The first time I saw the World Series of Poker, it was just after Chris Moneymaker had won the 2003 Main Event, thereby giving the average Joe the all-in inspiration to follow his dreams. ESPN made the WSOP Main Event (via the narration of Lon and Norman Chad) a national soap opera, if not an institution. Which oversized character: from Phil Hellmuth to Phil Ivey to Scotty Nguyen to Daniel Negreanu to OMG! Jamie Gold, would assert their will over the table?
To the casual poker player, no matter how hard you try to feign indifference, the thought of sitting down with pros like Phil Hellmuth, Antonio Esfandiari or even bad boy actor, James Woods, is an intimidating “big day in your life” prospect.
There are no figures for the total number of poker players who have ventured to Vegas to play in any event at The World Series of Poker. But it’s probably a far smaller amount than the number of talented players all over the world who haven’t. I’ve attended the Main Event every year since 2007, but only as a railbird, an amateur photographer and writer/blogger with a nice camera. I’m not a great player, but I’m decent and can enjoy nice runs where I do more than break even on tournament buy-ins. This year, I decided to get my feet wet and play the WSOP for the first time, in a $1.1k donkament (the very fun), Little One for One Drop tourney, the last event on the 2017 WSOP schedule.
Registering for these is easier than I thought. If you want to avoid the lines and spend more time relaxing before a tourney, you can deposit your buy-in via a website like Bravo Poker Network. Basically, they serve as the middleman so the Rio doesn’t have to multitask with verifying financial information. If you wait until the day of the event, you’ll have to pay cash to get a seat.
$1,100 to play sounds like a lot of money. And odds are 80-85% that you will never see any part of it again. But if you’re a first-timer, you are paying for the unique experience of being part of a WSOP bracelet event. Even if the maniacs at your table are playing like it’s an All-in or Fold tournament.
I arrive at my Rio hotel room the day before and go downstairs to swipe my Harrah’s Total Rewards card at a kiosk and print the ticket and receipt for the Wed. July 12th flight. There’s a special sense of pride and relief with that final commitment, holding your first WSOP buy-in receipt. One more thing you can check off that bucket list.
Since you’re here the day before, it’s helpful to scope that day’s flight and gauge the feel of the tournament and surroundings. If your seat is in the chilly Pavilion Room, “bring a parka” is the standard half-kidding line everyone says. For whatever reason, the play I saw on preview day didn’t feel that big or monumental. The vibe was similar to any heavily promoted weekend tournament at Commerce or The Bike.
But the great thing about Vegas, is that any casino will feel friendlier and happier than the desperate card room mausoleums of L.A. Vegas is about fun. This is your vacation, even if it’s your job. If sitting at any poker table stresses you out, you are not having fun. And to quote John Hesp, the lively fourth-place finisher at the 2017 Main Event, “We’re all here to have FUN!”
As of 6 pm, 21 hours before event start time, only a meager 27 players had registered. That’s because the vast majority of the thousand-plus players at any given flight don’t sign up Online. They just sort of show up. In this year’s Little One for One Drop, some registered very late, having just been knocked out of the Main Event down the hall. These stung players can be on full tilt (like Mike Dentale next to me – more on that later). With money fresh from the ATM, they are known to plop down at half-full tables and precede to raise 6x with J-9s.
The Day of the Tournament
We start six handed, which is fine with me. All around the vast, airport-hanger sized auditorium, players are gradually filtering in, dropping their paid receipts in front of dozens of dealers. I don’t notice the intense guy, about 35, who drops his receipt next to me, until the thermal-papered name of Ronnie Bardah leaps from the table. Double-checking on Google, I confirm that Ronnie holds the stunning record for consecutive Main Event cashes, at 5. (He was also bluffed off a hand by Miss Finland in an infamous “Shark Cage” Youtube clip.) Thankfully, Ronnie is sitting directly to my right.
I am first to mention how impressive I thought Bardah’s consecutive cashes were, simply for their amazing testament to a player’s endurance and survival instincts. As the ice breaks, the table ignites in conversation. The aggressive-playing Asian restaurateur, who had raised the first six pots in a row by 6x, tells Bardah he was born in Heifa, Bardah’s home town in Israel.
Bardah’s enthusiastically sincere responses and manic high energy are infectious and suddenly this feels more like a poker party home game than a WSOP event. It’s obvious I have been lucky enough to draw the most social table of the year. Everybody laughs when an older Midwest guy on the opposite end announces loudly. “If you’re HERE at the World Series of Poker, and are worried about anything, stop now. Just the fact that you are in this room today means your life is pretty damn good!”
Watching Bardah’s decision-making process is illuminating. You can feel the precise and deliberate manner when it’s his turn to act. He’s not tight, but he’s observant and cautious, the trademark of a solid pro who has made cashing at tournaments his business. Attempting my best poker blog-editor FAQ style, I ask him, “Are the odds about 50% that players who recognize you either lay down hands to your celebrity rep, or bluff you for the same reason?” He stops and thinks for awhile, not sure if I am maybe angle shooting. “Yeah, that does really happen all the time,” he says. He looks over his shoulder and grins. “I suppose you could ask this guy the same question.”
The chair to my left is yanked out by a thickly-built and fearsome New York pro named Mike Dentale. Mike and Ronnie are well-known felt gladiators and good buddies. But Mike is not feeling particularly stable at the moment. He’s just been knocked out of the Main and feels like gambling up with attitude or re-buying. His massive biceps immediately become a personal space issue and I politely ask if he can scoot over. He politely responds that he is sitting to the right of the W in the WSOP table logo, which is proper. I concur and realize that further discussions will not be fruitful.
About this time, the first major hand of the day occurs between Bardah and a guy two seats to his right. This kid is in his mid-twenties, looks a little like James Franco and appears to work in music, maybe a rapper/producer. He’s very aggressive, opens plenty of pots and doesn’t give up easily on a hand.
The board is K-K-K-A-4. It’s heads-up and the kid puts in a huge river bet, two thirds of his stack. Bardah obviously has an ace and proves so by tanking for a full three minutes. It’s real simple, The kid has a king for quads or he’s got total air. The kid calls the clock on Bardah, prompting Bardah to Hollywood a bit and fold. Now the kid has his own “I bluffed a pro” story to tell. Especially after one of the other players informs the table that he folded a king.
This hand leaves Bardah pretty short on chips. It’s folded to him in the SB. He completes. I have him covered and shove in the BB with A-10h. He calls with A-Q. A 10 drops on the flop, but runner runner jack and king complete his straight on the river. A few hands later, I raise big with A-Q and Dentale shoves on the short stack with 10-10. Ace on the flop is good for me, but a freakin two-outer 10 falls on the river for his set.
I’m texting to my friend from the table. “O.K. I cannot be getting coolered if I’m stuck between two pros!”
Dentale and Bardah share war stories about the worldwide poker circuit. They talk new women, new cars, new houses, new beginnings. These are men in their prime zealously living the good life. They energize everyone around them. What had been a fairly loose table goes crazy. Two players go all-in and a third calls with A-3 suited. Players stack off with middle pair and a flush draw. At times, Mike Dentale does not appear to be looking at his cards. It feels like those old Lamborghini freerolls on PokerStars. I remind anyone who’s listening (they aren’t) that yes, it’s a rebuy structure – but at one-hour levels, why are you so reckless with 60 big blinds? I’m texting “WTF?” to my friend and he’s advising to remain patient and wait for the right spot to open-shove.
Just as hand reporters arrive to chart the action and the mood cannot be more surrealistic, Chris Moneymaker sits down at the table. He nods warmly to me and proceeds to devour a large salad in about 60 seconds. Nobody says a word to him. It’s like the most influential poker player in history, the reason many players are here today, isn’t really here. Moneymaker has never fit into any poker player cliques and remains an outsider who is unfairly criticized for being a one-hit, 2003 Main Event wonder. He’s not a particularly warm person, like a Daniel Negreanu, but he is still deserves to be treated more as an equal and less like an alien. But he is Chris Moneymaker. He will always be lonely in a crowded room and never the same as anyone else.
We are soon approaching the break and I’ve been grinding for four hours with bad cards while losing coin flips. I look down at only my second pair of the night, pocket 2’s. The action is folded to me on the button, I go all-in with only eight big blinds and with the levels about to go up. Dentale in the SB calls with A-9 and Moneymaker in the BB snap squeezes with Q-Q. Several empathetic players actually groan on my behalf and I stand up and nearly flop forward on the table in disgust.
Moneymaker’s hand holds and even fills up on the river. I am out. I ask him jokingly how many players he’s knocked out in his career and he smiles wanly. Bardah leans over to shake my hand first. “Buddy, loved your observations. Really, really fun to play with you!” The other players are friendlier than any L.A. casino could hope to be and we chat a bit.
The Rock Star Fantasy Camp experience is over. Instead of wondering what could have been, I am grateful not to have made a single bad decision at the table. It was an awesome afternoon of poker dude bonding that made the trip worthwhile. Two days later, I’m back in L.A where I final table cash for the third time in a row at my tough, five-table poker league. Thanks for the spark, Vegas. It was F-U-N. See you next year.
The Main Event (A Postscript)
With one day left in my short Vegas stay, I head down to the Amazon Room on Thursday night with the Nikon to pick up where I left off last year, shooting player photos at the Main Event. We are approaching the bubble. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 players remaining. At about the 1,000-player mark, the WSOP closes up for the night and those lucky 1,000 get to claim a cash at the biggest poker tournament in the world.
Ten minutes in and I strike gold at Sofia Lovgren’s table. Sofia is a twenty seven year-old Swedish poker pro with 12 WSOP cashes. She’s one of the reps for 888poker, is ranked 1,964 on Hendon Mob’s Global player rankings and 184th in popularity. That large gap between her player ranking and popularity is due in no small part to her charm, classiness and drop dead good looks. This combo makes it nearly impossible to take a bad photo of her.
Lovgren has just changed tables. This is apparent because thirty railbirds follow her to scramble for viewing positions as she moves around the room. She is finally escorted to her seat. In her hands is a very large bag of chips. A table full of distracted men snap to attention in that way that poker players pay attention when a huge chip stack is moved to their table. Gingerly, she unloads the bag and spills the contents gently, apologizing for the mess. Sofia will wind up placing 322 out of 7,221 Main Event players for a nice payday of $35,000.
I move around a bit and soon encounter Marcel Luske, a dapper and worldly 64 year-old Dutch player who has 33 WSOP cashes and wound up 23rd this year in the Main. I have struck up conversations with Marcel on many occasions. He is always polite and gracious. Tonight I watch from over his shoulder while he bombs scary boards and takes down pots without showing.
A few tables over, I encounter a gentleman by the name of Iverson Cotton Snuffer. Snuffer, who looks like a jazz musician, is roughly the same age as Luske and holding court over a table of young-un’s. He complains that the 11 a.m. start times (after 12 hours on the felt) unfairly favor poker youth. He takes down four pots in a row, two at showdown, two because nobody wants to screw with him. He has several huge stacks of orange 5,000 chips and wants everyone to know he’s writing a book on poker and his crazy life. I confirm that Snuffer has been killing it at big Vegas tournaments this year. Five straight cashes listed. $9.1k in buy-ins and $52k paid. This was before the 2017 Main Event where he finished in 96th place.
Finally, with the tourney clock ticking down and ten minutes left before the rail is cleared, I run into Dutch Boyd. Along with Moneymaker, Dutch was hugely responsible for the poker boom by inspiring so many kids to believe they could build a life (and a bankroll) by grinding away on Online sites. Dutch has been praised and loathed – his group of player buddies, nicknamed the Crew, were great for TV. Dutch tried to bluff Chris Moneymaker in a huge pot at the 2003 Main Event. It was bold but unsuccessful, like many of Dutch’s poker business ventures that left investors and those who had deposited money on them out in the cold.
Dutch struggled with psychiatric issues and was briefly hospitalized in a mental institution. But he has survived and continues to score here and there, recently making a deep run at a Venetian final table. But tonight, Dutch is barely recognizable, with a full beard and wrapped in brightly colored scarves. Resembling a slightly rotund Jim Morrison and holding 4-6, Boyd hits a straight on the river. He leisurely throws out a few chips and is reluctantly called by a timid opponent who Dutch glares at like an annoying bug on the Terminator’s windshield.
I walk from the Amazon Room back to my hotel room, a distance of five long blocks, all within the same hotel. I stop for a minute at the WSOP gift shop to check the hoodies, but the inventory was cleaned out weeks ago and all they have left is small and 4x. The next morning, I drive back to L.A. on 12 hours of sleep in three days. It had nothing to do with nerves or Vegas. I never sleep anyway. But something about this too-cool trip made staying awake worth every minute.