A snapshot of the build-up to the PokerStars Player’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship in the Bahamas through the eyes of one of the few people playing in the thing.
Had God’s hand reached out and grabbed the tail end of my journey from Atlanta to Nassau last night, The Hendon Mob (THM) would have gone into liquidation.
The greatest poker players this world has ever seen were sitting on my plane. The people chosen to figure such things out must have known I’m not worthy because I had the only spare seats.
What does that even mean – not worthy?
In poker-parlance, I’m talking about not being worthy enough to compete in the games where these magicians frequently wave their magic wands, but the blueprints have changed.
PokerStars has ripped them up.
$25,000 buy-in events are as common as a box of wooden matches in a kitchen on a council estate in 1980s Stockport, but this one – the PokerStars Player’s No-Limit Hold’em Championship – is a one of a kind.
It cannot happen again.
It would not be the same.
PokerStars has created a $25,000 buy-in tournament for EVERYONE.
For a man with working-class blood running through his veins, and the archetypal Rocky theme stitched into the fabric of my life like an arrow stitched into a tapestry bearing the name Bayeux it’s a game changer.
There is a pecking order in this world.
Someone gets to eat first, and typically, in poker, those people on my plane are the first to sit down and get beetroot juice on their hoodie. People like Isaac Haxton, Byron Kaverman, Scott Seiver and Nick Schulman.
300+ people will feel like those stars feel.
300+ people will have crickets inside their guts kicking up a storm.
300+ people will feel seen.
300+ people will feel heard.
300+ people will feel special.
And like the 300 Spartans who tried valiantly to protect the Hot Gates of Thermopylae, I want them to create a strong enough phalanx that will provide them with safe passage to the final table.
The Limo Ride
There is a ride waiting for me. Not any ride. THE ride. A Kardashian style stretch limo. I assume PokerStars has made a mistake. I must be sitting in the seat of a Platinum Pass winner.
Jeff Walsh from PocketFives gets in.
Typically, I would assume that Jeff is on his way to pick up his media credentials, but this isn’t a typical tournament.
“Are you playing?”
Jeff gives me that look.
There is a guy seated across from him.
It turns out the guy is from London and plays nosebleed Limit Hold’em cash games on PokerStars. I feel like I’m staring at a Dr Seuss character that likes Green Eggs and Ham. He’s playing, but he doesn’t know why. He hasn’t played a No-Limit Hold’em tournament for six-years, but someone from Stars gave him a call, and here he is – a $30,000 gift for being a loyal servant.
Value comes in many forms.
In the shadows, a guy who looks like Niall Farrell keeps appearing in my crosshairs. We keep staring, awkwardly, like young boys and girls, only this is boy on boy.
Is it Niall?
What if I ask him, and I’m wrong? Even worse, what if I’m right? I’ve interviewed the guy. He will think I’m mad.
When I arrive at the Atlantis, there is a whipped cream feel to the place. It’s like the scene in the Matrix where Neo is walking down the street, and everyone is bumping into him. He stops when he sees the woman in the red dress, and Morpheus explains that everyone is potentially an agent.
In this world.
Everyone is potentially a poker player.
I can’t keep up.
As I head to the reception area – I am high fiving some people, ignoring others, but I seem to recognise everyone. I feel guilty for not stopping and asking them how their PMS is, if the kids are ok, or if the magician’s wand they bought for Christmas is working.
Then I see the real Niall Farrell.
There is even a lookalike Niall Farrell.
I check in, and a few grinders are passing the time by mocking the event. They’re talking about Stars screwing SNE players. I think of elephants, and wonder why they are here. If you dislike this company so much, then find somewhere else to play.
You are here because PokerStars has done a marvellous job of creating the most hyped-up value-laden tournament of the year.
I pick up my keys, climb off my soapbox and head to bed.
The walk to the tournament area feels like walking down the tunnel that leads to a Coliseum. I feel giddy because of the bombardment of synchronised video feeds showing the story of the PCA, blitzed intermittently with the image of the man with his arms raised in the air in the middle of the PSPC logo.
Each time I look at him I see Rocky.
The theme is perfect – any bum can become a champion if given a chance.
The trophy is ridiculously large and golden, like some goose that lives in the clouds has laid it on a plinth. It looks like the sun. People stand and stare, unable to get away, like moths attracted by the light.
The room is cavernous.
Drapes fall from the ceiling continuing the Rome of old feelings about the place. The feature table looks tiny behind the backdrop of the splendour of the set. It’s one of the best I have seen.
There is an energy in the air that reminds me of the first time you attend the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a feeling I have never had in a sport before. Perhaps, poker allows a more magnificent gateway into these emotions because the game is more accessible to us mere mortals.
I can sit down and compete for a WSOP bracelet.
I am never going to win the FA Cup.
Everyone is here.
I see Dietrich Fast, Stephen Chidwick, Nick Petrangelo, Ole Schmeion.
I see Chad Holloway and Kevin Mathers.
I see Norm Macdonald and Tony Hawk.
I see Chino Rheem and Jennifer Harman.
There are cameras, videos, and booms.
Someone presses pause.
In walks, Daniel Negreanu, and the cameras, videos and booms immediately lock on to him. He struts down the aisle, stopping to take photographs with everyone and anyone. All that’s missing is a crown.
A discernable hum of chatter coats the air; you can’t make out a word of it, but you know that it’s excitable. Hairs stand up on your arm to salute those who are sitting down, and you start to wonder if you did enough to try and get into the game.
It’s so Hollywood.
Steve O’Dwyer is doing an interview; his face brightened up so much by the glare of the camera, I can see pieces of his breakfast in his beard.
Macdonald and Hawk take a selfie.
Bruce Buffer stands in front of the main stage with his fists in the air.
People are wearing Team Ireland t-shirts, others where the tribal colours of Run It Up, and there are those who wear their PokerStars baseball caps with pride.
Girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands photograph their other half secretly hoping that they at least min-cash so they can use the $25k as a deposit on a house before wondering – what do I do now?
Not even a lazy river can pull them away from the rail.
Not in a game full of Buffers, Bluffers and so many Duffers.
Buffer has his arms by his side.
Someone gives him a mic.
People push to the front of the rail as if they are in a Radiohead concert. Buffer growls through his gravel pit voice, and there are times I feel he is going to lose his shit; that a blood vessel will pop, or he will drop dead on the spot.
He pulls me in.
He pulls us all in.
Then he spits us out, along with the words Shuffle Up and Deal, and nobody wakes up.