World Series of boredom

August 11, 2006|By RICK MAESE

LAS VEGAS --The hallways that lead to the World Series of Poker are packed with people. The meeting rooms that line the path are, to use modern-day sporting parlance, like corporate suites, each one assigned to some poker Web site or some poker publication.

But right outside the gigantic poker room that houses the final-event table is a booth for Sapphire Gentleman's Club and the soundtrack couldn't be less appropriate. Out of a pair of tiny speakers is Justin Timberlake's computerized voice. "I'm bringing sexy baaaaack," he sings.

Sexy - the last word anyone would use to describe the one final day of the World Series of Poker, a tournament that was once a quirky footnote yet now appears in bold print on the sporting calendar.

It's supposed to be a mega-event. With a $12 million purse going to this year's winner, huge cable television ratings and a limitless future, they talk about poker like it might be some sort of alternative fuel for cars. It's not.

Instead, for a spectator, the World Series is anti-climactic. You think you're walking into a rock concert and instead you get a poetry reading, only muted.

A winner was expected to be crowned sometime in the early morning hours today, capping the two-week no-limit Texas Hold 'em World Championship. In the hunt last night was Dundalk native Rhett Butler, who now works as an insurance agent in Rockville.

The fans were lined up yesterday morning a couple of hours before they even opened the doors to the poker room, where the last nine men with chips were scheduled to battle it out until only one remained.

No one here is going to make a case that poker is an actual sport. In fact, can you imagine anyone outside of an ESPN boardroom that would suggest that? But it is fair to say that poker is an extension of sports culture. That's why it airs ad nauseum on the premier sports network and that's why you read about it in the sports pages. The game has strategy, risk and reward. At the World Series this year, there is one winner and 8,772 losers.

The event has blown up in recent years and organizers at this year's tournament passed out more than 600 media credentials from about 50 countries (most, to be accurate, were from fringe publications and dot-com poker sites). And thousands upon thousands of people have been walking the halls at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino these past couple of weeks.

The event is something to get excited about - unless, of course, you actually have to watch it in person. Poker fans lined up early yesterday, but for what? If your idea of fun includes nine guys sitting around a table and staring at each other for hours on end, then the World Series of Poker is the event for you.

On television, it's not bad. You can see the hole cards, you have graphics on the screen to walk you along and color commentator Norman Chad is both witty and informative. In person, the World Series is as exciting as, well, watching dudes sit around a table and stare at each other. (Isn't that what C-SPAN is for?)

Most every spectator watches the competition on one of the televisions that are arranged throughout the ballroom. Even those with front-row seats can't see through the players to get a view of the cards and chips. It's like watching a football game from right behind the bench and having to stare up at the JumboTron overhead to have any clue about what's going on.

Cameras attached to cranes float overhead. Blue lights shine on the audience, which is made up of about 100 friends and family members who are granted up-close bleacher seats. Black curtains serve as the backdrop and you realize that this isn't a sporting field at all. It's a makeshift TV studio.

The giant bricks of cash don't usually make an appearance until just two players remain.

The game drags. On television, they splice, cut and edit 12 hours into 60 minutes. In person, you only wish you brought your TiVo remote. Here, it's all checking, folding and yawning. Big pots are announced by the cameramen rushing to each player's family to get the all-important reaction shot.

None of this lessens the excitement that players feel, of course.

At the final table, they're all branded by logos from some poker Web site. If you scan around the table, you might as well be looking at the outfield wall of a minor league baseball park, only with more sunglasses. Despite the newfound sponsorship money, most of the final players were still guys with day-jobs who've only dreamed of playing at a table like this.

The early part of the final round was ruled by Jamie Gold, who played with stacks of chips roughly sized and shaped like Russia. By comparison, Butler, the Maryland insurance agent, was working with stacks that more closely resembled Delaware.

The excitement and energy is lacking, most of it concentrated in the pits of player stomachs. It's definitely not sport; just a made-for-TV event.

Bring the sexy back? Despite how it looks from the living room couch, the sexy was never here.

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