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The World Series of Poker

 “Click, click, click,” the room was filled with the repetitive sound of chips ricocheting against one another in rhythmic waves that washed over the players and spectators. No one was speaking. The concentration of the poker players in the convention room was palpable. Like a heavy fog on a coastal morning, it clouded everything in sight. The room was at least a hundred yards in length by fifty yards in width, and nearly all the room was inhabited by poker games. Large screens dropped down from the ceilings announcing the next tournament time, along with table numbers. Waiting players or players that had been knocked out of the tournament sprawled on the carpet in the corners of the rooms, some laid out on their duffel bags, others sitting cross-legged studying open laptops. Floor managers made their paces back and forth behind the sea of poker. Players hunched over tables, eight per station, many with backpacks slung over the backs of their chairs. Many players wore poker hats, slammed down tightly over their brows. Players listened to music through ear buds or large headphones, and a lot of the men sported some type of beard and World Series of Poker sweatshirts in the air-conditioned convention rooms of Bally’s Hotel Casino and the adjoining Paris Casino. There were women playing as well, several at each table, also intense and bent upon winning at all costs. 

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) is on the Las Vegas Strip for the first time this summer, moving from the Rio where it had been held for the last seventeen years. Before the Rio, its original home was at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino on Fremont Street in old downtown Las Vegas, where it was founded by poker player and casino magnate, Benny Binion, who in 1970 hosted the first ten invitees. That original event has grown into one of the world’s premier poker tournaments hosting thousands of players today that make the trip from all over the world. I heard French, Mandarin, German, and Spanish being spoken amongst players as they left the tourney, dejectedly dragging their suitcases behind them, busted, and headed to McCarran Airport. I wasn’t at the World Series to gamble, but to cover my brother’s play as he competed in his second WSOP. My brother, Aaron, had grown up in Anderson Valley starring in basketball in the early 80s before leaving after his sophomore year to finish his career at Ukiah High. He later played overseas and coached at the CBA, college, and high school levels. He is an intense competitor, and No Limit Poker fills that void of playing basketball at a high level, which he can no longer do. Together we have been penning his memoir, Down to the Felt, which will be released next year.

 The main event paying a ten-million-dollar purse to the winner, or the Main as players called it, resided in Bally’s, as well in a smaller adjoining convention room, outfitted with a media center, cameras, and more lighting. The entry fee for the Main is $10,000 and many poker professionals pool their money and buy percentages of participating players. The WSOP runs a variety of tournaments over two months from late May through July, most being a variation of No Limit Poker, with entry fees ranging from $400 to $100,000 an individual. For poker pros, it is a badge of honor to have battled in the Main. It was day five of the Main event, and there may have been 140 players still playing in well-lit tables under the watchful eyes of camera crews, reporters, bloggers, and fans on the other side of a roped off partition. 

The Paris held the registration and pay out queues, long lines that snaked down the casino floor full of tired poker pros waiting to register for a tourney, or cash if they were fortunate to make the top 15% of any given tournament. The payout used to only include the top 10%, but to increase entries and fatten the purse, the WSOP increased the cutoff to 15% this year. Ultimately, it is just a ruse, because only the top 3% of finalists make any real money, and there are easily a thousand players or more in each tournament. The odds are astronomical. If a player does cash, then he or she is paying 24% to the federal government and whatever state taxes apply in their home states. The WSOP also takes 12 plus percent right off the top from players’ tournament fees to participate, so in essence, one is paying nearly a 40- 45% rake of any winnings. Most of the players could care less, as they were there to win a WSOP bracelet of some event, any event. There’s an old saying on the floor that players often repeat, “If you want to make money play cash games, if you want to be famous play tournaments.”

The Paris also held a football field or two of poker action in a convention room, which was split into two segments. The main floor held tournament play, and the back held low end cash games, as well as the high-end games, otherwise known as the Kings Club. The heat outside was nearly unbearable, an anvil flame of fire from sunrise to sunset, easily topping 110 degrees daily. At night it cooled down to a balmy 100 degrees, but players rarely ventured out of the casinos. Instead, they locked into tournaments from 12pm to 1 am every day with a 75-minute dinner break at 6pm nightly. Some players had been there for two months. I talked with one couple from LA that had been playing nonstop since early June with and they only took one break over the Fourth of July weekend when they made the drive home to Los Angeles for two days, before dutifully returning to the tables that following Tuesday afternoon. It was war.

I ran into a grizzled older player named Phil from Owensboro, Kentucky, during dinner at Bobby Flay’s Burger Bar. Phil looked like a typical poker pro: unshaven, a little unkempt and tired wearing a plaid shirt that was tucked into blue jeans, smelling like dried sweat and adrenaline, “I was right there, almost in the money and I got knocked out. I had two pairs, Queens and Nines, but the other guy made it a Full House on the river.”

Every poker player “was almost there”. That is a common refrain amongst poker pros, and every one of these players can tell you in exact detail the hand where they were knocked out. One poor soul I ran into, a local who felt in his heart it was finally his year, was going to sell his car for tournament entry fees, only to lose his car to theft the day before the World Series opened. All he could subsequently afford was the $500 entry fee for the Housewarming Tournament that kicked of the Series which included over 20,000 participants. He got knocked out of that rather quickly and spent his time slinking around low-end cash games trying to put together a stake muttering to anyone that would listen, “I would have won it this year if my car wasn’t stolen. I could feel it!”

Jack Strauss, a poker professional and winner of two WSOP bracelets, in the 1982 WSOP Main event was down to his last chip, when he made a miraculous comeback and won the whole thing giving birth to his infamous quote, “All you need is a chip and a chair.” The part he omitted was luck, a whole lot of luck. You need to not only be a skilled player in tournament play, but you need to go on a torrential run getting cards and seeing the board. In tournament play, the blinds increase exponentially, and you must take down other players’ stacks early to position yourself for a run at the last table. If you get busted out and need to rebuy, it is usually too late because you are already so far behind in the chip count. But, that’s Vegas, and that’s poker. It is an all-or-nothing-venture, and everyone thinks they are going to be a star; they just need a break. In a lot of ways, it is similar to making it in America; most don’t. People tend to just get by, living paycheck to paycheck, but the hope of really making it is what fuels the masses. It is the same on the felt.

Ray The Dealer

I met a lot of characters in my week spent in sweltering Las Vegas, but none more memorable than Ray the Dealer. He had been around and seen all the greats that had undoubtedly graced his table at one point or another in his fifty years of dealing poker: Stu Unger, Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, and Jack Strauss to name a few. Ray had served his country as well, fighting in Vietnam and losing a leg for his efforts, and now wore a prosthetic attached to his right knee. Rings adorned the index and middle fingers of both hands, and he sported gold bracelets on each wrist. He had grace and class, old Ray. When I asked him why he still dealt after half a century he responded he didn’t want to be a pit boss, telling the table, “My leg would wear out in less than two weeks, and most of the floor managers are morons anyway, but at least they get their 15,000 steps in.” 

Ray the Dealer

His neatly coiffed brown hair was deceptive, as it wasn’t his hair, but was artfully designed. He was short and compact, maybe 5’4 and 155 pounds, but he carried himself like a bigger man, with presence. Ray had a wicked pitch in a day where a pitch is neither required nor valued. The cards came out smoothly, like they were shot out of a well-oiled machine. It was one fluid motion, the cards sliding neatly into pairs underneath our cupped hands. The man had dealt millions of hands, and it showed. 

Ray was none too pleased with the Asian dealer he was breaking. He growled gruffly at her, “Hurry up!” so we could get in another shuffle at the 4th level of $1,500, and $1,000 blinds. Alas, she was not up to the task, missing the timeline, and handing Ray the newly shuffled cards. He barked angrily, “See me later! I am going to fix you!” The dealer didn’t seem to understand what he was saying. Ray, the steely veteran, just wanted things done the right way.

Ray was the epitome of old Las Vegas, when the World Series of Poker (WSOP) resided at Benny Binion’s establishment down on Fremont Street. He came from a time when a man’s word meant something, and he knew all the local pros. Now Ray had to deal with people wearing Las Vegas Raider’s gear, and something about a hockey team. It didn’t seem to faze him though, dealing gave him something to do and he was damn good at it. Unlike most of the degenerates, locals, regs, and want to be pros, who would lose their asses that day, he was one of the few walking out of Bally’s Casino with positive money. Well, him and his dealer buddies, and of course the WSOP.

The thing about the World Series of Poker are the blinds. They go up so fast, that essentially you are playing Indian Poker. It is extremely hard to control the game if not impossible. On top of that, if a person is willing to travel to Las Vegas, securing time off and making all the travel arrangements and entry fees, you have to assume they know what they are doing. So, the field is not like your typical home game full of donkeys looking for a little action.

 I entered the Pot Limit/No-Limit fields because I was purposely trying to shrink the field, giving myself a better shot at cashing. Each time you buy into a tournament for the entry fee, you receive thousands in chips. For the tournaments I was buying into, it was 30K. That sounds like a lot but is nothing when the blinds to enter the game increase by the thousands each round. You need to quickly accumulate others’ chips, to have a chance at making a run deep into a tournament. Somehow, I found a way, cashing in the first event by finishing 150th out of 1,234. It was $1500 an entry, and then some, as I paid the initial fee and got knocked out early, spending another $1500 to rebuy. For this effort I received $2,625 and 53.22 Player of the Year Points. To put this in perspective, I was now down only 19,500 points from the leader on the board. I must admit the WSOP has done a wonderful job of marketing their long shot product. In the past, the top 10% reached the money. The WSOP realizing that this was freezing out too many players, employed a 15% payout model this year. In a 1,000-person field, 150 players now get paid. Even in this model, only the top 3% of players make in real money; the remaining 12% might be fortunate enough to break even or make a little gas money. This is before the tax man comes and takes his cut of 24%, and the additional 12% rake that the WSOP lays on you. It’s a racket for sure. 

It’s quite the scene showing up at the WSOP. I remember the players being younger in the past. This current iteration of players is in their mid-30’s, to 40’s, vaping incessantly and wearing back-packs, half beards, hats, wedding rings, and sweatshirts. They looked like shit, for lack of a better word. They were constantly on the phone, “That board was 140,000-1”, or “The table went runner-runner Kings, do you know what the odds are?”

 Those of us who have been around know what the pro looks like and how he or she acts, but I hadn’t realized there were so many of them! It’s like Vegas is home to two professions: Uber drivers and poker players.

My other two entries: $600 Mixed Pot Limit/No- limit and Deep Stack $800 went as one would expect. I bombed out. Pot limit had me on tilt as I bought in twice after I got knocked out. This is always a terrible play as you buy in late with a limited number of chips while others have accumulated many more chips, which puts you at a real disadvantage.

 The no-limit deep stack was a bit more intriguing. I advanced past the dinner break with around 75K in chips. I had put in 8 hours of work, but the blinds were 6k, antes 6k, and small blind were 3k. So, 15K a round. I had been card dead all day, beyond ridiculous, but was stealing every hand I could employing my typical pressing style of play. I looked underneath my cupped hands, shielding my cards. King-10 Hearts suited, and I am on the button. I call the 6K. The small blind to my left, calls the 6K, and the big blind checks. Flop comes; King Spade, 10 Diamonds, and 6 Hearts. I push all in. Small blind calls and big blind folds. We reveal our cards. I am sitting on two pair and the small blind has Ace-King. Turn comes and it is an Ace of Hearts, with the river making it an Ace of Spades. Full House for the big blind and my tournament is over. I finish at the 600 mark out of 3,000 players, 150 positions short of cashing.

 The ridiculousness of cashing and winning a bracelet is obvious. The chance of doing anything is miniscule, and the people getting rich are inevitably the casinos and WSOP. The WSOP to minimize costs, requires the dealers and staff to return their 2022 WSOP shirts. That tells you really all you need to know about the organization. Winning at the WSOP is a fantasy on a good day, which can easily spin out of control and turn into an emotional, financial, and a living nightmare. As the beautiful, sultry San Jose Native, and Bay 101 legend Baby Baby eloquently said, “We are just slaves to the casino. I have been working 15-16 hours a day and for what? I come down here with 90K and am going home today damn near broke. What a waste.”

 So, I caught a break getting knocked out of the $800 deep stack as I went over to the cash games and in one session netted $2,400 and another $1,700. I got all my money back from the WSOP entry fees and rebuys, and if my K-10 would have held up there was a .0007 chance I would have cashed high enough to make the same amount I earned in cash games. Good Riddance World Series of Poker! On second thought, hey, can someone get me the 2023 WSOP schedule?

(Excerpt from Aaron O’Brien’s upcoming book, Down to the Felt.)

One Comment

  1. Bruce McEwen July 30, 2022

    Great story. I used to always stop and buy in to the Hold ‘Em tournament in Boonville after a day at the courthouse covering more profitable crimes than gambling. Now I play it on my iPhone and it always no matter how high I soar ends up back in the garage w/ the same old losers I love so well and we all dream of the day Vince Van Patton eats his hat for saying I would muck the winning hand at the WSOP.

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