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World Series of Poker proving to be an oasis in the desert

30 June 2009

LAS VEGAS -- The Las Vegas heat, which clocked in today at a stifling 105 degrees, hasn't changed. But until I reached the World Series of Poker tournament site at the Rio, that was the only thing about Vegas that seemed familiar.

The cab lines, which used to snake back and forth ages along the curb of McCarran International Airport, were virtually empty this morning after I landed. After winding my way through the empty line, I reached a lonely dispatcher who simply pointed me to the closest pickup spot. A cab was waiting for me there, happy for the fare. There was no one behind me.

The ride to the Imperial Palace didn't take long either. There weren't that many people on the highway. And when we exited onto the Strip, the infamous Las Vegas traffic was nonexistent. The only thing that slowed the journey was an incredibly long red light -- perhaps a relic of better times.

There were orange road construction markings everywhere, but I didn't see anybody actually working the sites. And when my taxi pulled up to the Imperial Palace, it was the only one there. As I unloaded my bags, another taxi pulled up. It was there to take a customer to the Walgreens down the street.

Inside the Imperial Palace, I was able to check in within minutes. Last November it took me 45 minutes at the Riviera. Two years ago I spent over an hour in line at Sahara's.

As I walked to my room, I ran into a group pouring champagne and toasting to their friend's last night as a single person. But there were no "woo hoo's" or exuberance. It seemed like the economy had even managed to put a dent into wedding enthusiasm.

Later that afternoon, I walked over to Harrah's to catch the free shuttle to the Rio. I wasn't the only one. There were about 20 of us waiting to catch the free ride. After a 10-minute wait, the shuttle bus arrived, and it was stuffed to the gills with passengers. It took a few minutes for all of them to get off the bus, and another couple of minutes for us to board. I'm pretty sure none of this happened last year.

After we boarded the bus, one of the passengers joked that this particular ride "was on her." Her friends laughed. The rest of the passengers laughed. Finally, people were starting to have fun.

The trip to the Rio went by quickly, and the driver dropped us off by the Carnival buffet entrance. We exited the bus and moved quickly into the casino to get out of the heat and things began to change.

There was noise. A lot of noise. Noise in the Rio poker room. Noise in the sportsbook. Noise in the restaurants. There were people talking. There was a general air of excitement. Inside the Rio, the heart of Vegas beat on.

As I made the long walk to the Amazon Room, which houses the bulk of the WSOP action, poker talk filled the air. Bad beat stories. Stories about hands won and lost. Players, friends and family sharing in the euphoria and misery poker can bring. The energy and the emotions were palpable. This was the Vegas I was used to.

Chau Giang

Chau Giang gets some work done on his back and neck while playing the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship at the 2009 World Series of Poker. (Photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Inside the Amazon Room, it was an absolute mad house. Fans were stacked three deep on the rail on a Monday afternoon, watching the final tables of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship. And what a show they were watching. One table had Erik Seidel, Chau Giang and Steve Billirakis. Another had Gus Hansen, Huck Seed and Tony G. Wow.

While most poker fans were out to watch the stars, friends and family were gathered just a table away to watch their loved ones try to win the $1,500 No Limit Hold'em tournament (Event #51). San Francisco's Debbie Levy was visiting the Grand Canyon when she received word that her nephew Steven Levy had reached the final 30 of the tournament. She and her son came straight from Arizona to cheer him on. We showed her the latest chip count, which had her nephew in the lead and she cheered. Levy's played more than a million hands online and has recently turned pro, she added. When the Event #51 broke for dinner, Levy had reached the final table and trailing the chip leader by a hair. Debbie introduced me to Steven as they were headed out for dinner and I wished him luck. He ended up finishing in fourth place.

While Event #51 paused for dinner, the star studded H.O.R.S.E. tournament (Event #49) soldiered on. Mike Matusow, playing in another tournament, took a break to survey the H.O.R.S.E. action. He slipped under the rail and took up a spot between the two remaining tables, as interested in the outcome of this event as the fans looking on. Matusow eventually left, as did Tony G, who busted out in 13th place. Tony G fell in a Stud round, when his two pair lost to Erik Sagstrom's flush. A disconsolate Tony G first stood and looked at the table in disbelief after his elimination. Then he banged his white baseball hat against a chair as he exited the Amazon Room.

Shortly after Tony G's elimination, the H.O.R.S.E. tournament paused for a 90-minute dinner break. And as the poker's greatest stars left the tournament area, they stopped for pictures. No request was denied.

Vegas has changed. But the World Series of Poker hasn't. It's still the place where poker stars and players dreaming of becoming stars can, side-by-side, can chase their fortunes. It's still the place that generates excitement with every flop, river and turn. It's still the place where poker fanatics can collectively share their enthusiasm for the game. And that's a comforting though in these tough times for Las Vegas.

World Series of Poker proving to be an oasis in the desert is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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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.