WSOP 2012: Everyman, thin man, and Gram

wsop-130x100.pngThere is a man by the door. He's mature, middle aged, balding. He looks every bit the salesman from the Omaha or account executive from Lexington. That is to say, he looks perfectly normal, an everyman you'd trust to sell you a washing machine.

The man's smile is wide and slightly nervous like a child on his way to his first day in kindergarten. He stands at the entrance to the Rio convention center's Amazon Room. His wife--another perfectly normal-looking woman--holds up a camera and snaps the man's photo. She takes a second snap just in case the first one didn't work. It's a photo the man will keep the rest of his life. Without asking, it's certain this man is playing his first World Series of Poker Main Event.

It's $10,000 to enter. It's roughly equivalent to what your average middle class middle America guy might pay for his home mortgage in a given year. That's why this man is smiling for the camera. It's the moment he set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. It's high school graduation, stepping on the mound at Fenway, kissing a girl for the first time, tipping the first beer, and seeing the Mona Lisa all wrapped into one. And it's costing him ten thousand bucks for the experience.

And it's hope. This man may not have the tournament resume that some of the big time pros carry with them from $10,000 event to $10,000 event. He may not have seven-figure scores and a couple of WSOP bracelets. But he has hope, and on the first day of the WSOP, hope reflects just as much light as the championship bracelet.

Barreling through the throngs of other hopefuls, juking left and right around an ESPN cameraman, and high-stepping across the Amazon Room's garish carpet takes you to a small podium where WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel (trim, slim, and nearly 100 pounds lighter than the 2011 Main Event) stands with a short-circuiting microphone. He's witnessed this scene countless times before. Like many of the old pros, Effel is a veteran. He's seen the huge fields. He's seen the millions come and go. It's old hat for him.

When Effel's microphone recovers, his voice free-climbs from his chest, and Effel speaks. No. He projects. He thunders. He's a ring announcer. He's a southern preacher. It's not a sermon meant for the grizzled and tired. Effel is speaking to a congregation of Mr. Everymans who had their picture taken by the door. Effel is speaking to everyone who traded $10,000 for a chance to play on poker's biggest playground.

"Welcome to the 2012 World Series of Poker!" he booms. "This is the richest sporting event in the world. You are sitting at a table like none other. The place is here. The time is now!"

Looking over Effel's shoulders are the faces of Sailor Roberts and Doyle Brunson. They're on gigantic banners hanging from the rafters, wall-sized homages to the Main Event winners of the past. Roberts won the bracelet in 1975. Brunson won the next two in 1976 and 1977. Roberts died at age 64 in 1995. Brunson--poker's grandfather--is still playing at age 78. He moves slower than he used to, but his wit and brain are just as sharp. Brunson may have crossed the boundary into the land of living legends, but he's a baby compared to the woman on the stage next to Effel.

Five minutes earlier, an entourage of people pushed a plaid wheelchair to the stage. It stopped in front of Shaun Deeb, 26, a professional player from New York. He's one of the young guns in the game. He won Player of the Series in the Spring Championship of Online Poker. He banked $1 million last week in a runner-up finish to the Big One for One Drop satellite tournament. He's on top of the world with a life still to live.

Deeb puts out his hand and helps the lady in the wheelchair to her feet and onto the stage. He calls her "Gram." It's his 92-year-old grandmother, the oldest player in the field. She's a woman who uses phrases like "it's all about the cards" and says them with the kind of sage nod that forces people less than half her age involuntarily nod their heads.

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Jack Effel, Gram Deeb, and Shaun Deeb

This is the sweet moment of the day. In a firm voice, Gram Deeb tells the crowd, "I want everyone to know you are all playing for second." It gets the expected laugh, one that dies down just in time for Deeb to give poker's version of "Gentlemen, start your engines."

Gram Deeb looks once more at the crowd and once more to the microphone.

"Shuffle up and deal," she says.

And that's how it begins. With four words, the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event is underway. For that one moment, the Amazon Room holds the greatest concentration of hope in all of Las Vegas. Across the room, a man wins his first hand and declares, "Chip leader at the table!" His family cheers from the rail. Another Mr. Everyman is as happy as he can be.

So, for the moment we can ignore the fact that for that man to win the hand, somebody else had to lose. We'll ignore that the next few days are about the diluting the hopes of the masses and concentrating them in the few. We'll forget that finding a champion means thousands of people going home with no more than a good story.

Indeed, we'll save cynicism for another day. We'll let hope be. We'll recognize that some days are meant for dreaming, and in poker, this is a dreamer's biggest day.

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Random thing we just happened to count, of the hour

Number of people posing for pictures in front of the picture of Phil Ivey - 3


The "the damage may already have been done" of the hour

"Whatever I say, don't take it too hard. I'm just joking."

Familiar faces of the hour

Pierre Neuville, Anton Wigg, Kevin MacPhee, Pius Heinz, Ray Romano

Chalk and cheese of the hour

The quiet Allen Cunningham share a table with the volatile Illan Boujenah.

PokerStars update of the hour

Team PokerStars Pro David Williams is up to around 40,000 after tank calling a bet with a set of sevens. His opponent, choosing not to speak, used his eyebrows to express first ambivalence, and then disappointment.