I traveled to Las Vegas this past weekend and played in a World Series of Poker tournament. One hears a lot about the “Main Event,” but they have fifty-odd other smaller tournaments, and the whole production turns the convention center annex to the Rio Hotel and Casino into a sort of Poker Nirvana for almost two solid months in June and July. Or, to put it another way, a “degenerates’ convention.” The scene was truly surreal: multiple airport hanger-sized rooms, all filled with hundreds of poker tables, and, incessantly, the eerie clatter of a million poker chips in thousands of anxious hands, occasionally punctuated by triumphant/enraged shouts. The prize money for each of these tournaments is significant: in the one I played in, first place won $650,000, so life-altering consequences await at the turn of a card. (Of course, the vast majority of the entrants get nothing other than the thrill of participation.)
I had expected to see a much more subdued scene than in recent years given the economic climate, but there is apparently still no shortage of people willing and able to put down $1500 or more for a chance at big winnings and celebrity. At my table, there was a Midwestern gentleman with a beard and Cardinals’ hat who, I quickly realized, had come in third in last year’s Main Event, winning $4.5 million. Others at the table were huge fans of his, so I got to listen in as they quizzed him. “Did you quit your job?” they asked. “No, I bought the company.” He explained that in the past year since his victory, he had signed on with some poker web site (whose logo was emblazoned all over his body), which had flown him from world capital to world capital (more than 150,000 miles in the air) and paid his buy-in to all the major tournaments. And all this happened because he won a minor satellite tournament in St. Louis and hit the big money in Vegas one weekend.
I went with three friends from work, and we all gave one another a 4% stake, so that if even one of us made a serious run, we’d all come out on top. And that’s exactly what happened: while two of us (myself included) lasted about 9 hours into the first day before busting out, and a third made back his buy-in with a small payoff, the fourth was still in it late on the second day. We (and an increasing group of others who were interested in his fate) were tracking his progress on the internet, as poker blogs posted updates about developments on the felt.
By Monday afternoon, he was one of the final 25 players, already guaranteed a significant prize, and within shouting distance of the big money. At this point, of course, he had played about 24 hours of poker in the past 48 hours, and endurance became a significant factor. People like to joke about poker as a couch potato’s “sport,” but it is no joke to keep your mind sharp, observing your opponents’ every move, recalling the intricate details of betting patterns (“What happened before the flop? Has he done anything to suggest that he’s capable of laying down a hand?” etc.) for hour after hour on end. Our hero combined excellent and disciplined play with some incredible lucky breaks, and by late afternoon on Monday he had made the final table and was in second place in chips. Visions of a $20,000 payout for me were dancing through my head.
He finally busted out, in seventh place, on an aggressive move that backfired, for a payout of $93,000. Not life-changing, perhaps, but eye-opening for sure. And the three of us got all of our expenses paid and then some. I have a feeling I’ll be back next year.