An Inside Look at the WSOP, by Mark McCarter


Guy gets a pair of 2s, yet he wins $8.15 million and a bracelet that would make a Kardashian blush.

You get a pair of deuces, you’re out $10 in the weekly game in your buddy’s man cave.

That’s the World Series of Poker for you, and how goofy it can be. Two deuces winning the championship is like winning the Indy 500 in a minivan, the World Series of baseball on a ninth-inning balk.

But that’s what happened for Scott Blumstein, who became the 2017 WSOP champ last week and exclaimed, “Two weeks ago, I was just a kid who loved to play poker and somehow here I am the champion of the main event. Ah, a line right from a John R. Tunis “Kid from Tompkinsville” novel.

As it happens, I have a history with the World Series of Poker. I actually covered it in 2001, back before it was the phenomenon it has become, like having seen The Beatles play The Cavern in Liverpool.

I had managed to sell to my editor a series in which we’d cover a national or world championship each month.

These days, the newspaper’s “humor” writer would prepare a listicle of “12 Things You Wouldn’t Believe Have A National Championship.” But back then, it still seemed important to go places and figuratively take your readers there, to set the scene and talk to the people who were involved and produce interesting stories.

We were already covering some of the events as a matter of course – the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four – but for others we opted for obscurity and convenience. To wit, the World Series of Dominoes in L.A. (Lower Alabama, in a burg called Andalusia) and a field-dog trials in western Tennessee, which was mostly an excuse for participants to begin drinking gin at 10 a.m., all in the interest of sport.

The only real boondoggle was the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

It was played in those days at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, a dark, anachronism of a joint with a maze of hallways and the smell of history. It opens up onto Freemont Street in the old, “downtown” section of Vegas, miles away from the glitz of The Strip and its B-grade comedians and D-cup dancers.

The five-day tournament was held in a low-ceiling, fluorescent-lit ballroom with islands of green-felt ovals crammed onto the field of burgundy carpet. There was a constant hum of conversation and noise like a forest full of crickets, the nervous fingernails clicking on stacks of plastic chips or shifting them around or tossing them into piles.

The World Series of Poker had gained some national attention through ESPN telecasts, but it wouldn’t be until two years later, after Chris Moneymaker vaulted from the netherworld of online poker and onto the championship table, that the WSOP really caught on with the masses.

In 2001, the defending champ was Chris Ferguson, who went by the nicknamed “Jesus,” because of his long hair and beard. To be honest, he looked much more like a roadie for Willie Nelson than the Savior we saw in Sunday School pictures.

“I like to tell people I got (the nickname) because I kept getting miracle cards,” he told me.

There were two celebrity participants, the actors Wilfred Brimley and Gabe Kaplan. The latter emanated an air of unapproachability, maybe so he’d be seen as true poker pro and not a “Nick at Nite” fixture.

The real celeb, in my book, was Thomas Austin Preston Jr.

You may know him as “Amarillo Slim.” For decades, he was one of America’s great legends as a gambler and all-around character – and maybe a little bit of caricature. He’d go around saying things like somebody was “wise as a tree full of owls.”

He was wearing a Western-cut suit with a bolo tie and trademark cowboy hat, with a rattlesnake brim, including the rattle and the snake’s head. Sit across the poker table from him, the snake’s eyes and fangs were pointed right at you.

Amarillo Slim re-inflated some of his legend as he told me stories, and I asked him about where he grew up.

“Son, where I lived, the population never changed,” he said. “Because every time a kid was born, a man left town.”

Mark McCarter is a four-time Alabama Sportswriter of the Year and author of two books. After 38 years in the newspaper business, he’s now Senior Writer for the City of Huntsville Communications Department.

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