Postcards From the Dregs
July 7, 2011
It's a lazy Saturday one week before the World Series Of Poker main event. Beautiful weather, beautiful women, and a swimming pool on an absolutely picture perfect 100 degree Saturday afternoon. The remains of lunch are being busily swept away by the gourmet chef. It was steak from the grill, a pasta with sauce, and a salad with chargrilled peaches. The pool is full, everyone bobbing in the hot sun in the cool water. Aspiration has given way to hope, hope to optimism, and optimism to resignation. I’ll get them next time.
Some people this summer have just bolted town. They felt themselves slipping and knew they were done. Smart move. Some are back for the main event, but what does it matter? Wounds that have been opened here cannot be quickly closed. A hippie is walking through a valley of murdered corpses and he grabs a machete. Clasped hands won’t save his life. I’m sitting in a Las Vegas parking lot and watching the pouring rain. In the desert you might not see it rain once the whole summer long. And here is the whipping wind, the sweet and musty smell of the desert getting wet, and the thunder crashing in the sky. How can it not be a sign?
It’s minutes before midnight in the Rio. It’s July 4, it’s Day 3 of the 50k Players Championship, and it’s the last level of the night. Only thirty-two players remain in what on paper should be called the toughest tournament of the year. They’ve only just combined to four tables, half of whom still won’t get paid even after nearly three days of play. A kid in a red shirt with chips is turned around in his seat at the board behind him, clockwatching. Josh Arieh sits to his right kneeling on his chair with a cap and headphones. Luminaries like Gus Hansen, David Bach and David Oppenheim are at the table. Oppenheim’s got close curly hair, his eyes are looking half glazed and he’s reaching to the side of his chair for his cup of spittle with his lip puffed from chew. That’s his thing.
One hundred twenty-eight people entered the 50k Players Championship, all of whom must think they are one of the sixteen best people in the world, or one of the sixteen luckiest or one of the sixteen least tilted right now. But that’s not what this is about, is it? This might be about showing you’ve got the cash. This might be about a sick gamble. This might be about the last chance to try and get out of it. Or this might be just another bone for Pavlov’s dog. Guys will wax laconically on positive EV, but put a bracelet in front of them, a number in red, and a club that has eyes green with envy, and they fork over 50k quicker than the ride down from the twenty-seventh floor.
Anybody who points to the big numbers in the WSOP this year as evidence of the strength of poker has not been on the ground. The only thing that’s happened these last six weeks is that every day Harrahs has turned the dial on the bug zapper up another notch. The light is so bright now you just can’t help flying near. No one screams as they get zapped, you just hear a pop and they shuffle out of the room, thank god it’s over, send the requisite texts, make the requisite calls, and disappear into the Las Vegas night. Comfortable in the Las Vegas night, eyes as big as saucers, food on their face, skinny as all hell, music too loud to talk, heads nodding in time. It’s been an epic summer. It’s been epic. All of us, exposed bellies. Suckers. No chance. No chance at all.
Bad decisions in this town pile like a snowball. It’s no good being good for five weeks if your guard goes down at the last. Nobody leaves this town bruised. The normal condition is bashed. It’s no fun getting money from an ATM in Las Vegas. You always stand there thinking where the last cash went.
Gus Hansen is in a stud eight or better pot with David Bach that gets checked on sixth. On seventh street Baker bets thirty thousand, leaving himself only thirty thousand back. “He bet?” Gus asks the dealer incredulously, although he knows full well that’s exactly what’s happened. “I consider that bad news.” Gus talks to himself while talking to everyone, and no one in general. “I consider that very bad news.” Gus has only just returned to the WSOP for this event, missing four weeks of the WSOP in between. No explanation has been offered or given for his absence or return. Was Gus in Europe watching the tennis? Was he in the Cote de Azure, or was he at home? The only things for sure are that Gus Hansen is back, he is not sporting a Full Tilt logo, and he is looking like the freshest guy in the room. No sunglasses, cell phone, or headphones, Gus looks like he’s gone old school, completely cut off from the insiders of poker. Sitting there with his close cropped hair, tight white t-shirt, flip-flops and blue jeans, Gus resembles much more the guy who almost ten years ago set the poker world alight. Back then he was whispered about and made fun of as he mowed them all down. Sometime along the way that all changed. He became one of them, stood shoulder to shoulder with Ivey and Antonius, who welcomed him in and then beat him up. Being the foreigner suits Gus Hansen. Being a loner among those guys suits him. It suits him well.
Gus Hansen’s feet are bouncing up and down tapping in time. It’s the evening of the fourth of July. As Daniel Negreanu tweeted on getting knocked out of this one, it’s not over until it’s over. But it’s pretty darn close. If you’re not one of the thirty-two players left in the 50k championship at midnight on the fourth of July then all you’ve got left is a 1500 no limit at noon, a 5k desperado PLO eight or better event starting at five that half of the field won’t know the rules, and then the main event, which most of the pros don’t have the stamina left to stomach. It’s over. It is so over.
There’s a rain around me, I can see multi-coloured triangles of glass dropping in slow motion while time is frozen and I walk through a blurry landscape. It’s the pavilion room in the Rio, the last 1500 dollar tournament before the main event, the last stop before hell. It’s five o’clock in a tournament which started at noon, but I’m in the area of all those who have waited until the last possible moment before registering, those who had to play but couldn’t face a big stack with a lot of blinds, or those who just wanted to spend as little time as possible in these rooms. There’s hundreds of them, whole tables of people with 4500 in chips and blinds starting at 100-200. Most of these players wish the blinds were bigger. They’ve got headphones on, they’re playing Chinese poker on their iPads, they’re fiddling with their crackberries, and then they’re telling bad beat stories as they bust out. They’re here, mostly, because they have to be, they have to be seen taking one more shot. They are no more prepared for three days of play as they are for the very next hand. Twenty minutes ago, the line for registration went out of the cashier’s room and snaked through half of the next, with a couple of tournament directors only missing the bright orange of Easyjet workers and yelling out, “Anybody here still waiting to get in the 12 o’clock tourney, the 1500? Come right to the front of the line.” No one with 1500 dollars will be denied. Way better if this line was for the 10 am flight to Ibiza. Just imagine these people complaining about losing a race. That’s been the best part of their day.
Three am. An infomercial is playing on the TV, loud, the price being reduced from $99 down to $19.95 for something I cannot see. I want one, I’m vaguely thinking that this is a very good price. My phone beeps, again, another text about an epic place on an epic night. There is half eaten food in the corner, the grease smelling heavy in my face, sprawled into the pillow on the bed where I’ve lain for the last three hours without even bothering to get under the covers. Las Vegas, and the wheels have come off.
“You understand what I’m saying.” That’s what he says to me. The fact is that I have no idea what he’s saying. What I do know is that he shouldn’t be here, not right now. He’s standing there trying to convince some other guy how important it is for this man to part with his money and put this guy into the tournament. It needs to happen, and it needs to happen right now. “Every minute counts,” your man is saying, “even a guy like Daniel is going to show up on time for this one.” As if on cue, Daniel Negreanu crosses in front of us and starts walking down the aisle towards a table. From the back he looks so skinny as to be ill, he looks like a ghost, like a shadow shuffling away, nearly broken in two under a weight. Again the man turns to me for confirmation. The only reason I’m even a part of this conversation is that I happen to be standing there. “You understand what I’m saying,” he says to me again.
I nod my head. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I say. “You’re dead right.” I have absolutely no idea what this man is saying. What I do know is there is no place he wants to be less in this world than on the rail. He wants to be in the tournament, and once he gets in he can go about the business of getting knocked out. I have no idea what this man is saying.
There are three of us sitting at a blackjack table. The dealer seems surprised by the answer to her last question. “Five weeks? What are you here for?” We’re visiting our darkest places and deepest secrets, of course. Isn’t everybody?
Last level of the night and Hansen is clearly trying to push. He’s been in more than half of the pots I’ve been watching, and sits idly dwelling after Sebastien Sabic has opened to eighteen thousand in no limit Hold’em. Gus’ chips say reraise from the hijack spot, splashing in fifty-seven striaght. Hansen wins the pot .
Josh Arieh has called a 40k bet on an A-2-4 two heart flop in PLO, and Gus has head scratching conniptions when Arieh checks the two on the turn. Gus bends his head left and right before betting again. Arieh checks the river and now Gus checks behind, staring at your man like he’s just sprouted a third head. “You are so lucky!” Explodes Arieh, turning over his hand, which was the nuts on the flop now reduced to a bluffcatcher on the turn and river. Gus is laughing with the rest of the table. Arieh’s kind of like being a nit.
“You really like old Vegas,” he said to me. “Why?” I’ll tell you why. It’s because everything we do was born in old Las Vegas. That was the place that one percent caught hold. Old Las Vegas was the birthplace of the edge. They didn’t know it before, that sometimes, when you have the edge, sometimes you lose. And the first person to really understand that thought, the first man to understand odds down to his bones was an uneducated horse thief who could barely read. He was a bumpkin from East Texas who studied at Legs Diamond’s knees. He was a hat wearing, slow talking cowboy who was happy to live by the slogan, “If it a-worried me, I wouldn’t of done it.” No one understood the science of one million rolls before Benny Binion, and that’s why I like old Las Vegas. And that’s why you can’t stand in this temple of a town and complain about an ace on the river. Don’t blaspheme your guts and bones. Don’t dirty the place you eat. Don’t cry piteous tears. Out here in the desert, Benny Binion will laugh.
A few hands later and the Dane has raised from the button to 20k, called by David Bach in the big blind with the black hat, the beard and the sunglasses. Bach won this event just two years ago, but then there was only five games in the mix, not eight. The flop is K-4-5, and the action goes check check. Bach leads for 60k when a king spikes the turn, called by Gus, and after a long dwell on the jack of diamonds river card Bach bets 75k, leaving himself about one hundred thousand back. Bach dwells so long on the river, in fact, staring into space out of his dark sunglasses over towards the dealer while Gus is looking anywhere but at him, that finally Gus says to the kid in the red shirt on his right who is staring at his stack thinking about butterflies, “Is it on me?” The red shirt looks up from his trance, startled, he was out of the hand three minutes ago and has no idea. But the action moves, Bach bets, and Gus quickly sets him all-in. After another rather interminable time Bach calls for his tournament life. Gus only has four kings. David Bach stands up, mollified, a slightly embarrassed grin on his face as he puts away all his toys and packs his bag at the table behind. Then, sunglasses off, he comes back to the table and grabs Josh Arieh to the side. “I had to call, didn’t I?” he asks.
“What did you have?”
“Nothing,” says David Bach. “Just a pair of fives. I had a straight flush draw, finished with a pair of fives.” All these years later, Gus has still got them flummoxed. They still can’t figure him out.
I saw Tom Dwan today. I nearly threw up. He came hobbled by the trailer, eyes puffy, face deeply creased. He looked sixty-four. Lines were running down and across and on every side of his face. The camera was rolling, and I asked him to say the first word that came to his mind. He bent his head to the left, and then to the right and then looked up in the sky. He started to walk away and then turned back. “Clouds,” he said. “Lots of clouds.”
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