By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003
I remember the old slogan for Lotto. “A dollar and a dream.” That was the hook into one of the biggest scams in the free world. The lottery. Sure people win, but we never will honestly know the truth about how much money is collected for each drawing. The contestants don’t get to count the money and the entire amount collected is never paid out in full. Lotto is the scam of all scams and millions of Americans play it once and twice a week with their thoughts of their dream vacation sizzling in their mind as they willingly stand in line for upwards of a half an hour to two hours, days before the huge multi-million drawing. They foolishly fork over their cash for the hopes that air blown ping pong balls will magically appear before their eyes awarding them a small cut of the weekly shakedown, while some fat cats are hording billions into banks in places like the Cayman Islands and St. Maarten, the final destinations for some of the ticket buyer’s dreams. I feel sorry for those suckers.
The World Series of Poker was the brain child of Benny Binion. The man who never saw a bet that he would not cover and first started serving “free drinks” in his casino (now a traditional standard in every casino in Vegas and America), had a dream to bring the world’s best poker players together. It started in 1949 with a one on one match set up between Nick the Greek and Johnny Moss, at the time the world’s two best card players. They played in public view at Binion’s casino various poker games for five months straight, only taking breaks for sleep! Moss finally walked away with close to $2 Million after winning the “biggest game in town” after Nick the Greek bowed his head and replied, “Mr. Moss, I’ll have to let you go.” Then he went upstairs and went to sleep.
In 1970 Benny Binion decided to create the World Series of Poker after realizing that people lined up outside his casino just to watch the best gamblers play cards, like any other fan of a major sporting team. At the inaugural World Series, seven players showed up. After it’s 34th year, his vision has exploded. Not only does the winner walk away with a hefty payout, but they also get the recognition and respect of becoming one of the greatest card players of all time, with the likes of Amarillo Slim, Johnny Chan, Johnny Moss, Stu Ungar, and Doyle Brunson. This year’s event, starting May 19th, is expected to be the biggest tournament to date, hoping to draw almost 700 players and paying out over $7 Million in prize money, with every dollar going to the players.
The World Series of Poker is not for amateurs. I found out the hard way. But if you’re a dreamer and a disciplined gambler, you shouldn’t miss out. The game is No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. Each player is dealt two cards face down and they share five community cards with the rest of the table. You play and wager based on your five best cards. All you need is $10,000 and a pair of balls. Last year at the World Series, there were 614 contestants that paid the mandatory $10,000 fee. Every cent of the $6,140,000 was divided among the top finishers. The 2002 winner, Robert Varkonyi, an amateur from Brooklyn left Las Vegas with $2 plus million and the coveted platinum and diamond bracelet, worn only by the winner. This is the equivalent of the Stanley Cup or the Master’s Green Jacket. Shit, even the guy who came in 16th place went home with almost $50,000. The guy in 45th place went home with $20,000. What do you get when you finish in 10th place in Lotto? Jack shit. That’s what.
And here’s the best part. Anyone can participate. Anybody with $10,000 can enter the World Series of Poker. I can. You can. For fuck’s sake, my grandmother can. Just show up to Vegas with 10 Gs and you’re in. You can’t show up with your golf clubs at the Masters to play a round against Tiger Woods. You can’t bring your basketball to Madison Square Garden and expect to play one on one with Latrell Sprewell. You can’t roll up next to Jeff Gordon and challenge him to a race. But if you got a bankroll, you can sit down with legends of Poker and try to take them down. No other event has the freedom and opportunity like the World Series of Poker, where you can sit and challenge the world’s best players, and that’s why the World Series of Poker is the single most thrilling event in tournament and gambling activities and is rapidly gaining more popularity every year.
These days you don’t even need $10,000 to get into the World Series. All you need is as little as $125 for the entry fee for any of the many satellite tournaments that Binion’s holds weeks before the World Series. The winners of the satellites win the $10,000 entry fee into the World Series. Last year’s World Series Champion, Robert Varkonyi, was an amateur and got to sit down at the World Series by winning a satellite tournament.
After I watched the action for a few hours, I decided to go for it. I entered one of the satellites at Binion’s. I paid my $125 fee, got $250 in chips and sat down with 100 other players (divided up into 10 tables), all trying to win the $10,000 entry fee. I came down to the next to last guy at my first table. I beat out eight other guys and if I beat the last guy, I would advance to the Final Table (if I beat all nine guys at the Final Table, I win the $10,000 entry fee). I knew I could not win because I never played in a No Limit tournament, let alone a No Limit game. I decided to play for practice, for the experience, for a few stories, and most of all for the thrill of gambling. I never figured I’d make it as far as I did, but when I got knocked out of the tournament, I was really pissed. In a matter of a couple of hours I went from the reluctant spectator to fierce card player. I had a chance to advance and I blew it. Now instead of thinking “I could never win this” my thought process shifted. With confidence and experience, I now have fleeting thoughts of “I have a chance to win… if I play smart enough.”
I played in a few tournaments before I got to Vegas. These were Low Limit games with a maximum on how much you can bet each hand. Sometimes the pots get big. Most of the time the best players win Low Limit games because there is a cap on how much you can win or lose for each hand dealt. In No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, you can lose all your money in one second. You can double your money in another second. It does not matter how many chips you have left on the table. As long as you have one, you still have a chance. Most professionals refuse to play No Limit because of the huge losses they could possibly incur. There’s more bluffing in No Limit because when you have thousands and thousands of dollars being wagered, you’d assume only players with the best hands would play. Not all the time. Players will often go “all-in” and bet all their chips in an attempt to steal the pot and scare off other players. Sometimes nobody buys your bluff and you get fucked. Most of the time bluffers in No Limit scare me off. I’m still learning the game (I’m fairly versed at Low Limit Hold ‘em), and the few times I was convinced the guy across from me was bluffing, I found out the hard was that he was holding a great hand.
The rush of adrenaline hits you when you have to make a decision to go “all-in”. When you come to this decision you realize one of two things. If I have the best hand at the table, I’m going to back it up with my entire stacks of chips in order to maximize my win with higher stakes in my winning pot. The other thing I think about is this: most likely will be my last hand of the day because if I lose, that’s it. I have no more chips. There were times I knew I was beat and eked out a win, while there were definitive moments when I was convinced that I would walk away with a huge pot, only to get beat down like a Cuban dissident.
I’ll be back next year, with a full year of tournament poker experience under my belt. Will I win? Probably not, but I have a much better chance than winning Lotto, and I’ll have a much better time trying!
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.