WSOP Main Event off to strong start despite Sasquatch
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – When I walked into the Amazon Room at the Rio for the first day of the Main Event this morning, it seemed like just another day at the World Series of Poker. It was almost 10:30 a.m. and other than the stacks of Everest Poker seat cushions scattered throughout the room, the place looked and felt the same as it has all week.
Within an hour, however, all of that began to change. The army of ESPN crew members took to the floor. The dealers did their own version of "The March of the Penguins" as they walked to their assigned tables. And WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, Tournament Director Jack Effel and Director of Marketing Ty Stewart were huddling.
Outside the Amazon Room more and more people began coming in from another 100-degree day in Las Vegas, waiting for the Amazon doors to open so they could to get in on the action. Music began playing on the loudspeaker at 11:30 and suddenly you could feel the energy of the Main Event circulating throughout the room.
At 11:46 a.m. – 14 minutes before cards were scheduled to go in the air – Effel asked if ESPN was ready for the players to enter the Amazon Room. When he received the OK, Effel asked that the doors be opened suddenly throngs of eager poker players walked in to sit down in the biggest poker tournament of their life. The dealers clapped for the players, many of whom were video taping or taking cell phone pictures of their big moment. Within five minutes, the familiar sound of poker chips began clattering throughout the room.
Up on the main stage, WSOP Communications Director Seth Palansky patted Effel and Pollack on the back. The World Series of Poker is what these three guys – along with Media Director Nolan Dalla – plan for 12 months out of the year. Now the biggest day of the year was upon them and they all seemed excited and ready to kick off the festivities.
Greg Mueller– who was one of four players to win multiple bracelets this year – began to get wired up at the ESPN secondary featured table. More and more fans packed the room and many of the scurried to the featured table to get a good standing spot. (By the way, the entire atmosphere surrounding this table has changed this year as Milwaukee's Best Light has been replaced by Jack Links Beef Jerky as the main sponsor. The lack of beer flowing in this area has made the room almost a bore at times.)
At 12:01, with at least 15 media photographers snapping pictures and ESPN cameras rolling, Pollack welcomed everybody to Day 1 of the 40th Main Event. He then turned the mic over to Effel, who thanked the players and the fans for their support, which drew a loud applause. He also thanked the dealers and his floor staff and called them "the best team we have ever assembled at the WSOP."
Effel then announced the general rules of engagement and surprised a few people in the room by saying only four levels – rather than the customary five – would be played. He also reminded the players that for the first time they would be receiving 30,000 chips – three times the buy-in.
Pollack then took the mic back and held up the 2009 Main Event gold bracelet saying he was holding in his hands the bracelet that "poker players from around the world dream about winning."
When it was time to announce the usually dramatic "Shuffle Up and Deal," a surprise guest joined Pollack and Effel on the stage to handle the honors -- Sasquatch from Jack Links Beef Jerky. A curious choice for sure (as we pause for a rant).
Last year, Las Vegas legend Wayne Newton received the Shuffle Up and Deal honors on Day 1. The mood was much more festive as he entered the tournament floor flanked by showgirls and a marching band. This year we got a guy in a Big Foot costume. Things became more uncomfortable when the words were muffled coming out of Sasquatch's furry mouth. Then – just when you thought it couldn't get any worse – Sasquatch put his arms around Pollack and Effel and posed for pictures.
Not sure what the thought process was behind this choice, but in my mind the start of Day 1 of the 40th anniversary of the Main Event deserved better (end rant).
Nonetheless, the cards went in the air and you could feel the energy level rising again. There were only five players at the two ESPN featured tables when play began and none were big names. The fans that got there early to watch the action seemed disappointed.
At 12:16, the first person was officially eliminated from the 2009 Main Event. And for some reason, the dork from New York received a loud ovation when it was announced he had been bounced to the rail just minutes after the tournament began.
Rapheal Zimmerman – who is geekier than Louis Skolnick – was his name and I can think of about 10,000 better things that he could have done with his $10,000 than play six minutes in the 2009 Main Event. The 27-year-old – who went all-in with an opened-ended straight and backdoor flush draw – was at Seat 8, Table 117 and lost to a full house on the river. ESPN wasn't there to catch the action so they asked him to go back to the table and stage another goodbye. He played up to the cameras by ripping off his bracelet and screaming, "I'm the first one out this year, but I'll be the last one out next year."
As Zimmerman walked away from the table, a group of reporters asked to speak with him. A guy from ESPN asked him to fill out a sheet with his contact info and Zimmerman seemed to be relishing the attention that he most assuredly does not get on a daily basis.
As the afternoon went on, the rail grew more crowded and fans were now standing three and four deep. Sammy Farha finally showed up at the ESPN secondary table to sit alongside Mueller. And by 1:15, the main ESPN table was finally full, albeit there were no big names to speak of.
Speaking of ESPN, we spotted poker announcer Lon McEachern roaming the room on crutches. McEachern – who we featured during last year's WSOP – said that he had knee surgery on May 7 and was laid up for six weeks. He still can only put 50 percent of his weight on the knee, but that didn't stop him from getting out and looking for stories and angles on Day 1.
"I'm playing hurt," he said with a chuckle.
McEachern also told us that the ESPN episode of the $40,000 No Limit event is in the can and he is real pleased with how it came out.
Word began to circulate that rap star Nelly and "Seinfeld" star Jason Alexander were seated at the same table and fans began asking each other if it was true and, if so, where. It was indeed true. Later on, Nelly was moved to a different table but "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Brad Garrett joined Alexander's table. Other big names spotted on the floor include Andy Bloch, Mike Sexton, Dewey Tomko, Allen Cunningham (who was moved to the ESPN featured table for Level 2), Dennis Phillips, Roland DeWolfe (another player with multiple bracelets this year), 2007 Main Event champ Jerry Yang, Beth Shak, Jean-Robert Bellande and cricket legend Shane Warne. 2004 Main Event champ Greg Raymer wasn't playing, but he was spotted in the Joe Hachem Players Suite taking on all comers in Wii tennis. And the always stunning Lacey Jones was in the house doing some TV work for WSOP.com.
Just as the player went on their first break at 2:08, the main stage got some more attention and thankfully it wasn't because Sasquatch had showed up again. The fetching David "Chip" Reese Memorial Trophy – which is given to the winner of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship in honor of the late Reese – was being put on display in preparation for the final bracelet ceremony of the Series. In what has turned out to be a fantastic addition to the WSOP, a ceremony was held each day to honor the bracelet winner from the day before with the winner's national anthem also being played over the loudspeaker. Before Level 2 began, four players were honored – including the 2009 winner of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship, David Bach.
When the U.S. national anthem was over, Pollack told the dealers to put the cards back into the air. Play resumed and Day 1 action continued. The scene will remain the same here for the next few days as the four Day 1s play out. The curiosity and anticipation will grow regarding how many entrants the Main Event will get (the guess here is around 6,600 -- just a little bit less than last year) and then things will get a bit more intense as the money bubble approaches. On July 15, the second set of November Nine players will be decided and then we'll all gather back here at the Rio on Nov. 7 to see the 2009 Main Event champion get crowned.
Here's hoping when we return this fall, Sasquatch is nowhere to be found.