The phone rings at 1:50am; you wouldn’t know it from the voice on the other end though.
“I’m outside,” it says loudly, completely out of place against the backdrop of the silence that permeates the dead of the night.
“Ok, I’ll be right down,” I answer, trying my best to wipe the post-three-hour nap grogginess from my voice. I kiss my wife goodbye; we’ll be apart for five days.
I sling my single, overpacked backpack over my shoulders and sleepily climb down the steps of my fourth floor apartment to the street below. There’s a cab waiting for me there. A few moments later I’m inside it and on my way to the airport.
A 2am phone call; a kiss goodbye; a lonely cab.
This is how my journey to being inches away from someone as they win $1,000,000 begins.
I arrive at the airport 60 minutes later. Despite the hour, it’s a complete free-for-all of frenetic energy. There is the low rumble of suitcase wheels rolling along the pavement; people are exchanging money with cab drivers; bright lights pierce through the darkness.
My thoughts wander. I assume this is what Las Vegas is like at 3am, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve still never been. This is the first time it begins to sink in that I’m on my way to the PokerStars Championship Barcelona. That I’m on my way to my first ever live poker festival. A super-high roller event. Prize pools that rise into the six and seven figures.
The largest tournament I’ve ever played in had a $500 buy-in. I had half of myself.
I approach the self-service check-in terminal and scan my passport. “We are unable to issue your ticket,” the machine tells me, a small STNDBY appearing on the digital ticket where my seat number should be. “Please see an agent at the counter.”
I swallow hard. I knew this was too good to be true.
I wait in line before I approach the security interview station. I’m flying out of Israel, and security is tighter than at any other airport in the world. You need to pass an interview screening before you can even get your ticket issued.
“Where are you going?” the security agent asks me, scrutinizing my face as I answer.
“To Barcelona,” I answer.
“I’m going to a PokerStars festival.”
“You’re a poker player?” the agent says, actually looking impressed.
“No. I’m covering it. I’m a writer.”
“Oh…well…that’s cool too,” she replies with a sad smile, returning my passport to me.
So, just to be clear: [Playing poker for $1,000,000] >>>> [Writing about people playing poker for $1,000,000].
I approach the ticket counter a few minutes later.
“It said I was on standby. Do I have a seat? Because I’m going on this awesome trip to my first poker festival and I’m completely convinced it’s not going to happen.”
“No, no,” the agent smiles. “We only issue tickets to people who have a seat,” she says as she hands me a ticket. “Just ask the counter which one when you get up there.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. I guess this is actually going to happen after all.
“Oh, and one more thing!” the agent says, stopping me mid-turn as I start to walk away, “good luck!”
I just smile, thank her, and then start making my way to the gate.
Casino Barcelona is not at all impressive from the outside, but this is probably an unfair judgment coming from an American. I grew up visiting NYC every weekend and playing cards in the huge glass and steel tower that is the Borgata. My sense of architectural grandeur is skewed heavily towards buildings that are at least 50 stories high.
What greets me instead as I step out of the cab for the first time is a very plain, squat looking building. If it weren’t for the large white letters spelling out “CASINO BARCELONA” on the front, you would never know that millions of dollars… er, euros… were being exchanged daily inside.
Also in contrast to my experiences in Atlantic City is the huge amount of security at the door. The terrorist attack that murdered more than a dozen people and injured at least one-hundred has happened less than 24 hours before.
I assume the measures are standard, but the staff seems slightly on edge; it takes several minutes and the intervention of the PokerStars PR team to explain I’m a credentialed media member before I’m allowed to pass through with my backpack. The grim thoughts of being in this place at this time creates a strange incongruence against the backdrop of the whirling lights and buzzing sounds that only a casino can produce.
I reconcile myself to this disjoint by telling myself that life goes on. Ultimately, I guess life can do nothing else but go on. But that reality doesn’t feel very good in that moment.
My first impressions as we walk through Casino Barcelona are that it feels strangely…familiar. Other than a few signs posted here and there, you would never know there is one of the biggest live poker festivals of the year going on downstairs.
I don’t know what I am expecting, but it’s definitely not familiarity. Having never been to a live event before, I’ve built it up in my head to be something almost mythical. A decade’s worth of picturing poker pros, playing for sums of money I couldn’t even fathom, in exotic locations, has me almost in shock that it’s all surprisingly real… so surprisingly… normal.
I’m waiting for some huge revelation to wash over me as I follow the PokerStars PR staff down a few staircases to where the main tournament room was set up, but really, all I can think about is that it is all so tangible.
The age of social media we live in is incredible. Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, and the like all give us so much access to so many things – but always through a screen. There is always that barrier erected between the real world you live in and the digital one presented to you. And when you consume the poker world only in that way for enough time, that barrier becomes an almost physical boundary that is in many ways much more real to you than the world you are watching on the other side is.
That barrier is slowly melting away as we turn the corner and enter a long corridor filled with poker players. When I finally emerge from pushing my way against the crowd, someone turns to me and asks a single, simple question: “Do you want to see the main tournament room?”
Of course! I answer.
And this is how, on a random Friday in August, I walk into the main tournament room of the PokerStars Championship Barcelona and have a single, distinct sound finally destroy that barrier forever.
Chips. I hear chips.
The sound is unmistakable to any poker player. Like crickets chirping on a summer night, but better; thousands of them clicking in unison and yet independently of one another. A perfect tapestry of individual and collective destiny. The perfect metaphor for the poker world which revolves around them.
A sound that instantly brings me back to kitchen table games in high school, early morning drives to Atlantic City with friends, sharing a meal with my father in the food court of the Borgata, and everything in-between. A lifetime of fascination and infatuation with this incredible game of poker, perfectly summed up in a simple, yet beautiful torrent of never ending clicks.
A smile breaks out across my face – but only for the first instant. Because in the second instant a horrible, terrifying thought crosses my mind: I’m going to have to listen to this beautiful sound for four days…and not play a single hand of poker.
It occurs to me then that perhaps I should have thought this through more before accepting.
On one of those four days, I find myself standing inches away from Igor Kurganov as he plays heads-up for over €1,000,000 in the €50K Super High-Roller event.
A super-high roller is, in a certain sense, the epitome of poker. In my mind, laying out €50K to play in a poker tournament simultaneously represents the best and the worst in poker. On the one hand, it’s the most potent, distilled form of the competitive and financial promise the game offers players. On the other, it’s a gratuitous display of throwing money around in a world wracked by poverty and all its attendant humiliations and suffering.
You would be shocked how many poker players share this take on the game.
In a world where losing €1,000 or even €5,000 is an afterthought, I’ve already had many conversations in Barcelona discussing the existential implications of having so much money change hands over a card game. For a game many associate with degeneracy and selfishness, I would bear witness several times to impressive and talented individuals struggling with balancing their desire to live the life many of us fantasize about, with the reality of actually living that life.
The best way they have found to balance the equation is to live a meaningful life in service of others away from the tables. After speaking with them, I can’t say I envy their demons.
But I can say I have a new respect for them.
I imagine watching Igor Kurganov play heads-up in a super-high roller event is a lot like watching Michael Phelps swim in the Olympics.
He’s completely at ease in an environment where other, lesser mortals would be uncomfortable at best and crippled with fear at worst. I watch as he maneuvers himself confidently and effortlessly through situation after situation that would take me hours and hours of study to grasp much less execute. The money doesn’t faze him in the slightest; he’s cracking jokes to the rail that’s formed behind him while the dealer shuffles.
Liberal arts guys like me are always fascinated by the math geniuses. I think it’s a mix of curiosity, inferiority complex, respect, and envy. I get stressed by the arithmetic questions WordPress asks me to answer when I sign-in; Igor is probably doing calculus in his head in-between one-liners.
I have never seen a real life math genius in the flesh, and the spectacle lives up to the hype. There is a sense of inevitability to his win, as if it’s only a matter of time. His opponent finally shoves all-in pre-flop with QJ; Igor snap-calls with QQ. A few seconds later, he’s €1,084,100 richer. And that’s that. Just another Monday in the life of a poker pro.
Igor shakes his opponent’s hand, hugs his girlfriend (and fellow PokerStars Pro) Liv Boeree, smiles with his trophy, and walks away – leaving the sound of clicking chips behind him as he exits the room.
So what is it like the first time I am inches away from someone as they win €1,000,000? Just like walking into the casino, there is an unsettling, anti-climatic banality to the whole thing.
I struggle with that thought as I watch Igor take his media photos, beer in hand, surrounded by friends inside a random corridor that is hidden away in the bowels of a casino constructed just yards from the sunshine of the Mediterranean Sea.
And then, I have an epiphany.
Seeing the barrier between the digital poker world I had imagined and the real poker world I’m witnessing crumble so startlingly before me, it finally hits me that, even at this, the highest levels of the industry and game, poker remains fundamentally a game about people.
Igor wins the PokerStars Championship Barcelona for €1,084,100 and celebrates with beer and friends; Bradley wins his home game tournament for €20 and celebrates with beer and friends. There is a common thread that cannot be denied; a common thread that makes poker the beautiful game and community that it is.
And it’s in that moment that I finally realize I flew all the way to Barcelona to learn that the barrier I had fantasized about breaking for so long, had in reality never been anything more than a figment of my imagination.