Thursday, June 11, 2009

All That Glitters

By Snoopy
Las Vegas, NV

Editor's Note: I'm excited to introduce one of my favorite poker scribes and one of my all time favorite British writers. You might know him as... Snoopy. Anyway, Snoopy is on the ground in Las Vegas and he whipped up a gem for you. Enjoy!

It's WSOP time again, and, as always, I'm a mixture of excitement and dread over what will be a long, but entertaining six weeks. What will help serve as a welcome break is being able to write for Pauly and the Tao of Poker. I'm often regarded as "a bit of a joker" or just someone who pens the odd pun for the PokerNews updates, so to be recognised as a writer and pooled with such a talented cast is a genuine honour, and for that I am grateful. Then, I went online and read Benjo's opening piece. "FML," as the online masses would type dejectedly into the chat box. For someone whose first language isn't English, he makes a mockery of the level of journalism in my homeland, and it's an enviable achievement that he was able to produce such a high level of content so effortlessly. Since then, the standard hasn't dropped.

However, I like a challenge, and despite being depicted as faceless on the "All Star" line-up photo (honestly, it doesn't do us justice; we're a handsome bunch and our overall aesthetic beauty should be marvelled and worshipped, not hidden), I decided I would write a piece on something that has remained at the forefront of every players' desires for a number of decades... drum roll please... the World Series of Poker gold bracelet.

Every year I am astonished by the lengths people go to to get their mitts on a bracelet. Since working alongside UK pro and serial staker Neil Channing, I've learned that to most players, the Kelly Criterion is "that girl who won American Idol" and that bankroll management is nothing more than a job title at Barclays. As Phil Laak said to me a couple of weeks ago, "I've seen so many people go broke because they got bored of getting rich slower. I want people to know that these players exist, building it up to massive amounts, then losing it all in a very small period of time."

It is no myth that many of the players here at the World Series can't afford to play, and a large percentage include top name pros who you may have recently watched on a high profile poker show, swanning around as if they have all the money in the world. The truth is that many are broke, without a penny to their name, and get through poker by begging, being backed and using their profile to survive. Poker players can be a sensitive, vain bunch, and image is of the utmost importance, so to not show up at the World Series or join the rest of the "big names" in the $40,000 freezeout is a definite no-no, and paramount to wearing a sign around their head reading "busto."

With that in mind, why is Jeffrey Pollack the pied piper of poker, luring thousands to Vegas despite a massive recession on both sides of the Atlantic? There's a line that circulates the UK circuit with a nervous laugh – "nobody can afford to play" – and on the whole, it's true, so amid these torrid times, why do we still make the journey to the desert to spend what little we have left? Surely this is a time to be sensible and to finally apply a little Kelly into our lives? Appealingly not, as all those UK players who I know are nearing the felt, have cropped up here at the Rio with their sights firmly set on gold.

This then begs another question: why, with such a limited bankroll, do they play a $1,500 donkament, in which you have to get lucky to survive the fast opening level before attempting to conquer a field of 2,000, rather than taking a stab at a deep stack event elsewhere in which their superior skills have more chance of prevailing? Of course, the answer is the bracelet, and it's amazing how important this shiny piece of wrist jewelry has become since its induction into poker. Like scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final (a field goal and the Superbowl for my American friends), it's what all players are dreaming about and they'll do anything to get hold of one.

I recently heard that a survey reported that 65 percent of pros would rather have the bracelet than the money, a quite remarkable revelation in my eyes. Initially surprised by the proposed figure, I soon came around as I thought about some of the things I'd witnessed. Last year, James Akenhead finished second to Grant Hinkle in a $1,500 event when his A-K was outdrawn by T-4 all in preflop. When I bumped into him the day after, he looked like a broken man, despite having pocketed $520,219. It was clear that heads-up, the money had little meaning, and that all he could think about was emulating the efforts of his fellow Hit Squad member Praz Bansi by bringing a bracelet back home to Blighty.

"I didn't even know what second place money was when it was finished because I was so focused on winning the bracelet," he later reported. "Of course, I'm a professional poker player, it's my living, so the money is really important, but I wanted that bracelet. It was weird, when I knew I'd won half a million I felt good, but then I started getting angry again when I thought about how close I'd come to winning."

People regard the bracelet as a badge of honour, and players from each end of the age spectrum will proudly display it whenever the opportunity arises. The Internet kids seems to be the most prevalent wearers, often rolling up their sleeves casually in order to reveal their bling and hope their aghast neighbour will compliment them on their achievement. Even veteran Alan Smurfit will bring his bracelet to every event and spread it across the felt before his cards, a smug, but understandably content smile forever cemented on his face. Recently, I witnessed Smurfit's fellow countryman Marty Smyth showcase his Pot Limit Omaha bracelet to 50 upcoming young players, and their faces were in awe of what was, essentially, just a strap of metal. "Wow," some said, "I've never held one of these before."

These are the experiences that second place miss out on, but to me, they're little more than ego massagers, and a way of reminding yourself that you did it, you fulfilled the dream, and that you are a good player, despite not having won anything since. It's very much a way of self-comforting yourself in times of uncertainty, and, in its simplest form, a method for making yourself feel good. Oftentimes I'll be speaking to players and they'll somehow slip their bracelet win into the conversation. Even the other day I was at the Rio lost and found, and was introduced to a now unrecognisable Thomas Keller. Although pleased to have lost so much weight and somehow avoided the common weight loss infliction of saggy skin, he seemed a little dejected that people didn't recognise him anymore, and he was quick to tell me that his moniker was 'Thunder', that he'd been on TV a number of times, and that he'd won a bracelet in 2004. I didn't prise these details out of him, he forced them into our brief exchange, and it was then that I realised that being known as a "bracelet winner" was something that people held in very high esteem and an achievement that they wanted people to be able to visually relate them to.

"The bracelet was really important to me," confessed two-time winner Max Pescatori when questioned about his 2006 victory. "It was my first, and it meant a lot in terms of prestige. It got me a lot of respect." But why does first place garner so much more respect than second, who consequently becomes a forgotten man. After all, it's only one place out of thousands, and is there really that much difference between how first place performed compared to second? Does that one rung up the ladder suddenly make him a better player overall and thus warrant the respect of his peers.

I personally understood the notion of Pescatori's confession, but not the logic. Variance is so high in poker that it's possible for you to play your best game for a lifetime and never win a bracelet, and, similarly, a bad player can have the luckiest day ever and still come first. Irish legend Donacha O'Dea mistakenly has the words 'Pot Luck' instead of 'Pot Limit' inscribed on his bracelet, and although in Donnacha's case, he's a top class player, that inscription could be a rather accurate description of some of the bracelet wins of recent years. Surely respect comes from elsewhere, from your peers giving you respect through your abilities as a player, being able to beat the cash games over a long period of time and never going broke. As Chip Reese once said when questioned about the talents of an upcoming star, "Ask me again 30 years." With fields of this size, then surely respect comes when you win multiple bracelets, or emulate the performances of Dan Harrington or Thang Luu. One bracelet win, therefore, is not necessarily an affirmation of a good poker player as appears to be the general, but perhaps distorted consensus.

One question that I pondered this year was whether or not the bracelet, and the desire to win one, was losing its value. Although a win nowadays is proof of overcoming a room of thousands rather than the one-man-and-his-dog field of yesteryear, the fact there are so many events subsequently creates a lot of bracelet winners, perhaps making it less unique of an achievement. Also, only three events are being televised this year (a change that unsurprisingly was announced with less than a bellow and allowed to slip under the radar somewhat unnoticed), and while this could have a detrimental effect on sponsorship, it also takes some of the shine off a bracelet win. When I arrived a few days ago, I was surprised to see two young players, albeit unknowns, battling it out for a bracelet in front of an empty stand and some passing tumbleweed. The announcer was performing lack-lustre at best, while the lack of cameras meant this could have been heads-up for a fiver and a plastic ring from a Christmas cracker and no one would have known the difference. This depleted sense of atmosphere and razzmatazz, again, took away something from the bracelet, and perhaps made it less desirable.

The terrible irony of it all is that as I was writing this piece, I began dreaming of a bracelet win. I'm penciled in to play two $1,500 events, and each and every time I typed in the word “bracelet”, I tilted my head slightly and began thinking of what it would feel like to be the sole survivor of that field, to have my ugly mug infest the inbox of every poker media outlet across the globe, to return home like a war hero with my bracelet held aloft, being congratulated by every Tom, Dick and Harry as I intentionally enter my local cardrooms without any particular desire to play, to then have recognition, the respect, and the ability to pass on my supposed knowledge of the game through forum posts and magazine articles. I would have a trophy for my mantelpiece, something that no one could ever take away from me, and an iconic representation of something in my life that I actually achieved.

All of this is nothing more than self-satisfaction, it's desirable, but it's merely a reflection of human behaviour – there are few who can resist its power. The bracelet thus holds a mystical power over us all, even cynics like me, and it is because of this power that players are lured to the Rio every year to take their stab at glory, despite the recession. They may not be able to afford it, but it's worth the risk. That Prince dude got it wrong: in poker, at least, all that glitters is gold, and I want one of those god damn bracelets!

Snoopy is a writer from London, UK, most known for his stellar reporting at Blonde Poker.. You can read his 2009 WSOP musings over at Black Belt Poker.

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