Hold 'Em Tight

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

Las Vegas

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.

"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.

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;

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.

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.'"

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.

The first four hands Nassif quickly folds. Perhaps in an attempt to hide his nervousness, he assumes his signature position — head slumped on right palm, eyes half-closed.

Fifteen minutes in he makes his first bet.

Dealt the A♣K♦, a very strong hand, Nassif raises $700,000 and is called by Jamie Gold, who's in first place, having amassed more than ten times as many chips as Nassif. The flop reveals the 5♠3♠2♣, the first three of five "community" cards the players will use in combination with their hole cards to make the best possible five-card hand.

And just like that, Dan Nassif puts his tournament life on the line, betting everything he's got — the all-in wager that gives this event its No-Limit name.

Gold smoothly calls and shows his hole cards: 2♥2♠. In combination with the board, Gold has drawn three of a kind. Now, Unreal is no Texas Hold 'Em shark, but it's clear that with two community cards remaining to be dealt, Nassif is a massive underdog. The best the home team can hope for is one of the deck's four fours, which would give Nassif a straight.

The dealer reveals the fourth community card, called the "turn": the A♥. Now a four will grant Nassif only a reprieve, in the form of a split pot. Anything else and homeboy's run is over.

As they wait for the dealer to turn over the final card — the "river" — Nassif and Gold stand together and chat. "He apologized for flopping a set," Nassif will later relate. "And then he started chanting for a four so I could stay alive — which is just the kind of person he is."

The river card is the 10♠. Play will continue at the final table for another thirteen hours, but Nassif's tournament is finished.

Exiting the Amazon Room, he fires up a Marlboro and walks to the media room for the obligatory farewell press conference. Unable to locate an ashtray, he hands what's left of his cigarette to a fawning journalist, who smokes the rest.

When the questioning commences, Nassif launches into self-deprecation mode, faulting himself for a slight miscalculation: not going all-in before the flop. He says he's rooting for Gold to win. (Gold will go on to do just that.) "To everyone back home who bought the pay-per-view, I'll give you 25 bucks," Nassif adds.

Then Nassif heads to the cashier to have his winnings wire-transferred to his bank account. Here he encounters a snag: His $1,566,858 has turned into $1,556,858.

That's because Nassif's $10,000 entry fee was paid by PokerStars, and Harrah's, which owns the WSOP, wants no part of it. Instead they're deducting the buy-in from Nassif's winnings.

"As a licensed gaming operator, following the advice of both the Department of Justice and state gaming regulatory agencies, we cannot accept money directly from online sites," Harrah's spokesman Gary Thompson later explains to Unreal. "What happened was, we had been under the impression that Dan Nassif had registered as an individual and paid for his seat himself. When we found out differently, we refunded the money to the entity that registered him and he ended up paying the $10,000."

To which Unreal can only say: Spoken like a poker player.

Over the years, many hundreds of players have won their way into the WSOP the way Nassif did, via so-called satellite tournaments. But just this summer the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing most online gambling. That pending legislation, along with existing federal laws, has clouded the future of offshore Internet poker sites. Last month, right in Unreal's backyard, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri announced a 22-count indictment involving BetOnSports.com, inducing the operators of that site to stop taking bets originating in this country. Federal agencies contend that entities like BetOnSports violate the Federal Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits wagering over any kind of wire-based communication. The law's application to offshore gambling sites — and, more specifically, to games like poker (as opposed to wagers placed on sporting events) — has yet to be tested in court, but evidently Harrah's isn't taking any chances.

Whatevs, as far as Nassif is concerned. A PokerStars rep has assured him he'll be reimbursed directly by the company. So the check, metaphorically speaking, is in the mail (from the Isle of Man).

That night at the Monte Carlo, Nassif, Captain-and-Coke in hand, plays Caribbean Stud and War with his buddies. A 2 a.m. bed check finds the ninth-place finisher alone in his room. No hooker. But he can't sleep.

It has finally hit him: I'm a goddamn millionaire.

Rather than catch a cab to the Wynn and its on-site Ferrari dealership, Nassif flips on the tube and surfs channels, settling on a rerun of the Little League World Series.

In an article called "Wasteland of Wealth," published in the July 17 issue of The American Conservative, author Chilton Williamson Jr. asks a cynical yet unsettling question: Is the purpose of life money?

"For the West," Williamson contends, "there is ultimately no purpose, no reason, no standard, no justification for, nor comprehension of, anything but the wealth it produces or attracts to itself."

This logic would seem to crown poker the most honest of Western sports. It's played with chips, and without all the pretense ballplayers (disingenuously or not) attach to their pursuit: love of the game, passion for the hometown, virtue of being a role model, blah blah blah. Aren't poker players in it simply for the fat stacks of cash?

Perhaps not. The common refrain among WSOP participants is that they're after that hideous championship bracelet, not the money. And Jamie Gold, the 2006 WSOP Main Event winner, told the world he intends to use his winnings to ease the suffering of his father, who was stricken with ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Dan Nassif's fraternal twin swears it's not true of his brother, either.

"I've never heard Dan once talk about the money he's made from playing," says Peter Nassif, a shorter, bespectacled version of Dan. "The money will affect him in absolutely no way whatsoever. If anything it'll make him more humble."

"Money will not change Dan," seconds Riverfront Times publisher Michael Wagner, adding that he doesn't think Nassif will quit again. "I've personally been trying to change things about Dan for years. Nothing works. Just like always, I'll see him at about 8:30 on Monday, even though we start at 8:15, wearing a slightly wrinkled shirt, with three days of facial hair growth."

Nassif flew home from Vegas first class, and he may use some of his cash to pay off the mortgage on his house. But that's about it, he says.

"Winning's more important than the money," Nassif tells Unreal.

Of course, he says it with a straight face.

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