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The World Series of Poker

Our Man Comes Within a Hair Of a Seat in Poker's Grandest Event
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

I will spare you the suspense.

I did not win the main event at the World Series of Poker this year. I am not the reigning world champion of poker. I am not $1 million richer. (All of which should be obvious, since I am writing this story instead of luxuriating on some Caribbean island with my new best friend the showgirl.) But along with thousands of other poker players--hardened professionals and serious amateurs alike--I tried to do all these things. And I learned something in the process. And you can, too. with a little money, a lot of gambling talent and a highly developed capacity for dreaming can do what I do every year: go to Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, enter a modestly priced ($220) supersatellite tournament and, if they become one of the finalists, earn a seat in the big dance, the $10,000 buy-in World Championship. First place in the main event, a four-day odyssey that in 1997 attracted 312 entrants, is $1 million. Second pays $583,000. And for players who finish as low as 27th, the prize is $21,200.

Every type of poker game is tested at the World Series of Poker, including various forms of stud and draw. But the king of games, the one used to decide the World Championship, is called No Limit Texas Hold'em (See box, page tk). "No Limit" means you can bet any or all of your chips at any time, a delightful rule that, in recent years, has created several million-dollar pots--i.e., poker hands on which a million dollars is riding. The "Texas Hold'em" part refers to the form of poker, a variation on seven-card stud in which each player receives his own two "hole," or "down," cards and shares five "community" cards, which are dealt face up, with his opponents. The object is to make the best five-card hand from your two hole cards and the five up cards. Texas Hold 'em is played every day of the year at Los Angeles card casinos like Hollywood Park, the Commerce and the Bicycle Club, and these are the places where I honed my game, preparing myself for the fiercest poker competition on the planet: guys with lots of gold jewelry, inscrutable faces and nicknames like "The Master."

After five years as this magazine's gambling columnist, I figure it's time for me to take my place among the wiseguys. I arrive at the Horseshoe three days before the start of the world championship event, allowing myself three shots (and a couple thousand dollars) at winning a satellite tournament, three shots at earning a ticket to the most important congregation in poker.

It does not immediately strike me as ominous foreshadowing when on my very first hand I lose all my chips, all $200 of them. Having raised before "the flop" (the displaying of the community up cards) with a pair of Jacks, I end up donating my entire stack of money to a foolish, chain-smoking Vietnamese lad who has called me with a pair of 5s. When a 5 comes on the last card--the river, as poker players say--giving him three-of-a-kind, I am left with nothing but a blank strip of green felt where once my chips sat so hopefully.

"Unlucky," I think, reminding myself that if it were not for the occasional bolt of fortune, lesser players would never compete in poker tournaments. Why should they? The better players would always win. Indeed, luck--or "short-term volatility," as odds mavens like to think of it--is inherent to poker. But unlike, say, baccarat or craps, skill is the game's primary ingredient, especially at the World Series of Poker, where several expert players, such as Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, have won multiple world championships. As I hand the dealer $200 more (players may rebuy at a satellite tournament during the first hour of play), I tell myself to retain equanimity, to handle the bad luck with grace. Good fortune will eventually come my way.

I continue to tell myself this, repeating it like a mantra, as I watch three more stacks of $200 disappear down the gullets of three other voracious players. Each time I begin with the "best" or strongest hand--every two-card combination is either a favorite or an underdog, depending on what it's up against--and each time an opponent with a weaker hand spanks me hard.

I hold Ace-King; a gargantuan Floridian, scratching his head and chewing on a toothpick, holds Ace-Queen: the flop comes King-Jack-10, and he makes a straight. I hold a pair of 9s; a relic from the age of disco, sporting smoked sunglasses, a silk shirt and a diamond pinkie ring, calls my raise with an Ace-9: an Ace comes on the flop, and he's happy as a Bee Gee.

And most preposterously, both I and another opponent, an unreadable English fellow who plays poker while listening to Mozart through tiny headphones, hold identical hands, a pair of 10s. I've got the black ones, he's got the red ones. Surely we'll split the pot. Alas, four diamonds come on the flop. He makes a flush.

I try to be philosophical: These things happen. But then self-pity rears its ugly head: "But why me?! Especially when I'm trying to win the World Series of Poker?! It's not fair!"


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