LAS VEGAS -- Wake up at 3:45 a.m. Eastern time in Boston. Board a 5:45 a.m. flight to Dallas. Fly four hours, hang out in the airport for another two, then catch the second leg to Las Vegas. Overpay for a cab ride from McCarren International Airport to the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
That was my journey Saturday morning as I made my first trip to cover the World Series of Poker. I imagine this is a typical routine for the hundreds of members of the poker media who make a similar pilgrimage every summer. And I must say: So far, it's been worth it.
I covered my first major poker tournament in April -- the World Poker Tour Championship at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City -- and wrote about my experience and my first impressions. That tournament was fun to cover, but it was all business -- a $15,000 buy-in, super deep-stacked championship event featuring mostly professionals. I arrived at the tournament to watch the final 18 players, and at least 15 of them were professionals I recognized.
But the WSOP Main Event? Not so much. Here are my top-10 initial impressions after hanging out at the Rio through Day 1A and 1B.
10. I've received a lot of free stuff.
Walk anywhere near the Amazon, Brasilia or Pavilion rooms in the Rio and there will be vendors trying to sell you stuff. If you walk close enough to their booth, they will literally step in front of you and hand you something, just so you'll notice them (and hopefully buy something).
So far, I've picked up a rubber bracelet from Ivey Poker, vouchers from WSOP.com, a free e-cigarette sample and some other crap that I will likely never use. But still, who doesn't like free stuff?
9. Why are there so many vapes?
Speaking of free samples, the e-cigarette or "vape" company NJOY is everywhere! The "NJOY Lounge" sits right next to the featured table in the Amazon room, offering players and fans the opportunity to come in and relax on some nice leather sofas and, of course, try their vapes.
I decided to visit the lounge to try it and see if I could find out more. I spoke to an NJOY rep who told me this was the company's first year as a WSOP sponsor. When I asked why their presence was so exceptionally huge here, he told me that poker players are a great potential market for e-cigs.
I guess, but you still can't even smoke them in the poker room (the designated NJOY lounges have permission to give free samples, though). I personally think people like going outside to smoke their cigarettes. It's an excuse to go outside.
8. It's Disney World for poker players.
I went to the actual Disney World for my honeymoon in March. The only difference at the WSOP is that, instead of people walking around as cartoon characters, there are scantily-clad women walking around trying to sell you stuff. You can even ask to take a picture with them (I assume.)!
The WSOP is a mecca for poker. There are events and games for players of all shapes and sizes (and bankrolls), and all of them fall under the WSOP umbrella. Every tournament uses WSOP-branded chips, and you could literally play in a $75 event and sit next to a table where a $5,000 bracelet event is being played. That sets the experience apart from playing anywhere else. I played in a $235 Daily Deepstack event Saturday evening, and I could play a similar tournament at Foxwoods every week. But it's not the same.
Similarly, my wife could blow a lot of money on worthless crap anywhere. But it's not the same as doing it at Disney World.
7. There are a lot of satellites.
I'm not a big fan of satellites, but people here seem to love them. I understand that it gives players the *chance* to play in the Main Event at a price they can afford. But I also feel like a lot of people end up blowing more money on satellites than they would have spent on the actual event buy-in anyway.
Why not play an actual tournament instead? You win actual cash which you could then use to buy into the Main Event. But that's just me.
6. The size is astounding.
When I first arrived at the Rio on Saturday, I set out to locate Casino City Editor-in-chief Vin Narayanan. He was not easy to find.
I first walked into the Pavilion. Wow. I'm not sure I've ever seen a bigger room, much less one filled with thousands of poker players. Then I walked into Brasilia; another sea of people. And the Amazon room is also a zoo.
The Main Event is not so much a tournament as it is a poker convention. You can get lost in the crowd, among the faces that you recognize and the ones you don't. It is truly a spectacle of grandeur.
5. It's not as loud as you'd think.
As I'm typing this story, at 2:45 p.m. on Day 1B, it is almost deathly quiet relative to what I'd expect. There is a strong but easy soundtrack of chip shuffling in the background, and occasionally you'll hear a few voices. Every hour or so you'll hear a player shout "Yes!" or a loud high-five.
It makes sense, though. Think about when you play poker in a casino -- how much do you and your tablemates actually talk? And in the WSOP, where every single hand is crucial, the players are concentrating more than ever. It's no wonder nobody gets too chatty.
I wonder if this will change as we get into the later days, and the players have developed relationships and become familiar with one another. We shall see.
4. The Main Event is not segregated from other tournaments.
When I covered the WPT Championship, I said that I found it odd that the cocktail waitresses at the Borgata treated the tournament tables like any other table in the casino. There was no special delivery service, etc.
It's the same kind of thing here. You'd think the Main Event would be completely segregated from the rest of the poker tournaments, but it's not. There are other tournaments going on in the Pavilion and the Brasilia room, and cash games, too. You can play $1/2 no-limit and sit 20 feet from the guy who's playing for a $10 million first prize.
3. I'm calling a conspiracy on the Featured Table lineups.
Obviously, the ESPN Featured Table is determined by figuring out which table is most interesting for TV, and generally that means a table with at least one top pro. But on Day 1A, the Featured Table included the two reigning Main Event champs: Ryan Riess and Greg Merson. And hedge-fund billionaire and High Stakes Poker alumnus Bill Perkins was there, too.
I wondered what the odds were of two Main Event champions sitting at the same table on the first day. But on Day 1B, the Featured Table included two more past champs: Dan Harrington and Huck Seed. I'm calling a conspiracy!
2. It is truly an international event.
Walk through the halls and the poker rooms at the Rio and you will hear several different languages. The WSOP has had a vast international presence for several years now, thanks in large part to the growth of the game both through TV coverage and online poker.
But it doesn't stop with the players. I've met several members of the media who have traveled to Las Vegas from all over the world to cover the WSOP. That's really cool. And I bet their commute was even more treacherous than mine!
1. The press is taken care of.
When you work in the press and go to cover any sort of event, you don't usually ask for or expect much. You want a seat, a place to put your laptop, and preferably good Internet access. Sometimes you get all three of those things. We've all had to do the job without them at times.
But at the WSOP, we are treated very, vey well. When I picked up my press pass, I received a complimentary portable phone charger. Media guides and table charts are readily available every day. You can even get a daily $10 free meal voucher. Score.
I once had a journalism professor who told the class to "never accept free stuff" from people you do business with. She’s probably rolling over in her grave right now ...
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011. Follow him on Twitter @danpodheiser.