LAS VEGAS -- Our dealer is getting irritated. His nametag says GEORGE, and his face says "the far side of 60." Behind us, the vastness of the World Series of Poker unfolds across three giant ballrooms at the Rio hotel. But here, over in a corner, nine of us are playing the cheapest cash game available. George deals the cards, we play the hands. That's the transaction. Except one of the guys at the table won't shut up.
The talker wears an Oakland A's hat. He is an endless fountain of poker stories. So I opened for 200 from middle position, and the big blind raised behind me, and I smooth-called, and the flop came king-nine-seven ...
"Maybe we can back off on the poker stories awhile," George says after 15 minutes of this.
... and just yesterday this nit pushed all-in with queen-10 and hit his freaking queen on the river ...
"Jeez, guy, do you ever stop to catch your breath?" George says.
... and a couple of weeks ago at this tournament I had ace-jack, and a jack came on the flop, and the guy two to my left bets the pot, and now I have to wonder what he's got ...
"You know what?" George says, dealing the cards, never looking up. "I had that same situation one time. Except it wasn't for 50 bucks like you guys are playing for. It was for $600,000."
This is terrible dealer etiquette. But it shuts up the Oakland A's guy. Along with the rest of the table.
Nobody had to ask how George's hand turned out. Nobody needed to. If he had made the right call, he wouldn't be dealing cards to us.
Then again, the whole story could've been a load of crap. Most poker stories are. The whole point of poker is deception. You want your opponent to think you're strong when you're weak, and weak when you're strong. It is a game for exceptionally good liars.
You know what they say about lies. The hardest ones to stop believing are the ones you tell yourself.
This is the 10th anniversary of the year poker moved from a game to a sport, from the folding table on your sun porch to prime time on ESPN. This happened for three or four reasons, but mainly because of an accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker. (If you haven't followed poker all this time: That's his real name. I swear.) In 2003, he bought into an online tournament for $86*. He parlayed that into a $10,000 seat in the Main Event. There, he knocked out some of poker's biggest names, pulled off one of the great bluffs of all time, and won the whole damn tournament -- and the $2.5 million first prize.
*Some accounts have the amount he paid for that original online tournament at $39. Moneymaker himself has used both figures over the years.
It was as if a suburban dad had showed up at fantasy camp and no-hit the Yankees. ESPN's Norman Chad, part of the announcing team for the World Series, said after Moneymaker won: "This is beyond fairy tale. It's inconceivable." But a whole lot of people conceived it. The year Moneymaker won, 839 people played the main event. The year after, 2,576 players signed up. By 2006 there were 8,773 players cramming the Rio, jacking the prize pool so high that champion Jamie Gold (another amateur, a B-list TV producer) won $12 million. Things have cooled off a bit since then, but the Main Event reliably draws more than 6,000 players every year.
The Main Event -- the part you see on TV -- is just a small part of the World Series, the top floor of a giant tower. This year, there are 62 events in all, spread over 50 days from the end of May through mid-July. I'm here in late June, right in the middle of the thing. I came because I like to play poker, because it's fun to watch on TV, because it's such a beautiful mix of mathematics and psychology and guts. But there's another reason.
When the U.S. economy nearly tanked a few years ago, we all discovered an astonishing thing about many people who worked at the highest levels of American finance: They had no idea what they were doing. They gave home loans to people who couldn't possibly make the payments, they sliced and stacked those loans into packages that made no sense, and they bought and sold those packages to investors who, by and large, had no clue what they were buying and selling. Once people started defaulting on those home loans, the whole tower crashed and nearly brought down our economy with it.
Why did the financiers take such crazy risks? They worked in a business that rewarded risk-taking. And they had deluded themselves into thinking they couldn't fail.
That sounded like some poker players I know.
I wondered if, 10 years after the boom, poker was built to last or destined to flame out. I wondered how many people on the inside saw themselves as Moneymakers, when the odds said they had a lot better chance of turning out like George.
So I started talking to folks. And I heard the same thing, over and over again.
"We don't gamble. We play poker."
This is Mazin Khoury. He goes by @MSauce on Twitter. I like him a lot. He's 23, a young poker pro with nearly $500,000 in tournament winnings. He dropped out of NC State after a friend showed him you could make more playing poker online than you could in a regular job. Online gambling was technically illegal in the United States, but the government let it slide -- until two years ago, on a day poker players call Black Friday. The Justice Department shut down all the major poker sites for U.S. players. Khoury decided it was time to leave the country.
So many online pros did the same that a company called Poker Refugees formed to relocate them to countries where online poker was legal. Khoury lived in Toronto for a while, then down in Costa Rica. Now he lives in Vancouver. He doesn't play in live tournaments much, but he came to Vegas for the WSOP, because everybody comes to Vegas for the WSOP.
"My mom was upset when I told her I was quitting school to play poker for a living," Khoury says. "I told her we're not those guys in the back alleys with dice anymore. Most poker players are these brilliant kids who basically found a way to beat the system. They win because they're smarter than anybody else."
The most important idea among the young players is EV, or expected value. As a pure math concept, it's the average of probability in a repeated random experiment. In practice, it's figuring out the odds when you don't know all the variables. Poker is a game of incomplete information. But players who understand EV know the odds of whatever they're holding versus a whole range of what their opponents might be holding -- and how much money is in the pot. More broadly, they apply EV to larger questions: How many tables should I play at the same time online? Is this tournament worth the time and travel? Is playing poker for a living worth it?
I catch Khoury outside the Brasilia ballroom during Event 32: No-Limit Hold-Em, Six-Handed ($5,000 buy-in). With six players at each table instead of the usual nine, players are rewarded for taking more chances. Khoury brought a high EV into this event -- he specializes in short-handed online. But his pair of kings ran into a pair of aces, and he's out. He seems calm. But he'll be agonizing awhile: "When you're a poker player, a professional, you expect to win. It gets in your stomach if you don't."
Generally, only players who finish in the top 10 percent of a tournament get paid. That means 90 percent of the players lose money. But when you have studied so much, built your EV so high, you have a hard time imagining yourself in that 90 percent.
The eventual winner of the six-handed tournament, beating out 515 other players, is a pro named Erick Lindgren. Lindgren is one of the guys who became famous from the WSOP coverage on TV. Last year, he became famous in poker circles, after fellow players called him out for failing to pay huge gambling debts. Lindgren filed for bankruptcy protection and went into gambling rehab. But it wasn't to stop playing poker. It was mainly to help him handle sports betting, where he had run up most of his debts.
"I want to gamble the right way," Lindgren said at the time.
After his win, and the $606,317 payday, he talked about his family. He talked about falling to the bottom and working his way back up. He talked about doing whatever it takes to get his game back on track and pay the bills.
He did not talk about the idea of simply not playing poker.
The table itself is a seduction.
Each one is a perfect oval, like a racetrack. At the WSOP they all have brand new felt. The felt has faint lines running across it, like a lawn that has just been mowed. Every table is lit with a hooded lamp that hangs from the ceiling. It is the setting for an intimate encounter.
Players fondle their chips. As the famous gambler Big Julie Weintraub supposedly said, "The guy who invented gambling was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius." When you convert your money to chips, they no longer feel like money. People who would never put five $100 bills in a pot will splash the pot with $500 in chips. It's the same as credit cards. You can make yourself believe it's not real.
You don't have to call up friends to play with. The casino brings you together. You sit down with strangers, and you try to learn as much as you can about them, the way you might on a first date. Sometimes, yes, you end up next to a jerk. More often, the players are quiet and friendly. They want you to be comfortable as you sit under the warm light together. You can almost forget how sweetly they are lying to you, and how quickly they are trying to take every cent you have.
Phil Ivey is late. They're playing Event 37: Limit Hold'em ($5,000 buy-in) in the back corner of the Amazon ballroom, next to the roped-off area for the featured tables they show so often on TV. He shows up five minutes after the cards are in the air, wearing a James Dean T-shirt and a gray hoodie pulled over his head. Someone in his entourage shows up a few minutes later and gives him a hat promoting IveyPoker, his new poker app. He takes off the hood, puts on the hat, pulls the hood back over it.
For pretty much the entire post-Moneymaker era, Ivey has been considered the best poker player in the world. He has won more than $17 million in live tournaments, plus Lord knows how many millions more in cash games and online. Which is why what happened in London last summer was so weird.
Ivey and a woman showed up at a casino called Crockford's to play punto banco, a variation of baccarat. The game is pure luck: Two face-down hands are dealt, one to the player and one to the banker, and the player bets on which hand is better without ever touching the cards. It's the kind of game you play if you think God is on your side, or maybe if you think you are God.
According to the casino, some strange things happened when Ivey played. His partner asked the dealer to turn some of the face-down cards 180 degrees, saying it was a superstition. They asked the casino to keep the same deck overnight instead of getting rid of it. And they asked if Ivey could triple the normal maximum bet. The casino agreed to Ivey's requests; casinos often honor the whims of high rollers. Over two days, Ivey won $12 million.
After watching the video -- everything that happens in a casino is on video -- Crockford's concluded that Ivey spotted some flaw in the design on the back of the cards, so he could tell one card from another when they were facedown. Basically, they think he cheated. So the casino withheld his winnings. Ivey responded by suing Crockford's. And that's where things stand right now.
I wondered if ESPN would bring this up if Ivey made a run in the Main Event. I also wondered if Lindgren's troubles would make the air. I asked Ashley O'Connor, a manager in programming who works on the WSOP for ESPN.
"At this point, we don't have any plans to incorporate those storylines into our specific coverage," she said.
I asked her a long, convoluted, terribly worded question about whether ESPN was worried that its coverage was balanced on the backs of people who take high risks for a living, and if poker players might cause the poker boom to collapse on itself.
"I think we look at our coverage of poker as, it's competition," she said. "You still look at the beauty of the competition."
It was a fair answer. The NFL's not going off TV because of Aaron Hernandez. But there seems to be something ... different ... about poker. Taking chances is the nature of the game. Your salary is whatever you win tonight, and in theory, it's infinite. In a game of incomplete information, every bit of information can make you money. In a game of lies, a morsel of truth can make you a millionaire.
I talk about the same general topic with Nolan Dalla, spokesman for the WSOP. Dalla might be the greatest spokesman in the history of public relations. He took the job on the conditions that he could drink and sleep late. His blog features posts like "If You're Under 25, Your Music is F---ing Garbage" and "Trip Report - I Hate Philadelphia (Part 3)". He doesn't even like fireworks. Nolan Dalla is thoroughly entertaining.
We're talking about Ivey, and Lindgren, and Black Friday, and the Ultimate Bet scandal, where a consultant to an online poker site made millions by using "God mode" software that enabled him to look at other players' hands.
"Look," he says. "We had the Black Sox scandal in 1919 and baseball survived. We had the Donaghy referee scandal and basketball survived. We're not any more scandal-ridden than any sport. Or business. Make sure and quote me on that last part. ... This game attracts risk-takers. This is not an angels' club."
Dalla thinks poker is about to boom again. The gambling industry hopes to bring legal online poker back for U.S. players. But Dalla thinks even bigger. India. China. He sees billions of people playing a game that he thinks of as a guide for the future.
"I think by nature, we're becoming more of an individual society," he says. "There aren't the big factories to support thousands of people anymore. People have to strike out on their own and do their own thing. When you're born, you're born with a poker hand. In the First World, most of us are born with pretty good hands. What matters in life is how you play it."
He starts talking about the Susquehanna International Group, a financial trading firm that bases some of its decisions on poker theory. Poker pro Bill Chen works there. "Their whole goal is to minimize risk," Dalla says. "It's just like poker."
I feel the circle closing.
"If you do it right, it's like punching a time clock. It becomes almost a mathematical certainty that you will win."
And here it comes.
"The good players don't view it as gambling."
There was a hooker outside the 7-Eleven on Paradise Road. Inside, next to the beef jerky display, dead-eyed souls played slot machines. It was 10 in the morning. I paid for my gas and got out of there quick.
You can spend money on things that are bad for you anywhere in America, but Las Vegas opens whole new vistas of ways to ruin your life. Vegas hands you cheap drinks and won't let you sleep. If you're indoors, you lose track of what day it is. If you go outside, it's 104 degrees, and the wind feels like a hair dryer blowing in your face. Your brain is cooked either way. Some helpless soul probably left that 7-Eleven with a hooker and beef jerky at 10:05 that morning. Las Vegas depends on people making terrible decisions. Not only that, it convinces you that those decisions are good at the time.
I wonder how those Wall Street traders swapping worthless mortgage bonds thought about their jobs as the money rolled in. I suspect they thought they weren't gambling.
As I head to the airport, I think about the last hand I played in that little cash game at the Rio. No one wants to hear somebody else's poker story. George the dealer could tell you that. Sorry. Here's my poker story.
The old line goes: If you can't figure out who the fish at the poker table is, you're the fish. After half an hour, against tournament-ready players, I've sprouted gills.
The chatterbox in the A's hat raises every time I bet. A dude in a Sex Pistols hat and fingernails painted alternate colors keeps blasting at the pot. A Kenny Loggins type charms the heck out of all of us as he rakes the chips his way.
I'm down to 75 bucks or so and limp in with a six-seven, hoping to make a straight. The flop is seven-nine-10. I call a small bet with my pair. Another seven comes on the turn. Now I've improved to three of a kind. I bet and a guy to my left, who hasn't said a word all night, calls. I'm worried he has made a straight already.
But the last card is a 10. I've made sevens full of 10s -- a full house, one of the strongest hands in poker. I bet … and the guy to my left goes all-in. I'm beat. But now there's so much in the pot that it doesn't make sense to fold. Sometimes, in poker, it is mathematically correct to lose.
A better player would fold anyway. A smarter person would never have sat down to begin with. I toss in the rest of my chips.
The guy to my left turns over his hole cards: a pair of nines. He had three nines even before I made my three sevens. When the dealer turned over that third seven, in my mind I was adding all those fresh chips to my stack. For a minute there, I forgot I was gambling. I didn't know it, but I had already lost.