Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Goodbye Atlantic City

When I made it over to the Taj just before 10 Friday morning, the line to enter the no-limit hold’em tournament stretched all the way around the outside of the poker room. I guess that should have come as no surprise given that this was the first NLHE event of the U.S. Poker Championships and was but a $300 buy in, plenty affordable for most players.

I snaked my way slowly to the signup desk and chatted with a young guy from Atlanta who was up to visit a buddy in Baltimore. He was shocked to find out that levels are 40 minute long as he’s used to the 20 minute levels in most weekly casino poker tournaments. Just wait until he plays in the World Series and gets a whole hour before the blinds increase.

After 45 minutes I’m in and turn back to see an even longer line behind me. As I grabbed my seat I lamented to a neighbor at another table the fact that the folks at the Taj don’t take signups until two hours before the tournament starts. They, in fact, would eventually cut the line off this day and a couple of hundreds players didn’t get to enter until after the tournament had already started.

After a few minutes I realized my neighbor was Arnold Spee, who won last year’s Reno Poker Challenge on the World Poker Tour. What’s he doing in this chicken shit $300 tournament then?

As my table filled, it didn’t appear to be the toughest table, but you know how looks can be deceiving. The guy to my right wore a Borgata bracelet around his wrist. He explained to us that he won a limit tournament there in 2003. I want one of those.

You frequent readers of this blog know I don’t post many hand histories. Personally, I think they’re boring. The up-to-the-minute reports on things like the WPT final table I attended on Thursday are only for the true poker geeks. I’m more interested in the characters.

But here’s one hand you can decide for yourself if I played correctly. A woman who was short stacked, and who kept pushing all in, raised the 50-100 blinds to 1,050 and put herself all in again. I held JJ and decided to just call with about 2,000 left behind me. I wasn’t happy when I got two callers behind me.

The flop came Q-7-7 and the action was on me. I pondered for a few seconds and decided to push all in. My reasoning was that the two guys behind me probably either had A-K or a pocket pair and I didn’t want them to see the turn or river. The only hand I was really worried about one of them having was A-Q, but I didn’t really expect that after she had gone all in and I flat called. I would expect a hand like that to go into the muck.

They folded and the woman turned over pocket fives. My jacks held up and I built my stack up early. We started with 3,000 in tournament chips and I eventually got my stack up to 12,000, but they eventually began to melt away. I was done in by K-9 suited (yes, I realize this is not a good hand.) I twice tried to steal blinds in the cutoff with this hand after all had folded to me. The first time I was re-raised all in by the big blind, mucked and was shown pocket rockets. The second time was my final hand. I was called by the small blind and I flopped a flush draw when two diamonds hit the board. He bet 2,500 into me and I added another 1,200 to put myself all in. He showed A-Q and had no pair, giving me 15 outs. But those outs stayed hidden in the deck and I was busted around 165th out of 723 entrants. Another top 25 percent finish for me (but the pay sucks.)

I walked out onto the boardwalk and found a path down to the beach. As I let my feet sink into the sand and listened to the roll of the surf and the call of seagulls, I could care less that I had just busted out of a poker tournament. I was just happy to be here and not sitting behind a desk typing a newspaper story.

I decided to leave the next day. I’d had enough of Atlantic City for now. I called my old boss Greg, now the managing editor at the Spartanburg, S.C., paper and arranged to stay with him and his family. As we chatted about life Saturday night, I said I didn’t want to do this forever. He asked why. Because sitting behind a computer winning money at online poker doesn’t provide much of a sense of accomplishment, I told him. I may have gotten tired of the newspaper gig after six years, but it provided a strong feeling of accomplishment at times.

I finished my drive Sunday, arriving at my parents’ house in Cullman that afternoon. I’ve spent the last few days up here to recharge and visit with the family. Yesterday, I was picking up sticks knocked down from the weekend’s rain and wind in the shadow of my old tree house, near where our old dog Chubby used to roam. After 13 years in our lives, he was killed by cancer a few years ago. As I picked up the sticks, I recalled all of the good times I’d had playing in this yard and noticed how much the trees had grown and the wood in the tree house had rotted.

Time moves on, ready or not, and it will escape your grasp if you let it. Before you know it, you’ve grown up, your parents are getting old and you’re still not sure what you want to do with the rest of your life. I’m nearly 30 and I still have no clue. But that’s still okay. I’m healthy, not quite wealthy and sort of wise. I’m a dreamer. I envision all sorts of things for my future. It’s healthy to dream, isn’t it?

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.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Atlantic City Part 1

After a goodly amount of time spent searching for the hotel, Brian and I stepped out of the car and breathed in the air.

“Smells like New Jersey,” I said.

But I digress. I figured I’d hear “fuck you” as much as “thank you,” but people here are generally nice and so is the scenery. I have received a few honks as I wandered the roads, trying to figure out my way around. Once I blocked traffic momentarily at a toll booth as I fruitlessly tried to toss pennies, nickels, dimes and any change I could find into the toll basket. I may have tossed $2 in change to pay a 50 cent toll.

Our arrival in New Jersey was several days into a trip that saw us go south to Florida before hitting I-95 up the eastern seaboard. Our first stop was Orlando, where an old college friend works at Walt Disney World. She gave us free passes so we took advantage, hitting the Disney parks for two days.

I was delighted to play the new Who Wants to be a Millionaire game that was recently added to Disney-MGM Studios. I’ve always been a game show junkie. During college I watched the Game Show Network religiously, going to bed to Match Game and waking up to Card Sharks. When Millionaire aired on ABC I tried in vain to get on the show, qualifying at least 60 times through the call in number, but never receiving a call back.

So this seemed to be the second best thing. No money is given away at this game, but participants can win a Disney cruise if they climb to the top. The stage is built to closely resemble the real thing and about five hundred people can fit into it.

Each game lasts about 20 to 25 minutes and only two people will usually reach the hot seat. A keypad rests on the back of each chair so everyone can participate. Brian and I tested ours to make sure they were working and prepared for the fastest finger. It proved to be an easy question – put these four states in order from west to east – so it was a matter of speed. The big screens above our head showed the seat numbers and times from 10th to first. Brian popped up in ninth and I showed up in….second. Oh well, may as well have been last for all that got me.

The second hot seat participant is selected by high scores as the first person plays. You have to get all the questions right to have a chance and you also have to be the quickest. Since the first five questions are usually very easy, it’s a crapshoot to see who will be in the top 10. Neither Brian nor I succeeded in getting to the hot seat the first game.

But we came back. The second time was not the charm, but the third was. We both missed the fastest finger question, but after the girl in the hot seat hit the 1,000 point mark, the updated scores showed Brian in first. I whispered to him that I would help ensure he stayed that way. But Brian knew the answers to the next two questions and the girl missed the 4,000 one (she thought a slumping stock market was called a black market, go figure.) Brian had retained his lead and got in the seat.

He breezed through the first five questions, but got stumped on where a cornice was in a house, having to ask the audience to discover it was above a window. His undoing was the 16,000 question, which asked which of four countries was not a member of Great Britain.

If you like Millionaire on television, you’ll love playing this in Orlando. Don’t miss the Tower of Terror or the Rock ‘n Roller coaster either.

On Saturday, we went to Gainesville for the Florida-Tennessee game, teams that as Bama fans we both hate, but that’s not going to stop us from working the TV production and collecting a paycheck. I was able to catch brief moments of Bama’s dismantling of Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks, a delightful way to start the afternoon. Florida has a really nice press box, for those who are ever in such places.

Traffic was a bitch, and we didn’t get to Jacksonville until 3 a.m. Sunday morning. After five hours of shut eye we headed up I-95. It was a 13+ hour drive from Jacksonville to Atlantic City through hellacious traffic in D.C. and Baltimore. I don’t know why people want to live in a place where it can take an hour to go five miles in peak times. But hey, we Southerners are the dumb ones.

We drove to the Taj Mahal on Monday morning and I registered for the $300 + $40 limit hold’em tournament. They only had 344 players so first was only about $35,000. To the left of me initially was a friendly senior who called himself “Dr. Will.” He told me he was a retired surgeon who is often called upon to assist during any medical emergencies in the poker room. Apparently, he plays here a lot. Dr. Will said he contacted various agencies after Hurricane Katrina hit to offer his services, but was virtually ignored. I shook my head at the story, as I did again an hour later when he told me the exact same story. Two things were quickly obvious about Dr. Will – he likes to brag about his good deeds and he is extremely forgetful.

I was moved to another table where a guy in the center had a mountain of chips while I was just hanging on. He wore a cap that said “International Society of Poker Players” so I inquired what precisely that was. The man, Charlie Brahmi, told me it’s a fairly exclusive club for only winners of WPT and WSOP events. He won a bracelet in limit hold’em in 1999. Great, and now he’s at my table.

Once I got Charlie started he couldn’t stop, sharing his victories with all at the table. He said he’s made seven WSOP final tables, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. He recently played what he called a “billionaire” in a big tournament in A.C. and offered the guy the tournament bracelets in order to earn more money for himself.

“You only care about the money when you’ve got a mortgage and kids in college,” he told me.

I made the final 12 tables of the tournament before finally busting out. As I was explaining to Fell Knight online the other night, I’m becoming very good at finishing in the top third to one quarter of the field, which ain’t exactly profitable.

Brian and I went to Harrah’s on Tuesday to play their noon tournament. It has a super slow progressing structure, giving participants lots of play. The thing lasted about six hours and Brian came in fourth. It seems whenever he and I play a tournament together he always outlasts me. I took a chance with AK suited against pocket jacks and lost.

I really like Harrah’s poker room. It’s the classiest in town.

On Wednesday I drove Brian to the airport in Philadelphia. A one-way ticket was $200 cheaper there than flying out of AC. Unbelievable. But I didn’t mind the drive, and I stopped to visit Independence Hall and see the Liberty Bell while I was there (and as the pictures can attest.)

Today I’m going over to the Borgata to see the finals of the Borgata Poker Open so you’ll get an inside look on what it’s like to see a WPT final in person.

Independence Hall. I tried to climb up on the roof to look for a new pair of crazy color tinted sunglasses, but security kept pulling me down. Posted by Picasa

The liberty bell now sits in its own visitors' center. Posted by Picasa

Those are some mighty cheap sunglasses, and yes, I need a razor. Posted by Picasa

Lost on the streets of Philadelphia. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The famous boardwalk at night. Posted by Picasa

Here's the Taj poker room. Posted by Picasa

Hey Trump, there's a couple of bulbs out! These chandeliers hang above the escalators that carry patrons down to the casino level. You've seen this escalator before, from the scene in Rounders where Worm goes in search of coke and hookers as Mike finds a game in the poker room at the Taj. Posted by Picasa

Welcome to Atlantic City, U.S. Poker Championship players. This sign greets visitors entering the Taj from the parking deck.  Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Time to go again

My next trip has dawned. Tomorrow I take off for two weeks, though not all of it is poker related. First, Brian and I head to Orlando for a couple of days. We have a friend from college who works at Disney World and she is getting us free passes to hit the parks. On Saturday, we go to Gainesville to work TV production for the Tennessee-Florida game. On Sunday we're driving to Atlantic City (that will be a nice hike) where Brian will stay until Wednesday and I will stay until Sept. 29. I'll play a few U.S. Poker Championship tournies at the Taj Mahal and maybe catch some final table action at the Borgata.

I submitted the sample to the editor on the college poker craze book possibility, but won't hear anything until at least October. My agent thinks I have the edge over the other candidate, but that could just be wishful boosterism. Anyway, here's what I wrote...just an average night in a University of Alabama fraternity house...

Only the sound of cicadas can be heard as dusk settles over the University of Alabama campus on a Sunday evening. A few joggers and dog walkers abound, representing a mere fraction of the crowds that packed the campus 24 hours earlier for the university football team’s season opener.

The crowds are long gone, but at the Sigma Nu fraternity house the game is just beginning.
In a poorly lit living room, nine students crowd around a table covered by a poker setup, a portable cushioned green felt with cup holders that can be transported wherever the action is. Have game, will travel.

Beside the poker game, two more fraternity brothers shuffle another deck of cards and play heads up over a Ping-Pong table as they wait for a seat in the big game. The deck only has 50 cards, but in a time of need it will have to suffice.

A couple of other students lounge on couches on the other side of the room, under the painting of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, as they tune into the Virginia Tech – N.C. State football game on the large screen television. As the popularity of poker grows, one has to wonder if football really is king in the South anymore.

At the main table, Matt Matthews is running over the field in this no-limit Texas hold’em game. The aggressive senior is one of the ringleaders of the game, helping to organize poker nights in various fraternity houses and off-campus apartments in Tuscaloosa. When discussion turns to the new college edition of Card Player that the stalwart poker magazine is now publishing, Matthews spouts, “I should be featured in that bastard.”

With his visor turned sideways and his confidence level high, Matthews debates the merits of 10-J, a middling starting hand in hold’em. He calls it the “cocaine hand.”

“People like it so much, but it’s bad for them,” he says.

As if on cue, the next flop is 10-J-K. “Cocaine! Crack on the board, baby!” Matthews exclaims.

The game itself could be referenced in the same way. A group of these guys play just about every night, either here or somewhere else -- sometimes making the drive two hours to the Indian casino in Mississippi, or sometimes just sitting down for an hour at lunch for a quick game.

“We played all day and night last year,” Matthews said. “We’d come in at 11 a.m., we’d get our food at dinner and bring it in here and eat while we played. People would come and go and we’d still play. We were sick.”

Trey, a sophomore who belongs to another fraternity, often lets his buddy Matthews play poker online at his house since Matthews doesn’t have an Internet connection in his fraternity house.

“He was sitting over there playing a tournament on Doyle’s Room on my computer and he called in sick to his boss,” Trey recalls. “You could hear the chips clicking in the background.”

For Trey, poker is in the blood. His uncle Harry Cullen recently made the final table of the World Series of Poker circuit event held earlier this year in New Orleans. But it wasn’t Cullen that got Trey into poker. He and his buddies played after class in high school in Houston and their love for the game was fueled further by the media attention the game began to receive a few years ago.

Now two years into college, Trey enjoys joining Matthews and the others in their regular games. Most of the games, like the one this night, have blinds of 50 cents and a dollar with a $40 maximum buy in. The stakes are high enough to keep things interesting, but low enough so friends and fraternity brothers don’t go broke.

“We try to keep it friendly, but no limit isn’t friendly,” Trey says. “It’s like a regular poker game. We try to take each other’s money.”

The next hand is dealt from the well-worn red deck and the chatter continues. As action moves around the table, most players splash the pot, a practice disdained in proper card rooms, but which is commonplace here, perhaps symbolic of the players’ carefree nature.

“Most of these guys are just pissing away their dad’s money so they don’t care,” Trey says.

Trey busts out, and leaves with a $56 loss. “I can’t really afford it,” he says before departing. “I work at McAllister’s [a local deli] so I’ll just go work some more hours.” At a wage of $6.50 an hour, it will take him a full day’s work to earn back the money he just lost -- before taxes.

As play continues through the evening, it’s obvious to the casual observer that this game isn’t so much poker as a pissing contest. It’s not about the hands one can make, but the biggest pots a player can take down with a bluff, as a guy called Buzbee proves when he wins a big stack with a big bet and throws his four-deuce face up on the felt.

“Take a fucking look at that!” he sneers.

A few players have received nicknames over the years. Matthews is dubbed The Disciple, a moniker the brash player relishes. Another player is known as Captain Maniacal. “He used to play anything,” Matthews quips. And another player, last name Bunch, has a hand named after him, the ten-five. Supposedly, he has cracked pocket kings and aces with this piddling holding. When asked why he likes to play that crap, Bunch pops a cigarette in his mouth, thinks for a moment and finally says, “I don’t know.”

When beer and college friends come together, logic often flies out the window, especially when there is a bigger game to be had. Some of the players with larger bankrolls plan to go to a $1-$3 blinds no limit game in downtown Tuscaloosa when this one breaks up, where they are likely to win or lose a lot more money playing with a larger crowd with deeper pockets.

As the night grows longer, the pots get bigger as the players grow impatient.

I’m up $80 so I’m waiting it out,” Matthews says. “These guys are trying to win as much money as possible before they go downtown.”

But on a flop of 10-7-2 with two clubs, Matthews pushes all in and is called by two players. Brian, another regular, ponders for a moment before tossing in his last $30. “I’ve got top pair and I’ve got places to go so I’ll go all in,” he says.

Matthews turns over a flush draw, while Buzbee turns over a 10-J. Brian has a five kicker with his pair of tens. No one improves and Buzbee rakes in a pot with more than $100 in it.
“Remember what I said about the Matt Matthews blow up,” Buzbee reminds a visitor of an earlier comment. “That was it.”

For a game that often goes into the wee hours of the morning, this one is quickly breaking up. After a few hours, the game is dead, with several of the players broke.

“Sometimes they get tired of losing money,” Rob says.

Some players are heading for downtown to the bigger game, while others are off to watch some football or go out drinking.

They will have a day break. The next game is Tuesday.

In Poker 101: The College Card Craze, Johnny Kampis delves into the world of college poker, where the first games start before fall classes begin and straight flushes often take priority over exams. As the nation’s fascination with Texas Hold’em has grown so has its popularity at the University of Alabama, UNLV, Yale University and any other college with living, breathing, impulsive college students.

As Kampis travels the country, mining college campuses for stories, he’ll answer many of the obvious questions about college students and their poker habits.

What sorts of games are college students playing? Are students from the Ivy League playing the same games as the kids in the South or the West? How does Las Vegas’ status as the poker capital of the world affect the UNLV games?

Are women joining in on the card craze on college campuses also?

How many of the legions of online poker players are college students? Why are college students in particular hooked on online poker? The book will catch up with students who have won or lost tens of thousands of dollars in cyberspace, including those who have even played online while in class.

What do college professors and administrators think about students’ addiction to poker? Do they believe the game has redeeming values? Do math professors ever use poker examples in their classes? Are they addicted themselves? (Allegedly, University of Alabama President Robert Witt plays in a regular home game.)

What position do universities take on students gambling on campus? (The University of South Carolina has sponsored free tournaments in which prizes were awarded on its campus, in part to stave off illegal poker playing for money.)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

FSU celebrates after winning the game 10-7. It was a sloppily played game. Neither Miami nor FSU look like major players in college football this year. Posted by Picasa

Looking sour with the sun in my eyes while scouting the field before the game. Posted by Picasa

Brian hard at work in the TV truck, preparing the graphics. Posted by Picasa

The view from the press box of Doak Walker Stadium in Tallahassee. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The unbeliveable devastation

Like many Americans I've been flipping over to the hurricane recovery coverage on a frequent basis, watching in horror the violence and lawlessness and in sadness the plight of those displaced. It's sad to see a city I visited often in total disarray. Things will never be the same, that's for sure. Biloxi and Gulfport, as you've seen, were hit even worse, and everything on the coast was obliterated. It's hard to fathom a force so powerful it could send floating casinos drifting across highways. It will be years before these Mississippi towns can be rebuilt. I had planned to go to Biloxi for the first time in years next month, to the WSOP circuit event that had been planned at the Biloxi Grand Casino.

Katrina did a bit of damage here in Tuscaloosa, though the downed trees and power lines were barely a blip on the screen compared to its destruction on the coast. Because of its close proximity to New Orleans, four hours away, many refugees came here. The rec center on the UA campus is being used to house a few hundred evacuees. The university gave away about 200 tickets to the Tide's opener this Saturday to refugees at the rec, which I thought a great gesture.

I think those of us who can help should help as much as we can. I'm going to pledge 10 percent of my poker winnings this month to the Red Cross to aid in its relief efforts. If I can fare as well in September as I did in August, I'll be able to give nearly $1,000 for the cause. Those of you reading this, I hope you will give as much as you can, or participate in some of the charitable online tournaments that are being held to raise money. Imagine how your life would be turned upside down if you had lived on the Gulf Coast.

I sat in on a fraternity house game on the UA campus tonight for material I'll put together for my college poker craze book proposal. I'll share that on my blog later this week.

Time for bed now. At 6:30 a.m. we're heading to Tallhassee for the Miami-Florida State game.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The first pitch. The Braves actually won with me in attendance. There's a first time for everything. Posted by Picasa

We scored excellent free seats for the game. Posted by Picasa

ESPN was in Georgia for its 50 states in 50 days bit while we were at Turner Field. Posted by Picasa

Some street corner urchin's signs outside Turner Field in Atlanta. Posted by Picasa

Plenty of this went one in Myrtle Beach. The game was rained out. Posted by Picasa

Pre game warmups Posted by Picasa

After BARGE, I went with friend Brian to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to help provide the graphics for a minor league baseball game. Here we are walking from our hotel next door to the Pelicans' stadium. Posted by Picasa

From Rock City you can see seven states in which it is illegal to play poker. Posted by Picasa

This is either my dream home or just some log cabin in the Smokies. Take your pick. Posted by Picasa

Laugh if you will, but it's my dream to one day own a 1969 Dodge Charger General Lee replica. If you can't pick up chicks in this car, you can't pick up chicks. This was at Cooter's Garage in Gatlinburg, owned by Ben Jones, who played Cooter. Posted by Picasa

Here's some family shots. My dad and my brother. Posted by Picasa

The view from the top of Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Great Mountains. I traveled there between my two Vegas trips this summer. Posted by Picasa

Peter Secor conducts the calcutta. Posted by Picasa