I wake in a dark room, fatigue weighing me down, wondering for just a few moments exactly where I am. Flashes of the previous evening begin to come back to me: wrapping up a bracelet event at the Rio and recording an interview with the winner for tomorrow’s live radio broadcast, then coming back to the Gold Coast to sip on watery drinks and play late-night no-limit until I could come down enough to get some sleep. Was I up? Down? That part hasn’t yet come back to me as I stand, walk to where I seem to remember there being a window, and peel the curtains back to reveal razor-sharp Las Vegas sunlight.
It’s 11 in the morning and my shift starts at 1:00 p.m., but there’s a production meeting at noon so I don’t have the luxury of shaking off the fatigue. I’ll just have to push through it. My skin is so dry from nearly a month in the desert that even 10 minutes under a lukewarm shower in the tiny bathroom doesn’t give me any relief. No matter. I dress in my standard outfit – jeans, comfortable shoes, T-shirt, black jacket – then grab my phone, my sunglasses, my laptop, and my all-important media pass, and head down to the elevator.
There’s no easy way to exit the Gold Coast without going through the casino, where the Pai Gow and craps tables are already roaring, the smoke is ever thick, and the waitresses look like they’ve been on shift since the beginning of time. I dodge through the crowd and within a minute I’ve emerged into the baking, late morning heat. The desert is always hot but July 2006, not yet halfway over, has been a scorcher. It will go down as the hottest month in the recorded history of Las Vegas. In just four more days the mercury at McCarran International Airport will hit an all-time recorded high temperature of 117° F. I don’t know this at the moment but, after 22 days of this walk, to be told it would happen wouldn’t shock me at all.
Even through my shades, the parking lot surrounding the Gold Coast and the mini-mall I have to walk past to get to the crosswalk at Valley View and Viking are washed out. Luckily, the traffic light changes quickly and I don’t have to wait to dash across the road. There’s a welcome but momentary respite from the sun once I cross and get to the Rio’s parking garage, which casts a small shadow across part of the last leg of the journey to my super-secret-ninja entrance at the back of the Rio Convention Center, where the 2006 WSOP is being held. One more brief stretch through the pounding sun, a few turns around a loading dock or two, and I arrive behind the small set of trailers that are serving as extra restrooms for the unprecedented crowds and the enormous air-conditioned tent that serves as the Poker Kitchen. My stomach rumbles and I’d like to sate it, but the lines are long enough that I decide to hit the meeting and eat afterward.
Taking in the WSOP Poker Atmosphere
I’ve spent late June and early July as a producer on a crew that has beamed live radio coverage from the Rio to satellites in space 16 hours a day, seven days a week, since this year’s WSOP began. It’s an unprecedented feat of poker media coverage, the guts of which are housed in a storage closet off the hallway at the far back of the Convention Center. (The fire marshal will have a significant argument with my bosses over this in a few weeks.) I have the choice of either taking the relatively hot back hallway from the Poker Kitchen to our production closet and dodging the wait staff who are preparing to serve the thousands of poker players who will soon enter the Amazon Room for today’s first event, or flashing my media badge at the security guard and ducking into the cool, cavernous confines of the tournament floor. No rookie mistakes for me: I opt for the latter and bask in the industrial-strength air conditioning needed to offset the body heat.
The floor of the Amazon Room is filled with hundreds of poker tables, nearly all of them devoted to tournament play; the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles the only thing in the entire world that compares. At the moment each table is the home of one person in black slacks, a crisp, long-sleeved white shirt, and a black vest and bowtie. These dealers, who, like the players they’ll soon deal to, have come from all over the country for seven weeks of poker in the desert, are soaking up the one mostly quiet moment they’ll have all day. Soon, thousands of players will pour through the doors and the chaos of the day will begin. I cross the room to its farthest corner, where ESPN’s black-with-blue-highlights final table set resides. The space where we’ve set up our microphones, monitors, and laptop computers is right beside the jib camera and the display table where the cash and bracelet await each tournament’s winner. We’re 20 feet from where the magic happens, waiting to tell the world all about it.
Production meetings have been workaday affairs throughout this Series, but today’s gives me something to hang on to: for the first time since our work began, I’m going to end my night early and be able to get some rest. There’s no final table to cover during my day shift so we’re just doing talk radio programming. If I can wrangle a few guests to fill time, I’ll have the rest of the night to myself. My tired body perks up at the possibility. The other news adds a wrinkle: only a few hours earlier, the final table for the inaugural $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. championship, the first ever $50K buy-in event at the WSOP, was reached. The lineup is the very definition of stacked. Brunson. Cloutier. Reese. Tomko. Bechtel. Ivey. Singer. Bloch. Antonius. With three world championship titles, seven heads-up appearances in the Main Event, and 27 gold bracelets among the participants, this promises to be one for the ages.
Just as our meeting breaks, the doors to the Amazon Room open and hundreds of players come flooding in for the noon start, with hundreds more behind them. What had been a mostly silent cavern moments before now teems with life. I can’t dash across the room anymore, so I take my time and slide through the crowd, rubbing shoulders with the young and the old, the American and the international, speaking English and a mix of other languages, which is music to my ears. Just a few days ago there was lots of Italian to be heard, as Max Pescatori won his first gold bracelet on the same day that his home country won its fourth FIFA World Cup title. (There was also some very sad French among fans of the runners-up.) I might not have made out the specifics, but the thrill of victory sounds the same in any language.
Eating, Sleeping, and Breathing Poker
Eventually, I make my way back to where I entered the room a few minutes earlier, slip back outside, and bake in the sun momentarily as I make my way past the smokers. This year, the entire convention center has been deemed a non-smoking area, so nicotine addicts gather immediately outside the exit that leads to the Poker Kitchen, potentially negating any healthy attributes the fare inside there may have. After three weeks of subsisting on it, none of it is mouth-watering, but it’s nutritive enough to get me through the day. I grab a chicken Caesar wrap, pay too much for it, then dash back through the cigarette haze into the hallway outside the Amazon Room. The early tournament has already seen enough knockouts that I have to dodge a few of them who are too engaged in telling bad beat stories to some unfortunate on the other end of their cell phone connection to pay attention. They’ll be thick by the end of the first few levels, but I’ll be safe inside the Amazon Room, overseeing eight hours of talk radio about the players at the table instead of the ones kicked off it by the turn of an unfriendly card.
The day breezes by, the only constants being the roaring whisper of poker chips simultaneously riffling at hundreds of tables, our commercial breaks, and every few minutes a dealer’s cry of “Seat open!” When my shift ends at 8:00 p.m. and I hand over the production for the night, the H.O.R.S.E. final still hasn’t begun, and seemingly everybody who busted during the day’s tournaments has made their way to the ESPN set to watch what has quickly become the most anticipated final table in WSOP history. Between the spectators, the players, the dealer and tournament staff, and waitresses trying to get to everyone who wants a drink, our corner of the Amazon Room is as packed as I’ve seen it this summer. The proceedings won’t actually get underway for nearly two more hours. I stick around, catching up with my friends in the poker media, and watch as the up-and-coming young Finn, Patrik Antonius, busts out in 9th place soon after the cards are in the air.
I grow hungry. The fatigue of three weeks of work with essentially no break suggests to me that maybe I should call it an early night. I decide to head back to the Gold Coast to grab a bite and see how I feel. The sun has set but the temperature is barely changed, the day’s heat still radiating from the streets as I retrace my path back to my hotel. Maybe I’m imagining it, but after sunset there’s a vague sewer stink on the stretch of Valley View between Viking and the Gold Coast’s parking garage. Cutting through the low-ceilinged garage, where the heat from the ground gets trapped and just waits to get its arms around you, is a claustrophobic experience. The casino itself is hopping, so making my way to the elevator, which is past the packed blackjack tables and video poker bar, is a chore. Eventually I make it to my room, take off my shoes and socks, stretch my toes in as many directions as they’ll go, and sit down to contemplate which of the Gold Coast’s mediocre room-service options will put me down for the night.
Got Bitten By the H.O.R.S.E. Bug
Before I can call and place an order, I open my laptop and pull up some live coverage of the H.O.R.S.E. tourney. Chip Reese holds the lead, the three remaining younger players are sitting second through fourth, and the rest of the old guard rounds out the leaderboard. It occurs to me that after doing winner interviews in all manner of bracelet events, none with a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, I’m about to miss out on the conclusion of the only final table that anybody aside from the players still in the hunt will probably remember 10, 15, or 20 years from now. And for what? A dinner of bad room service and one night of fitful rest in a double bed that won’t make a dent in the sleep deficit I’ve developed since starting this job last month? Surely it will be done within a few more hours. I can still get a half-decent night of rest before tomorrow’s day shift. I decide on a quick shower for rejuvenation, then throw my producer’s uniform on again and make my way back to the Amazon Room.
I make the walk between the Gold Coast and the Rio for the third time in the last 13 hours, the heat a little less oppressive now that the hour is closing in on midnight. I arrive in the Amazon Room like an avenging angel of action. Within an hour Doyle Brunson, Dewey Tomko, David Singer, TJ Cloutier, and Jim Bechtel have been eliminated. Phil Ivey is the short stack and Chip Reese is a handful of big blinds ahead of Andy Bloch. Within another 30 minutes Bloch moves in on the draw, Ivey calls with top pair, and the tournament is reduced to its final two players when Bloch catches his third diamond on the turn.
The crowd thins out a bit with Ivey’s elimination, but there’s still a sizable audience as Reese and Bloch start heads-up with nearly even stacks. My boss, who’s doing the color commentary on the night’s action along with our sportscaster play-by-play man, is positively giddy as heads-up begins. But as the players’ dedication to small-ball drags the table out to 4 a.m. with no end in sight, he decides it’s time to call it a day. Up to this point I’ve been in the stands with players and fellow poker media, but when I see them planning to leave with no contingency for a winner’s interview in the biggest tourney of the Series so far, I offer to stick around through the end and capture the victor’s words for the next day’s recap. In a hurry, they hand me a recorder and microphone, tear down their workstations for the day, and depart.
The Never-Ending Poker Story
With a $700K difference between first and second place, Bloch and Reese are both in this for the long haul. The longer the match goes, the more the entire ESPN set seems to sag. ESPN crew members are regularly yawning behind their cameras, audience members are sleeping in the bleachers, and at least one media member has disappeared to catch a few winks of his own. The players’ friends and family are awake, though, waiting for any sizable bet to be called so they can stand up and close in on the table as far as security will let them. So are a few interested players who seem to have a grasp of the gravity of what they’re witnessing, as the match continues deep into the night.
Those moments are few and far between, though, at least until Bloch is able to apply consistent pressure in the fourth hour of heads-up and build a 4-to-1 lead. Reese, more than 200 hands into the final table and now on the verge of losing his shot at a third career gold bracelet after years of skipping tournaments to focus on lucrative cash games, knows he’s going to need some help. With his back to the wall in the fifth hour of heads-up play, he gets it in with A-10 against Bloch’s K-J, turning a flush to beat kings and jacks for a double to 2 million chips. A half hour later, he picks up pocket kings while Bloch holds pocket nines – this brings the two players’ stacks back to about where they were when heads-up play began five hours earlier. Reese reacts to all these events in the collected manner one would expect of a player so widely regarded as one of the best ever to play the game: a smile, a momentary celebration of his good fortune, and then right back to work.
I’m now one of about 25 people left in the room, including the players, a handful of other reporters, and WSOP staff. My eyes are burning by this point. My shoulders are slumping and my back wishes my mouth hadn’t made promises about interviews without consulting an oracle on how long this match would go. The players look even more beaten down than I feel. Reese reclines in his seat with a slight slump, every motion of his hands toward chips or cards compact. Bloch leans forward onto the table, his body language giving away his disappointment at not being able to catch a break from the deck. And still the game goes on. Another two and a half hours go by. The chip lead changes hands multiple times. The tournament director informs Chip and Andy that they’ve officially set the record for the longest heads-up match in 37 years of Series history. And still they play. Finally, more than seven hours after they began their duel, the unthinkable happens: Reese comes out on top with A-Q against Bloch’s 9-8 to bring the tournament to a close and win his third career bracelet.
The Payoff and the Memories
ESPN’s Norman Chad, who showed up after the crew called to let him know there was a winner, gets the first interview as the representative of the WSOP’s official TV partner. As the representative of its official radio partner, I get the second interview. Reese has done the work and all I’ve done is bear witness, but he’s pure class just the same. We both lean in toward the microphone, cooperative cogs in an emerging poker media machine. My low voice creaks out questions, and Chip’s responds not much louder. He talks about Andy’s skill and persistence, about getting a little luck when he needed it, and of course about the impact of this win on his legacy after having chosen cash games over tournaments for so many years. I’d love to ask the Poker Hall of Famer more questions, but there are a few more media outlets waiting their turn. I mark the recorder with a note that it has the Reese interview on it, drop it off in our hallway-closet-turned-office, and call my boss to let him know where it is. He tells me I can come in at 1 p.m. instead of noon like I was originally supposed to.
I fumble for my shades as I step outside to make the return trek to the Gold Coast. Bearable nighttime heat has long since ceded to the blinding mid-morning sun and the walk back to my room seems to take twice as long as usual. No wonder: 24 hours ago I was just waking up to get ready for work and now I’m closing out the day when I should be repeating the previous day’s ritual. Unlike Chip Reese and Andy Bloch, I didn’t earn enough tonight to call off work tomorrow. In fact, I don’t have another day off scheduled for the foreseeable future, which gives me the suspicion that this night is going to wreak havoc with my sleeping schedule for the remaining half of the Series. I may curse it over the next three weeks, especially if the Main Event turns out to be as big as people are predicting, but I already sense that my experience tonight is the kind that doesn’t come along often. I’ll just have to remember to keep telling myself that when I get up in an hour and a half for tomorrow’s shift.
*With special thanks to Tao of Poker for helping to jar my memories.
**Disclaimer: All images used for illustrative purposes only.