Poker is my mistress.
It's what my ex-wife said long ago, maybe the only thing she said about me that I actually agreed with. And it still rings true to this day.
My love affair with the game began in 2003, when I happened upon ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker. That broadcast chronicled how a schlubby 30-something accountant from Tennessee with the most apropos name ever—Chris Moneymaker—turned a $39 entry in an online poker tournament into $2.5 million.
I was hooked.
It wasn't until three years later, after said ex-wife was out of the picture, that I was able to make the trip to Las Vegas to see the World Series of Poker in person. Now, this journey is an annual pilgrimage, one that I share with hundreds of thousands from all corners of the world, including dozens of poker aficionados from the Tucson area.
My voyage this year will be in early June, but the 44th annual WSOP began Wednesday at the Rio Hotel & Casino. It runs until mid-July.
In between, there will 62 tournaments with buy-ins ranging from $500 (for casino employees only) to $111,111 (they award gold and/or diamond bracelets along with a buttload of cash). Just short of 75,000 players participated last year, when more than $222 million in prize money was awarded. That includes $8.5 million to 24-year-old Maryland resident Greg Merson for winning the $10,000 buy-in Main Event and more than $18 million to longtime professional Antonio Esfandiari for winning the first-ever $1 million buy-in poker tourney.
There are also smaller daily tournaments, cash games and tourney series at other Las Vegas casinos, such as Caesar's Palace, the Venetian and the Wynn.
You can do all of it or none of it; it depends on your desires and your net worth. While many of us think we can beat LeBron one on one, or can take down Tiger in a match play format, we'll never get that chance. The same can't be said with poker, where all it takes is the cash to get a chance to bust someone like Phil Hellmuth, who has won 13 WSOP bracelets in 25 years, or my personal poker man-crush, Daniel Negreanu.
Or you could just go and bask in an atmosphere of all things poker inside the Rio's massive convention center for this seven-week period.
Try as you might, you can't really comprehend what it's like to see nearly 500 poker tables spread across several cavernous rooms until you see it up close.
And for thousands, that's all they do: watch. It's hard to believe poker can be a spectator sport, but its TV ratings are strong enough to warrant ESPN devoting dozens of hours of coverage to the WSOP each year. Poker shows take up a good chunk of hard drive space on my DISH Hopper, so I'm a strong contributor to this ongoing poker craze.
The game of poker has seen massive growth over the last 10 years, since Moneymaker showed the world that anyone could win. The Main Event that year had 839 entrants. The following year, in 2004, more than 2,500 people entered. There were more than 5,500 in 2005, and participation peaked at more than 8,700 in 2006. There have been at least 6,300 entrants each year since.
But the WSOP is so much more than just its showcase event. It's like a 48-day poker festival, with every conceivable thing correlated with the game: food, entertainment, clothing, you name it.
Just as fans of overpriced, over-commercialized amusement parks flock to Disneyland like it's Vatican City, so, too, do poker lovers descend on the Rio. There are people I've never spoken to outside of the poker rooms there, but whom I see each and every time I go. And we smile and nod at each other, acknowledging our common bond and allegiance to the game.
If you make the trip—in case you didn't already know, I highly recommend it, and if we run into each other, the first can at the Milwaukee's Best Light Beer Garden is on me!—you're also apt to cross paths with poker players with Southern Arizona ties. Collectively, this group (myself included) will look to rebound from a 2012 WSOP that wasn't very fruitful.
Especially compared to 2011, which saw locals take home more than $800,000 in prize money. The lion's share of that went to Sean Getzwiller, a Benson native who cut his teeth in the home poker games of Tucson before moving to Las Vegas a few years ago to play poker full time. In June 2011 he bested a WSOP field of more than 3,000 players in a $1,000 no-limit hold 'em event to win a gold bracelet and $611,000.
Not bad for four days' work.
I had the pleasure of being able to watch portions of Getzwiller's victory, sneaking over from my table in a much less expensive tourney in between hands. As fate would have it, I also made a final table that night, part of an incredibly successful 2011 trip for me that also included a win in a small tourney at Harrah's.
Getzwiller isn't the only local to have made a name for himself at the World Series. Other standouts in recent years include Vail's Deb Blair, a former Arizona State Ladies champion who in the 2007 Main Event was the last woman standing, finishing 175th and winning more than $51,000; and Nadim Shabou, who in 2008 cashed in four WSOP events for more than $42,000.
Tucson's connection to Vegas poker success dates back at least to 1989, when "Tucson" Don Holt won a seven-card-stud bracelet and $154,000, and two years later placed second in the Main Event, good for $402,500.
I know of more than a dozen locals who plan to spend at least part of the next seven weeks camped out at the Rio, where action will be available at nearly every buy-in level imaginable, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Tucson will also be well represented on the house side of the poker table. Longtime Desert Diamond Casino poker dealer Bryan Wilson is among the roughly 1,200 dealers hired from poker rooms throughout the country to work the WSOP.
The best of luck to all of you. Unless you're in a hand with me. Then, well ...