WSOP 2012: Heart

wsop-130x100.pngJosie Franco put her hands over her open mouth as the skin around her eyes tightened. It's the universal gesture of a woman nearly overcome. Her hips pressed against the nylon rail as she looked at a table in the middle of the room.

"He almost died," she said, her eyes moist with memory. And pride. That was what made her stand out. Josie Franco didn't look like the standard World Series of Poker fan aching to see champions and TV stars Chris Moneymaker or Daniel Negreanu. She wasn't stargazing. She was proud, and it made her the brightest spot in the room.

Ralph Franco walked slowly to his wife, leaned over the rail, and kissed her on the lips. Their son and their grandchildren watched with involuntary, meaningful smiles.

Ralph Franco is 74 years old and playing in his first World Series of Poker Main Event.

***

I should note that I wasn't there to talk to Josie Franco. She just happened to be standing near a table I was stalking to interview Randy Lew, a star member of PokerStars' Team Online who was a little late getting to his table. That's my job. I'd already chatted with Brazilian star Andre Akkari. I needed to talk to Lew, a wunderkind who moved from the world of computer games to poker. After that, I wanted to track down the 2010 poker world champion Jonathan Duhamel for an interview. Managing the coverage of these guys, all horses in the PokerStars stable of players, is my responsibility.

While I waited for Lew, Josie Franco spotted the badge hanging from my neck.

"Media?" she said. It's the same voice I've heard from hundreds of people over the years, people who have a story to tell if they only had someone to listen. At the World Series of Poker, there are literally thousands of stories. Many of them are quite dull. And, honestly, it's pretty easy to tune them all out, especially if they have nothing to do with PokerStars. It's easy to walk away and look for a guy who has won a million bucks and already reached the pinnacle of poker stardom.

And then there's the banana.

"Banana!" screamed a dealer behind me. He was laughing and pointing. "Did you see the banana?"

Ten feet away was a young man walking in to play the WSOP Main Event. He was dressed--head to toe--in a banana costume. Before this day is over, the kid in the banana costume will probably have his picture taken a dozen times. Reporters will ask him about his get-up. He will, if only for a day, be a star. Because he's a banana.

Banana Boy walked behind Ralph Franco and didn't know the old man at the table almost died before he could make it to Las Vegas.

***

Ralph Franco grew up in the Bronx. In first grade, his school teachers suspended him for gambling.

"It's been going on ever since," his wife said.

In the seven decades since, Franco has worked hard, built a big family of good-looking people, and retired to Palm Harbor, Florida. He plays cards at Tampa Bay Downs and in a poker group that sends a few people to the WSOP Main Event each year.

"He's the oldest in his club," Josie said. Again, there's pride in her voice. It's earnest, almost like a mother with a child she wants to share with the world.

Age and experience might have helped him in the poker club, but it had also taken its toll on Ralph Franco's heart. In February, it almost killed him.

It's pretty clear that if Franco had died--if open heart surgery hadn't saved his life--it probably would've killed Josie, too, or at least broken her heart beyond repair.

Her family stands behind her in a semicircle as she looks at the World Series of Poker tables and her husband sitting alone at his table, ready to play before his opponents have even sat down.

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***

I was in a cemetery last week. I sat on the ground in front of my father's grave. He died last November of a heart attack while I was in a poker tournament in Macau. He was 64 years old. He taught me to play cards before he taught me to drive. He brought me to Las Vegas before I was old enough to play. In 2003, he traveled to Atlantic City to see me receive a national journalism award that in the years before had gone to veteran journalists Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel. To this day, I look back on that trip not for the pride of winning the award, but because it was the first time I played poker with my dad in a casino--seven-card stud in a dark out-of-the way room while our wives slept away the night.

As I sat on the cemetery's parched grass looking at my dad's headstone for the first time, I realized I wasn't alone. A tall Asian man hobbled on a cane around his wife's nearby grave. He rearranged the flowers and smiled. He wife had been gone for more than a year. Love still brought him out in 104-degree heat to visit the love of his life.

After ten minutes, he walked back toward his car. As he passed, he noticed me sitting on the ground. He tipped his hat, smiled, and left me to my thoughts. He was a man still desperately in love.

***

That story is personal and on almost any day doesn't belong on this page. First, the World Series of Poker isn't about me, and even if it was, this story about Ralph Franco isn't about me.

But as I looked at Josie Franco today, as her face tightened and she said, "He almost died," I couldn't help but think about that old Asian man visiting his wife. I couldn't help but think about my mom as she struggles to accept a life without the man she loves. When you spend what amounts to a lifetime with one person, their dreams become your dreams. Their heartbreak becomes your heartbreak. And when you lose that person, it must be nearly impossible to understand how to feel about anything. It's the worst inevitably of being truly in love.

Four months ago, Josie Franco nearly lost her husband Ralph before he made real his dream--their dream--of playing in the World Series of Poker.

And then fate made sure he got his chance after all.

Ralph missed a lot of the qualifying tournaments in his poker club, but whatever fate made sure his open-heart surgery was a success made sure that he made it to Las Vegas. The top three players in the club got a Main Event seat.

"He was in the top three, even after missing two months," Josie said, again like a proud mother.

And so today, Ralph Franco, at age 74, sat down for his first WSOP Main Event. Instead of a funeral, the wife, the son, the grandkids and more have all flown to Las Vegas for what amounts to a celebration of a dream made real.

"The whole family is here," Josie said. And it's clear, for the moment, she couldn't be happier.

***

Randy Lew would eventually make it to his table on the rail. The Banana Boy would take a seat, too. And yes, the World Series of Poker is about them. It's about the millionaires, the young guns, the withered road gamblers, and the famous people you see on TV. They are the people who we'll read about here, in the magazines, and in almost all the coverage of the 2012 WSOP.

But, for one family on the rail in the Amazon Room, this day is about a 74-year-od man who managed to cheat death so that he could sit down in the world's biggest poker tournament.

"It will make a good story when he's in the final nine players," Franco's son said with a smile.

I didn't disagree, but as I walked away I thought it made a pretty good story right now, too.