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There's still magic at the Rio

1 July 2013

LAS VEGAS -- Under the glare of a sun that threatens to melt anyone who dares to venture outside, Las Vegas feels like a harsh city. Gasoline fumes fill the superheated air. The sidewalks of the famed Las Vegas Strip are empty, except for the people handing out cards for hookers. The casino is nearly empty -- $10 tables everywhere. Even in the air conditioning, people are shuffling along, conserving energy.

Las Vegas' magical facade evaporates. The exteriors of The Cosmopolitan and Aria, normally magnificent, look ordinary. The Wynn and Encore look jaundiced, not majestic. The shade provided by trees near the Bellagio looks much more appealing than the dancing fountains. And the signs for the strip clubs look more weary than seedy.

The mirage is laid bare.

The few folks gambling at the tables seem to understand. At a blackjack table at New York New York, a young woman from a fly-in fly-out village in Alaska tries her luck. She's thrilled to be in Vegas for the first time. It was a six-hour trip, but only one time zone. She bets the table minimum -- $10 -- five hands in a row. She loses five-straight hands. She gets up.

"I know when I'm beat," she says ruefully. No magical dreams there.

Another gambler sits in a middle seat at the table. Three straight 20s by the dealer has him muttering. He switches into the second seat. Three more losses and he's out the door, cursing the dealer and the gambling gods.

The rest of the table joked that the table had been playing better shorthanded anyway. But they weren't fooling anyone. Expert play had them barely breaking even. Luckily, they were all friends. This was an unexpected social outing -- friends briefly crossing paths in Vegas.

Then out of nowhere, a bolt of magic struck, courtesy of the World Series of Poker.

A young, fresh-faced gambler was playing blackjack for the first time. She noticed the rest of the table was playing with some sort of strategy -- and wanted to know how they knew when to hit and when to stand. She didn't grasp fundamentals of basic strategy right away. But she was fascinated.

"I went to the World Series of Poker today," she later told the table. "It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it."

Her eyes were sparkling. She'd been hooked.

"I have no idea what was going on. But I want to play in that some day," she added.

A doctor playing at the table later admits that playing in the Main Event is on his bucket list.

It's easy to become jaded. It's easy to reduce poker to a series of math equations, staking agreements and coin flips. It's easy to see the massive business operations of online poker and the insane prop bets made by players and forget about poker. It's easy to forget that poker, at its best, is a magical game. But the World Series of Poker is good at rekindling that spirit.

Step into the playing area at the World Series of Poker and it's poker tables as far as the eye can see. The sound of chips clacking is everywhere. Some tables are quiet. Some tables are filled with conversation. But the goal is the same. Get all the chips.

The players speak their own language. "I was playing with this old guy. I was too nice to him. I double-barreled him instead of shoving, and he called," said a player in line, waiting to buy a bottle of water.

A giant TV stage fills the Amazon Room, ready to capture the drama that has turned the World Series of Poker into great programming for ESPN.

Cavernous hallways suddenly fill with hundreds of people buzzing with excitement when tournaments go on break.

The magic of Las Vegas hasn't melted away. It's just moved off strip to the Rio for the summer.
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Best of Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.