Thursday, June 04, 2009

2009 WSOP Day 8: The Tragedy of Mr. Nice Guy

By Benjo
Las Vegas, NV

Editor's Note: Allow me to introduce the first Tao of Poker All Star... Benjo! The kid is a legend because even though French is his native language, he writes better in English than 75% of the American media. Anyway, welcome to the Tao of Poker, Benjo. Enjoy his piece. See ya soon, Pauly

It's half after midnight at the Rio on a Wednesday night. Most of the tournaments are over for the night, and only the ever busy cash-games are providing some buzz in the Amazon Room. The usual sounds and rhythms of the poker flow can be heard across the football field-sized room: clatter of chips and half-hearted conversations. The graveyard shift is in full swing. Chip-runners, floor managers and cocktails waitresses. Lots of money to be made in there, I say to myself while passing by the $2/$5 tables on my way to the secondary ESPN podium.

There on the stage, two old guys are playing an old boring game. This is the final duel of the World Championship Stud event. The biggest Stud tournament of the year and, for all intends and purposes, the only stud tournament of the year, cause this game is fucking dead. Earlier during the week, when the event started, jokes were flying within the media corps.

"Hey Pauly, what's the average age of a Stud player? Answer: deceased."

Yeah, I know, this is an old Jack McClelland joke, and he was reffering to Deuce to Seven, not Stud. But still. Something rings true in the statement. Nobody plays Stud anymore.

And yet, on this quiet Wednesday night, the sight of two old guys playing an old dying game is still attracting a decent crowd. And a crowd that includes many notable people at that. More than a few recognizable faces are making an appearance around the bean-shaped feature table, some of whom has been sitting there on the sideline for hours. There's two-time World Champion Johnny Chan, intensely sweating the action. There's Pamela Brunson, daughter of the almighty Doyle, waving and cheering from the rail in direction of one of the players. There's Carlos Mortensen and Brad Daugherty, two other World Champions, and there's David Sklansky, Steve Zolotow, and many others, passing by and stopping to watch the action unfold. And there's many faces that I don't recognize. Older faces. Bald spots and gray beards all over the place. A crowd that goes back ages. Back to the Binion's era, where it all started. What is happening there that is attracting all these people at that time of the night?

"This is a heads-up match for history," a voice pipes behind me. I turn over. The short, bald man with glasses resting on the tip of his nose introduces himself. "I'm Mori Eskandari."

A familiar name. The TV producer of successful poker shows such as Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker. Mori looks towards the table. "And the guy over here playing is my business partner."

Of course I know who's the guy he's pointing at, a tall, lanky figure in his sixties – but looking much younger, with long gray hair coming straight out of the Rubber Soul cover shot - currently playing for a championship bracelet.

Eric Drache
(Photo by Benjo)

Eric Drache has been one of the most influential people in the poker business over the last thirty years. A shadow guy, the kind most people wouldn't recognize when he walks into any cardroom, even the die hard fans. And yet, he's the reason why so many important people showed up tonight. Eric Drache changed the game we love in many ways most people wouldn't even imagine. Heck, he's the guy who has invented the concept of satellites tournaments in the late seventies, years and years before Chris Moneymaker and thousands of other donkeys would regularly qualify for the WSOP playing online. He's the guy who ran the world championship for seventeen years at the Binion's, under Jack Binion's wing. He's the guy who created the Poker Hall of Fame. He's the guy who successfully ran the Golden Nugget, then the Mirage cardrooms for years, turning them into unmissable spots for any respectable poker player. How's that for a resume?

Since he rarely shows up to play tournaments, I never met Eric Drache in person, but I read all the stories about him in those great books wrote by Al Alvarez, Antony Holden, Jim McManus, Michael Craig and so on. The most well-known quote about Eric Drache? It comes from Doyle Brunson, "Eric is the eight best stud player in the world. Problem is, he only plays with the seven best."

Yet most people never heard of Eric Drache cause, despite being an exceptional poker player, he's been staying in the shadows all along, quietly working his ass off day and night, turning the game of poker into the well-ran competition we know now. Cause back in the days, it wasn't all shiny like it is now. It's because of guys like Eric Drache that there are rules, etiquette and such things nowadays. It's because of guys like him that now, newcomers are expected to receive the same treatment as the regulars. It's guys like him that helped getting rid of all the Far West shenanigans that were going on in the Vegas cardrooms on a regular basis in the seventies.

Now retired from the cardroom business, Eric is still rocking and rolling the poker universe, being the guy behind such shows as High Stakes Poker, the show that set the standard for high-quality televised poker, raising the bar above the tired all-in fests such as the World Poker. High Stakes Poker. A program revered by every fucking online grinder on the planet. And yet, as I'm watching the Stud action unfolding from the sidelines of the ESPN stage, the two high-stakes online players sipping cocktails next to me have no fucking idea who Eric Drache is.

There's a reason why.

"Eric probably played only two tournaments in the last twenty-one years," says Thor Hansen. The legendary Norwegian, two-time bracelet winner, is also sweating the game, out of respect for the man who first made him come over to the United States twenty-two years ago. "Eric had flew to Europe for the Scandinavian Championship in 1987, with the intention of inviting the winner to the Golden Nugget Grand Prix he was setting up. I ended up winning the tournament, and there I was, on my way to the US and Las Vegas for the first time, all expenses paid. Eric has been my friend ever since, and during all those years, I never heard him have a bad word about anyone."

Thor Hansen, now an U.S. resident for one and a half decade, has a lot of memories to share about his old friend, and I'm more than happy to listen.

"When Eric ran the Golden Nugget and the Mirage, there was never a seat open in the cardroom. Every game was filled. Cause he treated everyone equally, whether they were broke, or millionaires. He comped everyone way over the limit he was allowed by his brass, paying out of his pocket for restaurants and shows. Everyone got the royal treatment. At the World Series, it was lobster and steak every day. Even the media like you were spoiled. A Binion's limo would pick them up at McCarran, and they would get a free suite for the duration of the Series."

I can only dream about getting such treatment, having covered my first WSOP well into the 21st century

"And he was taking care of the people working for him, too," continued Thor. "One Christmas, he was short of money to pay the dealers their bonuses. He knew those people were like any other people and had been gambling, or doing whatever else they were doing. They were short of money, and he didn't want to leave them broke for Christmas. So what did he do ? He went on the street, and borrowed several dozens of thousands of loan-shark money to give to them. He had to pay juice for months after that, but it didn't matter. Cause he made his people happy for Christmas."

Heads-up between Freddie and Eric
(Photo by Benjo)

The guy Eric is facing at the table tonight is an interesting character, too. Hailing from Brooklyn, Freddie Ellis is a frail, diminutive figure. A contender for being one of the rare African-American WSOP winners in recent years, and also the oldest player to win a bracelet since Johnny Moss received his last piece of hardware in 1988, at the age of 81. The biography sheet every player had to fill at the start of the final table says Freddie is 67, but the regulars sweating the game knows better.

"He's 74," says one of them. "Don't know why he felt compelled to lie about his age. Maybe a joke on his part."

Old Freddie is looking tired, but sharp, not missing a beat while calling and raising Eric's bets. But still, he's not the favorite to win tonight.

"Freddie is the oldest regular at the biggest stud game in Atlantic City," says a famous player who shall remain anonymous. "He's been playing this game since it started. A losing player. Retired from real estate. Worth more than $250 million, some of those having been lost at the poker table over the last decades."

Yet Freddie has a crowd of supporters of his own, thanks to his gentle, demeaning, happy-go-lucky attitude at the table. The reporters from PokerNews, not usually the ones to take sides cause of the official nature of their work, have been naming Freddie as their favorite since Day One of the event.

So, tournament director extraordinaire Eric Drache has the upper hand in this game.

"It's about time Eric collects a share of the shine light," says another old railbird.

"Let him take a bracelet home, for Christ sake!" cries another.

Eric is clearly the most aggressive player in this heads-up match. And I can see that he's playing well, despite my limited knowledge of the game. Starting with a King of clubs as the door card, Eric raises. Freddie calls. Eric catches a Jack of the same suit, and bets again. Freddie calls, and Eric gets another club, an Ace. He bets again, and gets called again. Now Eric's board looks like K-J-A-J with three clubs, and yet he checks, then quickly folds after Freddie's bet, giving up the pot to his weaker opponent.

"Eric had nothing but the pair of Jacks, and was betting on the strength of his exposed cards," explains Thor, giving me a quick yet welcomed Stud lesson. "He gave up on 6th street, cause he knew Freddie wouldn't call him with nothing less than three of a kind. He knows he was beat."

The antes are high, and there's no more than thirty big bets on the table. Anything can happen.

"But this tournament had a good structure," says Thor, still reminiscing, much to my delight. "Back in the days, everyone had a five big-blind average stack at the final table, and no one was complaining."

On the rail, the nostalgia continues. "Hey, Thor," pipes someone next to us. "Remember those crazy props bets with Doyle and Chip at the Binion's? You had to throw those five thousand dollar chips in a hat laid on the floor in the middle of the room. Eighteen times in a row you did it, and every damn chip you collected."

Thor shakes his head, and I'm not sure if it's because he doesn't remember the episode, or because the story never happened this way.

The hours goes by, and the game continues. We're now well into the wee hours of the morning, and Eric lost his chip-lead. Old Freddie is getting more and more tired, but he's collecting the chips.

"Aces-up," he says in a quiet voice after the last bet has been put into a monster pot.

Eric Drache slowly nods, forfeiting the pot. The eight best stud player in the world is crippled, victim of a seventy year old fish.

Moments after, Eric is forced to put his last chips into the pot. He doubles up, but it's not enough, and soon, Freddie Ellis is crowned a champion. Eric Drache has to settle for second place. He looks exhausted, but not that much frustrated for someone who just finished one step below the ultimate prize. I don't know Eric and have never spoke to him, yet I feel compelled to shake his hand and say a few words, cause I wanted him to win badly. I can only think of what a great fucking story it would have been if Nice Guy Eric Drache had won, finally collecting his due after thirty years of service to the poker community.

Freddie Ellis Wins Event #6 - $10K Stud
(Photo by Benjo)

While Freddie poses for the winner's picture, I share my lamentations with Nolan Dalla, the hard-working media director of the WSOP, who just arrived on stage to collect some press release material and quotes from the winner. He's as bummed as me, cause Eric and him has been friends for years. As ever, Nolan gets to utter the final word.

"Maybe the story is better this way," he muses. "Here it is, the tragedy of Eric Drache."

Yes indeed. Always second. Always hiding in the shadows. Tonight, after collecting his second-place money, Eric will drive back home, and go back to anonymity. And maybe it's better this way. Or not. But it's still a great story.

Benjamin 'Benjo' Gallen is a writer originally from Lille, France. He's currently the voice of EPT Live in French. Benjo currently writes the blog for Team Winamax.

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