Shuffle Up and Deal: 2010 World Series of Poker and Competitive Eating
I played in the 2010 World Series of Poker, Ladies No-Limit Hold'em Championship, this weekend, finishing somewhere between 525th and 550th place of 1,054 entrants. (When you finish as early as I did, they don't bother to write down your name). Compared to my WSOP debut in 2008, I have definitely improved my game, while managing to achieve some personal benchmarks:
1) I made it past the first break and waded further into the field. I survived about 4.5 hours, just shy of the third break of the afternoon and finished roughly mid-pack after finishing in the bottom 25% in 2008.
2) When the 2005 Ladies Champion, actress Jennifer Tilly, sat down to my left, I didn't throw up (though I did manage to do that later on in the evening). I outlasted her and got the best of her in one pot - so I know I can hold my own against really good players.
3) I learned that I can survive significant runs of bad cards and major hits to my chip stack and fight my way back into contention - rather than circle the toilet of despair (which happened later that evening).
4) I now know that if you're a guy and decide to enter the ladies-only event at the World Series because you think it'll be easy, you will be mocked and ridiculed so brutally, you might as well check your wedding tackle at the door since you won't be needing it when the girls are done with you.
5) I learned that if a blind squirrel plays poker for 16 hours over the course of 3 days, eventually she might stumble onto the nuts and take home a tidy $819 for fourth place in another tournament.
6) I discovered that if this whole poker thing doesn't work out for me, my husband has a future as a competitive eater.
My WSOP weekend started on Friday at 6:45 AM when Pat dropped me off at the airport. My cousin Ross flew in from Baton Rouge to serve as my "walking horse" for the day. Attention seasoned cougars and nubile young ladies: Ross is 27 years old, hard-working, thoughtful, gainfully employed, creative and funny. He lays on some of the driest humor this side of Bob Newhart.
Ross also makes good decisions when my brains self-destruct: Let's get you registered for the tournament, see where your table is and THEN check our bags. Let's check out that buffet, instead of the cafe, Stacy. Let's pre-pay the 15% gratuity instead of 20% for the buffet, since we don't have a choice to make our decision AFTER our meal. You read that right: At the Rio All-Suites Resort in Fabulous Las Vegas, you get to choose how good your service for the buffet will be BEFORE YOU ARE SEATED... and then you have to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?
Unfortunately Ross couldn't sit at the poker table with me, because it's the LADIES Championship - as 7 unfortunate non-ladies discovered. Commemorating the 30th anniversary of her first WSOP win, Linda Johnson - the "First Lady of Poker" - gave the call to "Shuffle Up and Deal." She recalled how women initially got to play in the basement of the casino for that first event, and looking out over 1,046 women, 7 men and 1 transgender player, Johnson's voice cracked as she spoke about how women have become a force in the game - both in "mixed events" and in their own.
As one who is routinely the only chick at the table, it was really fun to play with so many women - both in the WSOP championship and afterward in other open tournaments, where those who'd washed out ended up. Controversy bubbles within the poker community about what it means to have a "women only" tournament - and I actually debated with Annie Duke about it last year at the WSOP Academy poker school.
In athletic events, men and women do not compete against one another because it has been scientifically proven that men have greater physical capacities than women, resulting in an uneven playing field. Survey the field of any tournament and you'll learn pretty quickly that poker is NOT a game of physical conditioning, but it IS a test of mental acuity. So if you have a women-only event, the argument is that you are insulting the intelligence of half the population.
The distaff side of the argument is that the Ladies Event has been a tradition for 30 years and that its single-sex format is less intimidating and brings more women into the game - almost like a developmental event. Having sat at many a table populated by leering, chauvinist jackasses, I understand this perspective. Frankly, I don't give a damn if a guy is a jerk - his money spends the same when I win it. Then again, I'm comfortable in male-dominated environments (sportswriting, locker rooms, etc), whereas other women may prefer a "friendlier" atmosphere, especially when they walk through the doors at the World Series of Poker (and manage not to throw up). I don't care who you are or what event you're playing - being at the World Series of Poker is intense and intimidating in its own right, and that's before you sit down to your table.
They changed the design of the women's championship bracelet this year, with pink diamonds and what not, so it doesn't look exactly like a standard WSOP champion's bracelet. I hope this might alleviate some of the controversy - satisfying those who say a women's event "doesn't count" (or shouldn't) while acknowledging the efforts of the women who get up the nerve to pony up $1,000 and play. (They did bring the bracelet to our table because the 2005 Ladies Champion, actress Jennifer Tilly, was seated with us, so I got to hold the bracelet [above] - which is about 500 places closer to it than I would have gotten otherwise).
With $1,000 in my pocket, I had six WSOP events from which I could choose. I decided to play the women's event in part because of timing and also because I felt that the pace of the game would be more manageable. The $1,000 events tend to draw a lot of all-in kamikazes who want to build up a big stack early and coast to the money. I simply prefer playing cards over flipping coins.
That said, the competition was brutal, the camaraderie delightful, and the rail stacked three-deep with cheering husbands, boyfriends, lovers, sons, daughters and friends - more fans than any event I've seen except the Main Event. The women's supporters took great pleasure in eviscerating the few male-players within shouting distance, and literally every time a guy busted out, the hall erupted in hoots. Some of the guys said they entered because they lost a bet or dare or because they thought it would be easy or because they wanted to be the Rosa Parks of the Women's World Series, since the Nevada Gaming Commission can't legally prohibit them from entering. 14th Amendment and all that.
So about that relatively weaker field from the weaker sex: Yeah, at my table, we had the 2005 Ladies Champion, Tilly, who has also cashed in a handful of other WSOP bracelet events. We also had a gal from the Texas panhandle whose father's home-game included the legendary Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim. She roared back from having only three chips left to owning about a quarter of the chips at our table.
Here's Jennifer Tilly with the gal who felted her - Dawn Nobles, a Realtor from Canada:
So my tournament ended when my Ace-Queen offsuit fell to pocket-Kings, as it should have. I had splashed around all day, surviving one all-in attempt already and never getting the cards to make a run. I was low on chips and needed to make a move with only about 10 big blinds left - in that instance, AQ is a shoving hand. Unfortunately my competitor (who had about 4 times the chips I did) felt she needed to agonize for about a minute over what should have been an insta-call. Really?
That left a bad taste in my mouth - but that's OK because it was quickly overtaken by the acrid flavor of vomit.
Yeah, I should have expected that: The overwhelming build-up of adrenaline, nerves and stress hormones, combined with a very rich dinner of salmon with creamy sauce and mashed potatoes, and shaken with celebratory cocktails via Pat and Ross, resulted in my being curled around the toilet with stomach cramps and vomiting at 2 in the morning.... We can call it bad fish. We can call it bad decisions. All I know is, I felt bad. Real bad.
Once I finally emptied the contents of my stomach, I felt tons better and went on to play again at the Rio in their DeepStack Tournament on Saturday afternoon at 1 PM. I figured as two adult male homo sapiens, Pat and Ross could find some way to entertain themselves in Las Vegas without me. I, meanwhile, had a ball playing next to Mike, the Canadian, and mocking the mouth-breathing Jersey Shore diva who... took... this... long... to... make... a... decision... to... check... her... big... blind...
Six hours later, I busted out after Mike's bigger two pair decimated my two pair. It was then that Pat and I decided to leave early, taking the last flight out Sunday so we could see our friends Penny and Dave, whose trip overlapped with our own.
We put Ross on a plane Sunday morning and then set about to find ways to kill time while waiting for Penny and Dave to arrive. We visited Aria at City Center - the newest big development on the Strip. Lo and behold, Aria had a 1 PM poker tournament. An adult homo sapien male, Pat said he'd figure out way to entertain himself while I played... and that involved competitive eating.
At the SkyBox Sports Grill at Aria, they have the fabled Firecracker Burger, featuring the Indian Bhut Jolokia pepper, which the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records named to be the HOTTEST PEPPER IN THE WORLD at over 1 million scoville units. There are rules for ordering this burger:
1) No refunds.
2) No alterations to the burger preparation.
3) Don't touch your eyes while eating or thereafter.
4) Wash your hands before and after you potty.
5) Are you sure you want to eat this?
6) Would you please sign this waiver?
If you finish the whole thing, they will buy you a beer.
Pat ate the whole thing. All 8 ounces of it... in one epic sitting... a half-pound of flaming goodness. I stopped in to check in on him during my break and learned of his heroics from the waitstaff. Apparently several servers had paused to witness his gastronomic odyssey. They may have even taken wagers on him in the adjacent sports and race book. When I went back to my table, the dealer shook his head in awe of Pat's accomplishment saying, "He ate it? The Firecracker? The whole thing? I've seen two grown men reduced to tears trying to finish that thing in the past week. He's insane."
"It was warm," said Pat. I half-expected someone to bring him a prize-fighter's belt or at least a tall glass of milk and some Pepto... but the Aria had other plans for us. With a renewed fire in his belly, Pat proceeded to hit a $500 jackpot on a slot machine, and I took my seat at the final table as the clock passed 7 PM. Penny and David had arrived hours ago, so Pat made the executive decision to change our flights back to Monday morning... and he booked a suite at the Aria.
A sweet suite with a deluxe tout de suite toilet / bidet:
I finished the tournament in fourth place - good for $819 - and a very happy ending to my World Series adventures... and we availed ourselves to the suite - but this time, it was not I who punished the plumbing. I'll spare you the details - just know that Pat has a future on Man vs. Food.