The Strip Sense

[Strip Sense]

Flush in the pan

Watching live poker isn’t for everyone

Joanna Freund and her boyfriend, George, have flown in all the way from Toronto to be here at the 2008 World Series of Poker’s Main Event. Neither of them actually is playing in the tournament, but they’ve watched it on television for years, and, the weak U.S. dollar being what it is, they figured they could make a holiday out of it and see their favorite poker players in action.

Except one thing. After a few hours of being jostled by the crowd and watching the tables of the world’s most prestigious and richest tournament, Joanna and George are bored. It took George a little bit longer, but both are ready to find something else to do around town.

“We can’t see anything, and there are too many people here,” Joanna groans. “You see all these people on TV every year watching the tournament live, and you think, ‘That must be exciting.’ But we traveled all the way here only to learn it’s about as exciting as watching water boil.”

I have come for an answer to one of the most enduring questions I have about spectator events in Las Vegas: Why do people watch live poker? And yet I keep meeting people like this couple who admit it’s not as much fun as they thought it would be.

I understand why people watch poker on TV, even if it’s not my thing. At least there, you know what’s happening, can see thanks to the hole-card camera who has what and then judge the players on what moves they make. With that insight, you have an idea of what heretofore unspoken drama is going on inside the minds at work. Fine.

But what of the thousands who flock each year to the Rio’s Amazon Room just to be railbirds? Those watching hour upon hour the execution of a very small activity, playing a card hand. Every once in a while a player has an outburst or does something stupid or dramatic for the sake of drawing the attention of the ESPN cameras. Often, though, it happens on the wrong side of the room and so fast you only get to hear about it in a monumental game of telephone played through the crowd in which “He berated the dealer” becomes “She ate deli.”

A while back on my blog, I started referring to poker as Vegas’ Most Boring Spectator Sport. The purists pounced, insisting I didn’t “understand” the nuances of the game.

So I’ve been asking poker pros to explain it to me. They can’t.

“That confuses me; it baffles me,” says Annie Duke, one of history’s most successful female poker players. “I can’t do it. Erik Seidel a couple of years ago won a bracelet at the World Series, and I was in the audience to support him. And it was excruciating. You can’t see any of the hole cards! What makes poker really fascinating is that you know what your hole cards are and you’re trying to figure out what the other people’s hole cards are. So you have some of the information. It’s decision-making under relatively extreme circumstances of uncertainty. When you’re watching, you have zero information. You can’t figure anything out.”

Exactly. The 2003 WSOP champ Chris Moneymaker concurs: “That’s my biggest question. My wife will watch me in the stands, and she tells me, ‘It’s the most boring thing in the world because I don’t know if I want someone to call you or fold. Half the time I can’t even tell what’s going on. I’m just sitting there watching nine guys sitting around a table.’”

The best anyone’s able to tell me, railbirding is mainly a form of celebrity worship, not unlike those hoards that stake out prime standing spots to watch Angelina Jolie or Paris Hilton saunter by on red carpets. I don’t get that, either.

“This is the most spectator-friendly event in sports,” WSOP Executive Director Jeffrey Pollack gushes. “We do not charge for admission; you’re able to come and be there all day and all night and all morning if you choose and get up close and personal with your family and friends if they’re playing or the world’s most legendary poker players who all show up every summer. … There’s something going on that the poker fan hooks into that makes the experience meaningful. We know that because thousands of people come to be spectators every year.”

The defending WSOP champion, Jerry Yang, isn’t sure why they all watch and doesn’t much care. He just tries his best to make it a worthwhile experience, stopping by when he can to take pictures and sign autographs.

“I really give them credit,” Yang says. “Yeah, you’re right, they’re standing there for hours. Sometimes they’re standing next to the table just hoping to get a picture, and before they know it, it’s two or three hours later.”

Okay, now that just seems sad. And, ultimately, silly.

“We’ve been here for four hours today,” Joanna Freund says. “We’ve seen Doyle Brunson, Phil Gordon and Phil Hellmuth. We’ve taken their pictures from afar. And after we did, I turned to George and I said, ‘Okay, now what?’ ”

George’s answer: “Let’s hit the bar.”

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