Updated on 09/18/2011 1:14AM

Every tournament player lives to tell about it


The last time I went to a casino and played in an actual game with actual people, I dragged my non-poker-playing wife with me to show her just how much fun it is to be part of the glamour and excitement of high-stakes tournament poker. She, of course, knew I was lying but came along, nonetheless.

A poker tournament is nothing more than a bunch of people sitting at a bunch of tables in a gigantic room where the only sound is a murmur not unlike ducks in a lake having a conversation. To say it's dull or boring would be insulting to dull and boring, even if you are sitting at one of those tables.

What you see through the magic of TV is the Readers' Digest version of poker, a nicely cropped and edited account of reality.

Only as you walk though the halls outside of these mammoth convention centers where these tournaments are held will you find anything resembling action, as people mill about and conversations can be overheard. Then it's almost like movie-star gazing - granted, these people are nothing more than hair-ball poker players who have become cult celebrities through the miracle of ESPN.

As we mingled, I pointed out to my wife who was who: That guy over there is such and such, or this guy won this, or that guy is the best at that, or that other guy really ought to be in jail. That kind of stuff. She would politely feign interest, but then actually became interested in what she was hearing instead.

"Why are they all saying the same thing?" she asked. "Everybody keeps saying, 'So the flop comes . . .' "

I wasn't really listening, but answered her, anyway. "They're talking about poker. Duh," was my obnoxious response.

"No, you idiot," she said. "Listen, they are all saying the exact same thing."

And they were. Every gaggle was having the same conversation. "So I raised with . . . and he calls with . . . so the flop comes . . . the turn was a . . . and then he sucked out." It was a bad-beat-a-thon in surround-sound. As one guy would tell his story, the others in the group would stand there - not hearing a word - as they were only waiting for their turn to tell the same tale, only to move on to the next gaggle to tell the story again. Bad beat stories in the hallway - the true glamour and excitement of high-stakes tournament poker.

From Johnny Chan to Doyle Brunson to every pimple-faced kid and his posse, it was all the same. "I can't believe he called me with . . ." Or the ever-popular, "What was he thinking?"

I remember from the 2002 World Series of Poker, the then-unknown Greg Raymer stood around in the halls outside of Binion's for hours looking for people who'd listen to his bad beat story when he was knocked out by Tony Ma that year. While standing out there having a smoke during a break, I must have heard it 20 times that he had a pair of something and that Ma had something less. Raymer was still out there after three different breaks (four hours). Eventually I think he just gave up and started telling the story to himself.

But like men who will stand at a dinner party and talk among themselves for hours about which route they took to get to the party and which route they are thinking about taking to get home from the party, poker players are not that sophisticated.

From the hours of being forced to watch the World Series on TV, my wife recognized one of the characters out there in the hall.

"Isn't that the guy who goes out with Jennifer Tilly?" she asked, referring to the guy in the hooded sweatshirt standing in yet another gaggle.

"I don't know from Jennifer Tillys," I said. "But the guy you're talking about was run out of the club on 14th Street in New York for stealing the safe. Not robbing the safe, but stealing the safe - the entire thing. Or so they say."

"But he's on TV and he's like famous now and has a movie star girlfriend," she said.

"See," I said, "and you thought this wouldn't be glamorous."

Kurt Paseka, a former turf writer, is a regular at New York City tracks and has cashed in the main event at the World Series of Poker.