I suppose you could say that my first visit to the World Series of Poker, a few scant weeks ago, started off in the wrong place.
Not realizing that there was a distinct parking lot on the far side of the property and a separate, direct, entrance there to the Rio’s Convention Center area, my Dad and I parked and walked in through the hotel-resort’s front entrance. Dad gripped my hand tightly, and I’m sure he felt me trembling with excitement, as we followed the signs to the far end of the complex.
WATCH THE VIDEO: My First WSOP
Sitting and reflecting on the experience now, back here in Israel, that incredible feeling still hasn’t worn off. Time seemed to slow down as, slowly but surely, I approached poker’s grandest theater. My eyes darted, Ivey-like, from right to left and back again, trying to take the entire scene in. After all those hours spent in front of TV and computer screens consuming WSOP footage over the years, what and who would I recognize first?
Then, I saw it in the distance. A black banner draped across the width of one of the hallways with a white-lettered greeting: “Welcome to the World Series of Poker”. I looked down at my phone – it was 11:18 pm on Monday, June 20th, 2016; that’s the moment my “poker life” changed forever. After 13 years of yearning, I had finally reached “Destination WSOP“.
Follow Me; I’ll Show You Around
After picking up my media credential, I asked where WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla was seated. After forging a great relationship with one another over the last couple of years and using social media to keep in touch, I couldn’t have pictured a warmer in-person welcome; it was a true pleasure finally getting to meet him for the first time. Nolan was kind enough to give me and my Dad “a tour of the place”. “You’re standing in the Amazon Room,” he said. “There’s also the Pavilion Room and the Brasilia Room.” I’m usually not at a loss for words, but during those few minutes I sure felt like a deer in headlights, simply overwhelmed by the occasion. Of course I knew where I was, but it felt too surreal.
Most things don’t appear the same during the day as they do at night, and the World Series of Poker is no different. Thus, I also thoroughly enjoyed “tour #2”, which I got the next day when I met Kevin Mathers (a.k.a., Kevmath) for the first time. Actually seeing the masses throng the hallways, I suppose that’s when things started to feel a little bit real.
Taking It All In, Bumping Into Poker’s Superstars
Over the next few days, I would spend a good deal of time walking around the Rio, witnessing up-close a poker world that had been painfully out of arm’s reach for far too long.
The sheer enormity of the World Series of Poker is difficult to describe, but my feet can attest that I did my fair share of walking around. For the six days and nights that I got to spend at the WSOP, it seemed as though every new step I took brought along new delights. Every place I looked I was surrounded by poker and it’s standout performers. All those faces and Twitter handles I’d gotten so used to seeing were suddenly real, walking those halls along with me.
To any Las Vegas local, Rio employee, or tournament circuit grinder, bustling WSOP hallways full of poker celebrities are “the norm”. For a poker fan who lives half a world away, having the briefest of opportunities to be immersed in that mythical poker culture is practically indescribable. So many things happened over those few days that have given me so many mini-stories to tell. Here’s a small sampling:
- I randomly bumped into WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel in a Starbucks and discovered after a couple minutes of conversation that he was also Jewish.
- For the first time in my life, instead of “cheese” I said “shark” while posing for a picture… with Humberto Brenes, of course. Later on, I got prompted to “smile, baby”, from none other than the Prince of Poker himself, Scotty Nguyen.
- I passed by Jonathan Little so many times that I felt like his neighbor… and then we ended up parking next to each other one morning.
- Speaking of the parking lot, I refrained from using any of the Rio’s infamous outdoor toilets, but while headed out to my car one afternoon, that’s precisely where I bumped into “the Toilet” himself, Faraz Jaka.
- On another trip down the hallways, I looked over to my right and noticed a guy sitting on a bench, only to realize that it was Anthony Zinno. I built up a bit of courage to approach him, as he didn’t really know me, and then he ended up thanking me for coming to introduce myself and tell him “what I do in poker”; go figure!
- My Dad and I bumped into a just-got-off-the-plane Eugene Katchalov who, despite his fatigue, kindly took the time to chat with us for a few minutes, but I couldn’t follow half of the conversation because it was being conducted between him and my Dad in Russian.
Branded Decks Lead to Smiles, Success, and More Stories
I decided to give out close to 150 decks of branded Cardplayer Lifestyle cards while I was in Las Vegas. When was the last time anyone looked at a business card, right? A free deck of cards though? THAT, someone could use 🙂
Anyhow, among the recipients were Jason Mercier, who got engaged about a week later, and Brian Rast, who won the $50K Poker Player’s Championship a few days after that. Now, I’m not going to claim that my decks bestowed upon Mercier and Rast any sort of magical “run good”, but if great things start happening to the other 148 deck recipients in the coming weeks , you’ll know why… 🙂
I gave another deck of cards to Jason Somerville, who I had first met at the PCA six months ago. Walking through the Pavilion Room, I noticed Jason playing at a table where he was seated next to actor James Woods. I stood there, observing quietly for a minute, when Jason looked up. He immediately spring out of his seat, and greeted me with a big hug, saying “Robbie, SO nice to see you again!” After a couple minutes of catching up, I asked Jason if he wouldn’t mind giving Mr. Woods a deck of cards as well. He did far more than that, saying some incredibly nice things about me and this blog to Mr. Woods. I’m blushing just recalling the experience, but hopefully next time I won’t be so bashful and will go up to Mr. Woods myself for a proper introduction.
Pictures, Pictures, and More Pictures
I felt a constant need to take pictures of everything and everyone. Happiness was bursting out of me. I had to do everything in my power to document the experiences.
After almost a week traversing those Rio hallways, I wanted to somehow pack it all up in my suitcase and bring it home with me. Of course, I’m hopelessly addicted to that WSOP poker drug, already looking forward to the next time I’ll hopefully get to make it back to those hallways and experience everything all over again.
There’s so much more that I experienced during my first trip to the World Series of Poker that I’d like to share with you, and I will in future blog posts.
For now, I’ll just end off by saying that while I may have started my maiden WSOP pilgrimage off in the wrong place, I sure ended up in the right one 🙂 .
Traveling to the east on a road trip since April, after only a few months of residing in Las Vegas, I know I’ve missed out on a great experience.
But, I can relate a little bit to your experience. I did get to sit on-stage in the Penn & Teller theater during the 2015 three day November Nine. I tasted in an abbreviated form what you’ve just seen and felt and took lots of pictures that make it so memorable.
It indeed is a thrill to meet and be among some of the greats we’ve all read about and seen in video. What was most amazing to me is just how accessible and friendly they all were!
Hopefully you’ll get to come again soon and together we can get a little giddy over all there is to be seen at the World Series of Poker! I’m looking forward to it! ?
Thanks for sharing your story!
That’s an awesome reply, Rick – thank you so much! Indeed, cheers to hopefully meeting up some day soon!