WSOP 2012: Colors

wsop-130x100.pngLooking at the 2012 World Series of Poker is something akin to having napalm squirted in your eyes...if the Crayola corporation manufactured the napalm. It's M.C Escher meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets something my eight-year-old would imagine after too much Sunkist and too many gummi bears. The modern WSOP has somehow combined the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with 2001. Walking around the footprint of the Rio convention center is a practice in adjusting your eyes for the paranormal. So much has changed in just a few years.

At its core, poker is an intimate game. The felted oval field of play is as close as you can get to a big family dinner without Uncle Frank telling his "booger in the mashed potatoes" joke for the 12th time. And thank goodness for that.

When I think back to the places I've played over the past decade--legal card rooms and quiet underground games--this notion of intimacy doesn't fall apart. I've played in living rooms, dining rooms, and hotel rooms. I've played in an empty farmhouse, a fireworks warehouse, and a country club clubhouse. It's all gone to show, no matter where you play, the confrontations remain intimate. So, no matter where I was, no matter whether I was facing Buddha, Snake, or Fuji, those hours around the table were close-up affairs with close-up characters. They weren't pretty places (nor exceptionally pretty people), and no artist would ever put them on canvas. In short, they were unremarkable places where remarkable things happened.

The World Series of Poker has its roots in such an unremarkable place. Binion's Casino, a place steeped in such history that people still speak reverently about it, is only remarkable because of what happened there. It's a dark, smoky, musty hole in the universe that often doesn't look capable of hosting a Department of Corrections halfway house retreat let alone the biggest tournament in poker. Yet, when I think back on the last time the final table was in Benny's Bullpen (2005, if you've forgotten), I remember the cramped, sweaty final day. To reach the media area (a hastily-constructed deadfall of folding tables and rickety chairs) we had to climb over the players or pull a Goodfellas-style back-kitchen back-hallway detour. It lacked the touch of a corporate PR department, high-minded set design expert, or, for that matter, a housekeeping staff. Which, of course, made it sort of perfect for people who like that kind of thing.

That's all gone. Today, you need sunglasses to navigate the caverns that hold the thousands of people who come to play in the WSOP. Now, instead of spreading out around a small casino floor, the WSOP fills three giant ballrooms at the Rio. The Pavilion Room's rafters trick the eyes into believing they are looking up into an infinite sky-sea of metal and girding. The Brasilia Room's stage holds monster, interior-lit letters declaring the event's ubiquitous acronym. If under even the slightest influence of paranoia or stimulants, one might fear the letters would sprout legs and stomp through the humanity on the floor. And then there is the Thunder Dome, the Mother Ship, the Technicolor science fiction experiment that is the television stage in the Amazon Room. Its enormity is only eclipsed by the sheer number of cones it takes the eye to process the scene. These are merely cell phone photos and cannot do justice to the frightening somewhat spiritual experience, but they are the best I can do right now.


Beyond Thunderdome


Pavilion Room: Staircase to Space


Brasilia Room and the WSOP Monster

And so what of it then?

Well, there is probably something to be said about WSOP's lost intimacy. The days dark smoky rooms are now just a matter of nostalgia, and except for the people (admittedly, me) who like to wallow in that sort of thing, the venue change is probably for the best. Where the romantic nature of backroom games might have once inspired a small community of road gamblers, modern attention spans require flash-bang grenades of color and sound. That's what the 2012 WSOP delivers in spades.

When it comes down to it, the fireworks show and eye-melting light displays may dazzle the crowds, but the game itself remains the same. It's nine or ten people around one table fighting for the same pool of chips. The intimacy remains across those few yards of felt. Because, in the end, in the moment when there is one card to come and everybody is all-in, nothing that happens outside that oval matters. It could be happening in a basement, garage, or spaceship. Binion's was an unremarkable place where a remarkable thing happened. The Rio is a remarkable place where something remarkable will happen this week. At the river, in 256 colors or black and white, it's still poker, and that's probably all that matters.



Number of titles at the "gamblers book store" that feature the name, or a picture of, Phil Hellmuth: 4


"Poker media?"


That of the guy dressed as a jester, complete with hat and shoulder pads.