In case you're not familiar with how this works, here are some basics about the WSOP Main Event and about poker in general:
Poker tournaments require a buy-in. On a typical day in a typical casino, it’s generally somewhere between $50 and $200. Tournament players can’t lose more than the buy-in. The pot size equals the buy-in times the number of players. Generally the top 10% win some part of the pot. If it’s late and the last few players agree that they’re pooped, they might “chop” the pot, split the remaining winnings evenly among themselves and call it a night. But not in the Main Event.
The buy-in for the Main Event is $10,000. You can pay by cash or money order (no credit cards) or you can earn a spot by winning one of dozens of designated satellite feeder tournaments. Anyone can play if they can pay. You don’t have to know what you’re doing. You’re not required to win a qualifying event or pass an IQ test or even prove that you can add two plus two to get a seat in the Main Event. It’s just plain old Texas hold ‘em. Make the best 5-card hand out of the two cards you’re holding and the five cards on the table, or bluff your way to victory.
The World Series of Poker (WSOP), owned by Caesars Entertainment, is a series of poker tournaments whose winners receive not just money but coveted WSOP bracelets. The WSOP runs throughout the year, mostly in Las Vegas, but also in Melbourne, Australia; Vancouver, Canada; and London. Winners of WSOP circuit tournaments -- or feeder tournaments -- might win money or they might earn entry into more expensive bracelet events.
The 2012 WSOP included more than 60 bracelet events, one of which was an $18 million Texas Hold ‘em payout with a $1 million buy-in. (That was the Big One for One Drop charity event. ) It also included variations on Seven Card Stud, Omaha Hi-Low 8 or Better, Pot-Limit Omaha and Seven Card Razz, among others. But the most prestigious event, the big daddy, the one that’s televised on ESPN starting in September every year, is the Main Event.
In November of 2003, on a Saturday afternoon, Larry was watching TV. He came and got me in the kitchen and said, “You have to see this. I know it’s going to sound stupid, but it’s poker on TV. A guy just won $2.5 million, and you won’t believe his name. It’s Chris Moneymaker.” I probably said, “That’s a joke, right?” But it wasn’t. And so I watched a replay of the final hand of the 2003 WSOP Main Event, and it was indeed won by a guy named Moneymaker.
Part of the reason I don't play poker is because, in general, I would be so embarrassed if I totally messed up a hand. Even though Chris Moneymaker did it. During the Main Event.
In a hand toward the end of the 2003 WSOP Main Event, Moneymaker was taking an inordinately long time deciding what to do. Even though he was a fairly new poker player, he looked so calm, like a real pro, making the others sweat. And then his eyes focused. He hadn’t realized that it was his turn.
Last year's Main Event winner made over $8 million, so that $2.5 million only ten years ago is a good indication of how this "sport" has grown. And to me it truly is a sport. It takes endurance that I never imagined. Not just sitting for up to 12 hours a day but the energy burned from concentration. Larry has to eat something at each break (every 2 hours), even if he doesn't feel like it.
I have played before, but only once. It was a Mother's Day tournament. All women, at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.
I had gone back and forth about it for days. The night before, I said to Larry, “teach me.”
We have an official looking poker set in a metallic case with a faux marble handle. I pulled it out of the closet and I pulled out some of our daughter Hannah’s old stuffed animals that live on the shelf above it. I set the animals around the dining room table, and then I dealt to Brown Bear, an unnamed white Siberian Husky puppet, Wimooski the moose, and to the two of us. My first lesson in poker:
The “button” is both a silver-dollar-sized, hole-less, round, white piece of plastic and the person it’s parked in front of. That player always acts last for each round of betting. The button moves clockwise after each hand. The person to the left of the button is the small blind and has to put in a bet of a certain amount before the hand even starts. To the left of the small blind is the big blind. That person has to put in twice the amount of the small blind.
We played a few hands. I think Brown Bear was winning.
Larry asked, “Quick, which is better, a flush or a full house.”
I spit out, “Flush. No wait, I thought you were going to ask flush or straight. But wait, a full house beats a flush, right?”
And yet I played anyway.
Approximately 36 women started in the Mother’s Day tournament, four tables of nine, with a buy-in of $65. We smiled and chatted, but thank god we didn’t shake hands because mine were slimy with sweat. (By the way, our local casino doesn’t wash its poker chips. Ever.) The first few hands were a blur, and then I started to get the rhythm of play. Forget strategy; I was just happy that I remembered when it was my turn. After about an hour, my chip stack was solid. Then it hit me: if I kept winning, I would have to keep playing. I had work to do at home, and I can barely sit still for more than an hour under any circumstances. I would go all in, and Larry would be happy that I tried, and we could both go home. Except that I kept winning. I had great cards. I won with Queen/six off suit. I bluffed with nothing. Every time I went all in, I either won or the other players folded. Now I was really stuck.
When I knocked out an especially loud-mouthed woman, I felt silent thank yous from the other players. (I remember that I rivered a pair of Jacks. That means that the last card turned over -- the “river” -- was a Jack, and it matched the lowly Jack I had in my hand.) I was fearless. I didn’t care. I was an unintentional bully, intimidating those other poor women, some of whom played a lot of poker. I made it to the final table, the last ten players, and before long, there were three of us left. We played a few hands. I was ready to go home. As chip leader, I suggested that we chop and they agreed (since third or second place would have paid them less). We all made somewhere around $300.
I'm in the poker kitchen, the cafeteria space filled with tables next to the food booths that are stocked with surprisingly healthful food offerings. Soba noodles and tofu, grilled salmon, protein smoothies. I will wander around, play a game of "spot the celebrities" (where crowds form), maybe step outside into the 107 degree heat for a minute. It's impossible to know how long Larry will last. The final 9 players who fight it out for the bracelet will have played 12 hours every day for a week. But anyone can bust out at any time. I'll keep you posted.