he Guardian Poker Column
|Jamie Wilson in Las
Vegas writes for the Guardian News Group
|Saturday July 9,
TheEditor on any
|Millions at stake in huge Vegas poker
Online novices take on casino veterans as world's biggest card
game gets under way
For Tony Figliolo the dream ended at 4.59pm
when he was dealt a pair of aces. If the other guy hadn't been holding a
straight flush it could all have been so different.
But the car parts
salesman from Phoenix, Arizona, thought his opponent was bluffing and bet all
his remaining chips on the cards lying face down on the table in front of him.
As the dealer swept the pretty little pile of multicoloured discs towards his
opponent Mr Figliolo's participation in the biggest card game the world has
ever seen was well and truly over.
The 48-year-old was among the 6,000
players who have descended on the glass and neon edifice that is the Rio Hotel
and Casino in Las Vegas this week to play in the World Series of Poker, all of
them dreaming that when the final card is dealt next Saturday they will be the
one holding all the chips.
|With an estimated prize pot of about $60m
(£35m), this is - depending on your definition of the word sport - the
richest sporting event in the world. And men like Mr Figliolo, who dream of
becoming instant millionaires on the turn of a single card, are the living,
breathing embodiment of the poker boom sweeping Europe and the US.
the first World Series of Poker was contested in 1970 there were fewer than 20
players. They went by names such as Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston, wore 10
gallon hats, and were as well known for their fighting, drinking and general
fast living as they were for their skills with a deck of cards.
the competitors are just as likely to be human resources managers, accountants
and students, many of whom have won places at the $10,000-a-seat world series
by playing online tournaments. They come from more than 40 countries, including
an estimated 600 from the UK. There has even been a smattering of celebrities,
from the Hollywood stars James Woods and Tobey Maguire to the snooker player
Sitting alongside them in the cavernous poker room of
the Rio are the world's top professional players, who, because of the success
of poker on US television, are now as famous as baseball players or racing car
drivers. Their shirts and caps are emblazoned with sponsors' logos, usually for
the gaming websites that have revolutionised poker. Once it was considered
little more than a low-rent game for card sharks and hustlers, but it has now
become a mass-market multibillion-dollar business, illustrated last month by
the flotation of PartyGaming on the London Stock Exchange.
of the aircraft hangar-sized rooms in the casino - where for a fee you can have
your picture taken sitting on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a Vegas
showgirl draped across your lap - the assembled masses are busily buying up
books, DVDs and magazines, all promising to help them fulfil their dream of
becoming the next poker superstar.
The main event of the world series
kicked off on Thursday at 11am with the shout of "shuffle up and deal!"
accompanied by whooping and hollering from the thousands of players and
spectators crammed into the casino. But when the blue-shirted dealers began
whisking the cards across the baize at dizzying speed, the room became a lesson
in studied concentration as the players, many squinting from beneath baseball
hats or behind dark glasses, settled down for a marathon session of No Limit
Texas Hold 'Em.
The whole performance was accompanied by an
extraordinary and relentless noise that if you closed your eyes could have been
the clack-clack-clacking of a vast swarm of crickets. In reality it was the
chatter of thousands upon thousands of plastic poker chips being knocked
The prize money comes from the $10,000 entry fee -also known
as the buy-in - so with about 6,000 players the prize pool this year will be
about $60m, with the winner getting $7.5m and $1m guaranteed for each of the
nine who make it as far as next Saturday's final. But the vast majority of
players, most of whom will be eliminated during the three days of first-round
matches that began on Thursday and finish today, will walk away with precisely
Most of the players do not seem to consider poker gambling.
Instead they see it as a skilful pursuit that is closer to a sport than it is
to the chance games, from the roulette wheels to the craps tables and slot
machines, that fill most of the Vegas casinos.
"It's not a game of
chance," insists Shaun Conning, 34, a human resources manager from Watford, who
despite only arriving from the UK on Tuesday managed to drop more than $2,500
in less than 24 hours playing in qualifying tour naments. "I've been playing
for eight years and I lost money for the first five and a half.
I've had a good run and already made £35,000 online this year."
But according to Keith Whyte, the director of the National Council on
Problem Gambling, based in Washington, the exponential rise in poker's
popularity has been mirrored in the US by a rise in the number of recreational
gamblers with serious debts.
"Gamblers have not had a problem in
finding a place to lose their money, but what we are seeing is a lot more
people with short gambling careers and more debt," he says. "One of the
problems is that because people see poker as a skill game it leads them into
thinking that the more they play the better they are and the less chance
Amy Calistri, 48, a poker writer from Texas, agrees. "People
see all these stars and big money tournaments on the television and they have
this false expectation that it will be a life changing event," she says.
"What they don't see is the people leaving without their shoes."
Back inside the Rio's poker room, gambling addiction and debts were the
last thing on anybody's mind yesterday. Instead the talk was about who would
have the edge this year, the new breed of online players or the hardened casino
Henry Campbell-Smith, 21, a philosophy student at Leeds
University, is a typical example of the British players who have made the
journey to Vegas for the event. He got his seat along with his airfare and
accommodation by winning £10,000 in an online qualifying tournament, a
hobby he has used increasingly in an attempt to supplement a meagre income.
"I guess I'm not that nervous. I'll be happy just to make it through
the first round," he says.
One of the most inexperienced players must
be Stuart Beaton, who works in IT for air traffic control in Glasgow. The
36-year-old only started playing in January to alleviate the boredom of a back
injury that was keeping him off work. He got his seat by winning $10,000 on
PokerStars.com and, when he sits down for his opening round game today, it will
be the first "live" match he has ever been in.
"I tried playing a
couple of weeks ago with some friends but we got so drunk that nobody could
remember who had won," he says.
For Ray Di Silvestro, 63, a retired
Chicago cop who moved to Vegas and became a professional player when he turned
in his police badge, the online players are manna from heaven.
Silvestro, who plays poker five days and 50 hours a week, is one of the dozens
of players lined up at the registration desk with a $10,000 roll of banknotes
in his pocket - it's a strictly no credit card kind of event.
going to be a lot of dead money on the table," he says with a glint in his eye.
"A lot of these online kids think they can come and do wonders, but if you
don't have the experience you don't know how to read a person. That's what this
game is all about."