"Better to be doing badly at the table and well at life than to be doing well at the table and dead." -- Me waxing philosophical with pro player Chris McCormack a few days ago.
When I made that declaration, I thought I was pretty damn clever. It was in response to the typical poker conversation. I asked how he was, and instead of telling me about life, he told me about the table. After he'd gotten that out of his system, he told me things were good outside of the "gambool." That's when I came up with that little gem.
Turns out the quote would have deeper meaning. Monday night was a remarkable one for the antics of WSOP denizens, and as antics go, they're a group with ludicrous standards. Still, by the time you finish reading this, you're going to agree that this was one crazy night, even for the poker world.
Eskimo kiss of death
Paul "Eskimo" Clark is a veteran of the Vietnam War who has been playing cards for a living since his tenure overseas. Although on Monday, at the Rio, we may have seen him barely survive one of the toughest battles he's fought since. Tall and burly with a thick brillo-pad-black patch of hair on head and face, the surly Clark fell to the floor twice to disrupt play. What made it amazing is that both times, he held the chip lead in Event 29: $1,500 razz. You have to love a man playing to near-death that insists you sink as low as possible.
"I'm taking him to the hospital!" laughed old friend Kenny Johnson, himself a vet. Johnson confirmed that Eskimo's fall a week earlier, plus the two collapses Monday, were all mini-strokes. He also confirmed the rumor that in one collapse, Clark had fractured his foot, but had been walking on it since because hospitalization would have kept him from coming back to the tournament.
When Clark fell for the second time, Harrah's had a tough call on its hands, because Clark told the EMT, "I'm leading in chips. I'm not going anywhere." Clark was having trouble sitting straight all night, and apparently he was incoherent, but he couldn't lose a hand. His friends didn't know whether they should be cheering him on or carting him out.
The entire episode has left observers feeling philosophical, wondering at which point a man's health supersedes his dreams. Now in his 60s, poker has become the man's life. When poker is your priority (some will harp on the message boards that this in itself is the problem) even your health, or even your life may not be enough to pull you away from its pinnacle. Just another example of how special the WSOP is to these players.
Clark has had half a dozen mini-strokes in the last half year, according to Johnson.
"His left side goes numb and he loses all strength, that's why he keeps tipping over that way," Johnson said. "You know what, though? You couldn't have dragged him out of here last night."
Eskimo, who has three bracelets to his credit, is a symbol of what this game means to these players. At least, to some of them
Missing in action, Part 2
The poker world commiserated over the disappearance of Vinnie Vinh. Some said he was dead, some waited for confirmation, but everyone knew that only a world of intensive "personal problems" could keep the man from coming out on Day 2 of a WSOP event in which he had the chip lead. Still, it happened last week. Two days later, when he finally surfaced, people were pleased but wary of putting too much stock in his survival.
Fast forward to Monday; Vinh sat below the ominous 15-foot high poster of Stu Ungar (there's a great picture on Gutshot), playing his way to Day 2 in the $1,500 no-limit hold 'em short-handed event. En route to Day 2, he had the following conversation with a member of the media:
"Hey Vinnie, what kind of music do you like to listen to on your iPod?"
"It sucks that they make you turn it off now."
"Yeah, I don't know why they do that man, but it's OK."
"Yeah it's OK, you're going to win anyway right?"
"Haha, it depends on if I smoke, what I smoke, and when I smoke it. Ha ha! Just kidding man!"
It wasn't a funny joke. Vinh, looking like a boy wearing his father's clothes, finished the night 28th out of 46. He went home, and then once again didn't return. Last time, he finished 20th; this time it was 22nd. Got to wonder what could have been if the guy could only play more than one day of a multiday tournament.
The race to 12
A funny thing happened on the way to Tuesday's final table of the $3,000 no-limit hold 'em event. With Phil Hellmuth still in contention but low on chips, the decision was made to end play for the night and bring the final table plus one back to play the next day, ensuring Phil would get some time in front of ESPN's cameras.
You can hardly blame the World Series. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved, and if Phil hadn't survived the first elimination, he wouldn't have been credited with his 39th WSOP final table. That's the one that ties TJ Cloutier for the most such finishes in a career. Still, it was a little unusual to see 10 chairs lining the table at the start of play.
Phil managed to survive long enough to get eliminated by mother-of-five Beth Shak, but he didn't go quietly.
"I run so bad," he moaned, time and again. "They're playing basketball on the court. I play above the court."
Isn't that poker though?
"You don't understand," he said. "The public can't understand. I have to get unlucky eight or nine times to get eliminated. That's how I play. I'm different than everyone else "
His voice trailed off to nothing, a grimace on his face, his hands deep in his pockets, wondering when he'd have another shot to win the race to bracelet No. 12. Never mind no one else has 11; he insists he's running bad, and no one -- not me, not you, not Doyle or Johnny or the poker gods themselves -- can tell him different.
Breaking the unspoken rules
There are few people in this game with dispositions as sweet as Bill Chen's. The uber-braniac, considered by many the smartest man in an intellectual game, got mixed up in a mini-scandal that has a lot of the pros text-messaging faster than you can say, "Bill Chen is obviously not a cheater, but he did something in a tournament the other day, with the tournament director's permission, that some felt may have compromised the tournament." Faster than that, even.
Chen was one of two players left at the table at an early level in Event 21, the no-limit hold 'em shootout. Holding a 2-1 chip lead, Chen was feeling confident against an unknown opponent, but confidence only takes you so far. In order to protect himself, he negotiated a deal with the opponent in which he'd give the man 25 percent of all his winnings in the event in exchange for Chen moving on to the next round. Before the deal was consummated, he called a tournament director over to verify what he was doing.
The deal was given the go-ahead and Chen was announced the winner. Problem is, it's against tournament rules to make deals, and the pros have been sounding off about it. I talked to Chen early Tuesday and he was remarkably forthcoming about the whole thing.
"A lot of people were doing it," he said, not as an excuse, but to point out the reality of the event. "I wouldn't do it again, but it's strange that the tournament director gave me the go-ahead. I think the big deal is being made because I was open about it."
Deals like this will happen in poker regardless of the rules. The stakes are just too high for people not to seek some protection on their time invested. That's not to say everyone does it. The fact that Chen was assured the spot in the next round likely hurt the earning potential of everyone left in the tournament. After all, would you rather play Chen, a two-time bracelet winner in 2006, or a random opponent? Some players feel an obligation to maintain the status quo on that sort of thing.
Chen's not the kind of guy to create this dissent. A brilliant mathematician and published poker author, he carries with him a lightness of heart and a true openness that makes him seem essentially incapable of Machiavellian deals. Still, for one of the truly nice guys in the game, this has been a learning experience.
Heck, I guess everything that happened Monday was an experience, though.
Gary Wise howls at his own moon once in a while. You can see him talking the talk right now at www.worldseriesofpoker.com