Thursday, April 20, 2006

"Money, get away. Get a good job with good pay and you're okay." - Roger Waters
I thought L.A. traffic was bad. Las Vegas traffic is getting ridiculous. Without traffic, it's 15 minutes from Grubby's apartment in Henderson to the Bellagio. It took me almost ninety minutes when I got stuck in the bottleneck of 215 merging with 15. Then I got fucked on Las Vegas Blvd. stuck in a standstill behind a new double decker city bus. I ended up listening to an entire set of Galactic from their epic Mardi Gras show at Tipitina's in New Orleans and parts of Widespread Panic's Halloween show from a few months ago. As the music kept me mellow and away from traffic tilt, an endless stream of pedestrians five and six deep walked in front of the Bellagio fountains as I waited for twelve minutes to reach the entrance. I can't wait until they open up their new parking deck and I can take the super shortcut the backway via Frank Sinatra Drive.

The Bellagio's security guards stop you before you enter the self-parking. They ask to look into your trunk before you can pass. I wonder what they expect to find? It's the illusion of safety and that allows people to sleep at night and feel more comfortable losing their money at the Bellagio since it's terrorist free.

The lower levels were all packed and I had to park up near the top. That's an indication that people are losing money at an astounding rate. Everytime I've been to the Bellagio over the past six years, it's been packed. Mid-afternoons at the Bellagio are populated with sunburnt tourists with digital cameras snapping multiple photos of the aromatic flower conservatory and the psychedelic Chihuly ceiling sculpture in the lobby. After covering several events at the Bellagio and playing in the poker room for a plethora of sessions, I know the floor layout fairly well, which includes the shortcut from the parking garage to the Fontana Room. You still have to navigate the lobby filled with slow-walking sightseers. Some actually go into the casino and lose their money. Most of them don't take the bait and just snap photos then leave.

As I got close to the Fontana Room, I pulled my press badge out of my sports coat. I wore jeans and my Vermont hockey t-shirt. I threw the jacket on to look slightly more classy and like an official member of the media, instead of a hack blogger with too many spelling errors and delusions of grandeur. I had a camera slung around my shoulder with a pad and pen in one pocket and my voice recorder in the other. I didn't bring a laptop since I wasn't going to be doing any live blogging. It felt good traveling light. With so much media cover the WPT these days, I figured what's the point? It's like forty squirrels chasing after the same nut, or forty horny guys trying to fuck the same girl.

Besides, with all the lackluster coverage out there from new and old media outlets (including some I've never even heard of before) it might make my previous work stand out even more. Besides, I was taking a new approach to covering tournaments... less work and more fun.

"I never show up on day one anyway," I told Spaceman when he called me this morning wondering when I was going to show up.

"You're the Phil Hellmuth of the media. You come late and still win," he joked.

So I skipped the first day of action on Tuesday to stay at home and write all day. My strategy was to spend more and more time at the Bellagio as the tournament progresses. With 90 minute levels and $50K in chips to start, sitting around waiting for something to happen in the first three days of a seven day tournament is like trying to watch water boil. I've covered enough tournaments to know it's worthless for me to live blog anything until the last three tables. My goal was to take photos and talk to pros and my friends in the media.

I spotted a crowd of poker fans and enthusiasts milling around the front of the Fontana Room like a a rabid circle of vultures ready to devour a dying carcass. A few random poker pros smoked cigarettes near slot machines and I quickly realized that they were on a break. I spotted Jen Harman taking photos with a few fans as they whipped out their cell phones and took several blurry photos.

"One more photo Jen, please! You're my favorite poker player!"

More fans circled around Marcel Luske, sporting a $4,000 tailored suit from London. Marcel always looks like a million bucks and always accomodates picture requests. He had his arm around two fans on each side of him as he blinked when the flash went off from one of the cameras. The Unabomber posed in front of a dozen tourists as they snapped photos like a drunken menagerie of Japanese businessmen. I elbowed and sidestepped my way past the carnage towards the entrance of the Fontana Room. It was a cluster fuck there too, with players leaving and entering and fans gawking and relatives of players trying to get quick updates. The geniuses who set up the tournament decided to place a souvenir stand right in front of the entrance to maximize profits, but made it almost impossible to get by. I walked past the embankment of star gazing tourists hopelessly cluthcing sharpies and random poker magazines and desperately seeking autographs from their favorite pros.

I flashed my press badge to the large security guards in the maroon blazers. They didn't blink as I walked right by them. I took two steps into the Fontana Room when Spaceman and Joy stopped me. They were on their way out.

"Wanna get a drink?"

I've been on the job for less than thirty seconds before we hit the bar right in front of the Fontana Room. Late night it's usually filled with working girls, but at 3:30pm on a Wednesday, it was packed with poker people. As we sat down, Scotty Nguyen was getting up. He had a drink in one hand and some serious bling dangled around his neck.

"Scotty my man," I said as I shook his hand.

"What's up baby?" he quickly answered.

We ordered beers and I considered a SoCo, but declined at the last second. The SoCo meant a commitment to serious drinking. I can't just have one of those and if I did I get sucked into a dozen of dial-a-shots. I can hit and run with a beer and picked a Corona. I paid for the first round, $21 for three beers. I tossed $25 on the video poker machine in front of me and the bartender swooped it up. I thanked Joy again for getting me into the Playboy Mansion. She told me that I could come back again next year. Joy fuckin' rules. I made a secret pact with myself to buy her drinks whenever I see her for the remainder of both our lives.

I spotted Steve Hall who told me he was working for Martin's Room. He pointed out where Liz Lieu was sitting. After our drinks we stood out front for a few minutes. I saw Gavin Smith who was busted yesterday. His shot at winning Player of the Year is in jeopardy if The Grinder and Barry Greenstien do well at the WPT Championships. I began to see random people wearing press badges that I had never seen before. That's how it's been this year. Every event more and more squirrels are showing up trying to hump the same nut.

Steve Rosenbloom appeared out of nowhere as he stepped out of the dense crowd.

"It's good to see you Pauly," he said as he shook my hand and chewed gum at the same time, "Nice of you to end your early retirement."

Word got out in the media that I had been skipping events. Somehow my hiatus got blown into a rumor that I quit which was partially correct. At any rate, it was an honor to be missed by Rosenbloom. He's the only legitimate journalist covering poker today. I'll always have images of him at the 2005 WSOP, chomping on a cigar and sipping a glass of scotch in the hallway of the Rio writing his column because the media room was jam packed with media types the majority of which couldn't even write a coherent paragraph, let alone snap a decent photo.

The rest of us media reps are two-bit shysters and hacks compared to Steve Rosenbloom. He's still a Chicago Tribune columnist with a syndicated poker column in over 50 national newspapers. He also has a book out called The Best hand I Ever Played. He's covered baseball, hockey, and even the Chicago Bulls during their halcyon championship years.

And he gave me some amazing advice about writing and dealing with incompetent superiors.

"Get to them before they get to you!"

I asked him how he never went crazy in all the years he's covered sports under the biggest scrutiny and immense pressure of writing for the Tribune.

"I love what I do and realize there are a thousand guys who would kill me to get my job," he said straight up. "And poker is great because the players are much more interesting that professional athletes."

He pretty much summed up why I should be grateful for what I do and he shined a light on the aspects of my good fortune and position in the poker media. In short, he told me to have fun with what I'm doing and don't be afraid to pitch exactly what I want to do to my editors.

Spaceman, Rosenbloom and I ended up talking about sports for a good twenty minutes. We started on baseball and he told us a few tales about covering the California Angels back in the 1980s. The topic quickly got steered to the upcoming NHL playoffs and we marveled at my NY Rangers implosion and about how hot the NJ Devils have been playing. Rosenbloom thought that it could be possible to see a Devils and Redwings Stanley Cup. Sure, the Redwings have to get past Edmonton, but I understood where he was coming from. Oh, and before I left the Bellagio, I went to the sportsbook and put money on both teams. A tip from Rosenbloom is better than gold.

I decided it was time to actually do some work and I went inside to the Fontana Room. Since the buy-in was $25,000, all the riff-raff were not around. There were a few internet qualifiers and satellite winners, but not as many as the $10K events on the WPT. 606 players entered trying to win the first place prize of $3.7 million. The majority of the entrants were the top pros minus Isabelle Mercier who chose not to play. I saw NYC's Shane Schleger, Erik Seidel, Chau Giang, Huck Seed, Jen Tilly, Per Ummer, and Freddy Deeb right away.

As I went to snap a photo of Evelyn Ng sitting next to Carlos Mortensen, I realized my camera was out of batteries. I made a rookie mistake and forgot to check my batteries before I went to work. Oh well. I turned off the camera and slung it around my shoulder. I decided to talk to my fellow friends in the media who were scattered on couches that encircled the back wall. In previous events, Poker Wire and Cardplayer shared the small desk on a perch. BJ and the girls would let me stash my bag back there and power up my laptop when it ran out of juice. The WPT took that over and over thirty media people were spread out fighting for space. I took pleasure in knowing that I didn't have to worrying about that.

I talked with Jen and Heather from Poker Wire. Jen wondered where my brown jacket went. She went to Duke and I joked around about their lacrosse team. Heather told me about her new apartment in Summerlin as I said "Hi," to Sharla from PokerPages. Spaceman and I wandered out to the patio as Andy Black walked past us with shades sitting upside down on his head. We saw Juha Helpi giving an interview with the WPT crew. In the corner, Gus Hansen conducted an interview as Chau Giang stood outside and chain smoked. He'd smoke a full cigarette, go inside and play a a few hands then come back out for another smoke. He knew it was more important to survive the first day and smoke cigarettes than play too many hands and risk all his chips in the first few levels.

"I thought you were retired?" wondered CardPlayer's Scott Huff as he wandered by.

"Nope. Men's Urology Magazine is paying me $1,200 to write 2K words on the peeing habits of professional gamblers."

The last time I saw Scott Huff was at the Playboy Mansion a few weeks ago. His girlfriend was drinking heavily and tried to talk to the spider monkeys. I spent too much time down there getting wasted myself.

When I walked back inside, the all blonde Liz Lieu smiled and gave me a four fingered hello wave. I wandered over to the Poker Wire girls and chatted with Heather and Amanda.

"We missed you Pauly," said Amanda in her subtle North Carolina drawl, "and I've been reading your blogs everyday."

Amanda first cut her teeth in tournament reporting at the LA Poker Classic two months ago. In a short time, she became a veteran and told me how much fun she was having getting to travel all over America and staying in nice hotels and being around poker. She reminded me how cool it was that we got to do what we do. I'm sure it was her fresh perspective on things since she's still new to the business, but like my conversation with Steve Rosenbloom, a few things Amanda said struck a nerve. She was right. We had a cool job, despite all the bullshit we had to put up with.

The Poker Wire girls told me that I needed to come back to the circuit. It made me feel a little guilty about taking time away and I also felt humbled that I was sincerely missed over the last few events. One of the hardest parts of cutting back my schedule was not being able to hang out and see some friends that I made in the trenches over the past year. I cannot tell you how many late nights I bonded with the Poker Wire girls and BJ at 3am, as we sat glued to the laptops with our eyes on the tables waiting and praying for something to happen. Although we all had different personalities, we all got along and respected each other's work and individual talents. That's rare these days.

I had dinner plans with my buddy Friedman in Summerlin and left the Bellagio early. Again I felt guilty that everyone was hard at work while I took a lax approach to the event and drank on the job and bullshitted with Gavin Smith and William Rockwell while worker bees ran out onto the floor to get obsolete chip counts. I became the guy that I fuckin' hated during my previous tournaments, the one who did not work and had all the fun. I reminded myself that I was there to enjoy myself first and work was secondary. Shit, I was at the largest WPT event of all time and I wanted to live in the moment and survey the carnival like atmosphere. It reminded me of that night I slipped two hits of liquid sunshine under my tongue and watched one of my fraternity brother's hamster eat three of it's babies as we listened to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

As I walked out of the room and walked past the hordes of fans and tourists held back by the surly security guards in maroon jackets, a warm feeling settled in my stomach. For the first time in months I noticed the little things that made this job simply amazing and fun.

Life is about small simple pleasures.

I forgot about that and allowed negative thoughts to clutter my mind for months and I finally got to focus on what's amazing about doing what I do. It's the little things like drinking with Spaceman on a break at the hooker bar or dishing dirt and gossip with Joy. Or hanging out with the Poker Wire girls. Or getting a smile from Liz Lieu when I waved at her. Or talking playoff hockey with a real sportswriter like Rosenbloom. Or staring at the fake boobs the size of Volvos on some of the models that random poker rooms hire to pimp their product.

I had a great dinner and a few hours of conversation with Friedman during my post-Bellagio trip to Summerlin. We went to some Nevada themed tavern and he told me that I seemed happier and in a good head space. I was for the first time in a while. I finally got to watch the Sopranos and it was one of the better episodes of the year. As I drove home from Summerlin to Henderson from one edge of the Las Vegas suburbs to the other, I drove past the exit on I-15 where the Redneck Riviera was located and pulled off the highway. The blinking In-n-Out Burger sign made my mouth salivate like Pavlov's frothing dog. I stopped for a chocolate shake to enjoy for the rest of the drive back as I listened to the Beatles' Abbey Road.

That was the same In-n-Out Burger where I ate at twice a week when I lived a few blocks away during the 2005 WSOP. I was tempted to drive through and check up on my old stomping grounds at the Redneck Riviera, but I wisely decided against it. I didn't want to get carjacked by a shirtless tweaker with a tear-drop tattoo who had been up for two weeks straight or get caught up in a drug sweep during a meth lab bust from Las Vegas's SWAT and anti-narcotics team.

I drove back to Henderson as Polythene Pam blasted on the CD player. With the windows down, the cool Nevada air swirled around my rental car. I sipped on my thick shake and thought about what I was gonna write for the Tao of Poker, LasVegasVegas, and for Poker Player Newspaper as I glanced at the glimmering lights of the Strip fading away in the rearview mirror.

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