Hold 'Em Tight

Unreal went to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker and all we got was this lousy story.

Despite what you've heard, the two most popular things to do in Las Vegas are eating and shitting. Both are on display at Unreal's fleabag hotel on the north end of the strip: The line at the buffet is endless, and the pool is closed because someone crapped in it.

In third place might be Texas Hold 'Em, as evidenced by the thousand souls lined up to see the World Series of Poker's famed Main Event last Thursday. Why is everyone so obsessed with this game? Maybe because its elegant simplicity numbs the mind.

Cassi Bussick says she got addicted to poker shortly after she had a brain tumor removed.

Eric Harkins/IMPDI for the 2006 WSOP
The local hero (left) stares down fellow poker face John 
Magill, who was eliminated in 12th place — good for  
$1.1 million and change.
Eric Harkins/IMPDI for the 2006 WSOP
The local hero (left) stares down fellow poker face John Magill, who was eliminated in 12th place — good for $1.1 million and change.

"We watched another [WSOP] event for 21 hours yesterday, went to bed for two hours and came back this morning," says Bussick, a young stay-at-home mom from Reno who's waiting in line with her friend Angela Yates. "My two-and-a-half-year-old recognizes poker theme music when it comes on television."

The spectacle at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino includes short-shorted product babes promoting everything from poker Web sites to ESPN-on-yer-phone to LetThePeoplePlay.org, a lobbying group attempting to stop the federal government from banning Internet poker. Someone's even selling thongs that say "Go All In," and "Players Eat For Free."

Outside, the Milwaukee's Best Light "Beer Garage," operated by the WSOP's chief sponsor, is empty except for one homeless guy sleeping in a leather recliner. It may not quite have reached the blockbuster levels of Vegas events like the Adult Video News Awards or the International Consumer Electronics Show, but the WSOP "kind of smells like NASCAR did six or seven years ago," says event commissioner Jeffrey Pollack.

Neither a Greek nor a geek, Unreal feels out of place amid the number crunchers and frat boys, but no matter. We've come for one reason and one reason only, and they're talking about him right now.

"Dan sells advertising for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis," a disembodied male voice intones from an overhead speaker, introducing the nine competitors taking their places at the $10,000 No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em Championship's final table. "Not sure if there's any Pulitzers at that organization."

No Pulitzers yet. But Dan Nassif does indeed work in the retail department of Unreal's employer, and he's also the paper's second-best softball player (after Unreal). For that matter, he's our favorite colleague of Lebanese/Irish descent.

He's also being paid to shill for a Web site called PokerStars, whose current ad-campaign tagline is "Money Won't Change Me." Like all online poker sites, PokerStars is based offshore, in this case on the Isle of Man, which Unreal's handy world atlas informs us is in the Irish Sea. As Nassif's first sponsor — you can bet there'll be more — PokerStars requires him to wear a shirt with the company logo when he plays. In return, they paid for his hotel room and, after he qualified for the final table, gave him $100,000.

Pretty cool. Of course, even if he's the first player to be eliminated today — and he enters the action with only $2.6 million in chips, the smallest stack among the final nine — he'll leave the table with $1,566,858 in cash. Still, pretty cool.

"People are really jazzed about Dan!" says Susan Linder, who chirps for PokerStars' PR firm, Lotus Public Relations. She's stumbling around the site's hospitality room, home to T-shirts, hats and other assorted swag, not to mention hundreds of tuna-fish sandwiches and cans of soda.

All PokerStars logos point toward the company's "free-play" site, PokerStars.net — another Isle of Man-type dodge. No one gives a pocket pair about sites where you can't play for money. PokerStars. com is where the real action is. That's where Nassif plunked down $160 in April and proceeded to beat out 80 players to earn his entry here. But ESPN, which airs the WSOP, won't permit gambling sites' logos to be displayed in its coverage.

The venue for the main event, the Rio's Amazon Room, is large enough to accommodate arena football. Today it's draped in black curtains and crammed full of more white people than you'd think could possibly fit. Cameras mounted on fifteen-foot cranes swivel and sashay along the perimeter of the main table, inches from journalists' heads, broadcasting to a pay-per-view audience that ponied up $25 apiece to watch the action in real-time. ESPN will begin airing tape of the WSOP's main event on August 22, culminating with the crowning of the Main Event champion on September 26.

That said, there isn't a more spectator-unfriendly sport than poker. The tape-delayed shows — heavily edited to excise boring hands, augmented by nonstop commentary and, most crucially from the viewer's point of view, accompanied by peeks at competitors' hole cards — are a proven cure for insomnia. Because it's broadcast live, the pay-per-view event doesn't include the hole-card spying, but at least there's commentary and an unimpeded view of the action.

Here in the Amazon Room, the best seats are reserved for competitors' friends and families — the Nassif contingent includes his twin brother, his sister, two stepbrothers, his parents, a cousin and ten friends, many of whom went to Parkway West with the newly minted millionaire. Unreal is relegated to an aluminum riser in the Amazon's backwaters, from which we dutifully observe the moment of silence for deceased players (recently "high carded to the big table in the sky") and the national anthem, rocked by former Aerosmith guitarist Jimmy Crespo.

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