Some mighty big stakes in World Series of Poker Technorati Profile
By Greg Cote
MIAMI - You wouldn't exactly call it a sporting event, despite the presence and imprimatur of ESPN. You would call it a bizarre event, a circus, excessive, splendidly American. Is it a card tournament? Yeah. Like the Super Bowl is a football game. Like Las Vegas is just another western town.
If you looked around the room at the World Series of Poker, which ends Thursday at the Rio on the Vegas strip, at any one time you might have seen hunched before a stack of chips Spider-Man Tobey Maguire, porn star Ron Jeremy, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, actress Shannon Elizabeth, golfer Paul Azinger, actor James Garner and boxer Antonio Tarver. Also, a New Orleans grandmother who played in a nun's habit and delighted in breaking the serious mood at her table by sitting on a whoopee cushion; a monkey named Mikey in a tuxedo; and Ryan Madanick, an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
Actually the monkey, trained to recognize colors and suits of cards, ultimately was barred from playing despite having his entry fee sponsored by a poker website. But Madanick was there, an answer to the rhetorical, ``Is there a doctor in the (mad)house?''
The event's appeal is that unique, eclectic array of participants. This is where you find the stars of poker who do this professionally playing alongside serious amateurs, casual once-a-month-with-the-beer-buddies guys, rich women who don't know their ace from a hole in the ground, regular folks who saved for years for the $10,000 buy-in and celebrities to whom the entry fee was spare change.
The World Series of Poker began in 1969 with six guys sitting around a table, back when the game's national image was pretty much confined to the once-ubiquitous velvet painting of dogs dealing a hand on the wall of your wood-paneled den.
This year's WSOP found a record 8,773 players filling 220 tables in a convention hall the size of a football field, all in for a top prize of $12 million in a two-week Texas Hold 'Em event reaching a crescendo Thursday with the final table of nine survivors. The velvet dogs are gone, replaced by card sharks in reflector sunglasses, gamblers-turned-celebrities by a game-turned-TV phenomenon.
If you doubt poker has become a big draw, consider that 50,000 fans swarmed in to watch the WSOP, that the final table will be shown live on pay-per-view, and that ESPN will air a series of 32 one-hour specials on the tournament beginning Aug. 22.
The circus drew Madanick briefly away from his medical specialty, gastroenterology, in an effort to give his rival players indigestion for awhile. He was one of several South Floridians in the field, a WSOP first-timer who won his entry in an online tournament but is strictly an amateur. He is 33, married with a small child. Poker is a guilty pleasure.
``My co-workers were excited, but the only reason my family was excited is because I could have won millions,'' he said, back in Miami.
Madanick didn't finish in the money (only the top 10 percent do), let alone reach the final table, where all remaining players are assured at least $1 million. He won a bunch of fun, though, and some memories.
When he got knocked out at 2:15 a.m. on the first day, comedian Brad Garrett (from Everybody Loves Raymond) was one table away. Two tables away (where the ESPN cameras were) were poker brat-superstar Phil Hellmuth and revered 72-year-old Doyle Brunson, the patriarch of the poker boom - both getting knocked out.
``When Hellmuth went out, everybody cheered because they were glad to see him go,'' Madanick said. ``When Brunson went out, everybody cheered for him, not because he was gone.''
Madanick was still playing when both stars were bounced. That's what is neat about the WSOP. Regular players have a chance to say they beat - or were beaten by - the best. How many of us get to beat Tiger Woods at his game? Or step into the batter's box and face Roger Clemens? It can happen in poker.
``I outlasted Phil Hellmuth,'' said Madanick, still savoring the words. ``I also outlasted Doyle Brunson.''
Most of the pros take their elimination nonchalantly, seeing no shame in losing to amateurs. Odds are against the pros by sheer numbers in the WSOP. Long-term, skill wins. One hand? Luck of the draw.
That might be why none of the surviving nine is a full-time pro. The chip leader on Thursday's final table, aided by a massage therapist kneading his shoulders, is appropriately named Gold: Jamie Gold, 36, a former talent agent whose clients included ``Soprano'' James Gandolfini and ``Desperate Housewife'' Felicity Huffman.
``The main event had almost 9,000 players. It's not reasonable and rational to expect to win,'' says Vanessa Rousso, 23, of Miami, also knocked out early. ``Too much luck is involved, and every professional player accepts that as a rational truth.''
Rousso attends UM's law school, but her degree will be a fallback if her poker career continues its ascent. She is a rising star, with her own eponymous website and her own persona: Lady Maverick.
``It's not so much the money,'' she said of poker's allure. ``If money was so important, I'd work as an attorney because it's so much more secure. Poker is exciting, and it's flexible. You work for yourself. Whatever hours you want to keep, there's always a game available, live or on the Internet. And being a young woman, sort of a rarity in the poker world, there are a lot of business opportunities. You get invited to tournaments and fly around the country and play free. How many 23-year-olds get that?''
Rousso isn't the most nationally prominent player from down here, though. That may be Michael ``The Grinder'' Mizrachi, 25, of Hollywood. He started playing online; now he's a fixture in the 5-year-old World Poker Tour, winning almost $4 million the past two WPT seasons, and ranked No. 1 by Card Player magazine. His motto: ``I am a machine. I don't stop grinding.''
Efrain Lopez, 36, of Miami, may want to get to where Mizrachi is. Lopez recently quit his job as an investment banker on Brickell to determine in his own mind if his success at poker - he says he is up $250,000 this year - means he should set out as a full-time pro. He didn't cash in the WSOP, but at least avoided having to decipher whether a tuxedo-wearing monkey named Mikey was bluffing or not.
``I think I'd freak out a little,'' he said. ``It would be a no-win situation. If you win, well, it's a monkey. And if the monkey beats you, it's a monkey!''
© 2006, The Miami Herald.
Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services