Spirited crowd base makes WSOP final table a true 'Vegas' event
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS -- Ever since the November Nine concept was introduced last year, the new dynamic of a live crowd watching the action has been created at the World Series of Poker Main Event final table. The final table is now a true Las Vegas "event," comparable to a heavyweight prizefight. There's electricity. There's fans taunting each other. Heck, there are even betting odds to wager on.
In truth, it's surreal to watch thousands of people pack a three-tiered venue normally reserved for one of the biggest acts in Las Vegas to watch poker. Sure, poker has caught on as a popular TV item, but watching it live is another story. There are no hole-card cams or neatly packaged segments with Norman Chad making witty comments. You have to be a true poker fan to sit inside the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio for hours upon hours to watch nine guys play poker. Take, for instance, Jack Watkins of Bozeman, N.J., who was the first person to get in line for general admission seating. He got there at 6 a.m., six hours before the doors opened.
"I didn't want to miss this," said Watkins, who was in Las Vegas all week for the gigantic automotive specialty products trade event called the SEMA Show and then decided to extend his trip so he could watch the final table in person. "I love poker. It was a great. We played all week when we weren't at the show, now we're going to go in and watch the pros do it. It was a wonderful coincidence that the show was the same week as the final table. I'm here to take advantage of it."
Watkins certainly wasn't alone. By 10 a.m. the line of spectators waiting to get in stretched a couple hundred yards down the Rio hallway. Jamie Franco of Los Angeles got there at 8 a.m.
"I even dragged my girlfriend with me," he said with a laugh. "She thinks I'm crazy, but I just want to see this and feel the excitement. Yeah, I'll watch it on TV next week, but you can't beat seeing it in person. It's just something I wanted to be a part of and see it live."
When the doors finally did open, the theater quickly filled up with different legions of fans for each player. The Joe Cada crowd was the loudest and the brightest, wearing blazing yellow long-sleeved T-shirts and hats with a big blue capital "M" for Cada's home state of Michigan. The fans for European players James Akenhead and Antoine Saout brought the European soccer feel to the event with their British and French flags, respectively, and foreign chants.
Kevin Schaffel, Steve Begleiter and Darvin Moon fans were also sporting special T-shirts. Moon's said "Bad Moon Rising" on the front and had the logo of the Wheeling Island Casino in West Virginia, which is where the Oakland, Maryland amateur won his satellite to make it into the Main Event. The garb worn by the Schaffel crew was equally as clever with a cartoon of their hero on the front that had the words "Schaffel Up and Deal!" above it. And, Begleiter's royal blue shirts simply read, "Begs, Begs, Begs!" on the back, the familiar chant that his fans would scream in unison whenever he won a pot.
"This is unlike anything I've ever seen before,' said Henry Goodman, who is one of 22 guys who plays in Begleiter's poker league back in Chappaqua, New York. "Begs" won his entry through the poker league and is committed to handing over 20% of his winning to the other 21 members. "You know, the money part is great for me and the other guys in the league, but this has become much more than this. We want Steve to do well because he's a great guy."
On Friday night, the group of 100 or so of Begleiter's supporters got together for a private dinner at TAO Beach.
"There was a lot of love for Steve in that room," Goodman added. "He's a friend, he's a neighbor and he's someone we all are rooting hard for, regardless of the money we could all end up winning."
Similar emotions were seen when Schaffel became the second player eliminated on Saturday afternoon. The well-liked 52-year-old from Florida saw his pocket Aces get cracked when Eric Buchman hit quad Kings. As the Schaffel contingent started to flood out of the theater they had the look of a group of football fans that had been just seen a last-second, game-winning field goal go wide right.
"That was tough to watch," said Mark Williams, one of Schaffel's golf buddies from TPC at Eagle Trace in Coral Springs, Fla. "I guess if you're going to go out, that's the way it should be. He had the best hand, so he won't be second-guessing himself. But even still, that was pretty brutal to watch."
Schaffel, who got a rousing ovation from his fans in the corridor outside the theater after he busted out, also treated his entourage to a private party Friday night. The group of more than 100 had a catered dinner at the Rio and then Schaffel treated everyone to a show on the Strip. The $1.3 million he made for his eighth-place finish will more than help him pay for those tickets.
As the afternoon wore on and entered the dinner break, the Cada cheering section remained one of the most vocal, even though their man -- who was the youngest at the table at 21 years old -- was a shortstack for most of the day. While the Schaffel and Begleiter supporters had the look of a tame college-reunion type of crowd, the Cada fans were more like a frat party. They yelled the chant usually heard at college hoop games -- "Let's Go Cada...Let's Go Cada" -- and would quickly scream retorts to any other cheering section that even tried to be as loud as their section.
"This is an absolute blast," said 21-year-old Alden Oraha, a high school buddy of Cada from Detroit, as he carried two rum and Cokes and a draft beer back to his seat in the second level. "I've known Joe for a long time. He's amazing. Everything he touches turns to gold. He's good at everything and anything that he does."
"The best part about Joe is that he's won millions of dollars playing poker, but he hasn't changed a bit," chimed in another friend from home, Joe Lucido, who was also triple-fisted with adult beverages. "He had a big Halloween party at his house last week. He's still the same kid we've always known and loved. And even if he wins this, he won't change."
"Yeah, and if he wins this, Vegas is going to see a party like it's never seen before," added Oraha. "Trust me on that!"
After a prolonged two and half-hour dinner break, the fans were vividly ready for more poker. In fact, when the theater doors opened for play just after 9 p.m., the lines to get in were just as long as they were for the morning portion. And the fans were even more juiced, likely from a visit to the cocktail lounges during the break.
The final table was more than nine hours old. Only two players had been eliminated. And nobody was ready to go home. Cards went back in the air and the theater was once again filled with a party atmosphere thanks to a rowdy group of poker die-hards.
"It's going to be a long night," added Begleiter's friend Goodman. "And we'll be here as long as Steve is. You can bet on that."