So this was my World Series experience.
I made the Rio at about 10:30 PST, and two things became clear the moment I gave my name to the casino desk clerk. First, she definitely saw that I had a room reserved. Second, that room was definitely no longer available. She made a face that I would describe as "Yikes." I'm going to have to put you in a bigger suite, she said. "But it is maybe smoking and maybe not, so maybe it smells like smoke and maybe not. Is that OK?"
It was OK, and when I arrived I found that I was happily on the "maybe not" side of the smoke equation. It was (spoilers) also the only serious piece of luck I'd have. I didn't know that yet, so maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. My suite was in the Masquerade Tower, past an enormous Carnivale jester head suspended from the ceiling between the dancer rail and the Burger King bar, where you can apparently build your own burger. The suite was in the corner, and opened on a wraparound window with a full view of the strip at night. The living room opened on a bedroom, which opened on a bathroom, and each of these rooms by themselves represented the largest hotel room I've ever occupied.
I unpacked -- my possessions sat in the room like a shy boy in the corner of his first party -- and texted CMitch. Mitch was playing cash at the Amazon ballroom. Before you get to hall leading to the ballroom, though, you have to walk past 17 posters advertising Penn & Teller (a spectacular show that I'd seen two years before on my previous Vegas trip) and 230 blanging flashing slots and pokies making droid orgy noises, and the Penn & Teller theater itself. This November, this theater became the site of the biggest show in poker, the final table of the Main Event WSOP, but now it is simply the site of the big Rio magic show, whose performers have lent the theater its name. As it happened, I passed the theater just as the show was letting out, which means I caught a glimpse of Penn Jillette, hair down to his shoulders, posing for pictures with the tourists who had just watched him shoot himself in the neck with a nailgun. Pay your price, get your ticket, make sure you get your souvenir, a little chunk of reflected greatness.
You pass down the hall to the Amazon ballroom, past banners of giants. Daniel Negraneu. Allen Cunningham. Jeff Madsen. Tom Schneider. Erik Lindgren. Previous winners of the WSOP Player of the Year. Who will it be this year? Why...it might be you!! But it won't be me. I'm here for just one event, not nearly enough to rack up the points needed to get into Ben Lamb territory. That's as OK with me as if it were a larger suite of rooms at the casino. I started playing poker regularly in 2005 when I bought in for $50 at True Poker, and all I've really wanted was a shot at a WSOP tournament -- any WSOP tournament. A little chunk of reflected greatness? Maybe it's just that silly. Here's me, just another tourist.
True Poker led to Pacific Poker, which led to Poker Stars and Full Tilt poker, and that's where I stayed until a month ago. That was when both of those sites -- really the only sites left in the US market that mattered -- had been raided by the feds, their funds seized, their U.S.-facing players locked out. Poker was dead in the country that had seen its modern development and birthed it's boom. Poker, against the law in the USA? You may as well deport the Statue of Liberty, that French immigrant, while you're at it. But the death of poker had meant the forced cashout of my funds. I had money on those sites, grown slowly over the years from gradually increasing skill and good bankroll management. I hadn't been able to get my money off Tilt yet -- and, though it was concerning the way they were dragging their heels and not really getting information about the holdup out to players, surely that was a temporary situation. On the happy side I'd had enough on Stars to cover me for trip, hotel, and buyin in one of the smaller tournaments, and Stars paid off quickly and easily, and the check cleared with no problems.
And now, I was going to take my good bankroll management money and blow it all on one shot at glory. By the summer of 2011 I'd played in perhaps thousands of tournaments, so I had few illusions about my chances, even if the level of the play were as bad as I hoped. In order to win a tournament with thousands of runners, you first have to play very well, and then you have to get really really lucky, and you have to keep playing very very well while all the while hoping that you continue to get really really lucky. It's just a fact of tournament poker. I'll put it to you like this: Imagine you get a change to take a bet for all your chips getting a 90% chance to win. You'd take it, right? The answer is 'Yes.' This isn't a trick question. But think of this, now. To take that bet is to lose one time in ten. And to play a tournament with more than a thousand runners is to take that bet more than ten times. Oh and also? You're not going to be getting 90% every time. Not even if you're really good. Sometimes it will be correct to take 40%. 30%. Um...so, yeah, get lucky. That's tournament poker. Be really good, then get lucky. If you're not really good, you don't even get the chance to be lucky. Unless you're Darvin Moon.
Poker players are different than non-poker players in many ways, but in this way particularly: Poker players are far, far warier of the one-in-one-thousand chance at disaster. Us poker players, we've seen thousands of one-in-one-thousand disasters. They're more common than you'd imagine. I think medical professionals probably understand what I'm talking about. My point is that I was flushing my money. But more than that, I knew I was probably flushing the money. I'd explained this to my wife. She and I both decided to let me do something insane anyway.
I walked into what I thought at the time was the Amazon (it was actually the adjacent Convention Hall), and stopped for a second. In a bad novel, I'd inhale sharply at this point. This wasn't a bad novel, so I simply met a madness for which my senses were unprepared while attempting nonchalance. The Rio Convention Hall during the WSOP is full of an Escheresque tablescape of felt and chairs to what feels like the horizonline. If heaven (or hell) were a cardroom, it would be a cardroom with this sort of insane telescopic dreamscape scope. Thousands of tables? Maybe. Probably. Millions of them? Probably not, but with the proper medication you could convince me of it. The first thing I thought was, "This looks like an illusion." And here's the thing: I didn't even realize that this wasn't the only room. The tables are split into sections by color: Yellow, white, black, red, green, tan. Each color split into banks of poker tables, each with its own number suspended above it; 12, 127 289. Thousands of tables? Yes.
One side of the room was devoted to an ongoing tournament, but the other was given to cash games, poor stuck bastards trying to win their lost buyin back and bored tournament jockeys whiling the time away until the next events. Somewhere in that sea of chittering chips and plastic squares sat a friend I'd never met. CMitch, poker blogger and BBT (RIP)regular, who would be playing in my event.
I'm here, I texted. Mitch texted back his coordinates, and I walked there.
"Red shirt, glasses. And I'm behind you." I texted Mitch, then waited for him to check his phone, which he shortly did, and then look behind him, which he did immediately thereafter.
It's spiritually vertiginous to me whenever I meet a blogger. You need to understand this, these are people I actually know. I've met their minds, the selves they've presented to the world, but I've never met them physically. Now here we are, in real life, and now we two, so accustomed to virtual interaction, must content with the physical actuality of one another. Already friends, but also meeting for the first time. This is what technology has made of us. If I ever make a WPBT, parts of my wiring will likely short-circuit permanently from the existential tango. Much like a first encounter with the vast pokeresquitude of the Amazon room, I try to approach this madness for which my senses are unprepared with seeming nonchalance. I have no idea to what extent I was successful. Mitch was the third blogger I've ever met (to answer the question you're likely asking, 1. Hoy and 2. Pauly), and it was odd, the oddness alleviated significantly by the fact that Mitch is about the most laid back and friendly sort of person you could ever hope to meet. Obviously a person comfortable in his own skin, obviously somebody who knew their way around The Poker. I was me. You'll have to ask Mitch what that's all about. Probably I'm not quite the same as the person I am on the page. Perhaps I'm not at all the same, I don't know. I try to act all cool and shit here on the page. In real life, I'm much more stammer-y and awkward.
Mitch bought me a beer from one of the stands out in the hallway, and showed me around. We went to the actual Amazon ballroom (where I saw my first real live Poker Pro Celebrity: Eskimo Clarke) and took me up into the stands of the main stage (colloquially known as the Mother Ship), the sort of neon fever dream that Regis Philbin must have had after eating unrefrigerated taquitos and pulling a 20 hr. shift on the set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Who wants to be a millionare? Friggin everybody in this whole town. Specifically anybody in this particular room. We'd all come from around the country, around the world, from other dimensions (I'm thinking now primarly of Phil Laak) for precisely that purpose. Mitch and I watched part of the final table. I recognized Elky. He didn't recognize me. A row of studious sorts typed furiously at their laptops. I knew by the odds that at least one of them was probably a friend of mine, but I had no idea which ones. Pauly I'd have known, but I didn't see Pauly. If I had seen him, I would no more have approached him than I'd have tried to take a steak from a Laplander's food dish. These people were focused.
It was time to buy in. Event 48. We walked to the...what was it? Not the cage. Or at least, not a traditional cage. I laid down 13 crisp one hundred dollar bills and two that were kind of folded up and mangy-looking. I'd prepared myself for this moment. An act of insanity. A flushing of fifteen hundred. I could afford it -- but why would I afford it?
I had wondered that to myself, in the months leading up to that moment, as it all came into focus and became real to me.
I've wondered it many times in the months thereafter.
The best answer I can devise is this:
Because I guess I am a poker player of some kind. And because if you're a poker player of any kind, eventually you come here, to this place. Hopefully with your eyes open. I think mine were. As I laid down the bills. I knew my chances, even if I were much more skilled than the field. Not good. And yet, for whatever reason, this is what I felt compelled to do. Even though I knew it was likely that the money was gone -- even though in fact I had already considered it gone in my financial thinking over a month prior -- I still felt good about it. I still do.
I am Julius_Goat. I've played in the World Series of Poker.