Thursday, August 31, 2006

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) Diaries, Chapter Five: Media Day

-- a polar bear in a blizzard at the North Pole. Okay, it's T.J. Cloutier, in a white shirt against a white background, accepting the trophy denoting his Poker Hall of Fame induction.

Media Day at the '06 WSOP. It's one day before the start of the Main Event, and the press rooms were humming with breathless expectation. Well, not really, but busy enough. It's the day set aside at the WSOP to handle the business of promoting the event on a big scale. A couple of earlier events were working their way toward final tables, cash games and satellites were at their peak, and the Gaming Life Expo (what we just called the Lifestyle Show) was early in its four-day run. Busy times.

It's also when the WSOP holds its biggest press conference each year, since it's naturally when the biggest contingent of press is in town as well. The WSOP's Media Day turns out to be a much-of-the-day affair, beginning with a two-part press conference out in the casino proper, and concluding with the Media Poker Event. Yes, I played in that, and recounted my own tale of that entertainment over at my personal poker blog. Go read that if you yearn for first-person poker tales; this is more about the hubris and the hubbub, the WSOP as entertainment event.

However, to ensure solid attendance at the press conference, the WSOP did toss in one hook; the tickets for each media member's seat in the Media Event were available at a table set up outside the press conference, way at the other end of the casino, in the Masquerade Ballroom. So, unless you wanted to appear gauche and uncouth --- or, truly did not care --- you needed to attend the official conference and play cub reporter/photographer to play in the charity event.

It was fine by me. I detest overly windy press conferences as much as anyone else, but I still needed to gather material for stories, and one thing about press events I've learned through the years; they always make for an easy information grab at the basic level. Pap on a platter.

(And one aside: The Masquerade Ballroom is just to the east of the "hooker bar" made famous in several poker bloggers' reports from the Rio. But at three in the afternoon, when the press conference got underway, hookers were in short supply. Or maybe the sight of 200 "writer" types was enough to send them fleeing for saner, richer venues.)

The Masquerade Room turns out to be a modern amphitheatre, with a sunken main central floor vaguely reminiscent of a bullfight ring. A portion of the central area holds a few dozen chairs, in angled rows facing the stage. Behind these seats, another platform provides a perch for spots and cameras. Outside and above the central area, the room is ringed with rows of comfortable chairs, tables, and mini-booths, and I slide into one of these to watch the proceedings. I'm a good ways from the stage, but I don't plan on asking any questions. First year on the scene? Time to watch and learn.

A few minutes late (meaning right on time), the press conference begins with the expected collection of Harrah's and WSOP suits... Jeffrey Pollack, Nolan Dalla, Gary Thompson, and others. It's facts-and-figures time, such as that the 38 events before the Main Event included a total of 34,973 entries, with a total combined prize pool of almost $75 million. Toss in the Main Event and the late second-chance events, and the final combined prize pool must have been somewhere in the neighborhood of $165 milion.

The point is made. It's all about corporate sponsorship and the big bucks, and the thank-yous go out to all the corporations who've paid those big bucks to have their logos splattered all over the Amazon Room. Main Event Registration is confirmed as having topped 8,000, and it's here, in the first Q&A session, that Pollack is queried about Mikey the Chimp having been registered, and emphatically snaps off a reply that "no chimp has been entered," nor will one. It's been reported elsewhere that Pollack says "no fucking monkey," but I don't have that in my notes for this event, so I can't confirm it, and I don't remember those words. Pollack might have said that separately, anyway. Nonetheless, Pollack's tone suggests that he's had enough of the joke, and that's the last we hear of Mikey.

It's on to the next phase, though it's still the first part of the conference. It's time for the annual inductions into the Poker Hall of Fame, and just for this I'm happy to be in attendance. This year's inductees are Billy Baxter and T.J. Cloutier. Baxter talks about the long heritage of the game and how he's had the fortune to watch it morph into the giant thing it has become, and T.J. growls a bit in his aw-shucks manner about the three things he's always wanted --- to win the Main Event, to (now) win the new H.O.R.S.E. event, and to be inducted. He also mentions that he's been told on previous occasions that he's been up for HoF induction, and that this year, it finally came to pass.

Then the previous year's (and still reigning) champ, Joe Hachem, joins Baxter and Cloutier on the stage, and a second Q&A session begins. The first question asked of Hachem makes me feel glad I didn't get to look like such an idiot --- the reporter asks him how it felt to be an online-qualifier champion, as contrasted with the old days represented by Cloutier and Baxter.

Hachem straightens him out right quick. "You need to get your facts straight before you ask questions." Hachem then reminds the writer and everyone else that he was not an online qualifier, but ponied up the full $10,000 buy-in on a last-moment decision.

It's not an auspicious start to the Q&A, but then another media rep manages to look even more stupid. This guy, repping one of the Vegas radio stations, addresses Cloutier and Baxter with his dumb, obvious question, but he doesn't even know who Baxter is. "And you, over there," the writer asks, turning to Baxter, "I'm sorry, I can't remember your name..."

Lord. If you can't be bothered to remember the name of who you're speaking to at a freakin' press conference, then write the damn thing down before you open your mouth. And besides, any poker reporter covering the WSOP who has no clue who Billy Baxter is, ought not be to be turned loose on an unsuspecting public. Most of us drool at the thought of winning one WSOP bracelet --- Baxter's already won seven. Yes, those were against much smaller fields, but that was the cream of poker, too: seven bracelets is a feat by any standards. And for the modern pop-culture fans, note that Baxter was the primary backer for Stuey Ungar during Ungar's later years; it was Baxter's generosity and faith that allowed Ungar to win his third Main Event title, the only person to have done so.

So, yeah. At least I wasn't that idiot.

This session runs its course as well, and then it's on to the second half of the conference, the official kickoff for the poker movie, Lucky You. The movie's director, Curtis Hanson, waxes very long about how his love affair with poker led him to make this movie, and it turns out that a number of famous players make cameo appearances in the film --- Barry Greenstein and Jason Lester among them, and Lester served as the resident poker expert during production. Two big poker stars who were at the conference were then mentioned as being the people upon which a couple of the movie's characters were based, those stars being Doyle Brunson and Jennifer Harman. I'd thought they were there for the induction ceremony, and they might have been, but they were commanded there for their connection to the movie.

The special guest star announced as making an appearance at the conference turns out to be Drew Barrymore, and she spends most of her stage time fussing with her hair, posing and preening and not looking at the audience. I have an immediate dislike for her, based on nothing more than her ridiculous, over-the-top affectations. I'd tell you what she said, but it was mindless drivel, all of it.

Then we get to see the trailer for the movie. Oh, boy. Eric Bana plays the lead, the stereotypical young poker hustler out to make his mark on the world. Right away, we can see this film's derivative nature when the Bana character wins a hand with a bluff and follows it up by saying "Sometimes nothing's enough." It's an obvious reference to Paul Newman's classic line from Cool Hand Luke, where Luke says, "Sometimes nothing's a pretty good hand."

There's a fine line between an ad homage and a cheesy ripoff. And soon enough, it's clear that audiences will be treated to the whiff of Camembert in the morning.

Take Robert Duvall's character, for instance, which Hanson tells us is based on Texas Dolly. We see several scenes featuring Duvall, and it appears his character has one expression throughout: surly. Granted, there may be some plot twists later in the movie that change things around, but the Duvall character looked as plastic as they come in the short span we were priveleged to see.

Lucky You. Lucky us? Just in that after the last Q&A session fizzled into air, we could escape back to the Convention Center, and the real poker itself. Lucky You did not impress itself upon me as a film I need to see, star presence notwithstanding.

No comments: