Travel

Big Blinds and Heartbreak: Adventures at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas

How much could the world of gambling suck me in, at its mecca, at betting's greatest shrine?

by Joe Bish
22 July 2016, 10:20am

"Good luck!"

In every bar, every shop, every restaurant, every roulette table and craps table, poker cashier and hotel swimming pool, this salutation rings out. It is the mantra of Las Vegas, the friendly wink to fate, the thing that means you may go home with everything or nothing. An expanse in the desert flanked by low mountains, a bit of dusty nature containing the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah that lies in the buildings of the desert city, where you scarcely believe anything natural can live.

I was in Las Vegas for the opening days of the World Series of Poker. As a light enthusiast of Texas Hold 'Em (I know what a flop and a slow roll is, not so much an angle shoot, and I still call a 'deuce' a 'two', for my sins), I was intrigued to see what the top level of this extremely competitive and lonely game was. What kind of people found themselves in the throng of this tournament, the top prize of which is $8 million. I also wanted to find out how sucked into the world of gambling I would get at its mecca, at betting's greatest shrine. Mostly, though, I wanted to see what I'd come away with when I boarded the plane back to London.

In Vegas, every breeze that passes your skin is hotter than the air that already burns your nostrils when you inhale. A Mexican man called Raphael Riviera, who was stopping for water on a trail to Los Angeles in 1829, coined the name "Las Vegas", or "the meadows". Travellers were attracted to the place because of its proximity to gold, and because of its natural green and marshy landscape. But today's eye-popping stretch of commercialism blots out any and all natural beauty, and there are only two colours here: beige and the unending blue of the sky that, like a hairdryer, blows gusts of sauna-level heat at you. I know I'm talking about the heat a lot, but god damn, it was fucking hot as hell.

I was supposed to stay at the Rio for the duration, where the WSOP is held, but it was all booked up, obviously, so instead I spent a night at the Stratosphere Tower, a place I've fantasised about since I was a child.

The Stratosphere is a ludicrous 1,149 foot entertainment needle, the peak of which holds a variety of rollercoasters and a bungee-jumping experience that made me feel sick when I watched people attempt it. All of these Vegas hotels have casinos inside. In fact, the first thing you see upon entering any of them is the casino. Moody lighting, flashing slots, hooting men and women winning big.

The casino-tels have another function too: shopping centres. You can buy an array of tat, like diamond-encrusted emojis and fantasy swords. Stuff that you would never dream of buying until you saw it on your silly, frivolous holiday. All around the giant hotel complex of the Stratosphere are families walking, bedazzled by the lights and the noise. They queue to see the shows, such as a Michael Jackson impersonator, who was signing autographs in whiteface next to the escalator.

The next day, the Euro 2016 finals were on. I watched it at the Rio, which I was now staying in, at a circular bar area with about 12 screens arranged above showing different sports. In front of most seats at the bar there are video gambling machines that you feed dollar bills into like cheeky glass gremlins. A man sat next to me at the bar and began to play keno, sort of like a rolling lottery. After a short time he won around $300 in one hit. He ordered a drink called a fireball – whiskey and cinnamon schnapps. He became increasingly inebriated, and turned his attention to me, ordering me fireballs too, which I politely drank in a befuddled British shock.

He asked me where I was from, I told him London, to which he replied, with a strong slur, "Why is the beer in Germany so warm?" I told him I didn't know, and that perhaps it was an ale he drank, the warmer of the beers. He kept asking me questions about Germany, ignoring my accent and assurances that I wasn't from Germany, and kind of fell asleep in his chair, periodically slapping the 'bet' button on the keno machine while a slightly concerned barman looked on, feeding him soda waters as he collapsed further into himself. He's an ex-marine, and he's terrified of Donald Trump.

In three cavernous rooms in the Rio hotel, nearly 7,000 men and women, from various different nations, of different ages and ability levels, pay $10,000 for a shot at glory. Last year, a young man called Joe McKeehen won the World Series of Poker Main Event, netting a $7,683,346 prize fund. He had what many in the poker community call a 'sick run', with an incredible hand being dealt to him for most rounds, besting the famous 'kid poker' Daniel Negreanu, among many others. Hanging high above the tables are giant square drapes emblazoned with the faces of previous winners, the chip legends, the bracelet-wearers. Crowds gather around the more famous players, like 'poker brat' Phil Hellmuth, actors Jennifer Tilly and Ray Romano, and assorted others. They play for 12 hours at a time, with intermittent toilet breaks. A representative for 888 Poker told me it's the only time he's ever seen the men's line for the bathroom longer than the women's.

There's a distinct lack of talking, which acts as a kind of leveller. Everyone is trying to be stoic and silent and mysterious. The only sound you hear when entering one of the pantheons of poker is the clacking of shuffling poker chips, the sound of a million scarab beetles running around your feet.

I quickly tired of being a spectator, however. Without the yelping of a commentator or special camera angles it was hard to really see what was going on, especially with my shitty eyesight. I wandered back up to the main casino, past a convoy of Americans on their mobility scooters, to try out the poker room.

The minimum buy-in for the cash game at the Rio was $100, a little steep for my chops but, fuck it, when in Rome, right? I sat at a table as a novice with my little red chips worth $5 each. A particularly irate woman who was having an argument with the staff sat down next to me and went all-in on a hand I was playing (and subsequently won) just so she could be moved to a different table. My heart rattled inside my ribcage, and my skin prickled with adrenaline, and I tried to remain cool, even though I kept putting the wrong blinds and bets in, much to the dealer's chagrin. I was around $90 up. A pittance in this world, but to me a princely sum.

A slim Asian man took the angry woman's place. He stared at many of the players in an attempt to 'read' them when he was in a hand. It's a tactic employed by the pros, but as I discovered very quickly in the Las Vegas poker scene, everyone thinks they're a pro. Hoodies, hats, sunglasses, staring – all the hallmarks are there.

I was dealt an ace and a 10. On the flop (the first three cards put on the table to be used to make hands) a further two aces appeared. Three of a kind aces, ho-ly shit. I tried to keep my cool by betting $20 a go when the 'action' came to me, and calling bets where appropriate. By the time the final card, the 'river' card, was dealt I was assured of a victory. I had three aces an a high 'kicker' card. The Asian men bet more than my stack. I called his bet without hesitation. I show. He shows. He has an ace and a king. I lost it all. It was all gone.

I stepped up dizzily from the table and felt the carpet swim around my ankles. I exhaled many 'fuck's and 'shit's and rubbed my face hard under the cool air conditioning. I went back to the bar where the marine was last seen asleep, and had a beer and a cigarette, shocked and confused, as if someone had just told me my son had been in a car accident. The other players looked at me in pity as I left. I was another fish out of water bonked on the head, left with stars and tweeting birds flashing around the bonce as a tall cartoon lump tore through my skull skin, rising like an insulting monument to my naivety. Perhaps I was a little out of my depth.

Recovering from my loss, I prepared to enter into a 'media freeroll' competition, the top prize of which was an iPad. I wasn't bursting with confidence after my monetary molestation the day before, but there was hope. I met Chris Moorman, a professional poker player from Brighton. He, like many players, made his name online, where the bulk of his wins are, but he's trying his luck at the WSOP. I asked him if he had any tips for the tournament, and he told me that my best bet was to just not lose my head. As soon as I start losing confidence, I will begin to "play against [myself]", which is, apparently, a sure way to find yourself in Loserville with no signal or 4G.

I entered the competition with a renewed sense of self worth. A young lady sitting next to me was being very kind to my clearly wounded ego by giving me a couple of pointers, explaining that she never plays in cash games, only tournaments. She congratulated me when I won a hand after a long stretch of patience. I had found a companion in the dark recesses of poker, someone to hold my hand through the treacherous, stinging-nettle-laden forest of gambling's scariest game. Or so I thought. A break came and we were moved to different tables. "Good luck!" she said. There it is again. I ended up coming 21st out of 40-odd.

Whatever.

Las Vegas is a lonely place. No one who isn't paid to talk to you will talk to you. It's a sparse, boiling hotplate of rank, mindless money-spending and not a lot else. I ventured out to visit some of the other hotels – the only source of entertainment within my small means – and found there to be nothing but shops I couldn't buy things in, and more and more slots, more roulette, more craps, more blackjack, more heartbreaking high-buy-in poker that I wanted to play all day long but couldn't.

I would say it began to lose its shine, but it didn't really have a shine to begin with. It was old, dirty, crumbling a little, a fading idea of entertainment that is passé to many people. On exiting customs at McCarran International Airport, the walls hang with posters of Vegas' former glory. The Rat Pack days, the glitz, the extreme glamour. None of that seems to be left. Now it's just families waddling around, beguiled by nothing in particular, treading on the yellowed bones of a dusty relic.

On my last night, I rode in a helicopter above the desert. Looking down on Sin City, as the chopper bombed around the Stratosphere and past the fake Empire State of New York, New York, you see Vegas for what it is: a model village. A mock-up, a grab bag of ideas of quality and cool and suavity from different places and eras. And, like any model city, it's fragile. It looks like it could be destroyed at the push of a button. One changed law, such as the 1910 legislation that outlawed gambling and hastened the area's massive economic decline, and it's time to pack up and leave. It's a carny paradise, a breadstick resort, a transient place of no fixed theme or idea, other than the one of spending money and trying to win big.

The casinos in Vegas have a reputation as pushers, that they suck you in, bleed you dry and kick you to the curb. But this isn't true. The casinos give you free will – perhaps too much free will. They don't push the games on you. No croupier is hollering at you to join their table. They stand silently behind their cards and chips and dice, waiting. Because they know, one way or another, today, tomorrow or the next, you will come back and you will play, because you can't help it. And I couldn't help it either. Which is why I went for one last flutter.

The Flamingo Hotel was built by famous gangster Bugsy Siegel in 1945, and named after his nickname for his girlfriend Virginia Hill. He was murdered in 1947 after siphoning money from his business associates. I didn't meet a sticky end in this place, but I did play my last poker game here, mostly because it had the lowest buy-in for a cash game that I could find - $20. I sat down at the table with 40 $1 chips and prepared for more disappointment. But it turned out to be the best night I had in my entire stay in Vegas. There were characters at this table. People were talking. A man in his 60s bore a striking resemblance to The Dude from The Big Lebowski, whom the table decided to call 'Dale Boone', was chiding and shouting at a geriatric man whom everyone decided was called Mike. The booze was flowing free, shots of vodka, whiskey and beers delivered to the table by tired-looking waitresses for dollar tips. Two businessmen on a work trip sat cackling on one end, while Dale Boone and Mike went head to head on nearly every pot. A young man, a DJ, who calls himself 'E-Noc' (no relation to Powell) told me about his girlfriend Six, also a DJ, who was upstairs writing a book, but she didn't like to play. He knew all the staff in the poker room. The dealers were cracking wise. One of them was called the 'Low Card King' for his mystic ability to produce bottom end cards on the table. Everyone had a thing. Everyone had a character. My character was 'vulgar Harry Potter lookalike' and I was happy with it. This is what I'd wanted from Vegas all along – a sitdown with a bunch of shitfaced strangers. I felt I was part of an extended movie scene, the director's cut with all the good, gory bits kept in. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to keep throwing my cash at the dealer for more chips and laughs.

But again I was moved, again to a table of silent men taking things all too seriously. Heads down, hoods up, playtime is over. I left at 4AM with nothing, again, but I was almost happy to lose it. I'd paid for entertainment this time, not empty shock and petulant anger.

In October, the last nine entrants of the World Series of Poker will take to the final table. They're all guaranteed at least $1 million. The lowest place you could come in the WSOP Main Event and still be in the money is 1000th. It will be life-changing for them. In the throes of my small addiction to losing my cash at the poker tables, I thought perhaps I could see myself back here, participating, playing the pros. It was one of the rare instances in my life where I feel like I actively want to pursue something, and get better at it – a rush of initiative that comes naturally to the hard-working, and almost never to slobs like me. But after my game with Dale, Mike, E-Noc and the chuckling businessmen, I realised I don't want to be a boring fucking poker player silently checking my Instagram and WhatsApp while playing high-stakes games with other creeps. I want the carefree drunken nonsense of that, and I want to replay it forever, again and again. Las Vegas can be the home to some serious players, playing for serious money, playing serious games. But it comes into its own when it revels in its silliness, and lets you laugh, tears in your eyes, at the ultimate decadence of throwing your money down the toilet.

The trip was provided by World Series of Poker sponsor 888.

@joe_bish

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