The greatest poker tournament in the world has begun, and Lee Davy takes a look at the cast to figure out who stars as the hero and who gets to play the villain?
I used to rave to 2 Unlimited. The Vicks would burn my eyes; my jaw would ache; my skinny white top drenched in sweat. And now, I stand, feeling like an old man, listening to the same techno tantrum filling up the vastness of the Amazon Room.
I said it under my breath.
No-one saw me.
I am waiting for the start of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. I have my mobile phone in one hand; and a crappy little dictaphone in the other. The players are starting to mill around the tables. Some sit-down and start filling in paperwork; one eats his huevos rancheros, most of them stand up not wanting to appear eager. To them, sitting down now would be as cool as dancing to 2 Unlimited.
“Get ready for this!”
And they are. You can feel the tension. It’s a very different atmosphere than any of the other 67 events that kicked ass before this one. There is a silent fervency about the place.
The media vultures surround an empty podium standing rather lonely in front of a huge banner of Mike Gorodinsky, the 2015 WSOP Player of the Year (POY).
Viva Las Vegas replaces 2 Unlimited.
I bump into an old friend from Main Event Travel. It’s my first day on the job. He has been here since May.
“I still love it.” He tells me.
He is talking, I am half listening, as I try to take in my surroundings. A reporter standing next to me is pulling a dried booger from his nose and rubbing it between his fingers. He is hoping it will disintegrate, or fall to the floor. He is also hoping nobody sees him. I see him.
I notice a few old faces from down the years, and we exchange glances that say, ‘look, I know it’s you, but I’m working right how. Look at me another time.’
The familiar WSOP soundtrack replaces Elvis. The hairs on my forearms tug at my skin like a balloon hugged them. Andy Frankenberger walks past with a smile. Shannon Shorr gave me a hug and introduced me to his girlfriend.
I hope Shannon has told her that it’s not the greatest spectator sport in the world. It is his 11th year playing in the Main Event. He tells me that he always loves this event, and it reminds him to be grateful.
“It’s another amazing opportunity, and I am thankful for everything the game has given me.” He tells me.
Shannon is on a downswing; what a place to turn that into an upswing.
I bump into John Eames and give him a hug. He is holding a banana like some old school beatboxer. I ask him if he is excited. He nods. That’s real excitement in John’s playbook.
Then I see James Akenhead.
I always think of James when I think of the WSOP. His AK v T4 moment for all the money and the bracelet in 2008 has stained my memory. He was on such a roll back then. You hardly see him anymore. I ask him if he still gets excited by the Main Event?
“It’s in my mind the whole year.” Says Akenhead, who made the final table in 2009, the year after Hinkle’s quad 10s temporarily shot a whole through his heart.
I ask him what is it about the event that gives him such a shot in the arm?
“It’s a number of things,” says Akenhead. “You become a world champion of poker if you win. The money you win gives you such a buzz. And then there’s the buy-in vs. value; it’s by far the best tournament in the world.”
I ask him if it changed anything having made the final table in 2009?
“I know how big the buzz gets the further you go. I really want to feel that again so my hunger for this tournament is far greater than anything else I play in.”
Hero v Villain
James shakes my hand and leaves to take his seat. Wimbledon is on the television screens dotted around this cavernous arena. It reminds me of the wonderment of the WSOP. Fans of tennis can’t play at Wimbledon with Andy Murray. You can’t kick a ball around with Ronaldo. You can’t shoot hoops with LeBron James. But you can sit down and play cards with Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, and Phil Hellmuth.
And this gets me thinking?
Who is the hero of this drama?
Who is the villain?
And I think back to last year, and the image of Daniel Negreanu lying on his back, hands covering his face, floored by the [Qh] on the river, that gave Joe McKeehen a straight and eliminated the face of poker in 11th place.
It was the story of the year. And it encapsulated the paradox of this competition entirely. Most people within poker wanted to see Daniel Negreanu make the November Nine. It would have been great for business to see arguably the most successful poker player in history wade through 6,420 people and make the grandest stage of them all.
And here comes the paradox.
Once Daniel made it, we would have wanted to see him lose.
The heroes of the WSOP are not the Daniel Negreanu’s of this world. They are the Mitchell Towners and Hung Le’s. Negreanu is Apollo Creed, Agent Smith; Darth Vadar. He is the man with all the power. He is the man trying to stop the working class man achieving his dream.
And it’s not just Negreanu.
All the professionals who compete in this event are villainous. Akenhead called this the game with the most value in the entire world because so many weaker players are trumping up an exceedingly large amount of cash to try and achieve something special. For most of these people, even playing is a bucket list goal.
And they aren’t dreaming of winning the thing. It’s the story that matters.
“I made Day 2.”
“I made Day 3.”
“I made the money!”
“I knocked out Daniel Negreanu.”
The WSOP was created as a place for the very best professionals in the game to achieve notoriety amongst their kin while simultaneously winning lots of money. I argue that has changed over the years, and today, the WSOP is all about the Mitchell Towners and the Hung Le’s of the world. It’s a place where people come prepared to write a new script. It’s a place where people come to forget life and seek for hope.
And the odds are not stacked in the heroes favour. Two-hour levels, 50k starting stack, the greatest poker players in the world all waiting to eat you alive. It can be done (think Jerry Yang and Jamie Gold), but you are more likely to see a Martin Jacobson or Joe McKeehen rise to the top these days.
I think that might change this year.
Mitchell Towner and Hung Le have given everyone hope that they aren’t just burning money. They aren’t wasting their time. They aren’t dumb for following their heart. That they can find the luck needed to make it all the way to the end of this most arduous of treks.
Jack Effel makes his way to the podium. The bulbs crack into life.
“I wish all of you the best luck in your journey. The next 10-days will be stressful but I am sure you will keep it together, play your best game, be respectful, follow the rules, and I promise you one of you will walk away with a bracelet – it always happens.”
Ty Stewart is next.
“Welcome to the best damn poker tournament in the world! Welcome to the best day of the year!”
Eric Danis of the Global Poker Index (GPI) introduces Mike Gorodinsky. He looks thin and frail compared to the banner that maximises his appearance behind him. He looks nervous. Hands in pockets.
“I know you are all excited and raring to go.” Says Gorodinsky, “So I won’t waste any time. Dealers – Shuffle Up and Deal.”
And it begins.
Hero v Villain.
And as I prepare to leave and bemoan for the sixth consecutive year that I am writing about the greatest poker tournament in the world instead of playing in it, I follow the hairs on my forearms trying to reach the rafters, and staring right back at me is Chris Ferguson. Black Stetson coated with a Full Tilt flavour. Dark sunglasses are covering his eyes. And although I can’t see a grin, I am sure that deep inside he is laughing at all of us. A deep, belly laugh, the type that you hear from the greatest Bond villains alive.
And I want him to lose.
I want them all to lose.