Hold 'Em Tight

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

We flew out here fully aware that the field of 8,773 has been culled of Unreal poker heroes such as Jennifer Tilly, Shannon Elizabeth, Norm MacDonald and Louie Anderson. Even so, it's a little bit of a letdown to survey the motley crew that's left:

Erik Friberg, a Swede whose rooting section is waving that nation's blue-and-yellow flags;

Jamie Gold, the chip leader, a former Hollywood agent who represented James Gandolfini and Felicity Huffman;

Jamie Gold thins the herd on his way to  a $12 million 
payday.
Rob Gracie/IMPDI for the 2006 WSOP
Jamie Gold thins the herd on his way to a $12 million payday.
Paul Wasicka (left) and Jamie Gold face off in the Amazon 
Room for all the marbles. (Wasicka's consolation prize: 
$6,102,499.)
Joy K. Miller/IMPDI for the 2006 WSOP
Paul Wasicka (left) and Jamie Gold face off in the Amazon Room for all the marbles. (Wasicka's consolation prize: $6,102,499.)

Michael Binger of Atherton, California, who, according to press materials, has "career ambitions as a theoretical physicist";

Rhett Butler, who, as his supporters' shirts tell us is not the fictional character from Gone with the Wind;

Richard Lee, who was born in Hawaii but today sports a long-sleeve gift shop-style T-shirt that says "San Antonio";

Douglas Kim, who recently graduated from Duke and looks sharp in a Yankees jersey;

Paul Wasicka, who is 25 and answers to the nickname "Kwick Fish" (Sick! Er, sic);

Allen Cunningham, a 29-year-old professional poker player and a winner of four WSOP events.

We're reassured to see that the 33-year-old Nassif has broken ranks with the majority of competitors and left his sunglasses in his car. He looks tough. His broad-shouldered, slightly hulking six-foot-three-inch frame is clad in black button-down shirt, Gap blue jeans and brown Diesel shoes.

"He looks so Mafia," comments a female photographer next to Unreal, angling for a shot. "Like someone out of The Sopranos."


The night before the biggest day of his life, Nassif is lounging in his earth-toned room at the Monte Carlo, smoking Marlboro Lights. The Brentwood resident's gray J. Crew T is a nice complement to his bloodshot eyes.

"It's too surreal to even think about everything that's going on," he says, the statement encompassing everything from his ascent to the final table to the filet mignon dinner he just devoured in the company of the past two Main Event champions, Greg Raymer (2004) and Joe Hachem (2005), fellow PokerStars sponsorees. (Raymer, who now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a graduate of Parkway South.)

At dinner Hachem wore his World Series bracelet — the diamond-encrusted monstrosity whose chumpy-looking appearance belies its coveted status among players worldwide — and it did its job. Nassif is now officially psyched up for tomorrow's action.

"They pulled me aside into a private room and said, 'We want you to win, this is what you need to do: Stay focused, take your time, don't make any rash decisions, don't let the cameras or the hoopla affect you. Be smart, play your game,'" he recounts.

That's a tall order for our local hero, who since the Main Event began July 28 has been playing poker for up to fifteen hours at a stretch, leaving him so frazzled that what he wants more than anything right this minute is a Captain-and-Coke.

Today was an off day, but there was no time to relax. Instead Nassif had to arrange for seats for his posse and show up for interviews with outlets ranging from the Associated Press to All In magazine. A testament to original thinking, virtually all the media have taken the exact-same angle: how Nassif used up his vacation days to play here and then had to beg for extra time off when he advanced to the later rounds. Thus, poker fans will miss out on sweet Nassif tidbits. Like how he responded to an autograph seeker by saying, "Sure, but I'm not any good." How he brought along only a week's worth of clothes, necessitating a cab ride to a Laundromat and requests to friends to bring him a few packs of new underwear. (When Unreal notes that he could have availed himself of the Monte Carlo's laundry service, Nassif says he's not rich enough to pony up four bucks a shirt.)

Then there's the one about how he almost didn't make it here at all. Overcome with migraines for two days before the tournament began, Nassif was diagnosed with a sinus infection and briefly wired to an IV at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur. Flying to Vegas and sitting down with unwashed fellow competitors was anything but a cure. "It was painful and miserable, sitting at the table for so long," Nassif recalls with visible anguish. "I wanted to throw up." That first day, he says, "We started at noon and finished at three in the morning."

"Around midnight we were outside sharing a cigarette on our twenty-minute break," says Brant Baldanza, Nassif's friend since grade school who got knocked out on Day Two. "Dan looked at me and said, 'I don't even care if I get knocked out anymore, this isn't worth it.' I said, 'What are you even talking about? We're playing for twelve million dollars!'"

So Nassif stuck it out, playing against pros like Layne Flack, Ted Forrest and Hachem. (He shared a table with Hachem for an hour, he says, during which neither of them played a single hand.) After a few days the combined healing powers of Sudafed, Vicodin, Allegra and winning brought him back to life.

That life turned into a fairy tale at around 2:30 this morning, when a fellow named Fred Goldberg was eliminated in tenth place and the final table's lineup was cemented.

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