Related Essays and Reports by Andrew W Scott
Series of Poker Main Event... Report number 12
Last Steps of the Big Dance
Vegas, Nevada, USA
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
grind begins… No Limit Hold'Em Poker. "Hours
of boredom punctuated by moments of terror" -
Tom McEvoy, 1983 World Series of Poker Champion
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.
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.
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
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
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
Scott is a high stakes gambler and gambling writer
based in Sydney, Australia, who travels the world.
2007 Andrew W Scott
©2000 to present.
OZmium Pty Ltd. All rights reserved