The World Series of Poker is being held in the Rio, a Brazilian-themed casino off the strip but on the freeway to LA. The preliminaries are over, and now the week-long tournament has started, with a sea of tables stretching across the Rio ballroom. The players are going through a series of contests, lasting well into the evening each night, to winnow the enormous school of poker sharks and their prey. The floor is packed, with spectators gawking near the tables. The area is lit with subdued lighting, but many players sport shades. Even more wear logoed shirts and hats - apparently they have been offered big bucks if they get to the finals and wear those shirts on TV. (Where winners used to be paid to say on TV, "I'm going to Disneyland!", now they are paid to imply, "I learned to fleece the sheep at PartyPoker.com!"). Among other predators are booth babes with flesh-eating mammaries behind tee-shirts that sport logos like "My pair is bigger!" Oddly, I saw a number of Boston Red Sox hats but no New York Yankee hats. A sign of rooting for yet another member of the poker zoo, the underdog?
I am here to root for Richard Harroch, true Renaissance Man and author of the best-seller, Poker For Dummies! Richard has been a lawyer, businessman, author, venture capitalist, gambler - but never a marketing maven, as he fails to have Poker For Dummies! tee-shirts or hats. With their bright yellow color, they would stand out against all the black hats and black shirts. Maybe next year. Fortunately, his table was right next to the aisle, so I was able to cheer him on. All in! All in!
The room is oddly quiet for such a large space with so many people, with a low hum of whispered talk punctuated by an occasional whoop or groan. The dominant sound is of the players nervously fiddling with their chips. Sounds like crickets. When a whoop interrupts the clicking, the crickets go silent for a moment, then start up again. When a big pot is won at a table, the clicking gets faster - the temperature has gone up! I may go back later tonight, if Richard is still pokering on. I wonder if I close my eyes, will it sound like a summer's night? The TV crews and photographers hovering around add the element of fireflies with their occasional flashes.
Vegas can be an interesting place in short doses. We wandered over to Paris Paris for breakfast. One passes by the Arc de Triumphe, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and walks into the Louvre, all within a few meters of each other. Inside, besides the melodic rhythms of the electronic slot machines, one strolls down a faux French experience - little Parisian-like cafes and shops under a painted sky. Later, for lunch we went to the Venetian, and walked along its shopping mall, complete with the Grande Canal and singing gondoliers snaking through the middle. Not feeling particularly romantic, we skipped the ride and went to the Piazza San Marco, enjoying a bite while being entertained by Italian opera and wandering minstrels. It is a nice spot, with a high, painted ceiling that gives a feel of twilight and a delightful ambiance. For Vegas.
That night I joined with Richard's entourage to get him psyched for the tournament. We played craps until the table ran cold, then plopped into one of those new, fleece-the-rubes games called Three Card Poker. Lo and behold, we beat the odds and got three killer hands (two 30:1 and one 40:1 payoffs) in a short 20 minutes. Feeling flush, but not foolish enough to continue at that silly table, we rushed back to the craps pits. A bit of action, and we got Richard off to bed. We returned to the table, but without our gambling guide and mentor, the table ran real cold. If you ever get to Vegas, try to go with Richard. He livens the craps table and is a veritable store of gambling tricks of the trade. You even enjoy losing; well, not quite.
The next day, he flexed his mental muscles and began the tourney. I came by to give support. Now, a poker tournament is not much of a spectator sport - on TV they cut out all the interminable slow hands, and show you the player's bottom cards. Live, you are left on your own, and have to try to read the players to guess the down cards. Also, at this tourney, especially early, everyone is playing not to lose, so play was conservative. A rule of thumb is a player engages in a heated pot about once per hour. Whew! Hold me back! The excitement is overwhelming .. Nevertheless, I learned a lesson years ago competing in track & field. When the long distance runners come in, you want the whole team around the track to give encouragement. In Richard's case, it wasn't so much the physical exhaustion as the mental tension - periods of slowness punctuated by brief bouts of betting. So I did my part, but eventually Vegas beckons, and even Richard asked, kindly and with sympathy for the sheer slowness of the action, don't you have something better to do?
I was able to see his chips dwindle until even Three Card Poker looked inviting. He had to go all in, which he did, and won a major pot. Emboldened, he folded the next few hands quickly (gotta save those chips!) and battled on. He later kept me posted by his Blackberry. He won a pot he shouldn't have, beating an AK with an off-suited 6 3. He was the Big Blind, got a cheap ride to see the flop, and flopped a killer hand. His chips kept increasing, until he got caught in a five-way pot, couldn't bluff his way out, and was too committed to back out. All in, then all out. He joins good company - many of the masters of poker met their demise in the first rounds. Phil Helmuth, Chris Moneymaker. You know their presence at the show - you have to walk through a trade floor before getting to the tables. In the trade floor, Moneymaker is peddling poker tables; Helmuth is selling his Bad Boy Of Poker line of gear. Poker is becoming big business.
So why has a formerly obscure tournament suddenly arisen as mass market entertainment? The World Series of Poker used to be held in a downtown casino, way off the glitz of the strip. It used to be won by fellows with Tex or Slim in their name and years of poker under their belts. Now it is inundated by brash young players who cut their teeth online. Some have played thousands and thousands of hands in a few short years, honing their senses of probabilities. The old guard complain about them, going All In on an Ace High! Unheard of in the old days. Yet here they are, and poker is big.
What made poker take off were three things at once: the online sites; the TV shows, which added drama by revealing hole cards; and the improbable success of Chris Moneymaker, an anyman from the online sites who won the World Series out of the blue, shocking the pros. If he could do it, anyone could - and the poker bubble was on.
Is this a fad or a trend? In the early '60s bowling came out of nowhere into a bubble, where many more alleys were built than made sense. Will online poker go the way of bowling alleys? From a stock market view, probably, but not right away - see the recent post The Other Bubble. From a broader perspective, online poker is a phenomenon of the web that has not fully sunk into our collective consciousness. In much the same way that eBay aggregated the local flea market into a global business, the online poker sites aggregate communities much more efficiently than calling a few college buddies or setting up a regular Friday Night Game. Besides fun, it adds both psychic benefit - impress your friends! take their money! - and fiscal benefit - these are gambling sites, after all, and real money can be won. Or lost.
Vegas is very crowded. Even in 100 degree (F) weather. The shows are full, the blackjack tables up the minimum bet at night. Crowds roam the strip, watching the pirate show at Treasure Island, the Volcano at The Mirage, and the water show at the Bellagio, the one immortalized in the remake of "Ocean's Eleven." Maybe it is the spillover from the tournament - thousands are competing, many have been knocked out, and their entourages wander the strip, thinking of next year.
Richard, however, has no time to wander. He was back at it that very night, at craps, at a detour into another silly new game called Let It Ride, to blackjack, then to the poker tables, then back to craps. A day later, he re-entered the World Series, via one of many satellite contests. He may be there still.
He'll be back next year - this time with his Poker For Dummies! hats. You can bet on it.