Monday, June 29, 2009

The Kabbaj Regime

By Snoopy
Las Vegas, NV

"I keep hitting the crossbar," sighs John Kabaaj as we wait patiently at the baggage claim. "It's hard when you keep coming close, but you just have to keep plugging away. Poker's a tough game emotionally."

John collects his bag and exits the airport to rejoin his family back home and return to the grind of cash game poker. However, as he leaves, I sense a certain weariness in his voice, and one that is becoming frustrated with tournament poker and the variance it brings. I wonder if he indeed has what it takes to "keep plugging away" and whether or not he'll finally evade the woodwork and net that big win he's searching for.

For as long as I can remember, John has always been a respected figure in UK poker, but never a main attraction: never fronting magazines, ignored by media outlets, and simply left to his own devices. He passes under the radar, quietly plying his trade in the Vic cash games whilst taking the occasional stab at tournaments, in particular Pot Limit which remains his speciality. He's underrated by the ignorant, but admired by his peers. So much so that the Hendon Mob invited him to be their fifth member, yet he turned them down due to being a "one-man band." He's a loner of sorts, with no interest in publicity – he conceded sponsorship for that very reason – and thus a rare breed of player who is happy to just keep a low profile, knuckle down and earn enough to support his family. He's in it for the money, self-respect, and little else.

A few months on, and John is centre stage at the Rio and absorbing more attention than he can possibly muster. He holds the bracelet to his lips as the press queue in single file to capture his picture. "You can at least manage half a smile!" bellows Carlo Citrone from the rail. Despite his relief and elation, John forces a smile, but the limelight is clearly a foreign experience.

The following day, and John is back in the spotlight, but this time seems more at ease. The money is clearly paramount, but what the bracelet signifies seems to mean a lot – he was bracelet hungry and wanted to prove to himself that despite his lack of fame, he was good enough to earn an accolade that is so widely desired within the industry. The room is buzzing as John takes the stand in preparation for the official presentation, but to him, it wouldn't matter if he were the only man in the room. This moment is for him, for John to feel content about his own achievement after so many near misses. He's not here to show off or gloat about victory.

As a smattering of his fellow Late Night Poker veterans (John turned pro at 21, so is “veteran” according to experience rather than age) watch from the floor, Jeffrey Pollock presents the bracelet before signaling for the national anthem, a unique induction that has been well received in the Amazon Room. John stands upright, awaiting his moment of glory, a satisfied expression already etched on his face.

The anthem starts, yet is met with confused expressions. The less than dulcet tones of Johnny Rotten kick in and I look across to Pauly who smirks with approval, his rebellious nature pleased by the choice of song. I glance back up at the stage to see Jeffrey Pollack bobbing his head, and later giving the air a gentle fist-pump as he enjoys the Sex Pistol's infamous God Save the Queen. John, meanwhile, looks somewhat surprised, his eyebrows raised, but he goes along with it nonetheless.

As the track draws to a close, the mood changes in a hiccup. Two British players in Jon Shoreman and Dave Barnes approach the stage, fuming like petrol and locking Pollack in as their main target. I shrewdly position myself to pick up a few choice words which paint a clear picture: "disgusting," "insulting," and "disrespectful" – the small British contingent is not happy, especially as John confirms that he was oblivious to the choice of song. Before Shoreman and Barnes return to their game, Pollock apologises "on behalf of the World Series of Poker", his feathers uncharacteristically ruffled. For the Commish, a man who is someone people prefer to tiptoe around, to be confronted with such anger and venom is something I hadn't witnessed before.

After the incident, I ask Shoreman to fill in a few gaps that my eavesdropping had missed: "He [Pollack] told me that a few people had requested it after the last British ceremony. They then said that there was an occasion once where someone else sang the US anthem in a different style. 'You do know that it's a different song?' I asked, to which they replied, 'No.' That's just ignorance. It has phrases like, 'fascist regime,' and that's just the mild part. I can honestly believe that they thought it was the same song. I think the idea of the ceremony and its implementation is a good idea, but regardless of who made the request, the powers that be shouldn't have played it."

Dave Barnes, another experienced British player, joins the conversation: "I thought it was ridiculous. I remember at the Hatton fight there was a load of booing during the American national anthem and it was all around the papers and stuff. Then they go and do this to us. Imagine the reaction here if it had been the other way around and we'd played a song insulting their country."

It later emerges that Pollock had no idea that the Sex Pistols were going to be gracing the loudspeakers and assumed that John had been consulted. When he heard it, he went with it – what choice did he have? Later, and upon hearing the reaction, he pulls John aside to apologise and inform him that he will redo the ceremony the following day with the official national anthem included. John merely nods and shrugs his shoulders – he has more important matters at hand as the $50,000 HORSE event is about to start.

A couple of hours later, I catch up with John. I fully expect him to laugh it off, but he feels equally as besmirched as Shoreman. "Normally, I would have turned around and said, 'Hey, hold on,'" he explains, "but I was so surprised, I'd only just woken up and didn't realise what was going on. I didn't think it would bother me much, but I couldn't seem to get it out of my mind as I was playing the HORSE. They said they'd redo it and apologised, but what's an apology? It's a bit of a disgrace really."

This last sentiment probably explains why John was a no show come the following day. With all eyes focused on the podium, Pollock explains the situation, apologises, again, and the correct anthem is played. In Kabbaj's absence, the room stands respectfully to the more traditional choice and there's a gentle ripple of applause upon conclusion. However, it's a sad sight to see the stage void of the event's winner, and the man who should have been the target of that applause.

My initial view was that the reception of the song was merely dependent on whether you were pro or anti monarchy. Personally, I've never been a fan of the Royal Family beyond tourism. They litter the tabloids, make poor role models, and seem to do little beyond making public appearances and showcasing a luxurious way of life that the tax-payer funds. However, my views aren't the consensus, and the Royal Family are adored by many. I can't help but recall the backlash of Princess Diana's death which was considered a national tragedy and mourned by many who had never even met her. The Royal Family are like Marmite – you either love them or hate them.

With that in mind, it was possibly a poor decision to play a song that could potentially split your audience, especially if your main target, the recipient of the gesture, had not been informed or requested the change. After all, it's his moment, not anyone else's. However, I'm sure Harrah's were unaware of the offence that could be caused by playing a previously banned song (it still topped the charts), and one that includes lines such as "Our figurehead is not what she seems" and "She ain't no human being”, and I genuinely believe that they simply didn't realise there was anything controversial about the lyrics. If they were aware it was anti monarchy and establishment, then perhaps Pollock may have resisted that first-pump. But it was a genuine mistake, a behind the scenes slip-up, and one that was aimed at lightening the mood and showing the organisation's humerous side, which is sometimes concealed for the sake of formality – to suggest otherwise would be wayward.

And so, another storm-in-a teacup was concluded. The set-up is meant to emulate an Olympic ceremony, one in which the proud winner is put on a pedestal and his achievement honoured before a public audience. It's a strong tradition that is known worldwide, and to change the song inevitably alters the prestige of that moment. But whatever the song and the words they speak, whether it's the same song or not, the question remains – who cares? It was accidental, and as Gary 'The Whacker' Bush commented, "There are more important things to worry about than what version of the national anthem they play."

Kabbaj Wins Event #45 $10,000 PLH
Photo by Flipchip

As for John, he'll keep "plugging away" and return to the shadows that he has become so accustomed to. It's likely that those who once ignored him will now shower him with praise and invite him to appear on TV and radio, but I fully expect him to tell them where to go. As with the second ceremony, it's a similar case of too little too late. However, publicity will remain low on his list, and the slip-up that occurred here in Vegas will soon be forgotten. The important thing is that he's no longer hitting that crossbar, and can take a bracelet and $633,335 back to London, as well as the knowledge that he made his mark in poker history without letting his ego control his path. As John says himself, "Ego ruins people," and he really means it, man.

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

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