WSOP 2017: Players meet their fans and prepare to meet their destiny
It is now, officially, final table time at the 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event. Within the past 10 minutes, Jack Effel--with the help of last year's champion Qui Nguyen--instructed his dealers to put the cards in the air and get the final table started: nine players are now officially gunning for an $8 million first prize.
Over the past couple of days, this little corner of the Rio Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, has been transformed. The Pavilion Room is now hosting an enormous pool tournament. The Amazon Room is empty. And even the Brasilia Room, which remains the centre of the poker world, has changed complexion.
The central feature table remains intact, but there are now temporary bleachers ringing it, evoking bullring or colosseum, only with deep red and blue neon lights. The Penn & Teller Theater is this year not in use, but this is a fitting substitute as an arena of conflict. It's a raucous crucible of noise.
As is customary, each player has been allocated a number of wristbands for friends and family and those lucky few spectators occupy small sections of seating closest to the tables. It appears that a few drinks have been taken and the volume was climbing steadily even before the start of play.
The players gradually emerged with at least an hour still to go and were able to mingle with their supporters. There were a lot of bro-hugs and pogo-ing, even before a card was dealt.
John Hesp, still riding the crest of his extraordinary wave, can be forgiven for acknowledging every whoop from the crowd, even those that were plainly not for him. He then toured around shaking hands and posing for selfies, then spending a good five minutes in conversation with Qui Nguyen, the man who will be the reigning WSOP Main Event champion for three more days. ESPN announcer Norm Chad has today come dressed in a very familiar multi-coloured jacket and Panama hat combo. "John Hesp, what a f---king legend!" one fan shouted. "Everyone loves him!"
The French fans, here to root for Antoine Saout and Benjamin Pollak, were the first to arrive and mark their territory. They stuck photos of their two heroes on the rail, draped red, white and blue bunting across the seats, and there's a placard that reads "ALLEZ TONIO CHAMPION" on one side and "ALLEZ BEN CHAMPION" on the other. It's a terrific, situationally-dependent, multi-purpose railing instrument ready to be brandished as and when the moment demands.
Closely behind the Frenchies came three people wearing blue and white striped top hats and waving similar coloured flags, the well-known livery of Argentina. There aren't enormous numbers in the Damian Salas cheering section, but they are the most thoughtfully adorned.
Across the way, Ben Lamb's crew contains the most high-profile poker faces: Shaun Deeb, Jay Farber and Chance Kornuth are among those rooting for the most experienced player at the table. Lamb's other fans have T-shirts bearing his nickname "Benba" and at lest two of them are dressed as sheep. It follows. Meanwhile it looks like Igor Kurganov, Liv Boeree and Ronny Kaiser--three pretty excellent players themselves--are here in support of Jack Sinclair.
Followers of chip-leader Scott Blumstein have T-shirts bearing the slogan "Is This Real?" It may not feel like it for the man who was thinking about life as a tournament reporter before he won an event at the Borgata in Atlantic City about a year ago.
There were also 84 tickets available for general admission, and the line outside the door was considerably longer than that. Every single seat was quickly taken, and at least one supporter, who had been organised enough to get in the line early, was quickly left regretting a lack of even more forethought.
"Can I go to the bathroom?" he asked a security guard.
"You'll need to get a ticket to come back," the fan was told.
I can exclusively reveal he opted to cross his legs and wait it out.
But play is now definitely under way. Remember, we'll wrap for the night when three players have been knocked out. Or, you could say, when three cheering sections have emptied.
WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com.