LAS VEGAS — It’s 110 degrees outside, shivery inside, the rows of leather-banked, green felt tables running hot and cold for the shrewdest poker players on the planet in the sporting world’s richest showdown.
All the colorful characters are here — Texas Dolly, the Brat, the Professor, the Unabomber, Fossilman — and a couple thousand online aficionados who aspire to make their names and fortunes. Some are math whizzes, some seem clairvoyant. Most play straight, a few lowlifes still try to cheat, nicking cards with their fingernails.
The World Series of Poker, buzzing with celebrities, fans pressing in behind the ropes, feels a little like the Academy Awards, a little like the Super Bowl.
It’s a rambling day-and-night party of 5,619 players that ends with a main event top prize of $7.5million, a no-limit Texas Hold ‘em title worth millions more in endorsements, and a platinum, diamond and ruby bracelet that will impress and intimidate opponents for years.
All nine players at the final table, starting Friday, will walk away with at least $1million. Five hundred players, nearly the number who played in the 35-year-old tournament as recently as just a few years ago, will get at least $12,500 each.
There’s no cursing, no smoking and no mercy at the tables in a windowless hangar-like room at Harrah’s Rio, just steps away from hundreds of bubbly preteen and teen dancers in glittery costumes and too much makeup at the Spotlight Dance Cup national championship finals.
Hollywood stars Ben Affleck, James Woods, Tobey Maguire, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Tilly, Shannon Elizabeth, Mimi Rogers and the many who have played on Celebrity Poker Showdown have given the game a cool cachet.
Woods seemed to be everywhere in the runup to the World Series championship, his hair white, his dark suits pressed, his sunglasses always on.
“I play every single day — private games, casinos, online,” said Woods, who lasted 11 hours in the first round of the main event. “I read about it. I’m very committed to it. I’m passionate about it. One of the things I like about it is, it’s a challenge to your mind, your soul. You’ve got to be an artist and scientist to play poker well. I’m a little of both.”
Texas Hold ‘em is a game of skill, judgment, luck and endurance, the days lasting 14 or 15 hours. There are two cards down, a round of bets, the flop of three community cards and more bets, checks or raises. Then there’s fourth street, otherwise known as the turn card, then fifth street or the river card, chances to bet after each one, the best five cards out of all seven taking the pot. The blinds — mandatory bets put in by the two players to the left of the rotating dealer button — go up as the day goes on, raising the stakes and the pressure.
It takes mental acuity, not physical agility to play the game. Portly defending champion Greg “Fossilman” Raymer is the best example that fitness isn’t required in a sport where the greatest exertion is flipping cards, stacking chips and lifting drinks. But the long days do take their toll, and more young players are hitting the gym.
“You have to have a tremendous amount of mental and physical stamina,” said Robert Williamson III, a 34-year-old pro who says he has dropped from 400 pounds to 200 after gastric bypass surgery three years ago and a lot of workouts since. “There’s an extreme amount of pressure on your body at the highest level and there’s so much money at stake.”
“So it turns out that we really are athletes. You really do have to train and be in a lot better shape than what people think.”
The first round over the weekend was fatal to many notable players: two-time champions Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson and Johnny Chan, T.J. Cloutier, Phil “the Brat” Hellmuth and Andy Bloch were ousted. Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, the dark-bearded, long-haired pro who holds a doctorate in computer science from UCLA, exited 14 hours into the first day.
In yesterday’s second round, 2003 main event champion Chris Moneymaker was shown the door.
The celebrity set didn’t fare well, either: Actress and recent ladies champion Jennifer Tilly was dismissed. Her sweatshirt-hooded boyfriend and popular World Poker Tour player, Phil “Unabomber” Laak, soon followed. Maguire and Rogers went out.
Former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, playing his first tournament just five months after starting to learn the game, cruised into the break with about $17,500 in chips after being down to as low as $3,000. But he couldn’t survive the night, getting busted by pocket aces after nearly 13 hours of play.
Of all the players at the start, perhaps half earned their stakes from online poker tournaments to push the pool to about $56million and the total prize money to $52.8million. More than 1,100 arrived, all expenses paid plus $1,000 in spending money, courtesy of PokerStars.com.
Once a game of cowboys and riverboat gamblers, the biggest poker tournament has become a sanitized, democratized affair that’s nerd-friendly — something lost and something gained in the process.
The online sites cater to people who have time and money to burn playing cards on their computers. PokerRoom.com sent a team of 50 players that ranged from a student at the University of Kentucky to a singer/songwriter from Buffalo, N.Y., a massage therapist in Virginia and a film editor in Los Angeles.
With that field stacked against them, even the best pros, who make $4million to $8million a year playing tournaments and cash games with side bets, weren’t safe from short runs of bad luck and the strange play of amateurs.
The fans at the World Series — men and women from their 20s to 70s — have been as quiet and respectful as a golf gallery. In this case, though, the silence largely has been because of the difficulty of watching live poker.
Without cameras to show the fans the hole cards, without announcers to explain the strategies, pot sizes and winning hands, it’s hard to understand what’s going on.
The best way to follow the minute-by-minute progress of the players is through the live updates on CardPlayer.com, which has a team of experts dashing between the tables and their laptops, filing short, blog-like reports.
ESPN will start showing its slickly packaged version of the World Series on July19, four days after the final table commences, and will begin with satellite tournaments until the climax in November. Even though the winner will long be known, the shows will probably still get high ratings as fans tune in to see how the games were won and how the players reacted.
Poker is as steeped in American lore as Wild Bill Hickock, who was shot dead in 1876 while holding aces and eights, but it took the technology of tiny cameras under the tables and the rise of online gambling to bring in millions of passionate fans.
The World Poker Tour’s hole-card cameras and expert coverage on the Travel Channel revolutionized the game; Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo stoked interest among nongamblers; and ESPN ratcheted up interest in the World Series of Poker, giving the game and the top players a status and audience beyond anyone’s belief.
Dozens of strategy books, from Brunson’s War and Peace-thick Super System I and II to less weighty tomes, have fed the boom. Narratives like James McManus’ “Positively Fifth Street,” and profile collections such as “Tales from the Tiltboys” and “Aces and Kings” by Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan have enhanced the legends of the modern poker greats.
Boding well for the future, men and women in their 20s are the biggest part of that audience.
“For years and years, we were ‘gamblers’ and we were seedy and shady and people didn’t trust a gambler,” Williamson said. “Five, six years ago, if you asked a professional poker player what he did, he’d probably tell you he was a consultant. Now everyone knows us. We’re entertainers. If people enjoy playing with us and have a good time, they don’t mind as much losing their money.”
Partypoker.com, Pokerstars. com, Pokerroom.com and Fulltiltpoker.com are among the most popular of the more than 300 Web sites that have made the game accessible to the masses to play for money online.
Pokerpulse.com, which analyzes the industry, estimates there are more than 1.8million active real money players online. Most of those are in the United States, Canada, Britain and Scandinavia. The last two World Series main event champions, Raymer and Moneymaker, emerged from Pokerstars tournaments.
Full Tilt Poker’s pros — “Professor” Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Bloch, Ferguson, Phil Ivey, Phil Gordon, Jennifer Harman and others — are among the superstars of the game. Ivey, a 28-year-old from Atlantic City, N.J., is one of the only world-class black players and he inevitably draws comparisons to Tiger Woods.
When Full Tilt Poker threw a lavish charity bash at the chic La Bete nightclub last week, the players and celebs turned out. Penn Jillette, the big, loud half of the Penn & Teller magic and comedy duo, was there to join his poker buddies.
“Every poker player I knew until the year 2000 was a cheat — and that’s not because of the people I know, though it’s also that. … Then the Full Tilt Poker guys came in with a kind of macho math and playing straight.
“Now there are 150 people playing poker that I believe aren’t cheating. That would not have happened anywhere in the world 20 years ago.”
The alternative to cheating is having brains, skill and luck.
“If you have two aces and I have two kings, and all the money goes into the pot, you feel great about your chances of winning,” Gordon said. “But 18 percent of the time you’re going to lose. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot. But you’re going to get dealt pocket aces 14 times on average, about once every 221 hands or once every five hours. So if this scenario happened to you 14 times, your chances of surviving all 14 confrontations are only about 3 percent. It’s the power of statistics.”
Yet poker still retains its power to mesmerize players and fans, whether they’re new to the game or they played on their kitchen table when they were kids.
“Now everybody wants to play poker because they want to be like the guys on TV, they want to be like the celebrities,” said Antonio Esfandiari, a 26-year-old who made his unique journey to the World Series from a childhood in Iran to an adolescence in San Jose, Calif., from a fascination with magic to a passion for poker. His first trick was “the floating dollar bill.” Now he’s floating millions from poker.
“When people start playing poker, they realize what a beautiful game it is,” he said. “It’s so pure in that there are no repeat situations. You can never have the same thing happen. You’re always learning.”