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John Walters: Observations from the WSOP

The World Series of Poker (WSOP), which began in 1970 but was not discovered by the general population until, oh, about 2003, began last weekend at the Rio in Las Vegas. The World Series is actually that -- a series of 45 different poker events that began last Thursday and will climax with the marquee event, No. 45, the ,000 buy-in No Limit Texas Hold 'Em event. 
Want an idea of just how much poker, specifically Hold 'Em, has exploded in the past biennial? Two years ago that event (the one you see replayed over and over again on ESPN) drew 839 players, and the winner, Chris Moneymaker, earned $2.5 million. The prize pool was approximately $8.4 million. Last year that event trebled in size, with 2,576 players vying for a prize pool of $25 million. Winner Greg Raymer pocketed $5 million. This year? I was told that the Rio is capping the event at 6,600 entrants, again trebling (I could say "tripling," but then all that money my folks spent on my education would be wasted) the number of players from a year ago. 
It's estimated that the prize pool will be nearly $60 million and the winner will earn $10 million. Think about that. Ten million bucks. That's Jude Law money. Nobody in sports who isn't having his event introduced by Michael Buffer earns anywhere near that much for a single week's work. I spent last weekend watching Event No. 2, the $1,500 No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em tournament. More than 2,300 people entered, and all were seated in the same monstrous ballroom. Notes, comments and observations follow: 
1. If you don't have luck, you gotta muck. The player I was following (to be revealed in a July issue of Sports Illustrated) never saw better than pocket queens while playing for 12 hours. Still, he finished in the money, somewhere in the top 8 percent of the field. His secret? He mucked (folded, pre-flop) at least 90 percent of his hands. 
2. Funniest T-shirt I saw: "Celebrity Poker Showdown Sucks." What made that image humorous is that the shirt was being worn by Phil Gordon, co-host of the aforementioned show. 
3. One WSOP veteran divulged to me that last year he obviated the crisis of taking a bathroom break (it's a loooong walk from the table to a men's room) during play by wearing adult diapers.
4. Is there a poker boom? Phil Hellmuth was signing autographs as he made his way to the table. Hellmuth, who was the youngest person ever to win the WSOP back in 1989 (when he was 24), entered in his customary fashion: late. He showed up about half an hour into the tournament. 
5. Celebrity sightings: Pete Rose and Joan Rivers at McCarran International Airport; James Woods at the WSOP. 
6. Favorite non-poker moment: At a $10 blackjack table, one of the players stood up as his cards were being dealt and walked about 15 feet from the table. The dealer admonished him to return, but the man just stood there for about 10 seconds. Then he returned, and the dealer scolded him before asking why he'd left. The man looked at the dealer and said, "Next time I'll just announce to the entire table that I've gotta fart." 
7. Scariest table: For an hour or so, table 184 held poker legends Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Howard Lederer, who between them own seven WSOP bracelets. 
8. Favorite poker moment: Barely an hour into the tournament, 30 year-old wunderkind Daniel Negreanu, Card Player magazine's "Player of the Year" in 2004, was down to his last $300 in chips and holding a Jack and a low card. 

An amateur about the same age, Marco Tranello, bet $400. The flop came 9-10-J of spades. Tranello turned over a Q-K for the straight, bouncing Negreanu out of the event. Negreanu, who has the mannerisms of Ed Norton in Rounders, smiled and stood up. Then he looked at the man who'd taken him out and said, "I need some money. You got any money?" Tranello looked at him. "Seriously?" Negreanu, who has earned millions playing poker since dropping out of high school, replied, "Yeah. I gotta enter a tournament tomorrow." It was a bluff, of course, but Tranello called it. He pulled a thick wad of bills out of his pocket, wrapped by a rubber band, and tossed it to Negreanu. Impressed, Negreanu pulled out five $10s, then tossed the roll back. Only at the WSOP.


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