It’s been a little over a week since I returned from Las Vegas, having been down to the Rio for the tail end of the World Series of Poker (WSOP), to do some networking and take a shot at the $1,111 Little One for One Drop (no, it wasn’t me who got kicked out), which was the final event on the schedule this year. I’ve been so busy catching up on other things since getting back that I haven’t had time to write about it until now, but the “first trip to the WSOP” article is as essential a part of any poker journalist’s career as making said trip in the first place, so here it goes. In many ways, it was much as I’d expected, but there were a few surprises, good and bad. Since this article is a conceptual cliché from the start, I figure I may as well own it and go for the classic “Good, Bad and Ugly” breakdown.
What I went down for, as much as the poker, was for the people. I’ve made a great many friends and acquaintances over the past 20-or-so months that I’ve been doing this job, but most of them I’ve only known online; some, I’m not even sure I’d recognize in a crowd. Prior to this trip, the only “poker people” I’d met face to face were Andrew Brokos – who took me out for coffee during a trip to Montreal – and my fellow PartTimePoker contributor Steve Ruddock – who I joined on a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard while staying with my aunt on Cape Cod (aka “the Cape”) last summer.
But of course, the WSOP is the Mecca of poker, so if you’re looking to run into someone, you’ll probably do it there. Of course, the downside, which I should have anticipated, is that everyone is mostly really busy playing poker (or sleeping in after spending all night playing poker), so unless you happen to get seated at their table, or bust your tournaments at the same time, it’s tough to find time to exchange more than a few words with anyone.
Needless to say, I met up with my podcast co-host Andrew Barber several times; I also went out for lunch with my cousin Eric Jackson, the AI poker researcher, who plays the Main Event most years, and with Dan Stewart, my employer for my new gig as managing editor for PokerScout. Another person I had a chance to spend significant time with – mostly playing blackjack – was my Twitter friend and podcast guest Mariana Vamplew, while her husband David was making his deepish run in the Main Event (he finished 258th).
There were plenty of other people I bumped into briefly, with whom I wish I’d had a chance to spend a little more time, among them Kevin Mathers, Nate Meyvis and Will Shillibier. I also ran into the problem of occasionally forgetting that I’m not as familiar to most of the poker world as they are to me, sort of a reverse ostrich fallacy: If I recognize them, they must recognize me. This led to a few moments where a reflexive “hi” was met with a confused look, reminding me that although many people have read my work and/or spoken with me online, and some may even remember my name, very few have any idea what I look like.
As for the poker itself, it was good, and basically what one would expect. Registration was simple, and all the dealers I had were competent, and most were friendly as well. The selection of cash games wasn’t quite what I’d hoped, with no mixed games available below 20/40 while I was there, but that may have been due in part to the timing of my trip. With only a few exceptions, the players at my tables were good natured and mediocre at poker, which is, of course, the combination you want. Although I didn’t get the result I wanted, the experience was positive enough, and seemed long-term profitable enough that I will consider going back next year.
Although the individual dealers and staff members were generally friendly and helpful, reminders are everywhere that one is dealing with a large corporation where all the important decisions are being made by the usual gang of penny-pinching spreadsheet jockeys. I’m well-aware of how low priority poker and poker players are in general for casinos, compared to their other offerings, but I was surprised at how palpable that often was in the moment.
Of course, it’s inevitable that certain things are done on the cheap. The WSOP is a huge event, and a temporary one. It would be unreasonable to expect that the space and the equipment be up to the standards of a permanent card room. So, although I’m spoiled by the cushy chairs and easily-navigated layout of my local spot, Playground Poker, I was neither surprised nor disappointed to find a physical environment more akin to a bake sale in a high school gymnasium than anything suggestive of the amounts of money being played for.
The bigger and more avoidable problem had to do with staffing. The dealers I encountered all knew how to do their jobs, as I said, but they did make a fair number of small errors simply due to fatigue. I was down at the end of the series, after all, and they’d all been working insane schedules for most of the summer. With all the new huge-field events in the past couple of years – Colossus, Crazy Eights, and so on – the required number of dealer-hours has been on the rise, which basic economics suggests should mean increased wages in order to attract more to come in from out of town. Instead, wages were unexpectedly slashed last year, nearly inciting a walkout. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got fewer dealers this year as a result, a suspicion partially confirmed by the absurd daily and weekly schedules some of them described to me.
The same problem is apparent in other employee roles. In particular, drink service was generally slow, sometimes absurdly so. Here too, I’m spoiled by my experiences at Playground, where the dealers can summon a server on request, but I would have been able to tolerate the WSOP’s system of simply having people making the rounds if there had been enough such people. I’d estimate that it typically took at least 45 minutes between opportunities to place an order (and then 10 minutes to actually receive it), but at one point during my second One Drop bullet, it seemed there was only one server for an entire quadrant of the Brazilia, and it took two full one-hour levels and an entire table full of disgruntled players calling for him every time he passed before we were allowed to make our requests. Even then, he got some of them wrong, for which I don’t blame him; he was clearly way overworked and justifiably disgruntled himself.
On the media side of things, it sounds as if things are equally bad. The in-house journalists typically get a bad rap for making errors in reporting hands, but they’re equally under-staffed and even more under-prioritized than those working in other roles. Even at the featured table, where you expect they would have additional resources and assistance, they’re in fact worse off, kept away from the table and watching on a screen, with no audio provided to help them interpret the action or include player comments in their reporting.
Less irritating, but more surprising (to me, anyway), was the quality of accommodation at the Rio itself. Here, too, you can see the signs of cost-cutting on the part of the notoriously troubled Caesars Entertainment, which owns the place (and the WSOP brand itself). The property is only 26 years old, and was apparently renovated in 2005 and 2007, but doesn’t show it.
Overall, there’s a general impression of shabbiness once you get away from the main casino floor, and particularly in the Masquerade Tower, where we were staying. There were no specific large problems with anything, but lots of little details in which the evidence of wear-and-tear and a lack of maintenance was apparent. The room lock was flaky and I had to get a replacement key card at one point. The buttons in the elevator would get stuck and have to be popped out again manually to avoid making trips to unwanted floors. The shower door squeaked loudly on its rails. The air conditioning made some weird noises as well.
“No one is trying” is an oft-repeated complaint in the poker world, and between the staffing problems and the condition of the Rio itself, I can see how one gets that impression. Naturally, the WSOP holds a unique role in the poker world and will remain a required stop for pros for the foreseeable future, regardless of the amount of effort being made; the question I’m left with is how much longer the brand on its own will bring in recreational crowds if the experience offered elsewhere makes them feel more valued. For those looking to play a whole series of four- and five-figure buy-in events, there isn’t much alternative to the WSOP, but for the typical amateur with only a few thousand dollars to burn, I think the experience-to-expenditure ratio would be much better at most WPT/EPT stops and the like. How long before people start figuring that out?
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.