Bet on it: Poker event captures imagination


A fact: My poker knowledge is zilch. You say backdoor, and I look for a wing cutting to the basket for a layup. The river to me is a place to fish. Someone mentioned Pot-limit Omaha on Friday, and I wondered why the Rio had a shortage of ribeyes.

But I am fascinated with any phenomenon, in the extraordinary growth of niche activities, in the reasons why an event like the World Series of Poker matures from 6,000 participants five years ago to an estimated 60,000 over the next 47 days, in the enormity of 900 dealers and 265 tables, in the magnetism of something that has more people walking away from the Rio pool than toward it on a day topless showgirls are scheduled to appear.

I also am amazed the term blind has nothing to do with all those players wearing sunglasses.

It's not a tournament. It's a massive happening. The 2008 WSOP began with a $10,000 buy-in event, and it took actress Shannon Elizabeth less than 50 minutes to lose her $20,000 in chips, which suggests not much card playing went on between all that dancing.

Something about the board being 10 high and Elizabeth being bounced with pocket aces when her opponent showed 10-10 for the top set and the river bringing another 10. Something I barely can type, much less understand.

Her quick exit sent whispers throughout the ballroom, more proof the celebrity aspect has helped poker reach this soaring level. Orel Hershiser played with an encased autographed baseball next to him, presumably signed by a Dodgers pitcher whose signature would be coveted by all those at his table.

(Clayton Kershaw?)

But famous faces haven't had near the impact on poker as Internet gaming or the fact ESPN decided you can make good television out of a guy wearing a Unabomber hood, shades, headphones made for airline cargo loaders while he plays cards leaning on a purple pillow, listening to an iPod and receiving a better massage than your average NFL player following a Sunday tussle.

Scary part: That guy was seen at more than one table Friday.

Television's impact is obvious again, to the point the Main Event's final table of nine bodies will be seated July 14 and not decided until Nov. 9 to 11, with ESPN on the 11th showing the final two days in prime time shortly after a winner is decided.

But that's 117 days between showdowns. It can't possibly take that long to pick out some of the wardrobes seen at these tables.

"I think (the delay) is good as the game hopes to reinvent itself and keep itself popular while continuing to grow and get more people interested," WSOP tournament director Jack Effel said. "It's like a big fight -- there will be buildup and hype waiting for that last table to start in November. Our hope is it will create even more interest in poker and get more people playing.

"Poker rooms were being closed down all over the country in the 1990s. I worked for some of them. But then came 2000 and 2001, and you saw a jolt of interest when television began showing more of it. It just blew up."

They try to give you hope by claiming amateurs have won the last six Main Events, but I'm guessing the term is relative. George Tallas agrees.

He was a NASCAR star in the 1970s and now lives in Las Vegas while selling art worldwide. He has played the WSOP four times and twice made the final table of a $1,500 buy-in event. He doesn't buy the notion you can walk away from here with millions of dollars and not own professional traits.

"You don't get to that Main Event final table as an amateur," said Tallas, 64. "You've learned something along the way. You have learned how to read people, which is the most important thing to winning."

I assume Doyle Brunson has read a few correctly. He is pointed out as the best to ever sit at a table and owns 10 championship bracelets as part of a jewelry collection that is said to rival Tiffany & Co.

How you know someone is a really big deal: His name and Web site is on the hat and shirts of countless players, many of whom wander by throughout the day to pay homage.

Brunson remembers when the WSOP was staged at Binion's Horseshoe, when what is now a monster congregation was merely a gathering of friends back in the 1970s.

"Benny Binion once said, 'You know, some day we may have 100 players in this,' " Brunson said. "Nobody in their wildest dreams could have ever imagined it being this big."

A phenomenon is like that sometimes.

Its growth can be as unpredictable as it is incredible.

Ed Graney's column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

 

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