Las Vegas, NV
Courtesy of Flipchip
When I visited Australia earlier in the year, for the first time since the UIGEA rippled through the American poker scene, I saw a glimmer of hope for the future of poker. The entire poker room (aptly called the Las Vegas Room) at the Crown Casino in Melbourne was packed with players. They were not just Australians and Kiwis but plenty of players from surrounding Asian-Pacific countries. That's when I knew that poker took a big hit in America, but overseas they were on a cusp of a poker gold rush.
When I flew out to Monte Carlo to cover the European Poker Tour Grand Finale I was more than impressed with the set up. Their media room was five times the size of the one at the Rio for less media reps. The participation numbers had been way up across the board during the third season of the EPT. And even when France cock-blocked one of their events, two other countries stepped up and wanted to add stops on the EPT.
Poker had also been popular in the UK, Ireland, and France for a few decades and over the last few years it has been rapidly sweeping through parts of Europe such as Germany, Italy, Russia, and the various Scandinavian countries like a viral phenomena. Depending on who you talk to, the Swedes will boast that per capita, they are the best poker players in the world. The Fins, Danes, and Norwegians will tell you otherwise. Right now in Norway, there are 16-year olds with bankrolls approaching seven figures. Not only are they're routinely crushing the competition, but after they felt you a couple of times in ring games, they cash out. They're not hitting and running or ratholing your money. They simply have to go to sleep and wake up to go to school the next day. What happens when they turn 21 and come to Las Vegas for the first time?
When it came to betting on main event players, I leaned towards the Scandis. Over the last few years, a Swedish player went deep at the WSOP. I expected unknown Scandi wearing capri pants and $600 designer sunglasses would amass a monster stack late in the tournament. That ended up being Philip Hilm from Denmark. I wasn't the only one thought Hilm had a great shot at winning the WSOP main event. Oddsmakers had him the favorite on their board. He had all the chips at the time and his playing style was difficult to adjust to. The reputations that Scandis have are that they are wild, erratic, constantly switching gears, and unable to read. They love playing big pots and will shove all in on any street and at any moment. However, what makes Hilm such a tough competitor also ended up being his down fall. He's the type of player would would see a flop with 8d-5d out of position after a player raised in front of him. And he's also the type of player who would try to semi-bluff his opponent off a pot with bottom pair and a weak flush draw.
Hilm did just that on the 15th hand of the final table. Instead of persuading Jerry Yang to lay down TPTK with A-K, Yang called. And just like that, the young gun from Denmark was standing off to the side and conducting an interview with ESPN, while Yang slowly stacked up all of his chips. The Hilm elimination would end up being an indication of things to come. Hilm would be one of seven players that Yang would knock out on his way towards the 2007 WSOP championship.
The first 60 hands went by faster than anyone imagined. A wave of giddiness swept everyone in media row. They wanted to go home. Badly. The space in front of the media room became a refuge for luggage. The European press was set to catch cabs to the airport and fly home as soon as the last hand was dealt. Plenty of other friends were dying to escape the Rio after seven weeks of insanity. Otis had that look in his eye that he was wrought with anguish. His hearts and mind was with his family back in G-Vegas, but his physical being was shuffling around the Rio, like a dead man walking back and forth from the ESPN stage back to the media room.
Everyone secretly wished for a fast final table. I also do in whatever event that I cover. I accept the fact that it will go late and often will take the over when anyone sets a line on ending time. It's win-win for me. If the table ends early, I win and get to go home. If the event runs late, at least I get monetary compensation for my troubles. Unlike a football game or timed sporting event, poker can be over super quick or become a marathon session like Chip Reese and Andy Bloch's heads up battle at the $50K HORSE event in 2006.
However, I knew history was a good indicator that I should not get my hopes up too high. The last two main events last anywhere from 13 to 14 hours. When BJ set the line at 3am, I quickly took the over. I figured it would go to about 3 or 4am. Phil Gordon had set the line at 5:32am (or something like that). Nolan Dalla wanted action. I heard that the amount of the wager was anywhere from $500 to $5,000. Gordon knew the event would go late, but he set his line a couple of hours too long. The final hand was actually completed around 3:46am.
With just four players remaining it appeared that everyone might get done by Midnight. My veteran experiences knew better. It's not the how fast the first five go... it's how fast that the last five go which matters.
Yang busted the most well-known pro at the table in Lee Watkinson on Hand #21. Yang was ahead on that hand and his better Ace held up. On Hand #28, Yang sent Lee Childs to the rail. Yang was trailing on that hand, but got caught up in the battle of the blinds with Childs. Alas, Childs was ahead until the turn when Yang spiked an 8. Childs could not improve and he was the third player to be busted by Yang.
Rain Khan was very quiet at the final table. I'll have to check the broadcast to see if he was playing passive or just card dead. He made a move with A-Q and unfortunately Yang woke up to pocket Jacks. Khan went out in 6th place and aside from Hilm, he was my pick to take it down.
On Hand #60, South Africa's Raymond Rahme picked up Jacks and won a race against England's Jon Kalmar's Big Slick. At that point, four players remained. Alex Kravchenko was shortstacked for the last three days and he managed to squeeze into the final four players. He survived all of his all in attempts and doubled up during the right spots. Players with much bigger stacks busted out before him. When it got down to 11 players, everyone expected Alex KGB to bust out next.
Unfortunate for Scotty Nguyen, he imploded and bluffed off his chips when he should have probably left the table and hung out in the hallway posing for autographs, smoking ciggies, and downing Coronas. But Nguyen made a few moves which cost him his third final table at the 2007 WSOP and a shot at $8.25 million while finally trying to quell his inner demons surrounding his previous world championship and the death of his brother.
When four-handed play began on Hand #61, Jerry Yang had over 70M and over 55% of the total chips in play. Alex Kravchenko was the super short stack with around 8M. But the Russian showed everyone why he's one of the toughest and baddest motherfuckers on the block. Once it got five-handed, Kravchenko was guaranteed to become #1 on the All Time Russian Money List surpassing Kirill Gerasimov. He had won a bracelet earlier in the WSOP and had stuck around to play a slew of events. You couldn't miss him wandering around the Amazon Ballroom during preliminary events. He carried a cold and blank expression on his face and glanced at you with the eyes of a sniper. Usually clad in an Adidas jumpsuit, I expected to see the old Soviet regimes' CCCP stamped on the back.
We started developing wild theories that Kravchenko was a hitman for the Russian mafia and came out to Las Vegas to whack Vinnie Vinh or collect a monster debt from Eskimo Clark, but he liked playing poker much more than extinguishing deadbeats, so he gave up his day job and settled on poker instead.
Joking aside, Kravchenko played the best poker at the final table when compared to the other eight players. How he survived with a short-stack is beyond me, but he managed to help slow down the action. It would take 107 hands before he would bust out. It another classic race, Yang ended up winning a coinflip. Kravchenko raised with Big Slick. Yang shoved with 8-8 and Kravchenko quickly called. Yang flopped a set and Kravchenko could not improve.
Two hands later, Raymond Rahme busted out on Hand #169 courtesy of Yang who outflopped his pocket Kings. The heads up match between Tuan Lam and Yang lasted 36 hands. That was much longer than Greg Raymer-David Williams; Joe Hachem-Steve Dannenmann; and Jamie Gold-Paul Wasicka's battles.
Lam played extremely passive at the final table. He gave Yang a walk at least four times (I'm too lazy to read my notes to confirm) in the big blind. Lam only won 12 out of 36 hands they played and aside from one double up, they were small pots. Yang won the one hand that counted the most. On Hand #205, Jerry Yang took out Lam. Yang would end up winning 91 out of 205 dealt hands at the final table. I wondered how many hands he was actually involved in? Again, I'm too lazy to check, but I'm guessing he was involved in more than 50% of the total hands at the final table. Talk about forcing the action.
The final table definitely had an international flavor to it as an Asian-born player eventually won this year's WSOP. The railbirds for the other final table players where showing their nationalistic pride. You could see flags from Canada, Russia, and South Africa proudly displayed. Lee Watksinon's fiancee busted out an American flag but she had it upside down, which is a symbol of distress. Perhaps she was foreshadowing Watkinson's early exit?
The final table was boring at times and filled with excitment during the other moments. When the audience was awake usually during big hands, the scene resembled a soccer match. There was plenty of singing, chanting, and rowdy railbirding going on in the crowd. The South African contingency was the most visible wearing green shirts that read "Everybody Loves Raymond" in support of their local hero Raymond Rahme. Several of the guys in the crowd had South African capes drapped over their shoulders. They had a cool chant which they would sing after Rahme won a hand. They also would scream, "Ship it to Africa!" as the dealer pushed him pots.
Tuan Lam's friends and family had miniature Canadian flags and one big one. They constantly waved those during the few hands he was in. At one point, Lam was draped in the Canadian flag after he doubled up against Yang during heads up play. He had some of the loudest railbirds and would break into a chorus of "O, Canada" whenever he won a pot.
Alex Kravchenko had a substantially smaller cheering section, but they brought along the Russian flag. They too would chant something. My Russian is bad and I couldn't make out what they were saying.
As I described, the stands surrounding the final table was devoted railbirds of the final table players. Jon Kalmar had to give his drinking buddies a talking to before the final table started. They showed up in a much behaved manner than on Day 6 when one of his mates was yanked out of the No Limit lounge for too much consumption of shitty beer which made him act belligerent.
Jerry Yang had his family and friend sweating him as well. Jen Creason pointed out one of his crew who sat on the floor and constantly prayed. Yang is a very religious person and he could also be spotted praying during big hands.
During his post-victory interview with ESPN, Yang constantly spoke about how he could not have achieved what he did without the help of God.
"I had a feeling inside," said Yang as he fought back tears. "I kept praying. If God could help me, I knew I could win. I had a funny feeling inside that I could do it. I thank the Lord. The glory goes to him. Thanks to the heavenly Father, I am here today and victorious. With this money, I can do a lot of good for people out there who need the help."
When Norman Chad asked him if he was having the best day of his life, Yang mentioned that when he came to America for the first time, "It was the first day I found freedom. My family tried to escape Laos and we failed. They (communist regime) hunted us down. Then we escaped to Thailand. When I found out that we were going to America was the happiest day of my life."
"Do you think this is the most poker that the Lord has ever watched over?" joked Chad.
"The Lord was watching over me," replied Yang. "When I had 4-4 and I was all in I prayed, 'Lord, give me a set.' Then the flop had a 4 and I survived that hand. I have seen the miracles of God at the World Series of Poker."
Yang also mentioned about his strategy. He knew that the only way he could win was to play aggressive.
"I did a lot of bluffing, trust me," he joked. "I played a lot of bad hands. 7-2o even."
You gotta love Yang for dropping the Hammer. He never showed it, but I hope the ESPN hole cams caught at least one of those hands.
When he was asked about his future, Yang joked, "When I made the final table, I called my boss and told him I needed a few extra days off. I plan to go back to work... to give my two weeks notice."
I think Yang was also holed up at the Redneck Riviera for a while because he said that he did not move to the Rio until he made the final table.
"I was staying at a local motel. I won't say its name. It's bad. Trust me. You don't want to go there."
Then he got serious when he said, "My wife works the night shift. I told her that she doesn't have to work anymore. We have six small children and we want to make sure they get the best life and education."
Yang will be donating 10% of his winnings to various charity including the Make a Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Feed the Children. I suspect that he's going to use some more of that to help other people in his community. I'm glad that Yang won on that account. Instead of donking it off at the tables and pissing it away on high stakes games, he's going to use it to help ease the burden in people's lives that need it the most. Before the final table started, I wrote that Yang has all the karma points on his side because of his social consciousness. Maybe the poker gods were paying attention after all.
Yang's victory is good for poker because he will be an amazing goodwill ambassador. Check out the interview that Jerry Yang did with Tiffany Michelle. He's an honorable, articulate, and humble man. I really hope he does some good over the next year, not just for poker but for the people in his life.
Poker is dominated by the dark side of humanity. It doesn't help when the WSOP is held in the middle of flashiest blackest hole in the universe... Las Vegas. But sometimes, there are rays of hope. Guys like Barry Greenstein (Children Inc.) and Phil Gordon (Bad Beat on Cancer) are working hard to help charitable causes. Plenty of Asian players like Kenny Tran, Scotty Nguyen, and Liz Lieu donate their winnings to help their family and communities back home in Vietnam. The guys over at PokerStars teamed up with the cast from Ocean's Thirteen and helped raise money and awareness for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
We live in a time in America when the religious right has infiltrated our government and backed certain politicians who stiff-armed online poker. A devout Christian and religious man like Jerry Yang can help draw positive attention to the poker community. Poker can be a conduit for goodwill. Sure it's a form of gambling, but so is beating the stock market. Heck, praying for an imaginary being (aka God) is the ultimate gamble. What's the difference between shoving all in with a Big Slick vs. a middle pair and believing in God? There is none. Both are coinflip situations. God either exists or doesn't. That's a race situation that church goers gamble with every single Sunday.
I've long given up the quest to determine if our original creator is Allah, Buddha, Jesus' dad, or some alien scientists cross breeding themselves with apes. There is a more powerful force out there. Or maybe there isn't. The existentialist in me believes that this is a darkened, random, and godless universe. Spending too much time in Las Vegas makes you abandon hope and the entire notion of God.
The most important conversation I had the entire summer was with a French journalist named Benjo. And we talked about lobsters. He got me off of work and life tilt. Here's what I wrote at the end of June:
During one of the breaks of the HORSE event, I went outside for a few minutes for a smoke break. It was around 3am and Benjo told me a weird story regarding John-Paul Sartre. I actually started the conversation by asking him something about Sartre. I think it was about him banging Simone de Beauvoir. Anyway, Benjo told me how Simone de Beauvoir made him take a holiday in Southern France because he was too burnt out after experiencing hallucinations, specifically one about a lobster following him around. He had been doing too much mescaline and was feeling the residual effects of that drug. For years the lobster would follow him around and he made the decision that he was not going to see the lobster any more... and the lobster vanished and ceased to exist.If Jerry Yang thinks that he won the WSOP because of God's help, then so be it. Was it God or luck that brought him the 6 on the river to beat Tuan Lam? I'm not going to debate him on that fact. After all, it's great publicity and PR work for all of poker. You see, according to the new WSOP champion, the Lord loves poker. God is helping the good guys take away money from the bad guys to be distributed among the poor and needy. Maybe the Jesus freaks out there will see that there is some good to be made with poker and they will ease up on pressuring the government to keep online poker on the sidelines.
I had a moment of clarity and finally figured it out. Everything. Especially what Sartre was trying to teach us... that we have to make a choice in life. And not just about what we do, but what we believe, and the values we hold. Those choices are not going to be made for us or nor should they be dictated by those around us. He decided to stop seeing the lobsters and they were gone.
Just when I was ready to give up on humanity, I got a lesson in faith... in the middle of a casino in Las Vegas of all places.
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