Friday, September 23, 2005

The WPT finals at Borgata

I was surprised to find only a handful of people in line for the WPT final when I arrived at the Borgata ballroom at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday. Seating was to begin at 3 -- at least that’s what the ads said. The line began to grow as the minutes ticked away. Hometown favorite John D’Agostino walked by.

“Go get’em John,” one man said.

“I’ll do what I can,” John replied as he walked by.

“Try not to blow it like the USPC,” another man said, laughing.

I carried on a pleasant conversation with a woman behind me from Edison. She told me she loves poker, but is scared to play it in a card room, so she sticks to video poker.

The man behind her said he came by on Monday to see the “stars.”

“I can’t afford to play one of these yet so I’m just a groupie,” he said.

We were let into the vendor area outside of the main ballroom at 3, but they didn’t seat us until 4:30. So we all milled around awhile after we were given T-shirts (for the first 100) and a special WPT Borgata chip (to the first 500) with a number on it to designate our seating order.

I watched a guy play the WPT video game that will soon be released. I just can’t get into a poker video game when the real thing is there to be played just as easily. Mike Sexton is brought over by a WPT staff member and takes over the controls at one of the stations, playing at a table against Vince Van Patten, Lyle Berman, Michael Mizrachi, Phil Laak and….himself.

“Is this your first video game?” another guy asks.

“Yeah,” Sexton replies before walking off and pressing the flesh with more of the crowd.

Kathy Leibert and Al Ardebili walk in, but can’t get into the ballroom because of the horded masses.

“Good luck today,” she says to Ardebili.

“Good luck to you,” he replied.

“How do we get in?” Leibert asks, puzzled.

The recording of the 2004 Borgata Poker Finals is being projected on the wall above the ballroom entrance, so the crowd watches and waits. We are finally allowed into the stage area after friends and families of the players are seated.

I take my chip with a 24 on it and enter the room, walking around the black curtains and catching my first glimpse of a WPT set. It looks just like you see on television, except that it appears smaller. Maybe some camera tricks make the sets look larger on the boob tube. The room was filled with 50 or so poker tables on Monday when Brian and I walked in to check out the action. Now it’s dominated by the set and three bleachers surrounding it. On the fourth side are the seats for Sexton and Van Patten.

I grab a seat in the fifth row, behind some folks rooting for Leibert and Ardebili, another Jersey guy. Players and producers are milling around the table, emptying baggies of chips and making sure the counts are accurate. D’Agostino’s Full Tilt Poker shirt is covered by tape on the back by a wardrobe person because it has .com on the end of it, rather than .net.

Makeup artists touch up the faces of the players, as well as the dealer. The lights above the stage are being tested, the lights and designs twirling in all directions and giving some of us in the crowd headaches.

An old man named Frank takes the seat to my right and immediately begins talking up D’Agostino.

“He took so many bad beats last year,” Frank says of the main event of the U.S. Poker Championship at the Taj Mahal, a tournament in which Dags (as he is often called) took seventh. “Best player out there too.”

As if on cue, Dags walks below us.

“That’s the kid right there, D’Agostino,” Frank tells me. “He played skillful cards, but what are you going to do about fucking bad beats?”

Frank rips off a reserved card from a chair in the row in front of us, pulls the tape off and not so much asks for my pen as takes it as he goes to the floor to get Dags autograph.

Minutes later, the guy to Frank’s right borrows my pen to get Leibert’s autograph. Don’t these people carry any writing utensils?

Meanwhile, Frank continues to chat me up…

“That guy that dresses up, Jesus, Ferguson, whatever the hell his name was, was he here?”

“That guy that’s the chip leader looks like a fucking bum.”

“Watch Kathy Leibert, she’s afraid to play with the big boys.”

I try to tune Frank out as Linda Johnson comes out to train us audience members to cheer properly.

“First place is $1.5 million so they need some encouragement,” Johnson says.

She announces that today is Sexton’s birthday, so the crowd breaks out in an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Sexton smiles sheepishly and waves to the fans.

Johnson has the audience cheer loudly, lean in as if trying to get a look at the cards, cheer politely and groan as if their favorite player has taken a bad beat.

“I need a couple of more beers for this shit,” Frank says.

After deeming us properly tested, Johnson explains that “these things that look like Dolly Parton” are actually new cameras installed on the WPT table. Two black domes are placed on either end of the felt and look awkward up there. We’ll see after season four premieres how the cameras will be used.

She begins a questions and answer session. Tom, the man to my left, asks what’s the worst beat she’s seen. Johnson quips that good looking audio guys usually attach her mike.

“One day a woman did it,” she says. “That was a bad beat to me.”

Johnson said this episode will air sometime in March. The shortest taping was three hours and 20 minutes; the longest was more than 10 hours in Paris. Only a third of Mike and Vince’s audio comes from the things they say during the taping. Since they can’t see the cards, like the audience, they have to dub most of the audio in later.

Finally, it’s time to bring in the players. The tournament director, Tad, announces them and they walk in and take places at the table one by one. Due to various flubs, some have to walk in twice.

After the players are all seated, they are told to get up and walk away. Security and ushers are also told to step aside and the empty set is filmed. It was never clear to me why they do this.

“I didn’t know they had to go through all of this preparation bullshit,” Frank said as he looked at his watch, the time nearing 5:30.

The players are brought back and one of the cameramen trains his camera on Johnson.

“Welcome to the Borgata Open,” she says.

“Welcome to the Poker Open,” she says.

“Loser,” Johnson calls herself while holding her fingers in the shape of an L on her forehead.

On the third try she gets it. “Welcome to the Borgata Poker Open. Now shuffle up and deal.”

The anticipating crowd erupts in cheers at a sign that action is finally about to begin.

“I love you Kathy,” one man catcalls from my right.

“I love you John,” another man says to my left, eliciting plenty of laughter.

It quickly becomes evident to an audience member of a WPT taping that ain’t your home version. You have no clue what anyone has until an all in is called, you can barely see the action and the final table takes longer than a football game to finish.

I found watching the action surrounding the table more interesting – Courtney Friel (the new Shana) taping here segments at the top of the bleachers to my left, people reacting to the action, the lights moving and the colors changing on the WPT columns flanking the table as if a small child were operating the controls.

Friel is standing with her back to us and I have yet to see her face.

“She has to be beautiful,” Tom says. “And I’m sure she has a rack on her too.”

I spot Hoyt Corkins walk in and take a seat to my right. I also spotted him going down the escalator during the dinner break on Monday while Brian and I were going up it. I never saw him again on Monday. And the next time I looked over to the right on Thursday, Corkins was gone. I’m beginning to wonder if the Alabama Cowboy is merely an enigma, a ghost I think I see, but never get to meet.

I do chat with Andy Bloch during the break. He’s with his fiancĂ© in the media area above me. I busted Andy in a RGP tournament on Full Tilt a few weeks ago and joked about the “I Busted Andy Bloch” T-shirt I got.

“These six players played until 5 a.m. this morning,” Johnson tells the crowd before the action begins again. “Then they had to come back for hair, makeup and interviews. It isn’t easy.”

“Playing poker isn’t easy?” Tom says to me. “They should try climbing on a roof.”

Ricardo Festejo becomes involved in a big hand with David Singer. He bets $100,000 on a flop of J-T-3 and is raised $150,000 more by David Singer.

Festejo’s legs are shaking as he ponders his next move.

“Look at his feet under the table,” Tom says. “I bet he’s got trips.”

“You don’t know if he’s got trips,” Frank replies, a little too loudly. “You don’t know what he’s got.”

Festejo calls the bet and checks when a 9 hits the turn. Singer goes all in and Festejo calls. Singer has the set of tens, but Festejo hits a straight on the river with his J-Q when an 8 falls.

Festejo, another New Jersey native, receives large cheers from the crowd as he survives.

We’re more than two hours in and no one has been eliminated. The excitement level diminishes as boredom sets in. Only the occasional all in gets us on our feet.

Suddenly, there are a number of bets and raises.

“I think these guys just found out the steakhouse closes at 11,” Tom quips.

Bob Hwang, known as “Action Bob” is booed by some in the crowd after he folds following two all in bets by him on previous hands.

Finally, Singer is eliminated nearly three hours in and the others begin to fall, Hwang in fifth and D’Agostino in fourth. Leibert takes third for the highest woman’s finish ever.

The action is paused as officials prepare for the Borgata Babes to bring in the money and Festejo and Ardebili are given a breather.

“As is the tradition when we get heads up on the World Poker Tour we have a unique money presentation, so show us the money,” Johnson says to the camera.

Young, attractive girls in slinky black dresses prance on stage, gyrating and tossing money at the finalists.

“Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around?” I say to Tom.

Ardebili grabs fistfuls of the fake $100 bills and tosses them into the crowd below us, drawing laughter and cheers from the rest of the crowd and a money grab in our set of bleachers. They may not be real, but the bills make a cool souvenir.

Festejo walks over and chats with his friends and family to our left.

“He’s over at his corner getting a rub down,” Tom cracks.

“They brought the bucket out,” Frank follows.

It doesn’t take long for the action to end. On the third hand, with Festejo holding about a $1 million lead, both players see a flop of K-7-2. Ardebili checks and check raises all in after Festejo bets $600,000. Festejo calls and the crowd is amazed at the hands – 2-3 for Ardebili and A-2 for Festejo. A 3 on the run kills Festejo after his amazing call and Ardebili eliminates him two hands later to take the crown.

After five hours our sore butts are ready to leave. But first the finalists and the WPT crew line up for the awards and beer presentation. Sexton begins the festivities, but the cameras aren’t ready to roll and he has to stop.

Cat callers rag him.

Sexton turns his head and says, “It wasn’t my fault.”

“You look better on TV,” says another from the crowd. Sexton is a man who apparently gets a hard time.

He takes it all in stride. After the toast to the winner, Sexton turns and toasts the crowd.

“Thank you for being such a wonderful audience,” he says.

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