WSOP 2015: A legacy of what?
When I first read a tweet about Bill Klein, I assumed it was a mistake. A misprint. An internet troll having us all on at the expense of the part of us that truly needs something good to happen. After all, if somebody spends days winning $2.5 million and gives it away, that's not just poker news. That's capital "N" News. It should be everywhere.
But, no. A couple of days later, a Google News search for the name "Bill Klein" and "poker" turns up a limited set of results from the hard-working and already-stretched poker beat reporters on the scene and almost nothing else. No USA Today. No AP wire pieces.
A week ago, MAN ENTERS WRONG POKER TOURNAMENT, WINS IT went viral. A few days later, MAN WINS $2.5 MILLION, GIVES IT AWAY gets buried.
This is to take nothing way from Jonathan Duhamel, one-time WSOP champion and the actual winner of the $111,111 buy-in One Drop tournament. Duhamel beat a stacked field and has always been one of the loudest supporters of the charitable effort. He deserves his day in the headlines. What's more, this is to take nothing away from other people--David Einhorn easily comes to mind--who have donated bigger winnings to charity in the past.
But, you know, I want to read the story of former manufacturing magnate Bill Klein winning a $2.5 million bundle on a lark and then giving it away to people who need it a hell of a lot more than he does. Beyond that, it's not that I want to read it...it's that I want everyone to read it. I need everyone to read it.
That is, if GUY WINS MILLIONS, GIVES IT AWAY isn't the story of the week at the WSOP, I guess I don't know what is.
Listen, I don't know what the half-life of a poker reporter is, but as I head to my eleventh WSOP, I wonder if I'm not close, because all of the above sounds like a writer who might be suffering a mid-life crisis.
For a man of my advanced age, one beset with sweaty dreams of mortality and waking hours of ennui, to think of 2005 as "a decade ago" is more than a little uncomfortable. It means my oldest child is about to be eleven years old. It means 2005 was a time long before my youngest child was a consideration. It means there was a time when I didn't have gray hair and could easily ignore the non-stop clanging of the bell that tolls for not thee but me. It means that time I think of as "the other day" was, in fact, a time that many people in Las Vegas only remember now because they had a great 15th birthday and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was on at the movies.
So, yes, it's an understatement to say this week's trip to the World Series of Poker is a little heady for me.
Indeed, the ol' noodle doesn't hold memories like it used to, the brain being a poor excuse for a hard drive. But for the fact our PokerStars Blog servers have managed to--with some baling wire and empty Atomic Fireball wrappers--hold together, I might have forgotten just how different things were at the 2005 WSOP...and how weirdly similar they were, too.
I looked back at the archives (which, admittedly, are sort of a mess due to the vagaries of a lot of behind-the-scenes technical things) to find that this very week in 2005, I was writing about John Gale and Terrence Chan and their efforts in the 2005 preliminary events, which, looking at the past few week's archives, is exactly what I was doing this year.
The WSOP and its people have endured. They have evolved. They have suffered the dips and crashes that most going concerns eventually have to face. They've been doing it since 2005 at the Rio and for a quarter-century before that.
In 2005, a lot of people outside the industry were tripping over themselves to declare poker a passing fad. A decade later, the Rio can't hold everybody who wants to play.
It's enough to make one--perhaps a little morbidly--reflect on this: if a meteor were to hit the WSOP, how would it be remembered?
As I tried to think on that question, I remembered meeting a man in 2005 who might have been the meanest old guy to ever play the game.
"The son of a bitch is indestructible."
What do you do with a man like John Bonetti, a man so infamous for poker dealer abuse that he routinely wished for their eyes to fall out? That curse might have been the kindest thing he ever offered to someone who pitched him his cards.
Bonetti once said of his own protégé, "If he was my son, I would've killed him when he was three."
Binion's Tony Shelton once described Bonetti like this: "He is brutal, vulgar, and has the manners of a water buffalo. The son of a bitch is indestructible."
A three-time World Series of Poker bracelet-winner who didn't take up poker until his late 50s, Bonetti lived years longer than his oncologists predicted, but ultimately, even the man who T.J. Cloutier once described as "the luckiest poker player on the planet" couldn't cheat death.
It's now been seven years since Bonetti died at the age of 80. It happened this week in 2008, three years after one of the times all of his friends expected him to die, and three years to the day that PokerStars hosted a roast for him and put him into the Main Event. At the time, Bonetti called that day in 2005 "the happiest day of my life."
There is an uncertain calculus in considering a man so equally revered and reviled. There were probably three hundred living dealers who would've happily paid his funeral expenses just to have him gone. But there was also an uncountable number of people who had Bonetti to thank for keeping them afloat during hard times. To hear these people talk, Bonetti's charity knew few bounds, and it earned him the undying love and respect of a lot of people.
I don't know what you do with a man like that, but I know this for certain: the people who knew him will never forget him. That's what happens when you leave a legacy.
A legacy of what?
As the WSOP winds its way toward the Main Event on Sunday, the Series bears its annual wounds, the scars of controversies and complaints, the still-bleeding cuts of infighting and scandal, and the world-weary slog of people who have spent simply too much time in each other's presence. Though the specifics always come in different hues, it's the same picture we've seen every year for at least the last ten. There aren't a great many endeavors in life that bring together so many people with personalities so big. It's a wonder no one has yet put a pig's head on stake in the Rio rotunda.
And, yet, here we are again. Here again travel people from around the world in search of gold bracelets, duffels full of cash, and--for some folks anyway--a legacy.
For certain people, that legacy is already defined. Who will ever win more gold bracelets than Phil Hellmuth? Likely no one. He may have established himself as the Poker Brat for television, but his legacy will forever be the WSOP's champion of champions (unless, of course the other Phil decides to start showing up on time for the Series instead of playing for Macau bucks, at which point, the action is back on the board).
Bracelets aside, there are more than a few people who have forever cemented their reputation for history. When the throngs of robots and mutant zombies trudge into Las Vegas for the 2115 WSOP, they will still be talking about Texas Dolly, Kid Poker, and Johnny Fucking Chan.
It's a curious thing when the legends remain among us. For a great many poker players, those champions with an established legacy represent more than a gold bracelet. They represent the brass ring. The Doyle's and Daniels and Moneymakers of poker lore are legit heroes, people to whom one could aspire for even the slightest similarity.
Those men, it must be said, are the minority. They already have their legacy. They don't have to think about building it. For everybody else, the matter of legacy is--if anything at all--an afterthought.
To put a finer point on it: no one harbors any illusion that money isn't the biggest draw to the WSOP. We can pretty up the pomp and circumstance as much as we want, but if the gold bracelets were the only prize, the WSOP could be held in the back of the Rio's All American Grill instead of the cavernous Amazon Room.
With all of that on that table, there remains the very uncomfortable fact that while the money be the carrot that leads everyone in the door, the vast majority of those hopefuls leave with less than they packed. Of all the things the hopefuls brought with them, that majority leaves with less money and even less hope.
Knowing all this as we do, it's a wonder so many people continue to come at all. But come they do. Oh, do they ever. Drawn by the lantern-light of instant riches, driven by duty to a professional career, compelled by a force they don't even understand, thousands upon thousands of people come every year. You can't blame any of them. I, for one, know every one of those compulsions as well as I know my own kids.
Still, I think about why we watch sports, movies, or any other creative or competitive endeavor. Of all the reasons we can list, "How much money the player/author/director earned" isn't in the Top 50. So, even though the pros come for the money and the amateurs come for the money and we're all in it for the money, I feel fairly sure the legacy of the WSOP isn't going to be about the money.
It's at this point I can almost hear the Who Gives a Damn Chorus warming up. The Johnny Manziels of poker will rub their fingers together and roll their eyes. Who gives a rip about the legacy of anything when there's this much money to be made?
It's a fair cop. I mean, if it weren't for the mountain, the men wouldn't climb it, and if it weren't for the money, the Manziels wouldn't care. Modern capitalism is built on the idea of making money for the sake of making money, so it may be a stretch to call a guy out for siphoning as much cash as he can from poker without caring for the game's legacy. It's just business.
But there are others who, in varying degrees, do care. They are people who see scorched earth for what it is. They are people who understand reputation (and eventually legacy) can play a role in the business they do. Then there are the romantics, idealists, and seekers who love poker and want it to be about more than money. Neither group is inherently wrong. They are just diametrically opposed. The Manziels and the Seekers will never see eye to eye because the former have their eyes on their pockets and the latter have their eyes on the stars.
I, if you haven't figured it out by now, am somewhat more aligned with the starry-eyed group. I like to think that the way we have spent the last eleven summers (and, yay verily, the entirety of those years) has some meaning, has driven some greater good, and has created something more than wealth. And I know it has. From the cancer-stricken ladies I met last year to the one-time PokerStars qualifiers who have turned into professionals to pros who have left the game for something else, I have seen and loved a lot of what poker produced. My years in the game have introduced me to people who are not just great poker players but who are also genuinely good people: Jason Strasser, Terrence Chan, Adrienne Rowsome, Steve O'Dwyer, to name a few...these are not just successful poker players; these are all honest, honorable people I would happily have inside my home. If I could personally build a legacy for poker, it would be on a foundation of people like that.
For now, though, as the WSOP readies itself for its Main Event, I'm thinking of Bill Klein, a guy who made millions building a company, a guy who plays poker for the fun of it, and a guy who gave away $2.5 million because it felt like the right thing to do.
That's the kind of thing that can make a legacy.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging