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Michael Kaplan
Posted: July 7, 2005
Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist, Michael Kaplan, is holed up at the Rio in Las Vegas, home of the 2005 World Series of Poker championship starting today. Kaplan, a seasoned veteran of the gambling world, is filing daily tableside coverage of the $60 million event, which concludes with the final round on July 15. Eyes are on returning champion -- and CA cover boy -- Greg "Fossilman" Raymer, who won $5 million last year. Can he repeat as champion? Or could 2003 champ Chris Moneymaker, who rose from Internet obscurity, come back after being knocked out early last year? Visit here every day to find out.

JULY 7, 2005

It's not exactly news that the world is poker-crazed. But right now, in Las Vegas, particularly at the Rio Hotel, where the World Series of Poker championship kicks off this afternoon, things have been taken to new levels of mania. To begin with, there'll be 6,000 or so competitors, each putting up a $10,000 entry fee and creating a prize pool of around $60 million (out of which the winner will take down $7.5 million). Beyond that is the brash commercialization of the game, stunningly illustrated by the so-called Lifestyle Show, a giant bazaar of booths and kiosks that everyone must pass through en route to the tournament room. Amid the sexy Bodog girls and roving pamphleteers, hordes of fans wait for autographs from Howard Lederer and Phil Hellmuth, check out Chris Moneymaker's line of poker tables, and try on hockey jerseys emblazoned with the names of famous Phils (Gordon, Laak and Hellmuth). Beside those who are selling the expected poker ephemera, some amazingly optimistic merchants are peddling rare coins, Lucky Aces jewelry and scented candles (try breaking out a couple of those at your next home game). Even more shocking: at least one woman views defending champ Greg "Fossilman" Raymer as enough of a fashion icon that she's taken to wearing those freaky Tower Of Terror sunglasses that became his trademark last year.

Yesterday was a relaxation day for most of the pros, but four top players spent the morning grappling in a squaring off over something that had absolutely nothing to do with cards. ESPN asked Ted Forrest, Robert Williamson III, Mike Matusow and Erick Lindgren to each choose a game of skill he'd like to compete in for a $15,000 prize. A decathlon was thrown together with air hockey, card flipping, a spelling bee and ping pong as the events. So as not to be a spoiler (it'll turn up on ESPN this summer), I won't tell you who won, but let's just say that Matusow and Lindgren got knocked out of the running. Later that night was the annual media tournament (a free-roll in which journalists play for $10,000 -- which must go to charity). Last year I won the thing; this year I got knocked out quickly and lost $20 to author Peter Alson (we bet on who would last longer). Celebs in attendance included a dapper-looking James Woods, super hot Shannon Elizabeth, hulking Penn Jillette, and razor-thin Nicole Richie who appeared bug-eyed in giant sunglasses as she sweated her chip-sucking/face-sucking boyfriend DJ-AM.

Parents who worry about their kids getting too into poker should have been at Howard Lederer's bash last night. The party was hosted at the home of Steve Zolotow, a New York-based pro whose lush Vegas spread (complete with caretaker's house and separate quarters for backgammon genius Paul "X-22" Magriel) is proof of the millions that are there to be won by sharp players. There was live music, barbecued steak and a great crowd (including pros Jennifer Harman, Andy Bloch and Matusow). Last week, during one of the preliminary World Series tournaments, Bloch drew attention after he spotted cards that appeared to be marked with their corners folded in various ways. Standing alongside an ice sculpture and a huge pile of shrimp at the Lederer/Zolotow party, Bloch diplomatically says that it mostly seems inadvertent (wear and tear on the cards) and blames the problem on Harrah's (which owns the Rio and the World Series). "They've chosen not to buy enough cards, which means that we don't begin with fresh decks every day," says Bloch. "But with the money that people put up to enter these events, something like that really shouldn't be an issue." Bloch's buddy Ray Bitar jumps into the conversation and likens the deck shortage to playing the French Open with old tennis balls. Both agree that the parsimony seems mind-boggling. Told of a rumor that only the low cards had been crimped, Bloch shrugs and replies, "If you ask what hurts more, cheating or the house's take of seven to eight percent, I'll tell you that the house's take [obviously higher than Bloch thinks it ought to be] hurts me a lot more."

Go to Entry Two, Entry Three, Entry Four, Entry Five, Entry Six, Entry Seven, Entry Eight.

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