WSOP 2016: Alone in poker's cathedral
It's sometime around 9:30am, and I'm the only person in the Rio's Amazon Room. When I arrived, I expected locked doors or a security officer who would want to inspect my media credentials. I found neither, and here I am in a 40,000 square foot room all by myself. It feels like I shouldn't be here, like perhaps I've broken into a church when the preacher is away.
I'm not the first person to have been in this situation by a long shot, but in my 12 years of covering the world's biggest poker tournament, this is the first time I've ever sat in this room completely alone. There are no players, no dealers, no floor staff, no security, no janitors. Only me and the steady hiss of the air conditioners. It's the poker equivalent of being the only person in the stadium where the Super Bowl is about to be played.
I'm surrounded huge banners displaying the stoic faces of all the past World Series of Poker champions, some of whom are dead, some of whom are all but forgotten, some of whom may still win another title. But right now, they aren't saying anything, and neither am I, because this is as quiet as the room ever gets. It's the time when nobody is going to suffer a bad beat, and no one is going to win a championship. This is that space between heaven and hell, and it's disturbing just how peaceful the nothingness is.
Before too long, this quiet will crack. The air handlers' hum will be lost in the cacophony of hope. It's sick faith cradled by people who are excited to have this one ridiculous opportunity to risk good money for a chance at championship that only a few dozen people in history have won.
I sat here for a few minutes trying to conjure the ghosts of all the people who failed, those people who had aces cracked on the first day or made their first mistake on the last day, those people who once thought they were going to be great but discovered they would only be also-rans. But they aren't here--neither the people nor their ghosts. There is nothing here, and accepting that fact makes the rest of it all make sense.
On any other day of the year, this big room might hold a cheerleading convention, bass fisherman's expo, or canine lingerie festival. Without those big championship banners on the wall and without the people coming in hoping to have one of their own, this place is just a humming cavern with unnatural shadows and too many echoes. It's the type of place the devil might stalk, or, if you believe the mythology of one particular WSOP player, a place the devil calls home. But that is another story for another day. Right now, this is a room waiting to fulfill its potential, expecting to ruin the dreams of several thousand people and grant the dream of one.
Now the doors are starting to crack. A man is wheeling a giant metal cart full of chips across the floor. Over the course of the next hour, those chips will be handed out to each of today's entrants. Dealers dressed in black and white are rattling plastic racks in their hands and finding a comfortable spot in their chairs. A security guard in yellow has posted himself at the door to hold back the eager folks who will want to be in their seats first. In a few minutes, there will be nothing in this room but noise and dreams, and that's the way it will remain until midnight tonight when it all goes quiet again. For a lot of people, that quiet masquerades as peace and then reveals itself as the echo-chamber for miserable doubt. In that way, sometimes the noise is better.
Over the past dozen years, the people who do this kind of work have grown numb to seeing absolute defeat on the faces of nearly every person they meet in this room. It's a coroner's sense of stoicism, one required to tamp down the empathy for the defeated. If you care too much, you will feel too much, and before long, a man might start to feel a little defeated himself.
So, instead, on a morning like this, an observer can choose to look out on the empty chairs and see hope instead of ghosts. Any one of the thousands of chairs could be the one, the lucky one, the one that seats a player who may someday be a champion. Looked at through that lens, this room doesn't feel nearly so empty.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis. WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com.