It Wasn't Quite Dannemann's Home Game, But...
I walked into the Rio's Convention Center a few minutes before play was to begin on Day 2-A of the Main Event. The players were drifting back and forth between the Amazon Room and the various suites, the bathrooms, or to whatever other last-minute preparations needed to be done. A guy calls over to me, in a calm voice, steps into my path toward the media room. "Hi, how've you been?"
"Randy?" I pop back, a bit incredulously.
I'm a bit taken back --- it's a guy from my old Wausau, WI home game, name of Randy Lang. Shortish, balding on top, mid-forties, but it's Randy, and here he is in a black Bodog shirt getting ready to start Day 2 play. "But not for long," he says, "I've only got around 12,000 in chips." It turns out it's his third trip to the Main Event, not his first, although it is his first time to make it through to the second day's play.
What's odd, though, is that I figured Randy as the player from that old group of mine who was most likely to have made it to the WSOP, but I'd checked the player lists and found him not listed. Mystery solved, in parts One and Two: the overall sheets reported him as "Lung, Randall," and though he was a Bodog qualifier, he seemed to have dropped off their scope entirely, not being on their list of 131 Day-2 survivors.
Randy was always a hard-edged card gambler with an angle-shooter's mentality toward everything he's done; there's a few of them in every small city. Still, Randy was always able to back up his hustle and the fast talk with real results, and that's the difference, why I learned to give him his dues even if he occasionally drove me nuts. Back in the days when baseball cards reigned supreme, Randy ran much of the central Wisconsin show action, and he played the back markets as the Beanie Baby craze came and went as well. One of the funniest lines about Randy I ever heard came from Jeff Fritsch, the son of Larry Fritsch, of Larry Fritsch (Baseball) Cards* fame. Jeff said about Randy: "That Randy Lang, he's so crooked that when he dies, they're going to have to screw him into the ground."
[* The senior Fritsch amassed one of the world's most valuable sports-card collections, worth millions, and built up a mail-order business which his son runs to this day... or at least the last time I checked. A visit inside the Fritsch vaults --- and I've been there --- is the equivalent of opening up and handling those trophy cases full o' WSOP bracelets that were on display at the Rio. Within its own world, it's the same type of rarified air.]
A typical Randy Lang story: he needed to make a trip to an East Coast card show to set up shop, and had no vehicle. So on the day before the trip, he goes down to the dealer and forks out cash for a new SUV, from dumping some old ballcards through his dealer network, then hits the road. Randy once hosted a game in the strangest location I've ever played --- the subterranean chambers (the word "basement" doesn't do them justice) that ran beneath and interconnected many of the stores in the oldest part of downtown Wausau. We might have been playing under 3rd St., but we were not going to get busted, that I can assure you. And Randy's been tossed out of one of the Wisconsin tribal casinos for life, for purportedly capping a blackjack bet; he has had his drunk and stupid moments through the years.
Still, Randy's always shot straight with me (well, maybe excepting a small gin game or two), and despite his own hell-in-a-handbasket attitude toward the world, he did me any number of small favors over the years. And yet Randy is still Randy, too sharp-edged for most people to handle. It's no surprise when he gives me a chuckle and says, "Ehh, three people at the table already hate me." I learn later that Randy plays under the name "Wausau" on Bodog, and under different handles on other sites. But his "I won't be playing for long" prediction for Day 2 turns to be right on the mark. He doubles through once, then gets caught running a naked bluff with 5-2... and he's out the door.
It's a blast from the past when I've done nothing for days but swim in a sea of strange new faces.
And the next day, it happens again....
Day 2 is underway for a couple of hours when I'm accosted by a tall gentleman with a graying blond moustache, who greets me with a loud "Hey, how's it going?" in a basso profundo voice. And this one is Patrick Schmitt, another Wausau native, another player in that same semi-regular, built-from-a-batch-of-bowling-friends card game from years ago. It takes me a moment to recognize him behind his moustache, and I have my second double-take in as many days. He'd made Day 2 as well, after qualifying through Party, but his own Main Event came to an end when he ran A-Q into A-K. Pat ("Schmitty") is not inconsolable, however; he's still enjoying the scene, sent to the rail or not. It's his first trip to the WSOP, and he utters a line that I find funny enough to work into a piece I do for John Caldwell and Pokernews.com, although it's one of the three pieces I send to Caldwell that he doesn't run. Schmitty is quite sincere when vows that he's coming back, whether he satellites in or has to fork over the ten grand on his own. "It's the last great American gold rush," he says, and he believes it. It's the best Everyman touch I hear on the day. Schmitty also goes on a corn-pone run about wanting to find Nolan Dalla, to ask him if it's true that they they wouldn't let Mikey the Chimp play "because he wasn't 21." Well, that one didn't even make it by me.
Schmiity is backwoods/farmboy Wisconsin come to life, tall, lean, tough as nails. I've known his whole family for many years --- his father a dairy and ginseng farmer, his mother a working country wife and antiques dealer, his two brothers factory laborers. I once saw his foot after his toes were crushed under the extensible support legs of one of those giant grader/haulers used for clearing trees and cutting fire trails. He went to the hospital, had the injury set and cleaned, went home, got his normal two or three hours of sleep, then wedged a boot over his injury and limped out to work his two fulltime jobs the next day as well. A few days later I saw pus oozing out of his toe... and he'd stood all day and worked on it.
He's backwoods true, but no dummy; he's as likely to be checking on a stock option or a hot sports tip as he is milking the cows or weeding shang (ginseng), tasks he's done with equal aplomb. But he's out of the WSOP, and he has to be on his way, and I have to patrol the aisles, looking for other poker stories. Still, I give him my business card, and tell him to call me if anything comes up, or if he knows of a good card game the next time I'm up that way.
Later on that day a Party Poker rep drops into the media room and issues a room-wide invitation to attend that night's Party hoopla; he's got an open list and he's taking names. I've been skipping the WSOP party scene, but I decide that, what the hell, I'll go to one and see the fuss and bother. But only about 20 minutes after the Party rep leaves my phone rings, and it's Schmitty on the line. He'll be flying out in the morning, but he's just found out that he's got $280 of hard comps at the MGM Grand that he's going to lose if he can't burn them up. Can I get myself over to the MGM Grand for dinner and drinks?
Hmmm. I can party with Party, or I can get together with an old friend that I haven't seen in at least eight years.
It's not even a choice. I take my laptop back to my room at the Gold Coast, then cab over to the MGM. Pat and I end up at one of the nice steakhouses on the main floor, burn through a couple of $80 steaks, reminisce about the old days. He's relaxed and his voice is low and carrying; I have to shush him a couple of times when his yarns include his unique northwoods injections; lines like "Oh, my aching junk!" uttered loud and low, bring looks of scorn from tables all around. But I'm laughing, too. Same old Schmitty.
For a group of five or six friends who used to play some poker together, I guess that old north Wisconsin group had a respectable showing in big-time poker. Two of the small group made it to second-day play at the WSOP, at the same time I was making my unsuccessful trip into the nationally televised Poker Dome, though I fell short in that one as well. But I got there, and that's still a small something. Just as my old friends "got there" to this other stage.
Not quite Dannemann's home game, but not bad for a small group of players from a small town, far off the beaten path. We could've done worse.