The Corporation and the Counter-Culture: In-Fighting at the WSOP
One of the benefits of not being a part of anyone's camp is that one can comment on both sides of a situation with equal, blithe abandon. Such is the case with the recent behind-the-scenes battles between the media "haves" at the WSOP (personified by ESPN and Card Player and to a lesser degree Bluff, though they straddled the line), and the "have-nots," represented by pretty much everyone else. There were layers and pecking orders within the have-not side as well, that being the main "other" outlets, down to many of us red-badged newbies that showed up for a few days, here and there. The biggies on the have-not/counter-culture side were Poker Stars, Party Poker and the Pokerati/Pokerblog.com crew; most of the others were foreign crews, smaller mags, online sites and independent journalists, though I am skipping a big name or two. That have-not, counterculture side centered around Otis and Pauly and April and Dan Michalski and Change100 and Wil and CC and whatzername-the-Brit-woman-from-Party and so on. Spaceman I never met. Nor did I have the chance to catch up with Sin City Carmen, for which I apologize. Things have a way of spinning out of control.
I did meet most of them... on both sides. The blogger types were your normal writerly mix: business-polite in the way all media people are when they meet others, with about four or five friendly exceptions; the others pretty much had their work to do and their friends to share their spare time with, and I was the late-arriving, not-hot newbie, and therefore not to be trusted. When I turned up onsight again for another eight days, thanks to Damon Rasheed and pokernews.com, the walls came down a tiny bit at a time. The others could see that I was indeed not fucking around, and I knocked out over 20 published pieces in the seven days I had proper 'Net access from the Rio. (Many more since then, too, all from my notes.)
Of course, after some French jackass decided that my shoulder was an appropriate resting spot for his chair after he leaned back, I did most of my writing from the auxiliary media room. Better crowd (as in lack thereof), and I'd have stayed there around the clock except for spotty 'Net access and a lack of security for my just-purchased machine, so late at night I'd return to the main room for an hour or two when the Tilted Kilt beckoned those others. On the official Main Event "off day," the one day I used the main room most of the day, I knocked off 9,000 words in a little over six hours. On that day, the main media room was the place to be. Because it didn't have any writers, including occasional;y cranky blogger types whining about the things they didn't have the power to change.
The ugliness leaked out in the writing in weird spots --- even in Pauly's stuff, to cite just one example. Pauly's the most gifted writer among all the people in the room, and I read everything he wrote from the Rio, but even he's capable of the occasional "what the hell?" moment. Like when he writes, way back on July 31: "Harrah's tossed us a few stale sandwiches on the banquet table in the media room. The animals swarmed."
Neat image, concise and gritty. Also skewed. The sandwiches were damned nice for freebies --- go ahead, call me a cheap animal, I can take it --- but it doesn't mean that we didn't get sick of them, each in our turn, after a day or two. Nor does it hint at the fact that in the pressure-chilled air of the Rio, bread goes from oven-fresh to crunchy in about four hours, so stale's a relative measure, nor that if he could still get to them and find them stale, then they had to be present for at least some period of time, nor that, media expectations be damned, Harrah's has no obligation to feed us. See, Pauly was on writer's tilt, even way back then. It's what the zoo can do. Later on, when the media net gets really tight and I ask him how the hell he can meet all his deadlines, he just shrugs, figures he'll find a way, heads out the door with Change100. In early August he looks like his gonzo writing style come to life, as if he's plowing a broad plowshare's swath through the desert, at the end of which we'll find his bones. "I made it this far!" the nearby sign will say, just like the old postcard image.
But I digress.
Think that all the ESPN and Card Player folks were evil corporate toadies, smashing everyone out of the way? In one sense, yes, but in another, not at all --- they'd paid the big bucks for the rights to get first access to the story, and whether they fucked some things up is always a judgment call. That the Card Player system didn't work as idealized now seems an easy call, but it was like a lot of other things at the '06 WSOP, a band-aid fix applied to a monster grown too large for many previous systems to work.
ESPN? Swatting people with equipment? Yes, I believe it --- there was one crew that was a pack of officious punks. But on the other side, one of the ESPN crews was a pleasant, professional crew who'd been on the job for 12 years running; I had no problem getting answers and advice for them as chance allowed, just as they knew I wasn't camera-preening, the way a couple of the red-badged writers were. (Bet you didn't hear about that, but it happened.) I don't want to be on camera, yet nonetheless I stumbled into a couple of shots, had a couple of others where rushing players managed to trap me in front of the lens. For the record, I'm not there to be on camera. But it happens.
Another instance involves the Card Player group --- they gave off nothing but an air of being besieged, being defensive, of being a general target for hate and derision without understanding what they'd done wrong or what they could do to change it. The interns on the floor and the mid-level players at the CP table took a lot a heat for their bosses' decision to pay big up front, then do the nuts-and-bolts floor work on the cheap. But if you were civil with them, besieged as they were, they'd be civil back. Mildly informative, even, on non-chip-count matters.
It held with the WSOP tournament directors, too. Despite the fact that I had to write up one terrible episode of chip non-security for a piece over at the KAP blog, the vast majority of the directors were great sources of information, friendly, helpful, and as courteous as they could be under the circumstances. From Nolan Dalla and Jack McClelland on down, they did everything they could to answer my questions --- and questions, even stupid ones, I often had. Here's something else you haven't read: By the time the worst of the media-crush problems arose, the directors had everything else pretty well in hand.
Jack McClelland said as much, a moment before he waded into the midst of the remaining action. "So tell me, Haley," he said, "would you rather be anywhere but here?"
And I had to tell him the truth, that it'd become such a tightly crushed zoo that I was ready to hit the road.
"You disappoint me. I thought you were a fan." But with a twinkle in his eye as he said it.
Oh, I am, Jack, you need not worry. But the space for fans was slim, the space for marginal writers (and distinctive tales) slimmer still. From a distance, watching, I didn't need to be there to do it anymore.
It was time to leave.
Oh a couple of mythbusting notes: The famed "hooker bar" isn't an enclosed bar at all --- it's an open-air bar built along the casino's north wall, just a little bit to the east of where the main concourse heads to the Convention Center and the WSOP action. The "Shutters" sign is not prominent.Across from the bar is one of those mini-stages built inside a small bank of slots, where an appointed Rio dancer can punch a song request into the digital control at the base, step up, and gyrate away above the slot-feeding patrons. And yes, there really are hookers at the hooker bar, any time from seven or eight p.m. on. One night, on my way up to the Voodoo Lounge, I saw a tired blonde working a guy straight from Central Casting, with his taped, hornrimmed glasses and three inches of underwear riding up out the back of his pants.
The Tilted Kilt is an enclosed bar, way down at the east end of the serpentine-styled casino, as far from the WSOP action as one can get on the main floor of the Rio. It's not far from several banks of Mr. Cashman and Hot Hot Penny 1-cent slots, and it's the loud end of the casino proper, where a rotating series of floor shows occurs. Some of the shows are off-floor, too, mainly three different gondolas that ride the ceiling rails as more dancers, uhhh, dance and toss plastic Rio bead necklaces to pleading casino patrons on the casino floor and the balconies just above. The gondolas make lap after lap after lap, a different mix of the Rio's scantily-clad sextoys appearing on each lap the gondola makes, each dancer with an OSHA-mandated safety strap around her waist, securing her to the ride. (Occasional hims ride, too.) The Kilt's just a bar. Had a beer there, one night. Happily alone. Outside the "Rio Grande" ceiling gondola whirred by, and a cacaphony of whistles went off as the heart of that lap's production began. No doubt, beads were tossed.
End of beer. Off to quieter climes, old, old me.