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HOME > HI-ROLLER > Gaming Life > Top 10 things I will miss about the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas

Top 10 things I will miss about the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas

29 June 2020

By Gary Trask

The Rio ballroom in Las Vegas will be empty this week instead of hosting the annual World Series of Poker.

The Rio ballroom in Las Vegas will be empty this week instead of hosting the annual World Series of Poker. (photo by Gary Trask)

The World Series of Poker begins on Wednesday, but, thanks to COVID-19, the 51st edition of the game’s most prestigious tournament is going to be vastly different than any other.

After holding out hope that it would be able to congregate in Las Vegas again this year, the WSOP officially postponed the live version of the event on 20 April, saying it hopes to reschedule for the fall.

Whether or not that even has a remote chance of becoming a reality, what we are left with as an alternative is the newly fangled “World Series of Poker Online,” an online “festival” that will run for two months. WSOP.com will host one event each day in July, and the other 54 bracelet events will take place on GGPoker, beginning 19 July.

According to the WSOP, the event is “set to be one of the largest online tournament series of all-time,” and just last week, GGPoker announced details of the $5,000 Main Event that will featured a $25 million prize pool guaranteed, the biggest in the history of online poker.

While those numbers are staggering, they are still a meager consolation for the players and fans who annually make the trek to the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino for the WSOP. This is the Super Bowl of poker we’re talking about, so while the new online version may break participation and purse records and end up going off without a hitch, it will never be able to replace the “live” event version.

Selfishly, it’s disheartening not to be packing my bags for Las Vegas right now to cover the WSOP. It’s something I’ve done eight of the last 11 years and never fails to disappoint. It’s always a major highlight, both from a professional and personal standpoint.

So, as the virtual cards get ready to go in the air this week and players prepare to settle in behind a screen for a chance to win a WSOP gold bracelet, here are 10 things yours truly will miss about covering the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas this summer.

10. The routine
Crossing a few time zones and spending a week in Las Vegas covering a poker tournament takes a bit of an adjustment, especially as you get a little older. I covered my first WSOP 12 years ago, which seems like a lifetime ago. You can’t last seven days in Sin City during the heat of the summer spending every night as if it were “The Hangover.” You need a routine.

Most days, I don’t arrive at The Rio and start “work” until around 11 a.m., which to my East Coast body clock is more than six hours later than normal. I usually try to sneak in a workout (nothing like an early morning jog down the Strip to get the juices flowing) and a hearty breakfast at the bar of the Hash House A Go Go at the Rio before settling into the media room. It helps to have the crack WSOP staff, led by Seth Palansky and the legendary KevMath, a must follow on Twitter, because they provide all you need to know about the upcoming day’s action. Honestly, I don’t know when those guys sleep.

Most days, I have a pretty good idea what I want to write about so I plan my schedule accordingly. Other days, I have no plan and just allow the stories to come to me, which is easy at the World Series of Poker. All you have to do is walk around with your eyes and ears open and, within 30 minutes, your notebook is flooded with ideas. As a writer, you can’t ask for more.

Depending on what’s going on that day/night, I may be at the Rio until the wee hours of the morning, or get out of there after dinner. No matter what, I make sure every trip to the WSOP isn’t just about watching and writing about poker. More on that later.

9. The stories
To me, covering poker isn’t about flops, bluffs or bad beats. It’s more about the story angles away from the table and, oftentimes, it’s the more unknown players that provide the best stories, not the big names.

A few of the more memorable stories I’ve written over the years, include interviewing the female card reader for a blind poker player, the wheelchair-bound player born with a severe form of spinal muscular atrophy playing in the Main Event with his father reading cards, the Uber-driver-turned-poker-agent who had a sudden falling out with the star of the 2017 WSOP, and the racing horse owner who made a deep run in the Main Event after nearly taking a pass on coming to Las Vegas until his best friend left a note on his windshield begging him to play.
More than likely, none of the above involved a poker player anyone reading this column ever heard of before, but that’s the beauty of the WSOP. The number of compelling stories out there is limitless. It’s just a matter of tracking them down, which is half of the fun.

One of the first stories I ever wrote from the WSOP was about Phil Hellmuth’s father, who I unknowingly was sitting next to as he watched his son play at a final table. Always nice to get a different perspective about a famous person from someone who knows them best.

Same thing happened two years ago when I fell directly into another story when I was watching the action at the ESPN featured table and started chatting with a guy who turned out to be the father of Kelly Minkin, who was making another deep run in the Main Event, prompting her dad to fly in on a red-eye to be by her side. As a father myself, it was fun to sit there with him and watch him root so hard for his daughter and tell me how proud he was of her. The guys was beaming and it was hard to blame him.
Looking back at my WSOP coverage, I can write 15,000 words in one week and mention maybe just a handful of actual poker hands. It’s all about the people and their individual stories.

8. The players
To their credit, the players are gracious with their time during the WSOP, even the biggest names in the game.

The fans line up on the rail and are within arm’s reach of their favorite players. The more recognizable players like Daniel Negreanu, Chris Moneymaker, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Hellmuth and Scotty Nguyen, or poker TV personalities like Lon McEachern, Norman Chad and Kara Scott are prone to getting stopped by adoring fans as they enter the ballroom at the Rio or while they try to escape for dinner break. I’d say that 90% of the time these players take the time to sign an autograph or take a selfie with a fan, even though their time is limited and it's probably the last thing they want to do.

It’s impressive to watch and it’s also good for poker media, like myself, looking for a story. Two years ago, I was trying to find an angle to write about for the day and just so happened to run into Hellmuth in the hallway. Phil was even more fired up than usual on this particular day for some reason and I was there to throw a little gasoline on the fire. The next thing I knew, we had been speaking for 15 minutes, mostly about his forthcoming book #POSITIVITY, which Phil said would “change humanity” and help “tens of millions of people.” It was just Phil being Phil and I was fortunate to catch him at the right time.
There are so many characters in the game of poker, there truly is never a dull moment and never a lull in storylines.

7. The celebrities
As mentioned above, the fans and media have a ton of access to the WSOP players, and that includes the celebrities-turned-poker-players.

It’s cool to rub shoulders with celebrities like Ray Romano, Kevin Pollack, Jennifer Tilly, George Lopez, Shannon Elizabeth, Cheryl Hines, or former professional athletes like Richard Seymour, Charles Barkley and Michael Phelps.

In 2008, after running into pro golfer Paul Azinger during a break, we started talking about the Ryder Cup, which was to be played a few months later. Azinger was the U.S. captain that year and he was so confident about his team’s chances, I immediately walked over to the sportsbook at the Rio and plunked down a wager on the Americans, who rolled to victory over the Europeans that fall (Thanks, Zinger!).

One other celeb interview that stands out was when I sat down with Jerry Buss, the late LA Lakers owner who passed away in 2013. As a life-long Boston Celtics fan, it actually pained me to see him wearing that ugly purple Lakers jacket just a few weeks after his team had taken the NBA title back from the Celtics by prevailing over Orlando in the Finals, but he turned out to be an incredibly generous and down-to-earth guy and a great interview.

6. Watching and learning
Even though our Casino City coverage is typically not about what’s happening on the felt at the WSOP, the game itself is still the main reason we are all there. As a poker player myself, I always try to watch, observe and learn.

How often do you get to stand directly behind someone who is one of the best in the world at their trade and observe them ply that trade?

You can definitely learn a thing or two about the game just by watching, and not just how they play a hand, but their demeanor and what they do when the action is not on them. I love watching Phil Ivey when he makes an appearance. He doesn’t say much, to opposing players or the media, but that steely-eyed glance of his makes the others at his table melt, and he knows it.

On the other side of the spectrum, is Negreanu, who is a blast to watch because he basically never shuts up.
He’ll talk to his tablemates about any subject under the sun, but it’s not just because he’s a good guy. He’s also constantly trying to glean information out of them, even if they aren’t aware of what’s going on.

5. The Main Event
Yes, there will be a Main Event this year, as announced last week, but there really is nothing like the spectacle of the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em tournament in which the winner becomes ingrained into poker history forever.

The first day of the Main Event is a sight to behold. The energy at the Rio is off the charts. It’s unlike anything else in “sports” since there really isn’t another event where anyone with 10k can pony up and challenge the best in the world in the most prestigious event in the game.

Watching those amateur players walk into Day 1 with wide eyes and big dreams is priceless. You’re excited for them, even though they are total strangers and you have no skin in the game.

Inevitably, some of these “Average Joe” players make a deep run and suddenly get the spotlight shined on them. Watching these stories unfold in front of your eyes -- like the software engineer from Boston that made it all the way to the final table last year -- each year is always a treat.

Last year’s Main Event drew 8,569 players, the second-largest field in WSOP history. There was a pretty good chance that this year’s event would have come close or broken the all-time record for field size, but we’ll never know.

4. The Main Event money bubble
As fun as it is to watch dreams come true, seeing dreams dashed is equally as compelling. I’ve written in the past that witnessing the money bubble burst at the WSOP Main Event is the most dramatic moment in poker, and if you’ve ever been in the room when it happens, you know exactly what I mean.
It’s as suspenseful as anything else you will witness in person as a spectator. With the tournament down to around 1,000 people or so, depending on the original size of the field, it gets to the point where those who slide in under the bubble with $15,000, or $5,000 when you deduct the $10,000 buy-in, or win nothing. That’s a pretty large swing, especially for an amateur. Think about it. Say you stretched your budget to the limit, or borrowed some money, to pay the 10k entry fee. Now you’ve made it further than you ever expected. You took vacation days from work, spent the last three days sitting at a poker table for 10 hours or more, and now you’re staring at a $15,000 win, or a $10,000 loss.

As you can imagine, this causes some serious tension in the room and when that final player does indeed bust, the room suddenly goes from a pressure cooker to New Year’s Eve, with the survivors celebrating and toasting one another.

Definitely a scene every poker fan should witness in person, at least once in their life.

3. The fans
Speaking of the fans, they are oftentimes more entertaining to watch as the players. Wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, distant relatives alike all line up on the rail and live and die on every hand right along with their favorite player.

It’s like watching a reality show unfold right in front of your eyes and as their player goes deeper, the excitement level goes higher and higher.




2. The Main Event final table
Of course, when the giant Main Event field of players dwindles down to just nine survivors, the stakes are obviously higher and the anticipation is at a fevered pitch.

It wasn’t that long ago that the WSOP “paused” the Main Event for more than three months, between the time the final table was decided and actually played out. Most poker purists welcome the demise of the November Nine, but not me, in 2017, thus returning to the format where the final table is played in July.

Either way, the first night of the final table is just like the first day of the Main Event. The number of players and fans is much less, but now there’s a real chance at poker immortality for the players, not to mention millions of dollars and the hot TV lights of the ESPN final table.

During the first couple of years of the November Nine, the final table was played inside the Penn & Teller Theatre at the Rio and was usually sold out with thousands of fans cramming in to watch. Over the years, the crowd size has diminished, but it’s still exciting, nonetheless.

Yes, it can be a drain covering and watching the final table, especially when it gets down to heads-up play when you can end up watching two players go head-to-head for an excruciating amount of time. In 2018, John Cynn and Tony Miles went toe-to-toe for 10 and a half hours before Cynn was crowned Main Event champ. That topped 2016 when Qui Nguyen won the Main Event after outlasting Gordon Vayo and eight hours of heads-up play.

It can be painful to watch, but it’s exhilarating for the fans, media and players when that final hand of the tournament comes and a new champ is born.

1. Las Vegas
Any excuse to get to Las Vegas is a good excuse. So, making the trek to Sin City every July, even in the daily 100-degree heat, is OK with me.

While most of my time is spent inside the Rio, I always make it a point to get out and explore, try new things and old, and make sure watching poker isn’t the only thing I experience or write about.



The NBA Summer League has become a staple of the July visit. Trying out new restaurants and bars or outdoor activities like
Topgolf and the High Roller are also on the agenda. I try to bounce around and stay at different hotels, hit a show or concert, or, of course, get in some gambling of my own.

Not being in Las Vegas this year for the WSOP will definitely leave a huge void in 2020. That’s the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Missing out on things that have become so routine and ordinary to us all.

Here’s hoping a return visit to Las Vegas is in the cards in 2021 for the WSOP, as well as yours truly.

 
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has worked as a writer and editor more than 20 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

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