Gambling Related Essays and Reports by Andrew W Scott

World Series of Poker Main Event... Report number 12

The Last Steps of the Big Dance

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

July 18th 2007

The Main Event of the World Series of Poker, the World Championship of No Limit Hold'Em, has a nickname. It's known as the Big Dance. It's an appropriate moniker - the way the thousands of contestants are inexorably whittled down from many hundreds of poker tables, to just a single table, and then eventually to just a single winner, is very much like a dance. And it sure is Big. This year's Main Event is the climax of a carnival which lasted 47 days, included 55 events, had 54,288 registrations, and gave away a spectacular $159,796,918 in prizemoney. So what is it like to be there at the death of the tournament, at the final day of the Big Dance, with just one table of nine players left? Read on, and you will discover the experience of that day is totally different to what you might expect from watching television broadcasts.

The Big Dance is the ultimate ultra-marathon. For the players to even get to the final table requires an almost Buddhist-like temperament with never-ending patience. Although officially the Big Dance takes seven days, days 1 and 2 have such enormous fields that they are spread over multiple days. As a result, the Big Dance actually takes twelve days to complete. Even test match cricket, often lambasted for its snail-like pace of play, is over in no more than five. Those final nine players have already played 60 hours of gruelling, tight poker over days 1 to 6. Anyone that exhibits even the slightest rush of blood is likely to no longer be with us. These men are the uber-rocks of poker. Yes, they may have played aggressively and taken selective risks, but most of them have pushed all-in only a handful of times in the entire 60 hours of play to this point.

The final day…
The day begins at 10am with a press conference. The nine competitors are paraded before the media, their attire emblazoned with logos from online card rooms Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars, due to endorsement deals that have in many cases been hastily arranged overnight. The players answer their questions awkwardly, unaccustomed to their overnight celebrity status. A producer from ESPN, who is broadcasting the final table live on pay-per-view, mentions that this will probably be the longest sports broadcast in the history of the world. Seven of the nine men (the last woman fell in 38th place) range in age from 31 to 41, suggesting that the thirties may be an optimal age for poker play. Some experience is required to obtain the necessary poker skills, but some youth helps for stamina reasons. In addition to these seven, there is an excitable 22-year-old internet poker professional, and the senior contestant of the field, a 62-year-old from South Africa. It is a multi-cultural field. In addition to the South African there are Americans (one of whom was born in Laos), a Danish-born Englishman, a Russian, and a Vietnamese-born Canadian.

Each of the nine has an incredible story to tell of their journey to the final table, but perhaps the most incredible is that of Jerry Yang, the most inexperienced player of the field. He has only been playing poker two years. Yang says he was born into abject poverty in Laos, and recounts the stories of how his family was so poor they couldn't even afford a ball to play with. He eventually managed to escape Laos, began to learn English at age 13 and obtained his masters degree in health psychology. He thanks God for being here. He talks about his wife and six kids. And he pledges to give away 10% of what he wins to charity.

After the press conference, the action moves to the Amazon convention hall at the Rio, the main location of the carnival over the previous 55 days. It has been completely transformed for the day. Previously the home of 230 poker tables, the room now resembles an enormous cavern. Almost all the poker tables are gone. In their place, are barriers - lots of them. There is seating for 120 people in bleachers around today's feature poker table, but those seats are essentially reserved for the entourages of the players and a few celebrity poker players. Barriers stop most people getting anywhere near the real action. ESPN has equipped the poker table with hole-card cameras, and cameras on dollies constantly swing around the table. A director sits at a desk off to the side, pushing buttons and marshalling cameramen. All the ESPN people are wearing headsets. It is more like a scene from a movie shoot than a poker game. Play begins at 12 noon. For most people, including most of the media, it is impossible to actually see what is happening. Instead, there are TV screens set up around the Amazon Room. But the images on those screens mostly focus on the centre of the poker table, rather than players. Coupled with the lack of sound, this makes for a very poor viewing experience for most spectators. People wander around the room, wondering where to sit. The media discover that the best view is in the media room, where they can watch on TV and also get a sound feed.

The first fourteen hands take a little over an hour or so, and are relatively innocuous. Suddenly, on hand number 15, the overnight chip leader inexplicably pushes all-in and is busted by Jerry Yang. From this moment until to hand number 60, Yang has a rush of cards, and busts four players out in quick time. A fifth player is busted out by the South African, Raymond Rahme. Only 60 hands have been played, and we are down to our last four players at only 5:30pm, so it looks like the tournament could be over relatively early in the evening. How wrong that proves to be.

The grind begins… No Limit Hold'Em Poker. "Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror" - Tom McEvoy, 1983 World Series of Poker Champion

Only four remain: Yang, Rahme, Alex Kravchenko from Russia and Tuan Lam from Canada. They are all guaranteed millionaires, but the prize money ranges from $8,250,000 for first down to $1,852,721 for fourth, so they have absolutely everything to play for. The four of them have already beaten out 6,354 players, so it would be reasonable for all of them to be thinking they can hang on to beat out just three more. Even though Yang has a healthy chip lead, that can change in a heartbeat and even the man running fourth has enough chips to believe he has a chance to win the tournament. After all, Yang started the day with the second-lowest number of chips of the nine players. For all these reasons, none of these guys are going to give up now.

Judging by what you normally see on TV poker broadcasts, you could be forgiven for believing that some player at the table is all-in every few hands. And judging by the early stages of the day's play, that seems like a reasonable conclusion. But most poker on TV is heavily edited, to include the exciting but leave the not-so-exciting on the cutting room floor. The players suddenly tighten up markedly. The stakes are so high, it becomes very rare for a hand to actually go the distance. A single raise, followed by all other players folding, becomes the order of the day. Perhaps 80% of hands play out essentially in this manner. Every decision is crucial, and this deep in the tournament the players have earned the right to take their time. Some big hands take as long as eight or ten minutes. During these key moments, you can cut the air with a knife. Tension is everywhere, it's nail-biting stuff. But these moments are the exception, not the rule. For most of the time, people are wandering around the room, wondering how long it's all going to take. As play grinds on, estimates of the finish time range from the late evening to sunrise.

Outside the Amazon room, the corridors of the Rio Convention Centre take on a surreal quality. Earlier in the World Series, they were lined with stands and booths, promoting everything from Poker Water to the opportunity to get your photo taken, main event champion style, with a fake mound of money. The poker kitchen, where players have been grabbing snacks for the last six weeks, is deserted. Conventioneers from other functions are surprised to find they have stumbled upon the WSOP, and wonder what it is. It becomes apparent that the reality is that these players are only going all-in when they have an absolute monster hand, or if the ever-increasing blinds force them to make a stand, which won't be anytime soon. The hours tick by. Many spectators become bored. People wander aimlessly in and out of the Amazon room. Security guards huddle in a group and start chatting. Members of the media complain about how long it's all taking and start checking their schedules for the next day and moaning about lack of sleep. To make matters worse, the Starbucks closes for the night and the lack of coffee becomes a serious matter.

Meanwhile on the poker table, it's the same story amongst the four players. Raise, fold, fold, fold. Raise, fold, fold, fold. Raise, fold, fold, fold. It's like an intense high stakes game of watching paint dry. But who can blame the players, there is too much at stake. And everyone knows, at some point, two players are going to catch a decent hand and fireworks will erupt. It is just a matter of time. In fact, it takes a painful 107 hands before the fourth player, Alex Kravchenko, is finally busted out at 12:55am. Forty-five minutes later he is followed by the third place player, Raymond Rahme.

The death… We are down to heads up, only two players remaining. Surely this is it, as heads-up play is notorious for being over very quickly. The crowd left remaining want it to be over. In the previous three years, it has taken an average of five hands of heads-up play before a winner is determined. But not so this year. Not for Tuan Lam. Jerry Yang has over 100 million in chips, the first man in the history of the world's poker tournaments to do so. Lam has a mere 20 million or so. But Lam isn't playing ball. He isn't going to roll over and quietly die. In fact, he lasts for an incredible 35 hands, over two hours of play. He shows a surprising ability to fold, even heads-up, and his chips dwindle to about 10 million until he picks his spot, and doubles up to about 20 million again. The crowd is dismayed - they want this to be over. It is past 3am. We are in the thirty-sixth level of the tournament and the blinds and antes are now almost incomprehensibly huge: 400,000/800,000 and 100,000 respectively. No-one is used to dealing with numbers this big, not the players, not the dealers, not the crowd, not the commentators. These two men have now played more than 70 hours of poker in the tournament.

Finally, just before 4am, it happens. Lam moves all-in for his remaining 22.2 million chips, and Yang calls. After the flop, Lam is in front, and it looks like the tournament could drag on for some time yet. But Yang luckily picks up a runner-runner draw to hit a straight and we have our new champion. The crowd goes wild and the celebrations begin. No-one gets to bed until after sunrise. If you ever decide one year to watch the entire final day of the World Championship, be prepared to experience fireworks - 10% of the time. For the other 90%, make sure you have a pillow and a blanket!


Andrew Scott is a high stakes gambler and gambling writer based in Sydney, Australia, who travels the world.

© 2007 Andrew W Scott




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