There could have been worst places to work than the Fontana Room at the Bellagio Casino. Even though I was wedged up against the back wall on a table that was underneath one of the gigantic plasma screens and my laptop barely fit on the tiny table more suited for hobbits than a tournament reporter, I couldn't complain. As I glanced over my shoulder out the glass window that overlooked Las Vegas Blvd., I could glimpse at the majestic Bellagio fountains with the faux Eiffel Tower in the background. Then right in front of me sat the greatest show in poker.... Phil Hellmuth.
Ten time-bracelet winner. Youngest WSOP world champion. "Best NL Hold'em player in the world," as he's often claimed, the Poker Brat is as much as a marketing genius as he is a sensationalistic megalomanic hyena-hooting crybaby. Love or hate him, you can't take your eyes off the guy who is often the tallest player in the room and compulsively clad in all black. Aside from Mike Matusow, there's not a louder guy in poker.
Since I started covering tournaments, I've seen Hellmuth kick over chairs, call dozens of his opponents donkeys, admit that he can dodge bullets, and walk off the TV stage at the WSOP main event over to media row where he asked BJ and I what we were writing about him. I even interviewed him in the hallway at the Rio and I asked what was on his iPod. He happily showed me a ton of rap and hip-hop.
"I like Jay-Z," he said.
In the past two years, I had never had a better seat to cover poker. I sat right in the middle of Phil Hellmuth and Jamie Gold's tables. To my left was Hellmuth who berated everyone within a twenty-five foot radius and to my right was Gold who played nearly every hand and talked a fast as he played. There was never a dull moment in the Fontana Room because both players constantly jawed at their tablemates and when they grew bored of that, they talked shit with each other.
Hellmuth was operating in rare form. He arrived ninety minutes late in true Hellmuthian fashion. He sat down at his table just as the players went on the first break. He walked outside to the veranda where he chatted with Gold who sat at a table and ate a jumbo shrimp salad. John Bonetti, dressed like an old-time NBA referee wearing black sweat pants and a white and black shirt, pulled Hellmuth aside and quickly told him about Gold's bluff.
Gold sat at one of the most difficult starting tables that I had ever witnessed live. The Poker Shrink and I dubbed it the Champions Table which included: Tony Cousineau, Abe Mosseri, Hoyt Corkins (2003 WPT Foxwoods Champion), Maureen Feduniak, Adam Weinraub (2007 WPT Invitational Champion), Tuan Le (2005 WPT World Champion), Jamie Gold (2006 WSOP Champion), Francois Safieddine, and Scott Clements (2006 WSOP bracelet winner). England's John Duthie, the EPT creator and first player to ever win $1 million on a televised poker tournament, was moved to the table late in the afternoon along with 2004 WPT Champion Martin de Knijff.
If his table was not tough enough, Tuan Le drew a nightmare assignment as he sat to Gold's immediate right. Le's hellacious day began with the big bluff from Gold. It was still the first level, not even an hour in with the blinds at 25-50 as the players began with 50K in chips each. Both players had a penchant for playing any two cards. Known as a cagey and unpredictable player, I was surprised to see Le check on a board of 2s-2c-Jh-7d-4c. There must have been five or six thousand in the pot and Gold looked down at his stack and announced all in. Le sat and stared at the flop for several minutes as a panicked look blanketed his face. He said he had K-K but we'll never know for sure. I put him on A-7 or a small pair like 6-6 or 5-5 because he thought for a long time as Gold stood up. At that point, a wall of media reps surrounded the table. Camera crews fought for position as Gold paced back and forth behind the table.
"Will I be the first player out?" Gold asked the media.
When he was told that no one had been busted out yet, he turned to Le and said, "I've got a huge hand. I don't know, if it's taking you this long maybe you have a huge hand, too. If you do have me beat it'll be an amazing call."
Le must have put Gold on trip 2s if he actually held pocket Cowboys. Like I said, we'll never know what he really had. Le reluctantly tossed his cards into the muck as Gold flipped over 6c-3s for the bluff. Gold flashed a crooked politican's smile as he stacked up the pot. A stunned Le sat there as he resembled a man who just crapped his pants.
"He was about a minute away from sending me home. It wasn't looking good," Gold said to no one in particular.
Once Hellmuth got wind of the bluff, he challenged Gold to a prop bet. Gold gave Hellmuth 3 to 1 odds. If Gold advanced to Day 2, Hellmuth would give him $5K. If he busted out, he would have to give Hellmuth $15K. Hellmuth tossed him a Bellagio $5K chip to hold on to.
"I expect to get that back plus 15 more," he barked.
The two kept on trash talking for several minutes when Hellmuth announced, "You're the only one in the room who had the balls to bluff Tuan Le. Every hand that I'm in with Tuan, I make sure I have the nuts. But you pulled off a bluff. Every time you bluff Tuan, I'm going to give you $500. Cash."
Gold accepted the bounty and within a few minutes he called Hellmuth over. He successfully bluffed Le and Hellmuth forked over five one hundred dollar bills. Hellmuth said he'd up the bounty to $1,000. But then he got gun shy.
"I didn't think anyone could outplay Tuan. I have to scale that back down to $500," said Hellmuth as Gold shrugged his shoulders.
Twenty minutes later Gold shouted, "Phil, you owe me another $500."
Hellmuth tossed Gold $500 more in cash as Le sat there like a sullen muppet. Dejected and on mega tilt, he'd bust out towards the end of the day when he ran into Hoyt Corkin's pocket aces.
Although at one point, Hellmuth apologized to everyone at his table about his constant whining, he eventually continued his verbal diarrhea as he shit all over his opponents.
"You throw away A-K and this donkey shows you 5-6 off suit. They think it's a good play. They don't know how bad that is," he scolded one player.
After he flopped a set with J-J and turned a boat, he took a nice chunk of one of his opponents stacks as he admitted, "I was setting you up all day for that hand and you walked right into it. That's why I broke all those records at the World Series. I know my customers."
While Hellmuth and Jamie Gold put on a show for everyone in the Fontana Room, along the other wall everyone had their eyes on Anna Wroblewski. The 21-year old came out of nowhere to win an event at the Bellagio a week earlier. As the story goes, the nymph-like Wroblewski grew up in Chicago and moved to Las Vegas when she was 19 to play poker for a living. She played around town illegally before she went broke and headed back home. She returned to Sin City after she was finally legal but lost her bankroll again. Determined to stay in Las Vegas, she found a job in the service industry grinding out a $10/hr salary. Her first paycheck was $300. Grubby would have been proud, because she cashed it and headed for the Bellagio. She bought into a satellite for a $3K NL event and won a seat. Then she managed to win the entire event collecting a free seat into the WPT Championship and $337K in cash for a first place prize.
(Photo courtesy of Flipchip)
Wroblewski bounced all over the room and out to the veranda a couple of times. At one point, Tiffany spotted her double fisting beers while she incessantly talked as the rest of her table sat in silence
"Why isn't anyone else talking?" she asked.
"Because we were waiting for you to stop," answered Irish pro Padraig Parkison.
The guys at the adjacent table had a 50K prop bet going on Wroblewski's weight. The over/under was set at 90 pounds.
She played with a ton of confidence as she became the first player past the 100K mark. She sent Jeff Madsen packing early after she flopped a set of 2's against the two-time WSOP bracelet winner. She added more chips after she scooped a hefty pot with just Ace high.
"Don't you hate it that I keep doing the right thing? They said I was a calling station," Wrobleski joked as her opponent tried to bluff at a pot with the Varkonyi and lost.
Around 8pm, Wrobleski passed the 200K mark and she ended Day 1a as the chipleader with 211K.
"Anna who?" one pro mentioned when he asked us who the chipleader was.
Bouncin Round the Room on Day 1A
The first day of the WPT Championships featured 304 players in all and only 220 players advanced to Day 2. More than half the field has to play on Sunday, but some of the biggest names in poker were at the Bellagio on Saturday. The field was so large that both the Fontana Room and the poker room had to be utilized.
Meanwhile in the glass encased Bobby's Room, a high stakes mixed game began that featured Gus Hansen, David Benyamine, Amir Vahedi, and Patrik Antonius.
Change100 would have had a field day ragging on the fashion choices of some of the players. Dan Alspach arrived in his typical accoutrements that included an extremely loud Hawaiian shirt and a matching visor. His wife JJ Lui sported a black Full Tilt basketball jersey with the #88 on the back and JJ Lui written on the back.
Gavin Smith went for a sophisticated new look with a sleek black Kangol newsboy cap and I hope he burned his old FT baseball hat.
Johnny Bax wasn't wearing his lime green or baby blue shirts. He opted for a canary yellow number which would be perfect if a thick London fog all of a sudden encompassed the entire Bellagio. We'd still be able to see Johnny Bax.
I spotted a couple of Europeans playing in Day 1a including Norway's Johnny "Bad_ip" Lodden and Finland's Jani Sointula. Johnny Lodden is an exceptional player who's biggest fault is his inability to shift gears... mainly into low gear. Lodden only knows how to play super fast and he's been known to amass monsterstacks in EPT events and then implode late into the tournament afer he loses several "monsterpottens" as the Swedes would say. While Patrik Antonius and Juha Helpi are often mentioned as the preeminent players from Finland, you cannot over looked Jani Sointula's game at all. He's the best Scandi poker player that you never heard of. And you can't miss the guy. With long blonde hair, he looks like one of the German terrorists and Hans Gruber's right hand thug from the first Die Hard movie.
I noticed that Hoyt Corkins wore ear plugs at the tables and I wondered if that was to prevent him from hearing Hellmuth and Gold yap back and forth.
Andy Black wore his favorite Eminem shirt. Stephen Bartley from Gutshot described Andy Black's dressing habits in Monte Carlo better than anyone I've read. Bartley wrote, "Andy Black wears the same clothes as yesterday. It's minimalist poker."
I forgot to mention the odd moment when TJ Cloutier walked up to Hellmuth and handed him a wad of cash and a couple of chips. I wondered if TJ was paying back a loan or if he was giving Hellmuth his cut after staking him.
Barry Greenstein sat with his back to one of the plasma screens. He must have had money on the Bulls-Nets game because he turned around every thirty-seconds to check the score.
Over seven tables filled with media reps crammed into the far corners of the Fontana Room as there was barely any room to squeeze through the labyrinth of poker tables. With photographers, cocktail waitresses, floor staff, and players walking back and forth, it was impossible to gain access to some tables because there was simply no way to get close to the action.
CardPlayer and PokerWire took over two full tables while the Poker Shrink, BJ, and I shared one table as other members of the PokerNews crew would stop by to use our laptops. The European press shared a table and it was great to see Snoopy and Jen from Blonde Poker covering the first ever WPT event along with Benjo, a French poker journalist that I met in Monte Carlo who loves The Sopranos. Just to put things in perspective... the entire press room in Monte Carlo was bigger than the Fontana Room where the WPT Championships were being held. Maybe it's time to host the tournament in a bigger facility such as the Bellagio ballrooms where the final tables are taped.
(Photo courtesy of Flipchip)
The always lovely Liz Lieu played in Day 1a. She had a set outdrawn early in the day and also got her Aces cracked. She told me about the hand where her opponent called a big raise preflop. On a board of 9-9-2, she bet out 3.2K, he re-raised to 5K, she re-raised to 12K, and he moved all in. She knew that he either held A-9 or 2-2. Either way, she was beat and folded A-A. Pros can and do fold pocket Aces when they have to. Her opponent flashed her his hand... 2-2. He flopped the boat and luckily for Liz that she didn't lose her entire stack. She finished the day around 43K. I didn't charge her for the bad beat story.
And last but not least, back by popular demand...
Last 5 Pros (and Guy Who Gets to Put His Penis in Celine Dion) that I Pissed Next To...
1. Jani Sointula
2. Jamie Gold
3. Renee Angelil
4. Brad Berman
5. Tom McEvoy
Don't forget to check out Flipchip's WPT Championship photos. And you can follow the action from live updates over at Poker News.
Original content written and provided by Pauly from Tao of Poker. All rights reserved. RSS feeds are for non-commercial use only.