Friday, July 28, 2006

Celebrities, monkeys and donkeys

Thursday was a busy, but fun and eventful day, from the annual WSOP press conference and media/celebrity charity tournament to the Poker Share party.

We were directed to the showroom at Masquerade Village in the Rio for the press conference where the slick looking and talking commissioner, Jeffrey Pollack, bragged about the WSOP’s success. He harped on the first every players’ advisory council and the $50,000 HORSE event (which will go to four days next year), as well as a special section on the WSOP that will appear in Friday’s USA Today, a first for the game.

Pollack also mentioned a possible champions’ reception next year, in which Harrah’s would bring al former bracelet winners together.

Tournament director said participation had increased 8 percent for the preliminary events from 2005, while the prize pool has also increased. There were 7,600 entrants in the main event as of 2 p.m. Thursday.

“At least 12 players will become instant millionaires,” Daily said.

Last year, each of the final nine made at least $1 million, with Joe Hachem earning the top prize of $7.5 million.

The proceedings then moved to the Hall of Fame inductions, where Billy Baxter and T.J. Cloutier were honored.

Baxter moved to Las Vegas from Georgia in 1975 and became a force in the WSOP, cashing 34 times and winning seven gold bracelets, all of them in lowball events.

“Players began calling the lowball tournament the Billy Baxter Benefit,” said Harrah’s executive Tom Jenkin.

Baxter was the litigant in a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1987 that compelled the IRS to treat poker winnings as earned income.

“It’s certainly an honor to be included with all these great players of the past and present,” Baxter said of his induction.

Cloutier is one of the legendary road gamblers and is often considered the best player never to have won the WSOP main event, with two seconds and a third on his resume. The native Texan has won six WSOP bracelets.

“It’s one of two things I always wanted to win,” Cloutier said of HOF induction, noting that the other was the main event.

“I’ve still got a chance and I’m still kicking.”

Cloutier quickly reiterated, however, that he now wants to win the HORSE event. One out of three isn’t bad.

Harrah’s brought reigning champion Hachem to the stage and the three men fielded questions from the media, including one dimwit who congratulated Baxter and Cloutier on being inducted yet couldn’t remember Baxter’s name.

Baxter said he disagreed with the prospect of raising the entrance fee to the main event to narrow the field. “This is a world championship that should be open to everyone and I think they’ve got it right where they need it to be.”

“I’m proud to be the reigning champion even it it’s only maybe for another week…maybe,” Hachem said in reply to a question, drawing chuckles.

“Trying to repeat a victory is hard. Trying to repeat a main event victory…is almost twice as hard.”

Pollack said there could be an announcement in the coming months of an event that may be only for amateurs who haven’t won a bracelet or made a final table. “The World Series of Poker is a work in progress that we will improve every year,” he said.

As for Poker Share’s attempt to enter the chimp Mikey, Pollack was adamant that no monkey would play in the WSOP. “There’s been no chimp entered into the WSOP, nor will there be.”

“But there are fish and donkeys everywhere,” quipped blogger C.J., sitting next to me in a showroom both. Pauly and fellow Poker Blogger Kristin were also there. (As an aside, Poker Stars recently hired Pauly and C.J. to blog for them, while Party Poker hired Iggy and a few others to join us at Poker Blog. It’s an arms race unseen since USA vs. USSR!)

Cloutier and Baxter discussed the importance of the WSOP in the poker world.

“I don’t think there’s any event in the world that will ever top it,” Cloutier said.

“It’s like the majors in golf,” Baxter added. “You always want to win the major.”

A reporter asked about trickle down money from sponsors reaching players via the prize pool.

“We might not see that part of it, but it’s definitely coming,” Cloutier said.

Media director Nolan Dalla took the last question.

“Who’s going to win?” he asked the players.

Cloutier thought for a second. “One of the 8,800 players who’s going to enter,” he said.
“I agree with him,” Hachem said.

Curtis Hanson, director of the new movie “Lucky You” that centers around poker, then took the stage to promote the flick, which opens Sept. 8. The movie centers on the relationships between a longtime player (Robert Duvall) and his son (Eric Bana) and the son’s love interest (Drew Barrymore).

“The ability that every poker player tries to develop…would be hateful away from the table,” Hanson said.

Barrymore was brought onto the stage to discuss the movie, but didn’t get off on the right foot when she opened with, “I’m extremely honored to be here at the World Championship of Poker.”

It’s World SERIES of Poker, dear.

Barrymore said she watches poker on TV obsessively and plays with friends.

“Thank you for being here because poker is cool,” she said.

Um, ok.

The gathered media mass then watched a trailer of “Lucky You”, as well as a clip from the movie that featured a recreation of the Bellagio poker room, in which poker pros like Jason Lester, Sammy Farha and Barry Greenstein sit around the table with the characters played by Bana and Duvall.

Doyle Brunson and Jennifer Harman are also featured in the movie, though Harman plays a fictional character and actress Jean Smart plays a poker player based on Harman. Confused yet?

“Doing a movie was a lot of fun,” Harman said after she, Brunson and Lester were called to the stage. “Watching everything involved in it was quite interesting.”

Lester praised the efforts that went into making the poker scenes look authentic.

“I don’t consider myself to be a celebrity,” Brunson said, “and I’m certainly not an entertainer. I’m just a poker player.”

Then we all hustled back to the tournament room for the media/celebrity charity tournament, though crapshoot would be a more apt name. We get 1,000 in chips with 25/50 blinds and 15 minute levels. It’s truly a shove in fest.

The celebrity turnout was much better this year and this probably not so comprehensive list included: Norm McDonald, Robin Tunney, Ron Jeremy, Shannon Elizabeth, Jennifer Tilly, “Amazing” Jonathan, Carrot Top, James Garner, Cindy Margolis, Anthony Michael Hall, Penn Jillette, Ryan McFadden and Dick and Vince Van Patten.

Once again, I had no bigshots at my table, unless you include poker writer Barry Tannenbaum, a woman who is the president of Corum, a watch company and WSOP sponsor, and some guy dressed as Elvis.

Elvis doubled up early and then serenaded the woman he busted, to the delight of the ESPN cameras.

“Don’t mess with the king’s blind,” he often said.

“I wouldn’t think of it,” I replied.

I lucked up a few times and was hanging in until I tried to take the blinds from late position with A8 and ran into AJ and then lost the rest of my chips with a push with AT that ran into the same woman, now holding AK. Ten of us bloggers had a last one and I was the third to last out. Brad “Otis” Willis was the standing winner, making the final table in the process.

I hurried over to the Palms for the Poker Share party after I busted. The soiree was held in Room 28101, otherwise known as the “Real World” suite, after the MTV series was filmed there several years ago. It was nice meeting the guys I played against day after day for weeks, trying to earn a main event seat, since there were only a few dozen of us playing those tournaments.

I also got to meet Mikey, the prohibited chimp. He didn't show off his poker skills, but he did insist on hopping into the arms of everyone in sight. He particularly loved Art Bracken, a longtime WSOP dealer.

Max Wright, poker room manager for Poker Share, said he was disappointed by Harrah's decision. "I think they've got a lack of a sense of humor," he said.

Alex Van Klaveren, the site's spokesman, said a lot of training was put into preparing Mikey for the WSOP. He told me that Mikey would have been able to play on his own without his trainer assisting him.

Van Klaverern said Pollack hasn't replied to emails from him asking for an explanation. The spokesman suspects Harrah's could use the rule that a player has to be 21 to enter to bar the chimp.

"This is not the end of it," Van Klaveren said. "When he turns 21 we're going to enter him again."

When I asked him how old Mikey was, Van Klaveren hesitated.

"He's four," he finally replied.

"Four and a half," Wright corrected him.

The WSOP tournament area was a madhouse Friday morning as players and spectators convened to begin the biggest poker tournament in history.

The main event was about 15 minutes late getting started thanks to the crush of people trying to get to their seats. Security tried to keep all non-players out of the tournament room to no avail, leading to one massive traffic jam and fire code violation.
Media director Nolan Dalla announced that all people wearing poker clothing with .com on it had to take those articles off or turn them inside out. One major online site experienced a major snafu when it handed out thousands of shirts, baseball jerseys and caps with .com on them, leading many players to put tape over the suffix of the URL.

Finally, when most of the players had found their seats, Dalla opened with, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the World Series of Poker," which was followed by hearty applause.

Actor James Garner, playing in his first WSOP at age 78, was given the honor of announcing, "Shuffle up and deal."

The first player was eliminated six minutes later.

"Congratulations everyone," said a tournament director. "You have outlasted one player."

Alternates were then called to be ready for placement.

An interesting addition to the mix this year is an all-in button provided to each player (which can double as a card protector.) If a player wants to go all-in, they can toss the button into the pot. Players were also provided with seat cushions for added comfort.

Later in the media room, tournament director Daily told me that there were 8,570 players in the main event, a figure that’s still expected to climb. Harrah’s will continue to accept alternates until the end of the first level on day four (Monday).

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