The Big Show

Julian Rogers speaks to those responsible for creating the WSOP and hears how the colossal event has changed since yesteryear…

It’s Day 1A of the WSOP Main Event. Effervescent tournament director Jack Effel strides into the Rio’s cavernous convention centre as he prepares to officiate over the crown jewel in the poker calendar. Like most days during the WSOP, he awoke at 3am to sift through emails and reports from the previous day’s action before grabbing a couple more hours of shut-eye. His mobile phone is always within arm’s reach. ‘For me, it never really ends,’ he explains. ‘My body physically spends 11 to 12 hours at the Rio and a few hours sleeping, but the rest of the time I’m either thinking about the WSOP or talking to someone about the WSOP.’
Outside the air-conditioned cocoon of the windowless Rio – a dice roll from Las Vegas’s neon-drenched Strip – the temperature has nudged to an energy-sapping 47°C. In these conditions even a casual stroll to the hotel pool quickly descends into an impromptu wet T-shirt competition. However, the heat hasn’t dissuaded players flocking from 106 countries, including far-flung outposts such as Guinea-Bissau, South Georgia and Nauru, a speck on the map in the Pacific Ocean. Globetrotting card players make the annual pilgrimage to this gambling oasis in the desert with the dream of netting bricks of $100 bills and a coveted piece of bling-bling wrist furniture. It’s what makes it the ‘granddaddy’ of poker events, suggests Effel. ‘It’s the Olympics of poker and there is nothing like WSOP time,’ he smiles. ‘For two months of the year this is the centre of the poker universe.’

Planning ahead

This year’s poker jamboree comprises of 62 bracelet events squeezed into six weeks. About seven days before the first event starts at the end of May, an army of workers invade the Rio tasked with arranging 480 poker tables and thousands of chairs, as well as lighting, signage, the cash cage area, the feature table arena, security and surveillance room, media centre, accounting and audit room, employee break area…the list is endless. And it all has to conform to stringent gaming laws and fire regulations too. Meticulous planning for this year’s WSOP, including the schedule, began as soon as last year’s Main Event final table was decided in July 2012. ‘It has become a year-round project,’ says Effel. ‘An enormous amount of background work has to be done before we even start building the tournament.’
It takes video production company POKER PROductions five days to unload four lorries full of audio-visual equipment and set up in the Rio. This includes 38 HD cameras, 18 hole card cameras and over four miles of video and fibre optic cabling. The Las Vegas-based firm, which employs over 100 staff and contractors for the WSOP, eventually edits the raw footage into 22 hour-long episodes for ESPN, although over 95% of what they shoot ends up on the cutting room floor. The team also handles live streaming. Producer Dan Gati says the WSOP is a ‘huge undertaking’, but the crew endeavour to ply their trade largely unnoticed. ‘Our biggest challenge is always to try to stay out of the way of the players. The number one priority is making sure the event can be played with as little interruption and distraction from us.’

Writing history

The written media are also out in force. Poker bloggers and reporters dart between tables, scribbling down hands before regurgitating the action online. WSOP media staff record chip counts, and tweet and post tournament updates and results. Erudite WSOP media director and poker veteran Nolan Dalla can usually be found somewhere on the premises, day or night. ‘I take zero days off,’ he remarks. ‘I’m not trying to come across as an ironman, but I don’t like missing anything. It’s like watching your favourite TV programme; would you want to miss one episode? No, you want to be there for every single one of them.’ The unpredictability of the job is a beguiling draw for Dalla. ‘When I walk thorough the door, I don’t know who is going to win, who is going to lose and who is going to ask me a crazy question. That mystery is what has kept me attached to this institution.’
For the players, it’s vital to have a figure of authority they can ask for advice or, more likely, voice their displeasure to. That’s where the floor staff come in. More than 100  supervisors are employed each year to patrol the poker room. They adjudicate on disputes and warn or punish players for bad language and other misdemeanors. If an issue still can’t be resolved then it’s escalated up the chain of command and Effel has the final call.
‘Poker is very emotional and you are dealing with people’s money,’ Effel says. ‘You have to allow players to get things off their mind and you have to understand their position, but you also have to teach players that there is a fine line between what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.’ Effel strives to be firm but fair. But when there are life-changing sums on the line, things can get a little heated. That’s especially the case if a player has suffered a string of bad beats, is fatigued or perhaps feeling the effects of one too many Mojitos. ‘I try not to rule with an iron fist, but I will stop them in their tracks if I have to. I try to understand what the players are feeling and be empathetic.’

Food for thought

Spending all day hunched over a poker table riffling chips is exhausting graft, so players need to be frequently fed and watered. During the WSOP Joe Hamel, executive chef at the Rio, manages 27 chefs and 300 cooks working in 15 kitchens. Each day, they serve everything from 30oz ribeye steaks to Vietnamese noodle soups for between 10,000 and 12,000 players, visitors and staff. ‘This is a special event and a huge focal point for the entire hotel, especially for the food and beverage department,’ he says. The players also get through their fair share of booze partying – either to celebrate a good day at the felt, drown their sorrows or for no particular reason at all. Hey, Vegas hasn’t been saddled with the moniker Sin City for nothing.
With players refuelled, the dealers get the cards back in the air. Around 1,400 dealers are employed each year, including Barry Chase, who has been a WSOP dealer for the past six years and he honestly says he never fails to have ‘a great time’. The 53-year-old deals all the poker variants, but admits that pot-limit Omaha Hi/Lo (8 or better) is the most challenging when it comes to keeping a watchful eye on the betting and potential high/low hands. ‘At showdown you have to read the winning hand from sometimes three, four or more hands laid on the table. It’s a brain teaser.’ Fortunately for Chase, today is just hold’em. It isn’t long before players start hitting the rail and by the end of Day 1A, around half the field has been eliminated. The remaining players’ chips are bagged and tagged. Day 1B begins in earnest tomorrow and Effel and his team will be on hand, ready to do it all again. He wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘I love what I do and I can’t see myself doing anything else,’ he reveals.
Pin It

Comments are closed.