Saturday, August 05, 2006

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) Diaries, Chapter One: A Strange, Strange World

(Your blogger welcomes you to the first in a series of WSOP tales, presented in a loose, diary-like format. But don't think that these are a bunch of "I" tales, because they're not.)

What's the first thing you might notice when entering the Amazon Room, the convention hall housing the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas?

It could be the smell. Depending on the efficacy of the hall's ventilation system --- and the quantity and quality of the prior night's parties (or lack thereof) --- the sour whiff of unwashed human male up-slaps the nostrils. It's a temporary thing, fortunately. After a couple of days it's like everything else, fading into the background excepting the momemts when one stumbles near the exceptionally reeky bastard who wouldn't know a washcloth from a monogrammed forefinger.

The second thing you might notice is the high-toned clacking of chips, almost "Jingle Bells"-like in its unceasing rhythm. If clay can sing, it does so here.

Things 3-A and 3-B are a study in contrast. The first is the enormous size of the room, the table lights dangling from the ceiling and disappearing into the distance like one of those infinity images your eyes feed your brain when you stand between two mirrored walls. No photo I've seen does the sight justice, because the photos can't capture the depth of the 30-something-thousand-foot hall. And the contrast is that despite the hugeness of the place, the lowest six feet of atmosphere is cramped. There are only a couple of main "railed" corridors, quartering the rectangular hall like a cross, and those corridors are only seven or eight feet wide and are often stuffed with railbirds. Inside the rails are the tables, well over 200 of them, stuffed into every corner, and when they're full there's often no room to walk between one table and the next, the seats and players are jammed so close together.

It's not a mob scene, but it is crazed. And it's intimidating.

It takes some time to learn the structure of the room, to realize what parts of the action are late-tournament tables, what parts are early, what area is the cash games and what area hosts the satellites. During the Main Event, naturally, all the tables are reserved for tournament use. It stays that way for hours, though once enough outer tables have been broken, the players sent to fill seats at other tables deeper in where the losers have departed, cash games and satellites are allowed to resume. The tables broken first are those nearest the west access hallway, and the players deepest in are those most shielded from prying eyes. Also deepest in is the ESPN feature table area, a roped-off section about the size of a volleyball court that holds one poker table, ringed on two sides by some cheapie four-row aluminum bleachers of the type guaranteed to raise butt pimples if one forgets a cushion, and completed on the other two sides by the empty area where the ESPN cameras are clustered and the open-air studio that controls the works. Much of the time, though, the whole area is deserted, a cloth draped over the table's felt.

The logical first step is a trip around the outside of the room, then down whatever aisles allow access at the time. This lets one see the cash games and satellite area up close... and to sign up if desired... but there's no way for the casuall fan to walk around to the back side of the tournament area to obtain a better view. That's service area only, patrolled by security. Despite that, it's easy enough to tell where the famous names are sitting even if you don't have access to the sheets showing the day's starting chip counts and seat assignments: just look for the tables where the cameras swarm and the writers hover. If it's a really big name within a couple tables of the rail, and its in one of the times when fans have access, then the task is even easier --- just look to see where the birds' attention is directed. Foolproof. As the day grinds on, tables are closed and the players are reassigned, the onlookers become an even more reliable indicator of where the biggies sit.

The next thing you learn is to duck the 900-lb. gorilla in the room, that being the ESPN crews. They're brash and they rush around and bang through and into other media, tournament staff and players alike; they've paid the big bucks for the show and they're going to run it the way they see fit. Same goes for the Card Player staff, and many of them seem without a clue; others report that a lot of these yellow-notepad toters who report chip counts back to the Card Player tables at the west end of the hall are interns who don't know a whole lot about the game. It shows, of course, and you can't walk two tables without dodging another chip counter, but I'm inside the rail with the same sense of bewilderment, at least my first day or two in the Convention Center. It's a whole new scene.

Outside the Amazon Room the scene carries a similar frenzy, particularly surrounding the break periods when players rush out of or into the game. The halls are lined with vendors and information booths; a few sell poker-related products of one form or another, but the majority don't. Most of the booths that aren't selling something are giving something away, from items as common and simple as pens, chips and magazines to CDs, baseballs (an off-the-plate concept from Absolute), drawings for trips, cars and larger prizes. It seems as though everything that can be tied to poker and then given away is somehow available here as a prize, and if it's been overlooked in the rush, it's probably available in the WSOP Souvenir Shop that also occupies a prominent spot. Amazingly, when the Lifestyle show opens a few days later, all that stuff is taken to another level. But we'll save the Lifestyle show for a separate post, because it deserves it.

The hallways have plenty else, besides. Opposite the poker mecca that's the Amazon Room, a number of rooms have been rented and set up as "hospitality suites" by the big online sites. The four closest to the poker action are Full Tilt, Bodog, Ultimate Bet and Doyle's Room, and each has their own theme and satchel of goodies, awaiting distrbution. The best goodies might be those in liquid form at the Bodog suite, where a beer or a cocktail requires but the asking. Other rooms also have a presence, either farther up the corridor or along the main hallway that connects the Rio's Convention Center to the casino, a zig-zaggy trek of a quarter mile that soon becomes as familiar a walk as any in the place. Poker Stars' suite is fairly close to the poker action, Ladbrokes and some larger distance away. Stars turns out to be the nomad of the bunch, moving from a suite in a side corridor to a location in the Lifestyle show when another business group's prior reservation supercedes the space, and after the Lifestyle show closes, they're off again, to parts unknown. By the time they've made their second move I no longer care enough to find out where they've gone. That's how quickly jaded one can get.

The media center is buried at the far end of the farthest hall, about where it should be. It's at the end of a secondary hallway, behind a side door that leads into the back of the Doyle's Room suite --- and Doyle sightings occur every day, as he does signings and photo posings most mornings --- and the opposite side has three small rooms that ESPN has set up for thiose studio shots you see on TV. Early on there might be a sign posted in the hallway reading, "Quiet, please. Interview in progress." By the time the Main Event starts, ESPN gives up the pretense of removing and returning the sign. With a security guard at the front stopping most interlopers, it's about as quiet a spot as there is in the Convention Center, regardless.

The hallways are tiled and high, and though the suites and Amazon Room are carpeted, it's still easy to feel the concrete underneath. It's an absolutely normal convention-hall setup; only the names have changed, as they will again when poker takes itself down the road.

When I return and have access to my photos, I'll drop a few in to better illustrate the scene. It's busy but cold, high, hard and impersonal. Everyone has an agenda... or a dream.

No comments: