an adventure.”

Addington eventually retired from the poker circuit and became a successful businessman in the oil and biotechnology fields.

“I’m honored and humbled to find myself here today, among this company,” he said.

“The days of the Texas road gamblers have passed into legend, but not before Benny and Jack watered the seeds that have grown into the field of dreams we see today.”

Brunson then introduced Jack Binion, the son of Benny Binion. The two men helped put the WSOP together.

“The only thing I’m going to say about Jack is why did it take so damn long,” Brunson said. “Every tournament that you see today, it never would have been if it hadn’t been for Jack and Benny.”

Binion talked about why the game is so popular and has captivated America’s and the world’s attention.

“One thing about poker is it’s a great product,” he said. “It’s a great game. We took hold of it and held on. It’s just a lot of fun to play poker.”

In the Sign of the Apocolypse section of the press conference, gaming company officials announced a new WSOP themed slot machine that will give players a chance to win a seat in the 2006 main event, but most will just lose their ass – and their shirt.

The floor was then opened for questions from the press and audience.

Someone asked if online poker detracts from casino poker. Brunson said they complement each other.

“One of the reasons poker has exploded as it has is because of online poker,” he said. “A lot of people are embarrassed to go into a casino because they don’t know the rules and they can learn a lot online.”

Another question concerned advice for newbies.

“Buy Doyle’s book,” Binion replied, drawing plenty of chuckles.

“Stay in your comfort zone,” Brunson said. “Don’t gamble more than you can afford.”

Despite the large crowds, many established players have won bracelets, from Erik Seidel to Phil Ivey.

“Personally, I’m very surprised that the established players have done so well,” Brunson said. “I’m trembling when a player sits down and tells me he’s never played world poker and only online. I don’t know what he’s going to do.”

“I will be surprised if a known player wins this year,” he said of the main event. “I think it will be an amateur.”

“I like to say it’s a lottery. I just think some of us have more tickets than others.”

A Harrah’s executive said that between 5,500 and 6,000 players are expected.

“We don’t have any plans to increase the buy in,” he said. “It’s obviously been accepted by players and we want to keep the format the same as it is.”

Harrah’s officials also announced that the 2006 WSOP will stay at the Rio and not move to Caesars Palace as some have speculated. One advantage for the Rio is the convention space that allows for an event like the lifestyle show.

Defending champion Greg Raymer discussed how his life has changed since his win.

“Now I get to travel the world doing all the stuff that’s so much fun that we all dream about when we play poker,” he said.

Raymer said the popularity of poker has turned some of its players into major celebrities.

“How many 70 plus rock stars are there and Doyle’s one of them,” he said.

PokerStars alone qualified more than 1,100 players for the main event. Since they represent 20 percent of the field, Raymer gave the site a 20 percent chance of having a third world champion as a qualifier.

“Just in the last three years the growth of the field can be traced to the number of online qualifiers,” Raymer said.

Another inquisitor asked the panel if poker might ever establish a league like the Professional Golfers Association. Gordon said he likes that anyone can take the risk and plunk down $10,000 to enter.

“Part of the allure of the WSOP is that it’s an open event,” he said. “I want to see as many people competing for the game’s crown jewel as possible.”

“No tournament, no matter what, will ever top the WSOP,” Brunson added. “This has been the number one event and will always be the number one event.”

“Everyone in this room wants to be you,” Dalla said to Raymer.

“Minus the gut, yeah,” Raymer replied.

“It’s almost a constant thing now going out in public and being asked for photos and autographs,” he said. “I go to the grocery store and some guy asks, ‘Dude, where are the glasses?’”

Shortly after the conclusion of the press conference, the media/celebrity tournament began. As I feared, I was stuck with fellow pasty white journalists, but that wasn’t surprising given that there were only a handful of celebrities in the 225 player field. James Woods participated, of course, as did Brad Garrett of “Everybody Loves Raymond” fame and Shannon Elizabeth of “American Pie” and drop dead gorgeous fame. Magician Penn Jillette, who plays at the Rio now, was there, as was old poker announcer and “Eight is Enough” star Dick Van Patten. A few poker names played, such as Linda Johnson and Lou Krieger.

The microphone was handed to Brad Garrett, seated at the table behind me, to start things off.

“Ladies and gentlemen, James Woods is wearing no pants,” he said, before adding, “Good luck. Shuffle up and deal.”

The play at my table was tight early and the dealer quipped, “No one wants to take the walk of shame.”

Things opened up quickly, as about 10 people were eliminated just at my table in less than an hour. A woman named Melanie Kloss, who performs with “Second City” at the Flamingo, sat to my left and hardly knew what she was doing. She won a few chips, but I managed to get some of them off of her. We started with 1,500 and I had 4,000 at the break. I met Patrick Jackson, better known as PMJackson21 to RGPers, at the break. He’s among the plethora of online qualifiers.

Elizabeth is moved to a table near me and draw the cameras our direction. The gawkers have to be pushed back to clear a walking lane around tables.

I gamble with K-10 in the small blind as the blinds rapidly increase and am busted by an 8-8 that filled up on the turn. There were nine tables left at the time.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth keeps on trucking – until she runs into Pauly of blogger fame. Pauly, already having won the bloggers’ last longer bet that was organized by Brad “Otis” Willis, goes all in with J-J against Elizabeth’s A-A. What was the river? The fateful jack.

“It feels good, but when you have a bad beat when you should have won it sucks,” Elizabeth told an ESPN camera crew of her performance.

Pauly lasts until sixth place. He may not have picked up the trophy that goes with the win and the $10,000 for his favorite charity, but at least, I told him, he has stories to tell his grandkids.

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