LAS VEGAS -- Of all the places in this gloriously decadent city that you don't want to be, there is no worse destination than a seat on what us no-limit Texas Hold 'Em players call, "The Bus of Shame."
The Bus of Shame is actually a quite comfortable, air-conditioned charter bus with reclining chairs, an on-board bathroom and a sound system so ear canal-shattering that it almost requires its own roadie. But if you're wearing a Camp Hellmuth-The Ultimate Weekend of Poker pass -- and I'm one of the lucky 170 who are -- then you want no part of that bus. You hate that bus. You'd rather ralph on the Stratosphere roller-coaster, spend the night in county lockup spooning with a guy named Greaser, have front-row seats to the Celine Dion concert at Caesar's ... anything but a place on that green-and-white bus.
And here's why: the Bus of Shame is the first Camp Hellmuth bus (5:45 p.m., sharp) to leave Binion's Horseshoe Casino for the 10-minute ride back to our hotel on The Strip, which means you've already been eliminated from the afternoon no-limit tournament ($27,000 in prize money), which means you're a worthless loser and you belong in a trailer park down by the river where you can guzzle Blatz and order facial cream from the Home Shopping Network.
No way was I going to be on that bus. All I needed was a seat at the table, a $2,500 starting stack of chips, and a heavy petting session with Lady Luck.
And, oh, one other thing: How exactly do you play no-limit Texas Hold 'Em?
After the delightful three-hour delay in Chicago's O'Hare airport (thunderstorms), followed by the equally delightful four-hour flight to Vegas (man sawing logs in middle seat ... seemingly dozens of infants with inner-ear infections ... one tiny bag of "Snack Mix."), I arrive just in time to miss registration for Camp Hellmuth, so named in honor of our host, nine-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth Jr. You've seen Hellmuth on ESPN, thanks to 11 trillion hours of WSOP programming and the simple fact that the guy is good TV.
Hellmuth is the Human Whine. His table temper tantrums are legendary, his poker ego is so large it can only be measured by vectoring satellites, and his career WSOP winnings are among the game's elite. He has his very own CAA agent, best-selling book, limited-edition line of Oakley's, DVD, logo, trio of nicknames ("Poker Brat," "Man In Black," and "Madison Kid"), cellphone ring tone, internet site, movie script based on his life, those nine WSOP championships, two kids, a wife who's a doctor, and now, his first-ever poker camp.
It costs a camper $3,500 to join Hellmuth in Vegas for the better part of three days. For this you get a goody bag of poker stuff, two mornings' worth of seminars from The Brat and his camp staff of world-renown pros (TJ Cloutier, Thomas "Thunder" Keller, Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari, Jeff Shulman and John Bonetti, among others), and automatic entry into two no-limit Hold 'Em tournaments, where these same pros are sprinkled around the tables.
The problem is I know as much about no-limit Hold 'Em as I do about preparing pheasant under glass. Who is this Jeff Shulman? Why is everyone wearing sunglasses indoors? And why am I only the only person here without a nickname?
I check into the camp hotel, Caesar's, and make a beeline downstairs for the Camp Hellmuth-only cocktail party, which started an hour ago. The party is at Pure, which is a ultra-chic nightclub that normally limits its clientele to highrollers, men wearing Armani, and women who have been on at least three Maxim covers. I'm wearing Levi's, shoes from the Rockport collection and a shirt that most people would use to wipe dry the family terrier after he rolls in his own urine. But I've got a Camp Hellmuth confirmation letter, so the bouncer with shoulders the width of a craps table lets me in.
This is some place. A porcelain bathtub is at one end of the club, and huge framed black-and-white photographs of Paris Hilton (in a motorcycle hat, bikini and zebra-patterned thigh-highs with garters) and Scarlett Johansson (I don't know what she was wearing, mostly because I never got past the lips) straddle the bar. On the wall behind the bar are dozens of bottles of Sex Vodka. I order a gin and tonic from a bartender wearing a corset top, tip her three Georges, and begin the search for the great Hellmuth.
There he is: wearing, of course, a black baseball cap, black sunglasses, black golf shirt, black pants, black shoes. He's taller (about 6-6) than he looks on TV and at the moment, he's politely posing for photos with campers. Smile. Thumbs up sign. Next camper. Smile. Thumbs up. Next camper.
Most of the camper crowd is on the white, male, intense side. I hear one camper quote dialogue from the poker movie, "Rounders." Another camper corners someone and says, "You here to learn, or tighten your game?" Meanwhile, I'm busy chowing down on chicken-kabobs from the Sterno-heated buffet tray and tapping my foot to the Jimi Hendrix playing on the sound system. I don't have any game to be tightened.
There are some women campers, mostly middle-aged. Two of them are chain-smoking near the dance stage. There are some granny types, too. I make a mental note not to mess with the grannies come tournament time. Any grandmother who spends $3,500 to listen to Hellmuth must have game.
I see Cloutier, who played in the 1959 Rose Bowl for Cal, huddled with other campers near the bar. There's Esfandiari, who looks cooler than dry ice. And I'm pretty sure I heard someone say Keller was here. But it's late, and I've got to get back to my room so I can start reading Hellmuth's, "Play Poker Like The Pros."
Just 89 pages later I'm out. I fall asleep to language so foreign that I feel as if I'm back in Catholic school Latin class. Writes Hellmuth: "So we have the second position making it two bets, you calling the two bets with 4-4 in the fourth position, and now the button and the big blind calling the two bets as well. The flop comes down Q-10-3. Now the big blind checks and the original raiser bets out of the flop. What do you do?"
I've never played in a poker tournament in my life. I've seen the tournaments on TV, seen the millions, heard Norman Chad crack wise. But I don't know how you play.
The rules are simple enough: two cards are dealt down (your hole cards), bets are made, three cards are dealt up (the flop), bets are made, another card is dealt up (the turn), bets are made, one last card is dealt up (the river), bets are made. Easy, right?
So why then is Doyle Brunson's famed "Super System 2" poker book the size of the King James Bible? And how come Cloutier has written four books on the subject, Hellmuth two, and everyone else on the pro tour is talking to a literary agent? I'll tell you why: this Hold 'Em stuff is as complicated as Mrs. Olsen's third-period calculus class. Money management, betting strategy, calculating odds on the fly -- your head hurts just thinking about it.
These aren't just seminars; they're revivals. Hellmuth is the Anthony Robbins of poker. You listen to him and think that, yes, anything is possible at the felt table. I can do this.
I sit near the front of the room, near the guy wearing the Pete Rose Phillies jersey. A DVD crew is here to record Hellmuth's session, as well as the entire camp. Away from the tables Hellmuth is a sweetheart: friendly, complimentary of players such as Cloutier and Bonetti, helpful.
His teaching session begins with a warning. "You will go broke if you play professionally," he says. Several of the younger campers, who apparently plan to play for a living, squirm in their meeting room seats.
Hellmuth reviews his top 10 favorite hands to play, his betting methods, his theories on reading an opponent. "The difference between the great and the greatest is the ability to read the opposition," he says.
There is talk about stealing blinds (forced bets made by two players before each hand), or as Bonetti calls it, "stealing driftwood." There is a detailed discussion of playing "supertight," which means you don't venture into a hand unless you have one of Hellmuth's top 10 hands on your hole cards.
I take lots of notes. And perhaps one day I'll actually understand what most of it means. Reads? I've been married to my wife Cheryl for 10 years and I still don't know that when she says, "Really, honey, I don't need anything for my birthday," that it really means, "Tiffany's. Blue box. If you don't buy it you'll be eating corned-beef hash for the remainder of the millenium."
Joe Navarro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and expert on behavioral analysis, non-verbal communication, and criminal profiling, is up next. Dressed to the nines in a suit and tie, Navarro details his former career in the Bureau ("watching spies," he says) and then provides an hourlong blueprint of human gestures and what they usually mean.
Poker, much like criminal activity, "is about observation and deception," Navarro says. If you can decode the unspoken language of these non-verbals at a poker table, you gain an important edge.
I learn all sorts of neat things, such as the most "honest" parts of our body (in order) are: the feet, legs, torso, arms, hands, mouth, eyes, and finally, the face. In short, the lower part of your body is more likely to give away your intentions than the upper body. This has something to do with limbic system of your brain, as opposed to the neo-cortex part. At least, that's what I wrote down.
I learned that black is the most intimidating color, that Secret Service agents wear sunglasses partly because it prevents you from knowing where they're looking, that if a player steeples his hands, tilts his neck, or raises his chin or nose it means he has "high confidence." I learned about pacifying behavior (pinching the bridge of your nose, for example, pacifies a negative feeling), about how a stare can unnerve another player, about the importance of pursed lips.
In the back of the room is Cloutier, who later says that Navarro's session prompted him to take notes for the first time in years. Cloutier is a poker legend for all sorts of reasons. He played at Cal, worked on Texas oil rigs, but is a poker celebrity because of 50 major event wins and six WSOP bracelets. The guy looks like Bum Phillips with cards.
Cloutier's seminar is supposed to cover his "21 Tips For Winning." But between the questions from campers and his assortment of stories, we only hear 11.
Cloutier says he doesn't believe in playing with small pairs (2-2, 3-3, etc.) as your down cards. He does believe in bluffing, making people pay to see cards on "the flop," "the turn" or "the river" and raising hard on a pair of aces.
"And always be a gentleman at the poker table," he says, as his hour concludes.
Ah, finally something I understand.
Three buses loaded with campers leave Caesar's for the drive to Binion's, which for years has been the site of the WSOP championship (next year it moves to another casino). Only in Vegas could a 10-minute ride take you past "The Love Boutique," "Showgirl Supplies," "Tires $20 -- Like New," "Hot Bodies Spa," and a strip joint that our driver informs us is the largest in the world.
After a buffet lunch (think elementary school cafeteria food), we register for the $2,500 no-limit Hold 'Em tournament and are assigned tables. As we wait for the 2 p.m. "shuffle-and-deal" call from the tournament emcee, I hear campers calling friends or home.
"Yeah, I'm just going to stay calm and play my game," says one.
Another camper, a cop from the New Orleans area, tells me he's going to frame his photo of him and Hellmuth and put it in his kid's room. And I hear a granny mention that she's going to bluff just the way Cloutier taught it. "I'm going have brass (uh, cajones)," she says.
"I think he said, 'Iron,'" I tell her.
"Whatever," she says.
I'm assigned to Table 61, Seat 3. Darrell is our dealer. There are 10 players to a table, and minutes before we're set to begin, the great Bonetti, who has a reputation of playing any cards anytime, sits to my right. Crap.
Melba, the lady sitting to the left of me, asks for Bonetti's autograph. I play nervously with the stacks of green and black chips.
Had anyone bothered to look at my feet and legs under the table, they would have been able to ascertain from my non-verbals that I'm terrified. I now know the basics of the game, but I'm still unsure when it's my turn to bet. Is that a good thing?
The blinds are $25/$50. I fold a lot. Because I fold a lot, when I finally come out with a bet on a pair of 8s, everyone else folds.
Bonetti toys with our table. He bogarts us with his betting, usually reads our hands with perfection and lays down at the exact right times. I ask him a few questions about strategy, but don't understand the answers. Everyone else at my table listens and nods in agreement as he discusses "representing" and "pot odds." So I nod, too.
A kid on the other side of the table has been betting "heavy" for much of the early going. Bonetti tells me earlier that he thinks he's been bluffing. So I call the kid's big bet -- in fact, I grandly go all-in with my chip stack, just like on TV -- and then watch as Mr. Bluff calls my all-in and rolls over a pair of aces, or "Pocket Rockets," as the pros call them. All I know is that my chances for elimination just began the countdown to liftoff.
The DVD crew rushes over to film the all-in drama. I turn over my ace-jack of clubs. I'm a decisive underdog.
But wait -- I get a king of something, a queen of clubs and I think 4 of clubs. I'm still alive for a straight or flush.
A king comes on the Turn. A 10 of clubs comes on the River. Somehow I've defied the odds and beaten a pair of aces, a feat so significant that Hellmuth leaves his spot at the featured table on the centerstage and asks the kid with the rockets how it happened.
I rotate to another table, where I smartly fold a pair of queens (it turns out the other guy had kings), and then commit about 14 mistakes (including accidentally tapping my knuckles against the felt -- which means I'm checking -- when I really wanted to bet big) while somehow drawing a full house (aces over 3s) to win a healthy pot.
Esfandiari joins our table and stares down the guy to the right of me. The guy has raised The Magician and now Esfandiari is trying to get into his head.
"Whattya got?" he says. "You got kings?"
He stares so long that I'm worried the guy might assume the fetal position. Esfandiari literally kisses the $1,000 worth of chips before he tosses them into the pot. He thinks he's lost and he's right: the guy had kings.
There are 100 players left from the original 130. New tables are assigned. A 15-minute break is called.
As I gather my chips I hear Navarro counseling another player. "When you get a good hand you chew your gum faster," he says. "Put it to the side of your mouth. And you always bet faster when you get a good hand. Slow down."
I look at my red table assignment card. Table 63, Seat 1.
The featured table. Hellmuth's table.
With no time to fetch my rosary from the hotel room, I ask an ESPN colleague for advice. He launches into a explanation about beating Hellmuth earlier in the afternoon with a gut-shot straight draw, even though the odds of hitting the straight were only 16 percent and, as it turns out, he ended up with a miraculous full house draw to beat The Poker Brat's 8s and 9s.
"But what do I do?"
"You're probably the chip leader at the table," he says. "Use your chips."
When play resumes I fold almost every hand. I'm a wuss. I'm also getting a lot of 9-4s as hole cards. Meanwhile, Hellmuth is leaving the table during play and returning just in time to glance at the situation and making the perfect decisions. It's like a chess master taking on all comers in Harvard Square.
At 4:45 I get switched to another table, this time with Cloutier. There are 81 players left. The blinds have risen to $300/$150. Keep this up and I might finish in the top 20, which means I get to cash a check.
Between bites of his hot dog, Cloutier keeps raking in the blinds. Sometimes he has the cards. Sometimes he just bluffs, like when he shows us an 8-2 after we all fold.
"Got nothing," he says. "Do it about once every half hour or so."
I don't play many hands (remember Hellmuth's "Supertight" method?), including a pair of pocket 7s -- Hellmuth's 10th-best hand on the list. So, of course, a 7 comes on the flop, followed by another 7 on the turn. I want to slam my forehead on a concrete sidewalk.
At 5:04 I'm switched to Table 52, Seat 9. Cloutier has been moved to the same table, in Seat 10 -- to my left. I have about $4,300, but the blinds are $400/$200, along with $25 antes. Only 69 players remain in the tournament.
A granny on the other side of the table wins a pot and Cloutier turns to me. "See what she was doing? She was loading up [grabbing for her chips as soon as she saw her cards], so you knew she was gonna play."
More nodding on my part.
There are moments that define a poker tournament. Mine came at exactly 5:13, when Cloutier raised to $1,200 in the early position, the granny called, and I, in a moment of perfect clarity, announced to the table that me and my Ace-7 were going all-in.
I could already picture it: Hellmuth rushing over to congratulate me after beating the famed Cloutier ... a heartfelt handshake from TJ himself ... perhaps a cameo in Phil's movie. Remember how Cloutier said he liked to bluff every 30 minutes or so? Guess what? It had been 30 minutes.
I figured Cloutier was trying to muscle the blinds again with the $1,200 bet. I figured this until the exact moment he called my all-in and flipped over a pair of -- oh, my God -- aces. The granny, who also called, flipped over Ace-King.
Well, I had my nickname: "Mr. Dumass." What was I thinking? First of all, he was never going to fold with two aces. And he probably wasn't going to fold to some pinhead like me, not after he already has put $1,200 into the pot.
The flop comes 8-6-Q. Unless I get a 7 on the turn, and a 7 on the river, I'm American history.
The DVD crew is there to record the whole thing. No 7s. Cloutier wins the pot and I leave in 65th place.
The Bus of Shame awaits.
There are few consolations on the ride home, other than Navarro, the non-verbal expert, is on the same bus, having been eliminated minutes before me. I spend Friday night replaying the hand in mind. Then, before Saturday's seminar sessions begin, I approach Esfandiari, who is spreading cream cheese on a bagel.
Esfandiari listens politely to my replay of the Cloutier disaster and then, after a short pause, he speaks poker's eternal truth.
"Hey," he says, "you took a shot and it didn't work out."
OK, I can live with that. Now it's on to Saturday's tournament. And an afternoon without the early bus.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.