Monday, August 14, 2006

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. - The Serenity Prayer
I glanced in the rearview mirror and I saw the outline of the Las Vegas Strip. The Luxor's light was not visible because it was 6am and the sun slowly crept over the mountains. I smiled. How could I not? Since June of 2005, I spent 24% of my life living in Las Vegas covering the World Series of Poker. As I sped off towards Henderson, the shrinking image of the Strip in the mirror was a welcomed reminder that the gig was over. Just a couple hours earlier Jamie Gold won $12 million. The WSOP was complete and that meant I finally got to go home.

Think about what I saw over seven weeks. ESPN crams that into dozens of hours of poker programming. That's the exciting stuff. I had to sit through the boring shit (do you even know who won 1,500 Omaha Hi/Lo?), the drama (dealers quiting on the spot), the excitement (Chip Reese winning $50K Horse), the hype (insert Jeffrey Pollock), the bitterness (see the faces of the red badge media), and now the post-WSOP hungover lingers after a 46 day bender. I actually feel a little lost by not driving to the Rio every morning.

Living at Treasure Island was tough. Staying in any casino for more than a week sucks you into looming suicidal tendencies of the Plathian sort. You always hear about the old woman from Arizona who won a $1 million jackpot, but you never hear about the lonely guy who leaps to his death after one last bender in Las Vegas, or the shifty-eyed serial killer who shacks up at the Redneck Riviera with a transvestite hooker before he offs himself with a nail gun to the temple.

For the last two weeks of the WSOP, the first human interaction I'd see when I stepped off the elevator was a blue haired 80 year-old chain smoking grandma. She'd be sitting a row of slot machines and pumping her entire social security check in a Wheel of Fortune machine.

That's the first reminder from the unlucky fallen angel that has the troublesome assignment of steering me away from danger in order to get back in the good graces of the Almighty. I can hear her whispering into my ears the names of six of the Seven Deadly Sins. As I take my first wobbly steps onto the casino floor, temptation surrounds me everywhere. Behind every slot machine. Behind every deck of cards. Behind every rattle of the dice. Behind every "all you can eat buffet." Behind every stripper pole. Behind ever seat at the Hooker Bar and underneath every kilt of the waitresses at the Tilted Kilt. Depravity, decadence, and desperation are within my grasp.

It's so easy to fall in this town. And when people fall, they fall hard. And fast. God's angels are not here to catch you. They stay the fuck out of the Las Vegas valley. Only the Mormons on a mission dare enter Sin City and most of them get hooked on Keno or crystal meth before they head back to Utah.

Just walk through the airports and look around. You'll discover that the people waiting in line to board JetBlue flight #199 to JFK are cluttered with losers. Peek into their souls. Feel what they feel. The hangovers. The indigestion. The sexual indiscretions. The losses. The bad beats. The bad luck. The foul stench of failure keeps the lights shining and the table games going and the free cocktails coming.

Jamie Gold won the WSOP championship and I can't tell if that's good or bad for poker. A lot of folks don't like Jamie Gold or what he represnts (BoDog and Hollyweird). I gathered this from the word on the street, from the talk in the hallways at the Rio, from the small sample of emails and comments I've gotten since Gold won, plus the fact he hired body guards to follow him around due to threats of physical violence. Gold might be the first world champion since the poker boom started that the public might vehemently hate. And Americans love to hate someone. Ask Martha Stewart, Barry Bonds, George Bush, or the French. Without hate it would be hard for most of us to get out of bed in the morning.

Regardless, Gold's win will ensure both me and my friends in the media a job next year. Thanks to Gold, I have job security through next year's WSOP. I can take off the next four months to travel and write, and still get a gig for the 2007 WSOP... which is going to be bigger, more badass, and 1000% more commercialized. The suits made promises to have nightly shootouts in the parking lot, naked models turning tricks in the port-o-poddies, plus a fast-food burger chain will take over all of the catering and serve free McSandwiches to all the players provided they were a McHat or McShirt if they make a McFinal table. And they agreed to force feed Zoloft to all of their dealers next year. They won't complain as much and promise not riot when they get stiffed in their paychecks.

Seriously, some of the online poker sites paid up to $250,000 on models this year. That's where your rake went... to pay some ditzy blonde with fake breasts (that cost more than your bankroll) to stand around freezing their nipples off while they pass out free poker chips. I mean how seriously am I supposed to take the WPA when they have a booth in the hallway of the Rio a few feet away from the Sapphire Lounge strippers?

The WSOP was a farce. Poker is not a sport. It's a cheap thrill. Playing in the WSOP main event used to mean something. Now it's as common as a tourist scoring weed in the airport in Montego Bay or flying to Paris to take the same picture of yourself standing in front of the Eiffel Tower than eighty fuckin' billion other uncreative souls took. Online poker sites sent over 4,000 players to the WSOP. Half those guys can't even balance their checkbooks or hold a steady job. They had no business playing in the most prestigious tournament in the world.

Yet they flocked to the Rio like branded pilgrims heading to Mecca. The most religious piety that poker players will undertake is their own personal Hajj to play in the WSOP sponsored by PokerStars, Party Poker, Full Tilt, Paradise Poker... dot net, of course.

Alas, there's nothing I can do about this insanity, aside from think about the good old days, when men were men and poker players packed heat at the tables as they sat with their backs to the wall in a cramped smoky back room at the Horseshoe. You'd find Doyle Brunson chomping on a cigar, flinging around chips and enticing Johnny Moss to play back at him as Puggy Pearson told racist jokes and they sure as hell didn't drink Beast Light. Those memories are warm fuzzy black and white photos. Memories evaporate as do the halcyon years which represented an era so close in the mind, but very far away in real time.

Yeah, that's back in the day when disco ruled the airwaves, our current President used to be a raging cokehead, and when the WSOP Championship used to be a three table SNG.

Poker's popularity is not fading. It's a destructive tidal wave heading to every house and apartment complex in suburbia. We haven't even seen the top of the forty-story wave as it keeps rising. It's going to hit as far as China and Africa. And when it does, the flood is going to destroy a lot of people lives, fortunes, and dreams.

For now, we're all riding the wave and as much as the dark side sends me spinning into an abyss of self-destruction, the rush is still hard to shake. Like a monkey on my back, poker has me hooked. At least for one more year.

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