The Biggest Game in Town

The winner of the 2005 World Series of Poker pocketed a record $7.5 million. And it was nearly us!

Actually that needs a big qualification. What we should say is that we nearly blagged our way into the $10,000 No-Limit Main Event, and if we had, we’d have been in with roughly a 5000-to-1 chance of winning the $7.5 million prize, or a share of the total prize money of $52.8 million. You see, we went to a party the night before the tournament, where one online operator mentioned one of their qualifiers was having passport trouble in Finland and couldn’t make it to the USA, so would we like the spare place? Er, would a Yank like a cheeseburger?!

But although they’d already shelled out the $10,000 entry fee – along with another $500,000 for their 50 other qualifiers – the organisers wouldn’t let us play, insisting the name on the sheet was the only name in the game. So, instead of rubbing shoulders with poker giants and Hollywood A-listers, we played drunken Blackjack and lost our shirts. Ultimate injustice…

Big. Bigger. Bloody huge

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’d never even have been here had a man named Benny Binion not fled his native Texas in 1946 and opened a casino in downtown Las Vegas. There, in 1949, big-time gambler Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandalos asked Benny to set up a no-limit poker game with a high-stakes player. Benny called an old chum in Dallas: the legendary Johnny Moss.

The game attracted crowds – among them Albert Einstein – and every now and again a wealthy onlooker was allowed to buy in for $10,000. An incredible five months later Moss won the game and a tidy $2 million. When he lost his last pot, The Greek uttered the famous valediction, ‘Mr Moss, I have to let you go.’

In 1951 Benny bought the old Eldorado and renamed it The Horseshoe. After a brief spell in the big house for tax evasion, he hosted the inaugural World Series of Poker in 1970, declaring that the winner would be crowned undisputed world champion.

Half a dozen of Binion’s cronies played a variety of games and then voted for the best all-round player. The man they chose was Johnny Moss. The next year the rules were changed – a freeze-out structure was introduced and poker tournament play as we know it was born. In 1972 Amarillo Slim stole the title and his larger than life persona got the ball rolling.

In his wildest dreams, Benny could never have foreseen that his World Series would not only outgrow the Horseshoe, but expand so much that the first round now has to be split to accommodate all the players, even in the massive Rio Suite Hotel.

The worldwide explosion in poker has seen to that, but it’s also the fact that poker is the only sport where you can take on the world’s best, assuming you’re good enough to qualify, or rich enough to drop the $10,000 that will get man or beast into the Main Event.

Let the games begin…

The first round runs for three days, with players split into groups called 1A, 1B and 1C. And while most of the fallers at the first fence are amateurs, enough big names crash to send out shock waves. Names like Hellmuth, Negreanu, Nguyen, Chris Ferguson, Isabelle Mercier, along with fancied Brits Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott, Dave Colclough and Simon Trumper all fail to make the first cut, making it ever-so-slightly more bearable for the 3,500 amateurs who also find themselves with the wrong cards.

But the biggest drama – and quite nearly the first fistfight in WSOP history – falls to two unknown Brits. Short-stacked, one of them goes all-in, is called, and after the flop needs running diamonds to stay in the tournament (and prevent the hand from going to a feisty Scot).

Unfortunately, the dealer, in what’s probably the worst moment of his life, burns two cards before the turn. The table turns ugly, differing opinions are shouted left and right, before the tournament director comes over and states that two new cards should be drawn.

The Scot points out that the turn card (the second burn) should stay as it’s on the table, but he’s overruled, and unbelievably the next two cards are diamonds. Tilt isn’t the word – he’s probably still talking about it now. (And if you’re out there, write in – we’d love to hear from you.)

We spend the whole of the second day cheering on the remaining British players, our patriotism stretching to include such borderline cases as Andy Black (born in Belfast but now living in Dublin). We also just about manage to indulge a raucous Australian contingent (well, they do share our Queen), with shouts of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi-oi-oi’ whenever a hitherto unknown player, one Joe Hachem, wins a pot (something that seems to be happening with alarming alacrity). Such vocal demonstrations are positively encouraged by the MC, who keeps repeating ‘Come on! This ain’t a golf tournament!’

Come day three and a tenth of the original starters are left and anyone still playing cards is dangerously close to the money. The first few hours are stupefyingly dull as hand-for-hand play comes into effect to stop people slow-playing a table to try to sneak into the cash. A roar goes up when the field’s whittled down to the magic 560 and there’s a moment of empathy for the bubbled player…

And then more drama as the gloriously named Bing Wang mistakes the short break between blind levels for dinner and wanders off.

As he’s short-stacked and in jeopardy of being blinded and anted off, big-hearted Brit Andy Black refuses to play in his absence. With the table in uproar, Wang returns just in time to save Black from suspension – for the ultimate in sporting behaviour.

Elsewhere, Greg Raymer’s huge stack is one of the first to reach a million, and takes him ten minutes to move as the tables break. Can the Fossilman do it again? He certainly seems to think so, holding 1.4 million going into the final day at the Rio, before the move to the WSOP’s spiritual home, Binion’s.

Back to the Horseshoe

There’s a never-ending line waiting to get into ‘Benny’s Bullpen’, and famous players are mobbed for autographs like film stars. But this is the home of the WSOP and there’s a lot of sentimental guff going on about it being the last time the Big One will be here at all.

And then, as the move is made to the final table, two giants go out. Phil Ivey’s Jacks walk into Kings and Greg Raymer’s pocket Kings are fatally wounded by a Q-J flushing on the river. They both depart, and suddenly the only big name left for the final table is Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow.

The final countdown

4.00PM: Just one table on a podium now, surrounded by TV screens. We squeeze in, refusing an offer of $100 for our media badge along the way.

4.10PM: ‘I need the players to come to the table and unbag their chips,’ intones the tournament director. ‘No video, no camera flashes. The penalty is death,’ warns MC Nolan Dalla. This seemingly doesn’t apply to ESPN, who have no fewer than four cameras blocking our view and are exceptionally rude to boot. Bless.

4.45PM: ‘So Proudly We Hail’ sung by a contralto who has to read the words from a crib sheet.

4.50PM: Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer gets to say: ‘Shuffle up and deal!’

4.57PM: In the second hand, Mike Matusow, with around $7.4 million in front of him, finds himself covering a $3 million all-in from Scott Lazar. Matusow discovers that his Kings have walked head-on into pocket Aces. Then a miracle King hits the flop, and Mike is dancing. But running hearts give Lazar a flush on the river – a devastating blow for The Mouth.

6.29PM: And then he’s gone when Steve Dannenmann catches a straight to top Matusow’s pocket 10s. He still banks $1 million for 9th place.

10.27PM: Two more players fall before Andy Black’s Jacks see off Scott Lazar’s Q-10.

1.30AM: Disaster. Binion’s bars announce they’re completely out of Guinness. We threaten a walkout but decide to switch to lager.

2.05AM: Double disaster as the last Brit perishes on a coin toss. Andy Black looks broken but picks up $1.75 million for his efforts.

4.00AM: Most of the media are now fast asleep.

4.50AM: Finally, another player drops out, and Binion’s minions cart in the cash. Feather-festooned showgirls and bodyguards carry it into the room in hefty boxes. ‘Would everyone without a shotgun please back away from the money?’

5.53AM: The longevity record for the final table is broken at 13 hours, 13 minutes.

6.05AM: Of the three players left, Tex Barch, with the smallest stack, becomes the target of the other two.

6.18AM: Tex goes in with a weak Ace and is poleaxed by Steve’s pocket Sevens and Joe’s even better pocket Jacks. Heads-up, at last.

6.47AM: It’s a funny old game. Joe Hachem wins with one of the worst hands you can be dealt – 7-3 off-suit. The flop comes 6-5-4, giving him a straight and $7.5 million. Not bad for a week’s work…

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