Covering poker tournaments these days means a lot of international travel, and as a happy corollary us reporters can get to see cities that otherwise would be out of reach.
The single most memorable sight from my six years on the road remains the peerless 360 degree vista over Rio de Janeiro from beside the feet of the statue of Christ the Redeemer. There, Mother Nature and hundreds of years of frantic urban growth combine to offer dazzling skies and seas, smudges of sandy beaches and vast jungles of city sprawl, all blessed from on high by the towering figure of the Messiah. It is awesome, in all senses of the word.
Yesterday morning in Las Vegas, I got to see another breathtaking sight - and again it had a Brazilian flavour. On the 30th floor of the Panorama Towers, across the street from the new Aria Casino, the Team PokerStars Pro Maria "maridu" Mayrinck hosted a party to coincide with her native Brazil's World Cup soccer match against Chile.
Countless rooftop bars and hotel brochures claim to offer the best views of the Las Vegas Strip, but for my money Casa Maridu trumps them all. Through a window running the length of the apartment, one can view everything of the Strip, from the Mandalay Bay and the airport at the south end, all the way to the Stratosphere in the north. Desert and mountains stretch off into the distance once the buildings run out.
After about 15 minutes gorping, I twigged why they called this place the Panorama. I'm quick like that.
Back inside the room, all eyes were fixed on a television screen almost as wide as the window. Fifteen avid football fans, including the Team PokerStars Pros Andre Akkari and Gualter Salles, were in attendance, as were Akkari's two daughters, a film crew and staff from a Brazilian poker website. Alexandre Gomes had also been on the invite list, but had last been seen at around 6am celebrating his good friend Thiago Nishijima's third place in event 45, good for $315,828 - and a night of partying.
The apartment and all the guests were decked out almost flawlessly in the canary yellow and lime green of the Brazilian soccer team. It was as though Maridu's shopping list had read:
2 x bags of balloons (green and yellow)
1 x flag (green and yellow)
1 x pair flipflops (green and yellow)
2 x vuvuzelas (green and yellow)
9 x soccer shirts (green and yellow)
2 x party plates (green and yellow)
2 x packets of napkins (green and yellow)
1 x pair of headband antennas (with green and yellow stars on springs)
3 x Team PokerStars Pros Brazil (in green and yellow)
2 x soccer shirts (blue - Brazil's second strip)
Even David "Bakes" Baker, Mayrinck's boyfriend, was in a yellow Brazil shirt. "They want to get you a Brazilian passport," said Mayrinck, translating from her countrymen. "I want one too," Baker said.
The game itself started inauspiciously. Watching people watch football can sometimes be as much fun as watching the match itself, and with the stakes so high (the losers would be eliminated), there was a tangible nervous tension. As Luis Fabiano burst into the Chile penalty area for an early chance, six people leant forward to the edge of the couch, teeth clenched and arms raised in preparation for a tight-fisted celebration. When Brazil's star striker dragged his shot wide, the room deflated as everyone slumped back and groaned.
Maridu was anti-vuvuzela, despite two of those "instruments" primed on the table. "OK, we'll do the vuvuzela if there's a goal," she said - and soon enough the Panorama reverberated with the drone that had come to define the World Cup. Brazil's centre back, Juan, powered in a header to send his team into the box seat, and send shudders down to the building's foundations as the Vegas gathering rose to its feet.
The pattern repeated moments later as Luis Fabiano atoned for his earlier tardiness and added a second. Even Maridu now reached for the vuvuzela and her guests put down their party snacks to leap around the room once more. Young Miss Akkari was hoisted into her father's arms and tossed in the air in celebration.
At half time, the television interviewer asked for thoughts on how Brazil could ensure they carried the two goal advantage until the end. Akkari shouted down the question, insisting they wanted eight goals. Everyone then poured out onto the balcony to sample some of the blistering Las Vegas air, before being lured back inside by the chance to touch Baker's World Series bracelet, won in the $10,000 deuce-to-seven lowball championships earlier this Series.
For all the boisterousness of the soccer, the humble Baker was another star attraction. The walls of the apartment are already adorned by photos of him from his two final tables in this Series - snaps ordered and framed by his doting, proud girlfriend - and he has two other souvenirs on the coffee table as evidence of a couple of other great runs. There's the signed copy of Barry Greenstein's "Ace on the River" awarded to anyone who eliminates the Team PokerStars Pro from a major tournament. Plus there was a signed fossil, handed over by Greg Raymer when he is sent to the rail. "Bakes" has done them both this summer.
Gualter Salles rallied the troops to return for the start of the second half, and it was remarkably easy for the men in canary yellow. Robinho scored a third - cue vuvuzelas, dancing and child tossing - and they even had time to focus on the poker.
Mayrinck and Salles were planning to play the $1,500 no limit hold 'em event starting that day. Baker was preparing for the $5,000 pot limit Omaha. Akkari was returning for day two of the $1,000 no limit hold 'em event - and was jeered for his participation in the lowest buy in event of the Series.
Baker leapt to Akkari's defence: "He said if he played, he might as well make day two. If he made day two, he might as well get the chip lead. If he's got the chip lead, he might as well win. He's got nothing else to do."
It all sounded so easy, much like the Samba Boys' effortless cruise into the quarter-finals of the World Cup. On the final whistle - at the end of a 3-0 victory - fists were pumped, flags were draped over shoulders and, yes, there was another toot or two on the vuvuzela.
Soon a silence had descended, empty cans and scattered plates were moved back to the kitchen, and Maridu fired up her scooter to ferry her back to the Rio (not that one) for a shot at a bracelet. There's just about room on the walls for photos of her with poker's most sought-after jewelry. "His n Hers" would be a nice touch.
A ROUND WITH THE TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS
The second day of the Tournament of Champions played out on the television stages and after another four levels there were still 17 champions left in play. That meant a quick rethink in the schedules. They will now play down to a final table on July 3 and finish the event, as previously advertised, on July 4. (Unless it changes again.)
Certainly, Team PokerStars Pro retains high hopes of a solid representation. Although Joe Cada perished during today's action, all of Joe Hachem, Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein and ElkY remained alive and fighting.
At somewhere close to the midpoint of the day, I stopped by the ESPN stage to prepare another "A Round With..." feature. It's worth repeating the format: entirely at random, we follow every move around for an orbit around the table during the early stages of a major tournament. It shows the kind of stuff that usually gets left on the cutting room floor, but which is crucial to the progress of any tournament.
I always include a disclaimer that the action might not be too thrilling. And in this case it's really worth underlining.
The lineup was as follows:
Seat 1 - Chris Ferguson
Seat 2 - Mike Matusow
Seat 3 - Daniel Negreanu
Seat 4 - Howard Lederer
Seat 5 - Phil Hellmuth
Seat 6 - empty
Seat 7 - Huck Seed
Seat 8 - ElkY
Seat 9 - TJ Cloutier
And here's how the orbit went (blinds were 400-800):
Hand 1 - Matusow on the button
Phil Hellmuth raised to 1,600 under-the-gun and Howard Lederer was the only caller from the big blind. The flop came T♣J♥8♥, which they both checked, and the 2♥ turned. Lederer, who had a short stack, led for 2,500 and Hellmuth put in a raise. Lederer moved all in for 14,700 total and Hellmuth called in a flash:
Lederer had turned the nuts with his A♥4♥, but Hellmuth still had outs to a full house with his 2♣2♦. The A♣ on the river helped only Lederer, however, and he doubled up.
Hand 2 - Negreanu on the button
Chris Ferguson raised to 2,200 from the hijack and won the blinds.
Hand 3 - Lederer on the button
Folded to Mike Matusow, he made a standard raise, which was called by Huck Seed in the big blind. They both checked the T♣5♣9♥ flop, and they also checked the 9♥ turn. The 5♦ rivered, and they both checked again. "Mike shows ace-king for the nut no," said the announcer (meaning "nut no pair"). "And he will win this pot."
Hand 4 - Hellmuth on the button
Folded to Hellmuth on the button, his standard raise too the blinds.
Hand 5 - Seed on the button
It was folded all around to ElkY in the small blind. His raise was enough to take TJ Cloutier's big blind.
Hand 6 - Elky on the button
Daniel Negreanu opened to 1,800 from early position, but his old jousting partner Phil Hellmuth re-raised to 3,800 a couple of seats along. The three bet was good as everyone else got out the way.
Hand 7 - Cloutier on the button
ElkY raised from the cut-off and won.
Hand 8 - Ferguson on the button
Hellmuth raised to 2,000 from early position and won the blinds.
Hand 9 - Matusow on the button
An under-the-gun limp from Phil Hellmuth set the tone as Matusow joined the two blinds in getting to the flop for the minimum. It cam Q♣7♠5♦ and after Negreanu and Lederer checked, Hellmuth bet 2,600 which was enough to persuade the other three to fold.
And there ended a fairly pedestrian "A Round With". That, unfortunately, is the danger of this series. It's not fireworks all the time.
AROUND THE (OTHER) TABLES
Remember the plan David Baker had for Andre Akkari in the $1,000 NLHE? Well, the Brazilian did his level best today to fulfill his friend's prediction that he would top the counts at the end of the day.
Akkari raced up to about 90,000 in the early levels, cruised into the money, but then hit something of a downward spiral and bust in 72nd. That was still a decent showing - 3,128 players entered - and it was worth $5,292.
Richard Toth was also in the money, taking $2,589 for 174th place, while Jude Ainsworth picked up his first cash of this Series, earning $2,308 for 197th.
Team Pro also stuck together in the $2,500 event and Dario Minieri, Nacho Barbero and Alex Kravchenko progressed to the final day. Returning with 20 players, the field was soon sliced in two - but there was no room at the final table for anyone in our livery.
Minieri entertained the crowd en route to his 14th place, but Barbero and Kravchenko clearly couldn't bear to be away from their young Italian compadre. Barbero crashed out in 12th and Kravchenko in 11th. More cash, but more agonising final table misses.
Stars were out in force for the first day of the $5,000 pot limit Omaha event, and it was two of Team PokerStars Pro's newest recruits who bagged up the most at the end of the day.
Salvatore Bonavena outlasted both of his early tablemates - Grey Raymer and Florian Langmann - to finish with 76,400, while Barbero hot-footed it from the mixed event to take his place in the PLO. Barbero bagged 61,900.
The day two field will also include Lex Veldhuis (52,800), Team Onine's Jorge Arias has 44,100, Jason Mercier has 34,600, Rino Mathis is alive with 26,400 and Barry Greenstein also progressed. He'll come back with 18,400, alongside Toth (15,000) and Michael Keiner (8,500).
Kevin Schaffel heads the field with 178,900.
It was also a case of "another day, another $1,500 hold 'em tournament" as event 49 played out its opening exchanges. The field was cut from 2,543 to the last 315 and, as ever, the Team is represented into day two.
George Lind is back near the top of the counts, with 96,400, ahead of JP Kelly 61,600 and a decent welcome to Vegas for Christophe de Meulder. The Belgian, with his twin brother Mattias, is playing his first World Series since joining Team PokerStars Pro and he's into day two, with 37,100. This photo is Mattias, but they look very similar indeed.
TWEETS OF THE DAY
@aakkari (Andre Akkari) breaks into English to reveal his frustration: "I just busted n 1k wsop after be the cl, sick! Prize 5100,00, ready to play again tomorrow the 3k..."
@barrygreenstein finds a new way to describe a short stack: "End of the night. 190 left. Average is 37k. I ended up with an anemic t18k."
Movie night with @RealKidPoker (Daniel Negreanu) does not include popcorn:
"Craving junk food and gonna watch Rocky. Haven't eaten any junk in 6 weeks. Not a beer, glass of wine, nada. I'm so lame!"
Previous WSOP Diary entries
WSOP Diary: Day 32: Bracelets only for Tournament of Champions
WSOP Diary: Day 31: Soccer sickness infects the Rio as WSOP pauses for World Cup
WSOP Diary: Day 30: Climbing the cash ladder with Humberto Brenes
WSOP Diary: Day 29: Mandy "roxy24" Thomas mixes it with the big boys
WSOP Diary: Day 28: Barry Greenstein eyes final as shark attacks the Rio
WSOP Diary: Day 27: PokerStars party goes Dogg style
WSOP Diary Day 26: Bill Chen: Poker player, wedding planner, bridesmaid
WSOP Diary Day 25: Cutting through the throngs
WSOP Diary Day 24: Last chance to join us in Las Vegas
WSOP Diary Day 23: Anh Van Nguyen, remember the name