Roots, Annie/Vegas, WSOP/Player X (Intro, pt. 1 of 3)

Hello and welcome!

This is a blog about poker, but not just that. If you’re not the least bit interested in poker, my voice probably won’t carry you. If you’re only interested in poker, though, this blog won’t do much for you either – it’s no geek’s inquiry into tactics, nor am I an internet-poker whiz-kid in shades and a hoodie.

So why a poker blog? Why now? Why me writing it? Why you reading it?

One – Roots.

My long and many-splendored relationship with poker began, of course, at the dining room table in my grandparents’ condo in Fort Lauderdale, at around age ten, circa 1975. We played with pennies, nickels and dimes from a cookie jar – quarters were way over our bankroll. I remember loving the slick feel and flight of the cards. I remember loving WINNING. I remember being quite manic about it all, by turns worrying and annoying my relatives. I remember Aunt Miriam in particular – big jewelry, make-up, and scowl. I remember wanting to play forever – way past bedtime, anyway. I was mesmerized by one game in particular, Black Mariah – standard seven-card stud, but the person with the high spade in the hole split the pot. I remember peeking down at my cards, seeing that ace of spades and just being insane with joy, and, moments later, greedily scooping that sweet sweet pile of coins.

My father and his mother (who cheated at cards), circa 1945.

My father and his mother (who cheated at cards), circa 1945.

Two – Annie/Vegas.

In 1999, I reconnected with a college friend, Annie Lederer. Some of you may know her as Annie Duke, poker pro, former Celebrity Apprentice second-place finisher (shafted because the Donald adores Joan Rivers), and sister of poker great (and recent poker pariah) Howard “The Professor” Lederer. I visited Annie Vegas three times in the early 2000’s, twice during the World Series of Poker (WSOP), where I got to “sweat” her (sit behind and watch and root on) while she played in the highest stakes cash games (in public, anyway) in the world at the time, at the Bellagio. I watched thousands, to tens of thousands of dollars change hands. . . every hand. I watched a guy pull a full-on, brick-sized gold brick out of his knapsack and place it on the table, just for laughs. I sweated, alright.

I ended up writing a profile of Annie for our college alumni magazine. One trip started with my walking into the Bellagio and within minutes having my pocket picked while simultaneously winning $500 at roulette (as the ball plinked sweetly down on my lucky number 9, I felt my empty pocket and started to panic) and ended with a redemptive Elvis Costello concert at the Hard Rock. Another year, I visited and attended one of her three-day WSOP-Academy trainings. There are some tasty bits to share.

Three – The WSOP, a Whirlwind History

As some of you reading this well know, the World Series of Poker is held annually from late May through early July, at the Rio Hotel in Vegas. The WSOP has grown into an annual month-and-a-half-long extravaganza consisting of more than 60 multi-day day tournaments capped off by the “Main Event,” a $10,000 entry, nine-day, marathon World Championship event that’s grown from one insider event with a few dozen old-school gamblers and poker legends with names like Amarillo Slim and Puggy Pearson, to a series of events with a few hundred entries in the late 80s and 90s, to an incredible boom from 2003 on that launched an industry and a world-wide cultural phenomenon –  a seedy backroom had become the VIP lounge. For the past eight years, more than 6,000 people have ponied up the $10k to play the Main Event, and poker lingo is now ubiquitous everywhere from hip hop to Fox news. Ten years ago, if you heard newscasters call the president “all-in” on Health Care, they meant that POTUS was exhausted and calling it quits for the night – that definition is still (I was shocked to find) the only one in Webster’s Collegiate, but no one under thirty will know what you’re talking about if you use it that way. What made 2003 poker’s transformative year?

First came the rise, leading up to ’03, of Texas Hold ‘Em as the prevalent form of the game – it’s a way higher risk, higher reward poker than grandma’s, and is deceptively complex, if I’m coining my term correctly. That is, it looks easy, but, as the World Poker Tour’s Mike Sexton puts it, “It takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.” It’s kind of like the Second Amendment – a whole lotta folks only pay attention to half a sentence but feel like experts. But what made the 2003 WSOP the sharknado of poker were two major factors: the introduction of hole-card-cameras (so folks at home could actually see the cards players were playing as they were playing them); and the ridiculously improbable $2.5 million victory in the Main Event by a chubby-cheeked, thirty-ish accountant and home-game amateur from Georgia with a stranger-than-fiction name: Chris Moneymaker. Here’s a great oral history Grantland published earlier this year, in commemoration of the Moneymaker ten-year anniversary.

Four –  WSOP 2013 / Player X.

This year’s Main Event drew 6,352 entries, for a prize pool of $59,708,800, to be divvied among the top 650 or so finishers. In July, they played seven grueling days, down to the final nine players. When that heartbreaking/dream-making week ends each year, and they’re down to those nine lucky souls, the WSOP then shuts down for four months, and soon thereafter, the hype machine starts churning. ESPN TV shows ensue, 22 weekly episodes following the July action, culminating in the November Nine, two nights of extended televised coverage of the Final Table on Nov. 4 and 5. (Episodes 1-12 have already aired, and I’ll be posting a hand-of-the-night video from each, starting on Thursday, and running throughout the month.)

In those two days, the final nine (all of whom, by that point, are guaranteed at least a $733,000 payday) play down until one person has all the chips  (over 190-mil of the suckers) and a first prize of over eight million dollars and the cherished Precious, the Main Event bracelet.

Every year, I watch religiously, following my favorite players (and least favorites – it’s a fun and easy pastime to find poker players to dislike), staying up ungodly hours staring at my laptop at a single camera shot pointed directly down at the table while cocky young pros, overexcited at being handed a microphone, whine about how badly the luckboxes at the table are playing. So I already know who this year’s November Nine are. If you don’t know, I suggest not peeking – we’ll get there.

But what’s making me especially amped about writing about this year’s WSOP in particular is that someone I know personally (and like!) did very, very well this year (“went deep”), and it’s hard to explain what a huge thrill it is to bring him into the mix. For now, let’s call him Player X.

(tomorrow, Intro, Part 2 – Mom, the Fan, Big Guns and Regular Joes)

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2 thoughts on “Roots, Annie/Vegas, WSOP/Player X (Intro, pt. 1 of 3)

  1. One more-than-side note. The last woman standing in ’03? Annie duke, in 47th. And her brother Howard placed 19th. Since then, you just don’t see many of the biggest names in that last hundred.

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