Friday, July 12, 2013

2013 WSOP, Day 44: Working in the Amazon

For most of my reporting from this year’s World Series of Poker I have been stationed in the Amazon Room. It’s become a very familiar work environment for me, to which I’ve returned every summer for six years now.

A couple of nights ago I was stationed at a table in the corner of the Amazon. It was around 1 a.m., I think. Play had concluded and I was finishing tying some loose ends before packing up. A security guard with the familiar bright yellow shirt and black patches ambled over to where I was sitting.

“Who do you work for?” he asked, and I told him. He chuckled and said “You’re f*ckin’ here more than I am!”

The Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino has several big ballrooms it has employed over the years in which to stage the WSOP. This year once again the Brasilia and Pavilion rooms were put into service throughout the Series. But the Amazon is where the WSOP’s most memorable moments have tended to occur since the move from Binion’s to the Rio completed in 2006. I’m speaking of the summer, that is, as the delayed Main Event final table (in place since ’08) shifts the action down to the Penn & Teller Theater.

I was reading Vin Narayanan offering a list of 10 observations about the WSOP for the Casino City Times a few days ago. One of his points was that “the Amazon Room in the Rio hasn’t just replaced Binion’s,” but has “made it a distant memory.” Narayanan is mostly right, I think. The WSOP has been completely transformed from what it had been at Binion’s, having been at the Rio long enough now to develop its own, related but unique tradition.

Yesterday Day 3 of the Main Event played out, with 1,753 players starting the day. They’d gotten down to 954 by dinner. During that break, Doyle Brunson drove his scooter over to a quiet space in the Amazon and snoozed for a short while. After waking up he tweeted how he’d been napping underneath the big banner of Puggy Pearson, hung in recognition of his Main Event win long ago. “Can’t believe it’s been 40 years since he won WSOP,” he wrote.

Brunson, of course, is the one who ties the new to the old, as far as the WSOP goes, and who perhaps alone is keeping Binion’s and what the Series once was from becoming entirely “a distant memory.” The almost-80-year-old returns to a top 40 stack today, and I don’t think there’s anyone -- players included -- who is not rooting for him to continue his run.

It was near the end of the night that the last tables were broken in the Brasilia and WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel made the announcement that all of the remaining players -- about 680 at that moment -- were seated in the Amazon. “The next World Series of Poker Main Event Champion is in this room!” said Effel, and there was a kind of distracted cheer in response.

I say distracted because the tournament had gotten to the point where many were wondering if perhaps the cash bubble might burst before the night concluded, as the final 648 will be making the money. Effel then removed doubt regarding that question by assuring all that the tournament would not be reaching that stage before play concluded, and indeed by the time the last level ended there were still 666 players left.

It was probably a good thing the night ended when it did, as the atmosphere had built to an almost unsettling mix of anxiety and excitement about the bubble’s approach, with tons of media filling empty spaces around and in between tables. The Poker PROduction guys are now working full blast to capture footage for the later ESPN broadcasts (which will begin with Day 3 of the Main Event again). So not only are the additional cameras and crew adding more bodies to fill the available space in the Amazon, they’re also adding to the tension a bit as everyone is aware that not only is a tournament playing out but a reality show (of sorts) is being constructed as well.

I suppose at the moment Effel made his announcement, the Amazon -- or, my office -- was as packed as it has been all summer and as it will be going forward. You could barely see the carpet, its criss-crossing lines all covered by people criss-crossing back and forth themselves. As the field whittles down from 666 to two hundred-something today, tables will be removed and there will be more space in which to move around.

It was about an hour before the announcement came that I found myself doing another circuit through the tables in the Orange section, experiencing an almost dizzying moment of déjà vu as I thought about walking the exact same route, time after time after time, as people played poker around me.

Some of those people playing are the same, some are different. Some of those who are walking the route with me are the same, too, while some are new. But there was something intensely uncanny about walking through my own footsteps like that again and being so aware of doing so -- the familiar becoming strange.

Such a feeling happens in any work environment. I’ve worked other jobs long enough where I’ve suddenly become conscious of doing something I’ve done before hundreds of times, and thus been made to think of the action differently, if only for a moment -- as though viewing it from without, if that makes sense.

It’s a weird place to work, the Amazon Room in the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada in mid-July, alongside hundreds of others filling the space doing what they’re doing. Kind of different, I suppose, compared to most jobs. But kind of the same, too.

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