A Decade in Poker: My First WSOP Remembered
I am quickly approaching the tender age of 40. I have many days now where the swiftness of life makes itself known to me, whether it’s thinking about the fact that I have completed nearly a third of my life*, realizing that one of my kids will see her age hit double digits next year, or being confused that my brain still thinks I can play baseball even though the last time I wore a uniform was 21 years ago. And now, with the 2015 World Series of Poker drawing to a close, it has also hit me that it was a full 10 years ago already that I stepped foot in the Rio for the first time to cover the WSOP. Was it that long ago?
In the fall of 2004, not long after completing my MBA, I was miserable in my consulting job. That year, though, I had discovered poker, took it up as an inexpensive hobby, and got involved in an online poker community. I got to know a person or two and, in the spring of 2005, just an hour after I gave my two-week’s notice, I was offered a job to help a poker affiliate launch a poker news site. I jumped at the opportunity.
That summer, a noob if there ever was one, I was sent to Las Vegas to provide live coverage of the WSOP. No journalistic experience, very little poker experience, and there I was, walking down the endless hallways of the Rio after parking on the wrong side of the property, looking for the place to pick up my press pass.
I eventually found the small room down a one of the many identical-looking hallways and after hanging the huge badge around my neck, complete with my name and website on it, I felt like I belonged.
When I walked into the Amazon Room a few minutes later, I felt like a complete outsider. One of the early tournaments was already underway – I wasn’t concerned about missing a little of the beginning – and perhaps needless to say, a wall of sights and sounds pummeled me as soon as I opened the door. I felt something similar to when I think about being in my grandparents’ house. Even though I spent plenty of time there as a young adult, my memories are often from the point of view of my childhood-self, when the front door was too heavy to open, when the pantry doorknobs were too high to reach, when I could get lost in the maze of history in the basement. I am over six feet tall, but when I first saw the endless expanse of poker tables and hordes of players, I immediately felt small, like I couldn’t see over the tables to the end of the room. I was afraid if I started walking, I’d get lost.
So I went to find press row. It didn’t take long, as it was one of the few areas of the Amazon room with no poker tables. A few long tables were set up, staff from various poker news outlets scattered about, chatting with each other or engrossed in their laptops. I found an open spot and started setting up shop when a woman looked up from her monitor and told me that the area was for media only. I showed her my badge and assured her that I was cool, but then she informed me that only *certain* media had the right to be there.** Oh.
I stammered something while trying look like yeah, I knew that, and swam to the nearest exit. After a few minutes of searching, I finally saw a sign for the “press room,” and I got excited again. The PRESS ROOM!
It was a bit disappointing. The press room was a long, narrow room, lined with tables on three sides. It was hot and crowded and I had to stake out my workspace early, but there was a food and drink table in the middle of the room, so it wasn’t all bad. And over the course of the two years I covered the WSOP live, I got to know some really interesting people in that room. It became a place I could just go to relax if I needed a break from the tournament but still wanted to be around people.
During the first week or so, I committed a gigantic blunder that I’m surprised didn’t result in someone scolding me. I was on my own at the WSOP, responsible for both writing about the tournaments and taking pictures to post on the site. Armed with my little point-and-shoot camera, I wandered around the tables snapping pics, trying to get cool shots of famous players. What I didn’t know was that flash photography was not allowed. It seems so silly now – I should’ve realized that a camera flash would be really irritating to players concentrating on poker. But there I was, flashing away. To make matters worse, most of the pictures were crap; the lighting was just dim enough and I was just far enough away from the players that the pictures were either too dark or blurry. My boss and I went out after a couple weeks to get an expensive, DSLR camera, which made me feel like a magician. No flash was needed – I was now an artist. Also, Mimi Rogers smiled at me when I took her picture.
As the WSOP moved along in 2005, I settled into a comfortable rhythm. I’d get to the Rio around noon, drop my laptop off in the press room, and head to the tournament room to wander around and get a read of the scene. I’d jot down notes on anything interesting going on, take some pictures, and then head to whatever final table was set to begin. For most of the day, I would take detailed notes at the final table, not content to just post some hand histories, but to actually give readers a sense of what that table was like. I wanted to present the real story of the final table and if that involved the retelling of zero hands, so be it. I would write my article in the wee hours of the morning, often finally posting it when the sun was rising.
During those two summers, the Rio at times felt like my home away from home. I spent 12-16 hours there every weekday, had my favorite seat at my favorite eatery (a Chinese place next to the sportsbook), knew where I could go for a little quiet time while still being treated to air conditioning, and even had a cheap video poker machine I could sit at for a while and only lose a few bucks. Eventually, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I kind of felt like the Rio was MY territory; I felt strangely important when I would guide my wife or other guest through the casino, knowing exactly the best routes to take to get places, or when I knew all the backroads of Las Vegas by heart so I wouldn’t have to drive on the Strip like a tourist.
I stopped attending the WSOP after 2006 because my wife gave birth to our first child and I wasn’t about to spend that much time away. For a few years, I would get nostalgic come WSOP-time, just thinking about the dinging and chiming of the video machines as I walked through the Rio or the sound tidal wave of thousands of players riffling chips as I opened the Amazon Room’s doors. Those memories have faded a bit; I don’t really miss that all that much anymore.
What I do still miss, though, are the people. I have never met a more fascinating mix of characters than I did when I was at the World Series of Poker. I got to take Doyle Brunson’s picture when he won a bracelet in 2005 and then showed it to him on the cover of Canadian Poker Player Magazine the following year. I got to interview all sorts of famous poker players. I got to play poker with Anthony Michael Hall and witness his double-take when I told him that Weird Science is amongst my top five favorite films. I was even interviewed myself for an author’s book. But more than the people who left me star-struck at the time, it was just fun to spend time with all sorts of people who I never would have met had the WSOP not thrown us together. A writer from a European website, customers of our site that won a seat in the Main Event, grizzled veteran poker beat writers, excited young guys trying to start an online poker room, and poker fans who were as excited as me just to be there. That’s not an experience you get every day.
I was an outsider when the 2005 WSOP began; ten years later I’m the grizzled veteran. Sometimes I do wish I could be back at the Rio in the thick of it and feel like a noob all over again, but life marches on. Sitting here at my son’s karate class works just fine for me.
* Yes, I said a third.
** This became a recurring theme over the next two years. Certain “holier than thou” media members were extremely territorial when it came to their sites’ access to the tables and players. For a while, I was careful to tread lightly, but by 2006, I had established myself as part of the industry, so I started to not give a shit. 2006, in particular, was pretty awful for media members who weren’t in the highest caste – I was witness and party to more than one…disagreement – but I still took my pictures and got my stories. WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla was great to me; he knew I acted professionally and did good work, so he had my back if some media members or even WSOP staff were giving me a hard time.