Poker Corner: online Poker Rules, News, Learning Poker Corner: online Poker Rules, News, Learning

WSOP has become the Super Bowl on green felt

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- It's 110 degrees outside, shivery inside, the rows of leather-banked, green felt tables running hot and cold for the shrewdest poker players on the planet in the sporting world's richest showdown. All the colorful characters are here --Texas Dollythe Bratthe ProfessorChris 'Jesus' Ferguson,Phil 'the Unabomber' LaakMagicianDevilfishFossilman -- and a couple thousand online aficionados who aspire to make their names and fortunes. Some are math whizzes, some seem clairvoyant. Most play straight, a few lowlifes still try to cheat, nicking cards with their fingernails. 
The World Series of Poker, buzzing with celebrities, fans pressing in behind the ropes, feels a little like the Academy Awards, a little like the Super Bowl. It's a rambling day-and-night party of 5,619 players that ends with a main event top prize of $7.5 million, a no-limit Texas Hold 'em title worth millions more in endorsements, and a platinum, diamond and ruby bracelet that will impress and intimidate opponents for years. All nine players at the final table, starting this Friday, will walk away with at least $1 million -- the first to bust out making about the same as the men's and women's tennis champs at the upcoming U.S. Open. The big winner in the 35-year-old tournament can brag of a bankroll akin to a season with the New York Yankees. Payoffs of at least $12,500 will go to the top 560 players, staggered up to $600,000 for 10th place. There's no cursing, no smoking and no mercy at the tables in a windowless hangar-like room at Harrah's Rio, curiously just steps away -- through a choking haze of cigarette and cigar smoke in the hallway -- from hundreds of bubbly preteen and teen dancers in glittery costumes and too much makeup at the Spotlight Dance Cup national championship finals. 
That's hardly the only culture clash in this hotel the size of a small town: The day before the World Series main event, God and gambling were joined in the card room when a nun attended the Poker Hall of Fame induction of Jack Binion and Crandell Addington and was handed a $1 million check by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. for a charity that serves the elderly. Hollywood stars Ben Affleck, James Woods, Tobey Maguire, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Tilly, Mimi Rogers and the many who have played on Celebrity Poker Showdown have given the game a cool cachet. Woods seemed to be everywhere in the runup to the World Series championship, his hair white, his dark suits pressed, his sunglasses always on. He stacked two chairs together to raise himself above the other players and emanated at once high energy and calm. "I play every single day -- private games, casinos, online," said Woods, who lasted 11 1/2 hours in the first round of the main event before his chips dwindled and he exited Saturday night when his pocket fives lost to pocket queens. "I read about it. I'm very committed to it. I'm passionate about it. One of the things I like about it is, it's a challenge to your mind, your soul. You've got to be an artist and scientist to play poker well. I'm a little of both." Woods said his style reflects his personality. "I'm a very thoughtful, conscious, analytical person, capable of aggression, but I'm very, very careful about it," he said. "I don't want to go to a gunfight with a knife. When I go to a gunfight I want a howitzer. I have a great deal of patience and discipline. Once in a while I'll play a marginal hand, and if I hit it then I can be a real killer." Asked if his acting skills help him bluff, Woods said: "It's more how I read other people. I know if they're telling me the truth. I'm a director, too, so when I watch people I can tell when they're lying. It's one of my strengths." Texas Hold 'em is a game of skill, judgment, luck and endurance, the days lasting 14 or 15 hours. 
There are two cards down, a round of bets, the flop of three community cards and more bets, checks or raises. Then there's fourth street, otherwise known as the turn card, then fifth street or the river card, chances to bet after each one, the best five cards out of all seven taking the pot. The blinds -- mandatory bets put in by the two players to the left of the rotating dealer button -- go up as the day goes on, raising the stakes and the pressure. It takes mental acuity, not physical agility to play the game. Portly defending champion Greg Raymer is the best example that fitness isn't required in a sport where the greatest exertion is flipping cards, stacking chips and lifting drinks. But the long days do take their toll, and more young players are hitting the gym. "You have to have a tremendous amount of mental and physical stamina," said Robert Williamson III, a 34-year-old pro who proudly says he's half the man he used to be, down from 400 pounds to 200 after gastric bypass surgery three years ago and a lot of workouts since. "There's an extreme amount of pressure on your body at the highest level and there's so much money at stake. So it turns out that we really are athletes. You really do have to train and be in a lot better shape than what people think. 
More players are working out than ever before. It's kind of like when Tiger Woods got on the PGA Tour. Players at the time didn't really work out. They took their skills for granted. I swim about every other day, play basketball, go for a lot of fast walks. Antonio Esfandiari is a workout freak. Annie Duke works out religiously. Phil Ivey and Phil Gordon are in great shape." Jennifer Harman, as fit and tough a pro as they come, started out chatting amiably with the players at her table last Thursday but quickly was stunned, the victim of a nasty beat when her queens-high full house got rivered by a straight flush. Gone, too, before the dinner break on Day 1 was the actress and recent ladies champion Jennifer Tilly, who lost more than half her chips early when she succumbed to four jacks. 
Her sweatshirt-hooded boyfriend and popular World Poker Tour player, Phil "Unabomber" Laak, soon followed. An hour after dinner, two-time World Series champion Johnny Chan, Matt Damon's hero in the 1998 film Rounders, was wiped out when his aces fell to a flush. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the dark bearded, long-haired pro who holds a doctorate in computer science from UCLA, exited 14 hours into the first day, about 1:20 a.m., when he moved all-in with three queens after the fourth community card. Kalee Tan, also a pro and one of several hundred women in the event, called and showed her jack-eight pocket cards for a queen-high straight. Ferguson needed a pair on the board to keep going, but got no help on the river card. Tan's hands quivered as she raked in the chips. Ferguson wearily walked off, tipping his black cowboy hat and saying, "It's been a pretty hectic day, but it was a lot of fun." Twenty minutes later, Ferguson was joined on the sideline by Full Tilt Poker teammate Erik Seidel. 
By the time the first heat ended on Day 1 at about 2:30 a.m., with the blinds up to $300-$600 plus a $75 ante, the notable departures also included Josh Arieh, Mike Caro and Eskimo Clark. Raymer -- his bejeweled platinum champion's bracelet on his right wrist, a large black polished fossil resting atop his hole cards, holographic sunglasses on whenever he played a hand -- survived the round with $48,900 in chips after slipping from the $10,000 start to $3,500 early in the day. 
Lee Watkinson, a world-class pro from Cheney, Wash., bagged $145,800 in chips for Sunday's second round. The second heat of the opening round last Friday saw a further drubbing of top players -- Gordon, Esfandiari, Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Men "The Master" Nguyen, Cyndy Violette. The Hollywood set didn't fare well, either, with Maguire and Rogers going out. The final day of first-round play on Saturday was fatal to the hopes of more legendary players -- Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, T.J. Cloutier, Andy Bloch -- even before the dinner break. Former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, playing his first tournament just five months after starting to learn the game, cruised into the break with about $17,500 in chips after being down to as low as $3,000. But he couldn't survive the night, getting busted by pocket aces after nearly 13 hours of play. Williamson went out a couple hours later. Former champions Chris Moneymaker (2003) and Dan Harrington (1995) got knocked out in the second round Sunday. 
Of all the players at the start, perhaps half earned their stakes from online poker tournaments to push the pool to about $56 million and the total prize money to $52.8 million. More than 1,100 arrived, all expenses paid plus $1,000 in spending money. Once a game of cowboys and riverboat gamblers, the biggest poker tournament has become a sanitized, democratized affair that's nerd-friendly -- something lost and something gained in the process. The online sites cater to people who have time and money to burn playing cards on their computers. 
ESPN will start showing its slickly packaged version of the World Series on July 19, two days after the final table commences, and will begin with satellite tournaments until the climax in November. Even though the winner will long be known, the shows will probably still get high ratings as fans tune in to see how the games were won and how the players reacted. Poker is as steeped in American lore as Wild Bill Hickock, who was shot dead in 1876 while holding aces and eights, but it took the technology of tiny cameras under the tables and the rise of online gambling to bring in millions of passionate fans. The World Poker Tour's hole-card cameras and expert coverage on The Travel Channel revolutionized the game; Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo stoked interest among non-gamblers; and ESPN ratcheted up interest in the World Series of Poker, giving the game and the top players a status and audience beyond anyone's belief.


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