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Raise or Get Out

What I Learned about Writing and Life at the 2001 World Series of Poker

"Who do you write for?" This is the question I received most often, standing just inside the spectator barrier, proudly displaying the laminated press badge.

"I write for a small arts magazine in Chicago."

"Oh, that's odd," was the most common response, or my favorite, "Poker art isn't usually very good," coming from a player who was undoubtedly thinking of those infamous dogs on velvet. Viva Las velvet.


In May 2000, SAIC Writing and Liberal Arts professor Jim McManus traveled to Las Vegas on assignment from Harper's magazine to cover the World Series of Poker (WSOP). He took some of the advance money, $1000 to be exact, and played in a satellite game, which is a side game created to help players win their way into the final event without having to cough up the full $10,000 buy-in. Although he had played poker for a number of years, he had never played in a tournament. He won the game, which landed him in the main event. Four days later he was sitting at the final table with his hero, T.J. Cloutier, and four of the other top players in the world. He finished fifth in the tournament and walked away with about a quarter of a million dollars and a great story.

For the fall 2000 semester, McManus brought his poker expertise and amazing true stories to SAIC's M.F.A. writing students in his class - "Literature and the Science of Poker." We all had different reasons for signing up: some people had parents who played poker; others were obsessed with gambling in general. I signed up because it scared me, because the teacher wrote for Harper's, because I didn't know how to play beyond five-card draw, which I learned back in elementary school playing strip poker with my cousins. I knew a lot of men who played, who had regular poker nights - no women allowed - but hadn't considered playing myself.

During this class, McManus passed on a lot of advice, about poker and about writing. Like the art world and the milieu of writing workshops, poker has its own rhetoric, its own "show don't tell." Whenever you talk to experienced players, they tell you things like: "You have to know who you're playing against," "You have to represent a strong position," etc. Of course, these are valid pieces of advice, but after you've read Cloutier's book (Championship No-Limit and Pot Limit Hold 'Em) and the articles and personal narratives on the poker websites, they bring diminishing returns and sound like empty statements, something you would expect an Obi Wan to tell a Luke just starting out in the game.

One piece of advice continues to be useful to me, both in poker and in art and, frankly, in life. It's one of the first things McManus told us in class, and something he repeated often: Raise or fold. If you are going to be in a hand, be aggressive. Don't call. The easiest way to lose your ass in poker is to call every hand "just to see." If it's low stakes and just for fun, that's one thing. If you play this way at the World Series, you will eventually end up in the bleachers watching your buddies at the final table. If you have it or if you know your opponent doesn't, raise, be aggressive, get in there with strength.

Of course, this transfers directly to writing, especially to journalism: Ask for the interview even if the subject seems disappointed or distracted or irritated by a barrage of journalists. Don't waste the whole tournament standing around the tables taking notes, trying to cover everything "just to see." As a journalist, if you keep calling, waiting for the story, you will squander your time and it will never come. If you look weak, you won't be at that table for very long.

I can't say exactly what led me to the World Series, but after reading the stories about Cloutier, Amarillo Slim, Annie Duke, Chris Ferguson, and other poker celebrities, I had to see it for myself. So, I looked it up on the Horseshoe Casino website, emailed them about getting a press pass, got a discount ticket on the Internet, and was on my way.


The WSOP started in 1949 as a challenge between Nick the Greek, a well-known gambler, and Johnny Moss, the legendary poker player. Benny Binion, the notorious and beloved owner of the Horseshoe Casino, agreed to arrange the game, which lasted for five months. In 1970, Binion revived the spirit of this game by bringing the best poker players together to determine who could carry the title of World Champion. In 1982 the World Series had 52 participants. In 2001, 613 players qualified or put up the full buy-in for the final event.

Binion's Horseshoe is located on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. When you walk into the main playing room for the tournament, a giant conference room with 60 poker tables, you see cards neatly laid out on the tables and dealers sitting in starched white shirts with old-Western bow ties (women too). Dealers are intensely alert but some of their faces look a little haggard, particularly by the end of the third day.

Spectators line one side of the room and one column through the middle of the tables. It's very restricted, so if you don't have a press pass, it is impossible to see many of the games until at least the third day if not the fourth.

When the tournament starts, each player gets chips and proceeds to an assigned seat, which is announced over the PA system. Some players are what you might expect, the old wind-worn cowboys right off the ranch (or at least off the 1950s Texas poker circuit), but most are not what you would expect: they are a mix of moms and dads, men in golf shirts and baseball hats, intensely serious women in everything from Ann Taylor casual to Patagonia, and a lot of men in their late twenties/early thirties, relaxed professional, the kind of guys your friends back home would be married to if they didn't have a serious poker habit.


Although the full World Series includes 27 events during April and May, the main event, which happens in the third week of May, is no-limit Texas hold 'em. In the tournament, nine players sit around the table, but you can play with as few as two. Each player gets two cards starting with the player first off the button, who has also contributed what is known as the small blind (a required bet before you look at your cards). The next player contributes the big blind. Throughout the game, the blinds rotate after each hand as well, changing a player's relative position constantly throughout the day. Also, the tournament is set up so these blinds increase after each round, so after a certain point it is impossible to continue playing if you aren't winning some big hands.

The game proceeds as follows:

First round of betting. At a home game with limited betting, almost everyone around the table will throw in a quarter just to see what cards will come, but in the World Series, especially on day one, most players fold. Players are in preservation mode, holding onto their chips so they can play for the money. They do not want to be in a hand unless they are sure they have the best hand (called "the nuts") or unless they want to represent that they have it.

Dealer flops three cards face-up on the table ("the flop"), which becomes part of the shared hand. Another round of betting ensues. During the first two days of the World Series, hands rarely get past this point.

Another round of betting.

Dealer flops the fourth card ("fourth street.")

Betting again, then the fifth card ("fifth street," also known as the river.)

We saw the most extraordinary heartache on the river, essentially players who started with strong hands, but who were beaten by players with weak hands that evolved into the best hands after the fifth cards were turned. (For a classic bad beat story, visit the This American Life website and listen to the September 7 story about player Paul Phillips.)


Even though I had been a reporter for several months before this assignment, this was the first major event I'd covered, and as expected, I made a lot (I mean a lot) of mistakes. First, I bought a nonrefundable, nonexchangeable airline ticket, leaving Las Vegas at 7:51 p.m. on Friday, the last day of the tournament. After the first day, it became obvious that I would miss the end of the tournament, that it would take much longer to finish; so that was hanging over me from the beginning. I didn't bring my laptop, a notepad, or a tape for my little recorder (at least I remembered the recorder). Using the little notepad and pen from the hotel room, I wrote down as many details of as many hands as I possibly could, following certain players who looked promising, and those I had read about in class. I wanted to be good. A good girl writing down the details of every hand. Details are the key to good writing.

Standing behind Johnny Chan's table on the first day, I was talking to a reporter from London when a guy went all-in (which means exactly what it says - the player pushes all the chips into the pot). The reporter leaned over and asked, "Why did that guy just push all his chips to the center?" Of course, those of us who play no-limit hold 'em know that's an integral part of the game. It's the ultimate show of bravery, the clear communication of "I have it. Don't mess with me." I just nodded my head as though it should be obvious. Of course, this feeling of superior knowledge didn't last long. That same reporter efficiently worked her way through the tournament, strategically interviewing players, and was out of there, undoubtedly with a perfectly acceptable story, by day three.

By the time the announcer called the end of play at 9:30 p.m. Monday, May 14, I was completely exhausted. Half of the players I had started to watch in the beginning were already out (including McManus and the 2000 World Champion, Chris Ferguson.) I returned to my room just in time to be entertained by the Fremont Street Experience, the infamous light-show extravaganza designed in an arc over the street to lure tourists from the strip to downtown, blaring the theme from 2001, "Also Spake Zarathustra," just outside my window.

Every morning I woke up in a panic. McManus was kind enough to give me advice and introduce me to a number of players and journalists, but by Wednesday (day three) I had filled up four of the mini notepads from the hotel room and still hadn't written anything substantial or come up with an angle for my story. At 5:30 a.m., unable to sleep, I walked out onto Fremont Street in search of a camera, batteries, a blank tape, salvation.


Art and poker have similar aspects of risk taking. I, poor graduate student, get on a plane and fly to Vegas on funds I don't have, with no story plan or idea of who I need to interview, never having covered a major event as a reporter. A player who's never participated in the World Series leaves the family, the stable job, hops another plane with money from savings. One of those players, Steve Riehle, made the final table. Others went out on the first day. A lot of it just depends on how the cards fall. Just like reporting: sometimes you get the story, and sometimes you don't.

As artists, we deal with the possibility of extreme success and the alternate horror of devastating failure. Of course, artists' failures are often more gradual and may not be as tangible. On day three of the tournament veteran World Series player Sam Farha was the chip leader with $1.5 million. By the end of the day he was out. I didn't see what took him down. I just looked around the room and noticed he was no longer there. Diego Cordovez, a player in his late twenties from California, took out T.J. Cloutier, the highest tournament money winner of all time and virtual poker God, and Annie Duke, the highest female money winner, at the same table on the first day, only to go out himself at the end of the third day. He went out "on the bubble," which means he was the last player to go out of the tournament without winning any money.

When you talk to the players about these losses, they seem to be okay with it, taking it as part of the game. As long as it was the right move, it was justified. You control what you can. But a player waits all year for this tournament, just as an artist might work for a year on a series that doesn't win a fellowship or a film that doesn't get accepted on the festival circuit. The only thing you can do is take it as a learning experience and keep creating. Keep playing the best you can.

Phil Gordon, another young Californian who made it to the final table for the first time this year, passed on this advice he received from Chris Ferguson about how to deal with the ups and downs: "Any time something big happens in the game, take a minute to regroup." He described a situation in which a player might win a $300,000 pot, significantly improving the stack image. From that point, it would be easy to get overly confident and make a bad decision, but his advice was to clear your mind and throw away the bad cards. Don't trick yourself into believing you have more power than you do. "It's all about luck," said Gordon. "Never put yourself in a position to be all-in unless you have the nuts."

And, as with art making, there is the obsessive quality, the seduction of the possibility that draws us all in. "There are people who gamble and people who don't," Gordon added. "And the people who don't, don't understand."


Naturally, as a woman who wants to play poker, I followed the women players carefully. As I watched them, I noticed that the women seemed much less comfortable than the men with the spectators. One player actually asked that the press be removed from the area around her table. Maybe the press hounds them because they are women, anomalies, spectacles, women who kick ass at poker, when these women are just trying to focus on being the best players they can be.

This year's final event had 14 women registered, most of whom had been in the final event before and many of whom have won other World Series events. By day three, there were two women left and by the end of the day there were none left in the money, a fact that the announcer felt obligated to remind us of intermittently throughout days four and five, while cocktail waitresses weaved through the tables to deliver Coronas and 8-ounce bottles of water with the World Series logo.

One of the players, who will remain unnamed here, walked up behind me as I was meandering through the tables, still looking for the story, and whispered in my ear, "Come over and look at my stack, baby." When I told my mom this story, she said, "Didn't you come back with anything?" I didn't know what to say.


When I met Melissa Hayden, I finally found a story - art and poker - in a respected artist who is also a respected poker player. Hayden is a photographer from New York who, among other projects as a photojournalist, shot the covers for David Sedaris's books, including the childlike scrawl of Me Talk Pretty One Day. Hayden started playing in a New York journalists' game a few years ago. One of the players there encouraged her to play at a club called the Mayfair, where she met her mentors, one of whom offered to "put her in" (i.e., fork up the money) for a World Series event. Five years later she is one of the top women players in the game, and frankly one of the top players in the game, period.

In the tournament, she made it to day two, and lasted a good part of the day with very few chips (approximately $3500). When asked how she did that, Hayden responded, "Survive, pray, don't go broke. I didn't want to put in all my chips until I was ready." She went out on pocket fives against Ace-King. It was close to the end of the round and the limits were about to go up. A big stack was coming to the table. "For me, it was a good time to get on with it," she said. "If the other player stayed in, he would have to have exactly AK to call." A king came on the flop and that was it.

Players talk about their losses in this very detailed, rational manner. They remember every detail, which made my job as a tentative reporter much easier - I was able to interview them later, rather than hounding them after a big loss, one that could have been the worst beat of their lives. ("Bad beat" is a loss, usually a devistating one.)

Many poker players are full-time professionals, but many are not. They have to find a way to balance poker with their occupation or art. McManus described this during the tournament, "Writing is my art. Poker is my avocation. I want as many threads of my life to overlap as possible." He has been able to find that balance in teaching and writing about poker.

When asked how she reconciled the two parts of her life - poker and photography - Hayden said she is working to bring them together in a photography book about poker players. Being engrained in the poker world helps her know the players and their stories, which makes the photographs better, more personal. She considers herself a semi-professional player. "It's like people in New York who have two jobs. I didn't want just one thing to be it, plus I love photography," she said. "[For] the people I meet that only play poker and can only play poker, it can become a grind. You have to be able to walk away."

Hayden's living situation reflects this balance. She spends half of her time in New York and half in Vegas. When I asked her how she liked Vegas, we were walking across Freemont Street to Starbucks to grab a coffee. The PA system was blaring Sade's "Smooth Operator." She pointed to the sky: "It's beautiful. The weather. Sade. This is Vegas." I didn't have the heart to tell her I had been assaulted at 6 o'clock that morning by that same PA system with Air Supply's "All Out of Love."


"It's always about the person I'm playing against," said Hayden about how she chooses her style of play. "I will play differently against you (pointing to me) than against T.J., because he can throw two aces away and you can't."

T.J. Cloutier is one of those players who everyone quotes and everyone fears; yet they all want to play against him because he is generally considered to be the best player in the world right now. "With T.J. you have to 'do a Hollywood,'" said Hayden, continuing with advice from the man himself. "T.J. says you should know your opponent in 15 minutes of sitting down with them. You're watching what they're watching and reading the bets: betting is a language."

Not everyone has Cloutier's table image, but you can build an image at a particular table by increasing your stack. "When you have a small stack, you don't have much of an image. You can do more if you have that image," Hayden said.

Another aspect of the image is how brave you are, how aggressive, and how you play depending on the cards luck hands you. At the end of day four, we (the press) were watching the final two tables. Wendeen Eolis, a writer for pokerpages.com who has finished in the money twice in the World Series, said aloud, "This game is about pushing people around." When asked about this later, she explained: "You cannot be passive with no-limit hold 'em. ... This means pushing people around in an intelligent way, not filled with bluster. It's about understanding the strength of your hand. If your hand is weak, you take a good calculated mathematical risk that you will improve your hand or push them around - go all in - force them to make a decision."

Many of the tournament players are statistical geniuses, and when you talk to them they are like calculators, quickly summing up the odds that this or that card will fall. Of course, this helps them know how aggressive to be, and the number of times their calculations prove to be right will affect their table image in the long run.


As the tournament progressed, we saw more players going all-in more frequently, cajoling other players, joking around, and looking nervous, but only between hands, never when the cards were in front of them. These people are all close friends. They play in tournaments against each other year-round and know each other's strengths and foibles. Who to beat. Who to fear. Who to beat so others will fear you. Who can morph his or her face into an androidian trance, one that gives absolutely no information. Who will try to throw them off their game with a mini-tantrum or a jabbing comment. Who will cause the press to swarm around the table. Who might see them win or lose.

And I wonder how much of this hub-bub is for the game and how much is for the press. This is a world of celebrity. A world of champions. Much like the art world, poker has its own celebrities, most of whom are not known anywhere outside pokerpages.com and the convention area of Binion's Horseshoe Casino. But when you are standing in Binion's in mid-May, wearing a gold bracelet, with stage lights and cameras all pointed at you, it's enough. And the desire to be in that spot is motivation enough to make your friend your enemy for five minutes or five hours because that's what it's about - going head to head, with cards or image to back you up, and hoping to win. Riehle highlighted this on the night before he approached the final table. "The money doesn't mean that much," he said. "I'm a hillbilly, I can live in a small house." Then, he pointed to 2000 World Champion Chris Ferguson's wrist, and the gold bracelet hanging there. "I want one of those."

At the end of day five, at approximately 7:51 p.m., just as my plane was taking off from the runway of McCarren International Airport, 29-year old Carlos Mortenson became the 2001 World Champion in poker, walking away with $1.5 million. Five days earlier, he was just another one of hundreds lining up to take their spots - a mysterious Spaniard with a beautiful girlfriend, a taupe fishing cap and a perfectly blank poker face. He just kept coming back to the table day after day, inching out the favorites, the hopefuls, the other celebrities we watched fall by the hour, until he became the obvious favorite, approaching the final table with over $3 million in chips. He won the last hand when a nine came down on the river, giving him a king-high straight against his opponent, who was playing with pocket aces (two aces as face down cards).

I missed the cameras, the interviews, and the celebratory drinks. Not coming from a position of strength - time, influence of my publication, or confidence - I decided to play on my potential strength and finish this article. And I hope they will let me back in, because now I know that I need a photographer and that taking notes on every little thing just makes you tired. You learn a lot more if you play a little, relax, have a drink with the players in the bar after the tournament closes each day. And even if you do have "dubious credentials," you get in there and get the interview. Get in there and play. Hell, that's what you're there for, right?

McManus's story about the World Series of Poker from the December 2000 Harper's, "Fortune's Smile" is now available in the The Best American Sports Writing 2001 (Houghton Mifflin,$13). His book about the experience is scheduled to come out in April 2003 from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. It is now under option to Landscape Entertainment, the company that produced American Beauty. He continues to play poker on a regular basis, including this year's Tournament of Champions and the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods this month. Currently on sabbatical, McManus plans to teach Literature and the Science of Poker again when he returns.

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