Hold 'Em Tight

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

Arriving back at his room at 4 a.m., the Riverfront Times' newest millionaire was hit up for money.

"A hooker tried to pick me up in the lobby, and it took like ten minutes to tell her I just wanted to go to bed. She's like, 'Where you going?' I'm like, 'My room. I'm tired, I just want to sleep.' She's like, 'Can I come? I'll make sure you sleep.' I'm like, 'I don't need any help with that.'"

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.

The World Series of Poker is four years older than Dan Nassif. By any measure, its recent growth is staggering: The 8,773 who anted up for more than $82 million in Main Event prize money this year represent a tenfold increase over 2003, when 839 entrants vied for about $8 million. One could argue that making the 2006 final table is as impressive as winning the bracelet in years past. Poker may be a short-run contest of luck, but it's a long-run contest of math, probability and game theory, and there's nothing more long-run than this year's Main Event, which featured 36 "levels" of play in two-hour increments.

Nassif is well-suited for such rigors: He's focused, patient and equipped with a vaultlike memory capable of holding entire hand sequences played years ago.

"I'll get emotional, I just won't do it here," Nassif says. "I'll get mad at a home game when there's nothing at stake. I get mad at a home game and I'm out 50 bucks. Here you can't afford it. You get mad here, you lose, and you're done."

As a twelve-year-old growing up in Ballwin, Nassif played card games like Pass the Trash, Hollywood Up and Call the Queen with his buddies, some of whom have flown to Vegas to cheer him on. Nassif played wide receiver for Parkway West and graduated in 1991. He says he faced the "regular" delinquency issues — drinking, skipping school — and wasn't much of a student but was good at math. After earning an associate's degree from St. Louis Community College at Meramec, Nassif started in at RFT in 2000.

Though many of his buds graduated to Texas Hold 'Em after watching Matt Damon and Edward Norton in the 1998 movie Rounders, Nassif says he didn't get pumped about the game until the 2003 WSOP, in which Chris Moneymaker became the first Internet qualifier to win the Main Event bracelet. Shortly thereafter Nassif began devouring book after Texas Hold 'Em book, playing fifteen hours a week at house games and mastering the subtleties of the online game.

In October 2004 he placed second in a field of 1,200 in an online tournament and that same week finished fourth in another field nearly as large. Six months after that, he and another player battled eight hours for a $170,000 top prize, finally agreeing to take $80,000 apiece and play on for the final $10,000.

"I called up my friends Andy [Goldenberg], Tim [Shu] and David [Owens] and was like, 'I'm in this tournament, come on over. I need a breather,'" Nassif recounts. He told his pals that if they won they could split the ten grand among themselves. (They lost.)

Three months later Nassif quit the RFT, citing his new wealth and the burnout of five and a half years in sales. He began playing more online and won his first trip to the WSOP, also on PokerStars.com. That journey ended in defeat on the first day. "I was a little intimidated by the TV cameras, the lights," Nassif says of the experience. "I didn't play well, I was nervous."

Mostly, his retirement involved goofing off and sleeping in. (And getting a concussion while playing tennis, which he'd just as soon not to talk about.) "I was getting bored," Nassif says. "I had the 'Summer of Dan,' which became the 'Fall of Dan,' and I didn't like how that sounded." So in December of last year he accepted boss Michael Wagner's invitation to come back to the newsweekly.

Sales, after all, had proven to be a good training ground for poker.

"In sales presentations you kinda just develop people skills: 'Are they blowing me off, or are they interested?' You just kind of relate that to poker: 'Is this guy lying, or is he telling me the truth? What's the story, why is he betting what he's betting?'

"The math is always simple," Nassif goes on. "To me reading people is more important. If you can figure out if someone's telling you the truth, you can save money by folding a good hand if you can tell someone has a better hand. If you can pick out a bluff, you can win a big pot by calling their bluff."

An hour before kickoff time, Nassif and his eight counterparts are taken to a resplendent Rio suite, briefed on etiquette and presented with $10,000 Corum watches, which will eventually have their names and initial final-table chip counts engraved.

As showtime nears, security personnel lead the group through a maze of hallways toward the Amazon Room, where they safely arrive after getting lost only once.

The pregame festivities are as pompous as those that precede a boxing match, but (thankfully) brief. At a few minutes past 2 p.m. Las Vegas time, the first hand is dealt.

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