Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) Diaries, Chapter Two: The Lifestyle Show

I'm sure it had some fancier name, but that's all anyone called it --- the lifestyle show --- and for several days preceding the Main Event it occupied a chunk of the largest room in the Rio's Convention Center. Once Day One play begins, the show closes down, despite the fact that most of the players there aren't playing on any specific day. Is the show targeted to the player or to the fans? That's never quite clear. What is clear is that the show was the world's largest assemblage of corporate huckstering ever dedicated to poker, and if HR 4411 should somehow pass, it won't be approached any time soon.

It's still not that large, as corporate shows go, despite all the press that you hear. There are perhaps 150 booths spread out over maybe 20,000 square feet. Aisles criss-cross the floor but don't run straight through; the center area is where most of the biggest booths lie, promoting the largest online sites, and each of them has some gimmick designed to draw the traffic in and make it stick. Giveaways? Lord, you can't dodge them, and if you were really intent on collecting a large pile of swag, it's no problem at all to leave the room with bags full of stuff, on the free. Hell, Paradise Poker will even supply the nice tote bag for you, if you ask.

There are giveaways small and large, and the lines and crowds ebb and flow between one and the next. Party Poker has a game where you're invited in for a hand of cards, taking one of six or seven spots at a table where two brainless models misread your hand and award each of you the cheapest available prize. (This mimics the real Party Poker experience in a most uncanny way.) Other sites are more serious. Paradise is giving lots of trinkets, plus a big chunk of cash every hour --- they have a weird scratch-off game going that's awarding $10,000 an hour or something to one lucky winner, each of whom starts with a non-random hand on a card obtained from one of the models working the corners of their display area.

It's easy enough to pass the first level, should one choose: just make visits to each of the models in turn and obtain the card (with a partial hand on it) that they're handing out --- then you and the few dozen others who have the same starting hand win the chance to move on for the chance at the cash. But I'm bored with it, and though I see the angle, I don't bother.

Bodog's being Bodog, in a most predictable way. They're just inside the front entrance to the show, in a primo location, though in the early hours of the first day it's not clear what their shtick will be. They've built a bi-level affair, with a lounge area below and a bedroom scene up above, and it's weird... that is, not very poker-y in whatever it's designed to do. A few hours later they've finally got the thing up and running --- a line of young males waits for their turn to climb up the stairs and jump into the bed (fully clothed) between a couple of the Bodog bimbettes, who playfully swat each of the supplicants with feather pillows for a minute or two. All the while the whole scene is recorded for the visitor's posterity --- each man looking like a lap-danced puppy while the scene is in progress --- and is aired on a giant screen display attached to the outside wall down below.

It's also the same main aisle that the visiting fans/players must navigate to venture deeper into the show, or --- since for a couple of days another show takes up neighboring space in the hall --- and the only way to reach the Amazon Room, at the back of the Convention Center, where the poker itself is being played, is to go through the lifestyle show.

Poker's not for children, nor is Vegas, but it's impossible not to imagine some family type wrestling his family down the corridors of the Convention Center, intent on showing his spouse and young teens how corporate and upscale, how respectable, the game has become. And in the first few steps inside the lifestyle show, they're all presented with a mock pillow fight centered on some schmo who's about to cream his jeans.

You want cars and trucks? Absolute's giving one away, as are several others. Paradise isn't the only one giving away large chunks of cash, and there are a half-dozen poker trips and high-buy-in awards to events like the Aussie Millions and the Borgata WPT up for grabs as well. The stage at the far end of the hall offers a wedge of the new Xbox 360 consoles, with the new poker game coming out for the system; attached to upright dispays so that people down on the floor can view them, the contraptions look like space-age weight-machine refugees from bad Chuck Norris informercials.

The big names of poker make occasional signing appearances; some of the strong but secondary names have their own booths inside the room. Cyndy Violette hawks her perky looks and her bright-pastel t-shirts and tanks with holistic, Kabbalah-congruent sayings; she's in there the first day herself, slugging boxes and sorting merchandise before turning the running of the booth over to others. Violette make a deep run in the WSOP days later, and each day she's wearing a different one of the tops she sells at the table. All her stuff, the clothes and related merchandise, is of the holistically-themed, "accentuate the positive" variety. At her table she keeps a handful of the cut and polished stones that she also sells. One is a small, handcut stone turtle cut in the Chinese fashion; the others are mostly flattened, polished disks, each with a word or two of self-belief cut or press-cast into the stone: "THINK POSITIVE," "IMAGINE," "BELIEVE," "KEEP FOCUSED." This is Cyndy's world. I doubt she and, say, Antonio Esfandiari, chum much with the same crowd.

Speaking of Antonio, a short time before the show opens and he's due to sit at the UB booth and sign photos, he staggers down the back hallway by the UB suite, looking like hammered shit. Nice party, kid. Soon enough he's got about a third of a game face on, and he's slotted in at the UB table, where fanboys offer verbal blowjobs to he, Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth.

Hellmuth digs it, of course, as you can see.

Annie doesn't buy any of it. She's just there for the money, and if that means offering small, polite smiles and signing a few dozen photos, then so be it --- it's as good an early-afternoon gig as any. Greg Raymer's over at the Poker Stars booth only 20 feet away, doing the same thing.

Beyond the biggest sites, the secondary and niche players fill up the remaining space. The biggest magazines make their presence felt through magazine racks, giveaways, and banners out on the floor, while the smaller ones grab a booth here and hand out magazines. But magazines are the least of it. In no particular order, one can find apparel, artwork, poker tables, electronic "poker" clocks and displays, poker bobbleheads, posters, photos, books, mousepads, software, custom chip sets, cards, cards and more cards... the list goes on and on.

Eventually, one finds the back door, just between the Trademark Poker "spin the wheel" giveaway --- one of three in the room --- and Jill Ann Spaulding, at her quiet "Top Pair Magazine" booth in the corner. It's off to the poker itself, which is rather more sane.

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