It’s closing in on mid-July, Las Vegas feels as hot as a furnace, and the World Series of Poker Main Event nears the cusp of its golden hour. Cash is about to be released. The vibe inside the Rio’s Amazon Room is downright primal, as players angle for a guaranteed share of $68,798,600 worth of buy-ins turned prize money. But before they get what they came for, a few more bodies need to go. The WSOP moves in slow-grind mode. Contestants play hand-for-hand poker, in order to burst the money bubble and get down to 747 from 7,319 starters.
Though big names like Ferguson, Greenstein, Dwan and Ivey are long gone, plenty of familiar faces remain in contention. Johnny Chan looks muscled up and Zenned out, fronting big stacks, flashing bling and signing autographs on sheets of paper that get passed over the rail and ferried to him. Patrik Antonius maintains a been-there, done-that demeanour, appearing bored, politely chatting and telling me that the play this year seems a little better than in previous WSOP seasons. ‘You’d think it would hurt me,’ he says. ‘But really, it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter to me how people play.’
Mori Eskandani, best known for producing High Stakes Poker, laughs about being ‘the longest-lasting TV producer in World Series history’ before telling me that he’d like to put on a ‘Mori’s Victims’ edition of Poker After Dark. With hands stalled out, I spot David Benyamine lumbering toward a trashcan. He dips his head and spits up a serving of phlegm.
Ylon Schwartz looks more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him. Maybe it’s because he faced elimination early this year, when his straight got rivered by a flush. He says it’s been a profitable trip and that a strong result in the $1,500 Omaha Hi/Lo (where he came third for $94,561) turned the rest of his time here into a freeroll. Two years ago, upon finishing fourth in the Main Event, he had issues with his millions of dollars in winnings and sought psychotherapy, which, by all indications, has worked. ‘I recently invested in a wine bar, a place called Barrio, situated in a really f***ed-up neighbourhood in Brooklyn,’ he tells me. ‘The wine business is cool, but this is the greatest tournament all year. I come for a couple of months and basically take people’s money.’
Then a buddy of his slips in and tries convincing me to bet on how many people will be eliminated within half an hour of the bubble popping. Numbers get tossed around – I suggest ten, he says he’ll give me 20; and, honestly, I am not even sure what he means – but then the bubble does burst with a ton of fanfare. A poor soul who’s wearing an ill-fitting polo shirt and sporting a walrus moustache looks dazed as he gets marched through the Amazon room, trailed by cameras like a perp being paraded past crime reporters. Other players cheer vociferously, celebrating their impending fortunes. The Bubble Boy, as he is called, receives a $10,000 entry fee for next year’s Main Event. But it hardly seems like reasonable compensation for all the embarrassment he has to endure.
Of course, though, it could be worse. Thousands of poker players, many of them more skilled and experienced than Bubble Boy, have unceremoniously busted without so much as a satellite entry. Daniel Negreanu went out with two pair, after getting caught by a straight on the turn. Erick Lindgren got sent to rail with a worse full house than his opponent. Big Papa Brunson continued his 2010 WSOP losing streak through the Main Event. He did not cash at all this year and described his play in one tournament as ‘the worst poker of my life’. And, of course, Phil Hellmuth made his patented ridiculous entrance – this time as an ultimate fighter – and promptly busted out long before the first day was completed.
When I spot a surprisingly sober-looking Gavin Smith heading to get his rock bottom payout of $19,263, I can’t help but ask him how many drinks he had over the course of winning the $2,500 Mixed Hold’em tournament earlier in the Series. ‘None,’ he tells me. ‘I’m trying not to drink this year. I had a couple of greyhounds during my last few levels of the Main Event, but that was it.’ Then he speaks in the clear-headed way that only a sober man can: ‘The day you bust out of the Main Event is always the saddest day of the year.’
You could make a good argument that Gavin Smith’s sobriety may be a sign of the times. I’m wondering if it is my imagination or if this Main Event seems a little more subdued than in years past. I pose the question to media director Nolan Dalla, and he immediately shows his age by blaming the newest thing in the game. ‘I think it’s dry because of all the internet players,’ says Dalla. ‘They’re 22 years old, they’ve had no life experiences, and they have no personalities. But they’re the world’s greatest poker players. They sit home, in front of their computers, and win $800,000 a year.’
Even Nick Rainey, the controversial sushi-fetcher for Patrik Antonius turned loudmouth grinder supreme, who totally outlasted his boss, is quiet and focused. Between hands, he comes over and complains, ‘I’ve got this little wizard, one of the best internet players in the world, sitting to my left. Very tough.’ I don’t bother telling Rainey that his internet wizard looks like an obsessive compulsive deviant with eyes at half-mast, smile half-formed, and lips that don’t move when he speaks.
Besides, it could be worse for Rainey. He could have the same seat as Steve McLoughlin, the former TwoPlusTwo.com honcho. He sits to the right of Johnny Chan, who would seem much tougher than even the Harry Potter of online Hold’em wizards.
But McLoughlin doesn’t seem to be sweating it. ‘Johnny did me a big favour,’ he says, patting a logo pasted to the lapel of his sport jacket. Because he’s sitting next to Chan and getting TV time as a result of it, PokerStars took notice. ‘They gave me $5,000 and slapped a logo on me. Chan’s not saying much as McLoughlin crows over his good fortune. Maybe he’s busy thinking about how things might shake out for him. Between hands, while standing up and stretching, the Orient Express lets me know that he has a plan: ‘I’d like to win it this year and then do my second back-to-back by winning it next year.’
I wonder if he might be getting a little ahead of himself, and the answer to my question comes a day later. That is when a series of incidents unfold into what Nolan Dalla describes as ‘the butterfly effect’. I first notice it when Robert Mizrachi jumps up from his seat and grabs his brother, Michael, a couple of tables away. They both stare down at a table in which Chan has most of his stack in preflop, with Kings, and his young adversary, Robert Pisano, at the other end of the table, is all-in with Aces.
Somebody mutters something about Chan drawing dead. Chan gives the guy a withering look, though he later describes the Aces as ‘something [that] came out of the freezer’.Robert makes it clear that the really screwy thing is that this hand shouldn’t even exist. The dealer accidentally flashed a card, the hand got called back, and the new shuffle produced the Kings vs Aces imbroglio. As might be expected, Chan fails to improve and suddenly the tournament has a new but unlikely chip leader.
I follow Michael Mizrachi to his seat and sweat him from the rail. Soon I’m approached by an attractive Cuban woman who’s trying to figure out how much each chipstack is worth. Turns out she’s Mizrachi’s wife. I congratulate her on Michael’s good run during this series (nearly $1.7m in prize money thus far, and his first bracelet for taking down the Player’s Championship) and ask if his winnings feel like a lot to her. ‘It’s not a lot until he wins this,’ she responds sharply.
Knowing a bit about Mizrachi’s rough patches – including home foreclosures that stem from what one pro describes as ‘the Grinder loving baccarat too much’ – I’m happy when I later see him crowned with a Full Tilt cap and, presumably, the sponsorship money that comes with it. Brother Robert is faring less well, with just 600k at a time when stacks of two million are common. ‘Right now I am not playing poker the Robert way,’ he says, heading off to find his seat at the second TV table instead of the first, where Michael is getting wired up.
In my mind I dub them the Nurser and the Grinder. Though the former is not long for this world, the latter most likely is. As Day 6 reaches its end, Michael Mizrachi is doing better than ever, in second place with 7,725,000 chips and trailing the chip leader by 700,000. I ask him for the secret to his success this summer. ‘I’ve been living a better life in Florida,’ he tells me, sounding weirdly mystical as he speaks of a move back to his home state. ‘You get washed up in Vegas, too many bad things, too many downfalls. Now I stretch my legs and walk the beaches of south Florida. Then I come out to the desert and keep my head up.’
It is the morning of Day 7, 30 minutes before cards will be airborne, and Starbucks is the place to be. It’s where I run into online superstar Tony ‘Bond18’ Dunst. Unlike the typical player, who dons a hoody when he wants to get dressed up, Dunst looks like he’s on his way to a job interview in the City. He tells me that his final table plans include a giant unlit cigar that will be clenched between his teeth.
Yeah, I say, but what’s up with the suit? ‘I always wear a suit and tie when I play poker; it’s what I feel comfortable in,’ Dunst says. ‘I’ve been reading GQ ever since I was a kid, and it’s convenient to go out at night, after I’m done playing, without getting changed.That’s a nice sentiment, and a nice suit, but, alas, one of poker’s nattiest goes down in 50th place when his A-Q gets pipped by A-K.
My coffee klatsch continues when I run into Dag Palovic. He’s sort of a poker-playing, Eastern European approximation of Mr Bean. Wearing a goofy neckerchief and an intensely tapered shirt backed by an iron-on transfer of a hot chick, he’s become known for annoying ticks and spreading out his chips in stacks of four instead of ten or 20. He’s got maybe 600,000 and hopes to last for two hours. At one point he gets it up beyond two million and seems poised to make a run for the gold. But with 37 players left, he loses two hands in a row and heads back behind the old Iron Curtain.
In short order, the Amazon Room, which started with poker players for as far as the eye can see, comes to resemble a windowless poker joint with just a handful of tables in action. Sent packing, card-dead David Benyamine goes out in 58th with Q-T. En route to the parking lot, he tells me it was his best hand of the day and blames dark thoughts and personal problems on his WSOP shutout this year. ‘Wait until I get back from WSOPE to ask me how I’m doing and how I did,’ the bulked-down Benyamine tells me. Then he mysteriously adds, ‘I will have a very good story for you.’
Back among the living, one thing becomes obvious: this is not a game for the olds. Senior among the remaining players seem to be Michael Mizrachi (whose wife refers to him as Grinder) and Johnny Chan’s buddy Hasan Habib (who’ll go out in 14th place). This year the internet kids rage with impunity. Guys like Jason ‘PBJaxxx’ Senti, Scott ‘Big Risky’ Clements, and Matt ‘MCMATTO’ Affleck are running over the field. Johnny Lodden – famous for excessive drinking, having $1m heisted from an online account, and being the original Lodden of the gambler’s game ‘Lodden Thinks’ – roller-coasters to the final day with the second shortest stack. Mizrachi drops from top dog to middle of the pack.
Emerging as frontrunner at exactly the right time is Joseph ‘subiime’ Cheong, an internet pro who was trained by David ‘The Maven’ Chicotsky and look like he’s about 15. But he plays like a marvel, three-betting liberally and establishing a table image that allows him to slow-play a flopped pair of Kings and induce a snap-raise shove. ‘The guy thought Joseph had nothing,’ marvels Bryan ‘King of the Degenerates’ Micon, railing his friend. ‘Now the other guy is eliminated.’ On Day 7, for those who dare to go up against subiime, it has become a common ending.
After Johnny Lodden’s elimination in 27th, the second one out on Day 8, when the November Nine will be decided, is Nashville, Tennessee’s Matthew Bucaric. A wiry online pro, dressed in a glittery sweatshirt, he zips open a backpack full of dirty laundry at the cashier’s cage. Bucaric collects a brick and a half of hundreds and tosses the soiled clothing to a friend. He lost to a rivered flush and marvels over the raw aggression this year. ‘There’s nobody in the tournament who doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ says Bucaric. ‘There is no Darvin Moon this year. You can’t get away with the crazy shit.’
Somebody ought to tell that to Filippo Candio. He calls off all his chips with 5-7 on a flop of 5-6-6, and his opponent, Cheong, turns over Aces. But a miraculous 8s and 4c on the turn and river makes a straight for Candio and suddenly he emerges as chip leader. Cheong, meanwhile, takes the bad beat well and chills in the middle of the pack, with a stack that has gone from 23m to just nine million. A German in the media room watches the hand go down and growls, ‘Guaranteed, that guy who won now is going to win the whole tournament.’
That is a bit of prognostication that actually might wind up coming true. By the time the players are down to 11, Candio is barely in there, but he’s vacuum-pack tight and waiting for other people to make mistakes or get unlucky.
That moment comes when the burly online grinder Matt Affleck and Canadian Jonathan Duhamel, who cashed in two previous events this year, create a 42m-chip pot. It is the biggest of the Main Event thus far, and it has Affleck all-in. He confidently turns up Aces to Duhamel’s Jacks. For Affleck, things get worse from there. The hand ends with Duhamel rivering a straight. Even though his opponent had a ton of outs, Affleck looks stunned. He’s on the verge of tears and dips down his baseball cap so it covers his eyes in case he can’t hold back. To his credit, though, Duhamel realises that he made a terrible play and immediately goes on tilt, promptly spewing some of his winnings.
Shortly thereafter, the November Nine contenders are down to ten. They convene at a single table, mic’ed and wired and outfitted with hole-card cameras. Cheering sections form in bleachers around the table. Mizrachi’s stack of 7,780,000 is far shorter than any other at the table. The time is around midnight. People are setting the tournament-ending over/under at a reasonable 1.30am. Mizrachi, it’s presumed, will be the one to go.
By sunrise, however, the action is still hard and heavy; pizzas have been ordered by fans in the stands, beer and tequila shots flow like a BP gusher. At the table, Mizrachi stays nitty and focused, folding pairs and medium to big Aces, finding low-risk opportunities. Filippo Candio, the second shortest stack, plays what you might call a brilliantly defensive game by barely playing at all. Joseph Cheong goes on a losing streak and seems poised to fall apart. He slouches low in his seat, briefly turns into a calling station and becomes a pecking point. During the last break of the tournament, he’s jumpy and annoyed, telling friends, ‘I lost half my stack.’ Fortunately, though, that still leaves him with 20m.
It winds down after 6am, following 78 hours of Main Event poker. The last hand is a classic race that goes the way races are supposed to: Matthew Jarvis’s pair of Queens holds up against short-stack Brandon Stevens’ A-K. The remaining players look as exhausted as heavyweight fighters after the final bell of a brutal match. They hug each other, they hug their friends, they cheer, they whoop, they sign an autograph here and there.
They represent the youngest final table in World Series of Poker history, with ages ranging from 22 to 37. There is just one WSOP bracelet between them – that would be Mizrachi’s, won this year – and an opportunity for life-changing fame. No doubt, they will be dog-fighting for it this coming November, showing the world what poker’s new generation is capable of and firing a warning shot for veterans who care to test their skills.