World Series of Poker celebrates the great American game

June 19, 2011

I come here for the desert calm, the dry heat, the scent of gambling, the city-that-really-never-sleeps sensibility, the orange cones on every highway and, of course, for the World Series of Poker.

Every year, before I broadcast the Main Event on ESPN with lanky Lon McEachern, I close my eyes and play several earlier World Series events in pursuit of the almost-impossible dream — winning a bracelet.

Indeed, it remains my goal to get a bracelet before LeBron James gets a ring.

So I take my poker talents to just west of the Strip, to the Rio Hotel and Casino, and gather with kindred souls from around the world trying to outwit and outluck each other.

This summer, we feel an additional sense of camaraderie. Poker is under fire in America — that’s an entirely different column I’ll tackle in a couple of weeks — with tens of thousands of pros thrown out of work recently when online poker sites were shut down to U.S. customers.

Frankly, we’re tired of getting pushed around and treated like outcasts when we’re doing nothing wrong. Poker is as American as baseball and apple pie, and the game involves math, psychology, money management and a variety of other nuanced skills that make hitting a 90-mph fastball look simple.

(By the way, the biggest difference between the World Series of Poker and the World Series of Baseball is this: We don’t have Bud Selig ruining, Bob Costas romanticizing and Tim McCarver reinventing the game. We just have mostly honest people — pros and amateurs alike — chasing their gambling grail.)

(P.S. to Mr. Costas, sitting atop his Olympic mount with a Bill James abstract — I’ll still take Doyle Brunson or Phil Ivey or Jennifer Harman or Daniel Negreanu or the late Chip Reese over Mickey Mantle any day of the week, pal.)

(P.P.S. We catch our cheaters and we label them cheaters. There are no PEDs in poker, other than beer or weed.)

(P.P.P.S. When I’m home in Los Angeles, I go to Hollywood Park casino twice a week. Nowhere else can I find such a wonderful cross-section of poker pros, songwriters, lawyers, contractors, limo drivers and folks from all walks of life — people Costas has dismissed as “degenerates.” As opposed to your typical upper-deck types at Dodger Stadium.)

Now, a lot of people who listen to me talk about poker on ESPN assume I can’t even play poker. They’re partially right: I can’t play no-limit Texas hold ’em, the game that has vaulted in interest since Chris Moneymaker and the poker boom came our way in 2003.

If you put me at a Texas hold ’em table with nine Franciscan monks, I’d be the underdog.

But I’m okay at many of the other delightful disciplines of poker, particularly stud-8. So last week I entered the World Series $1,500 buy-in stud-8 event. And, as poker jaws dropped from dice tables to Deadwood, in a field of 606 I finished 12th and cashed for $10,676.

(As always, the money was divided equally amongst my financial backers and ex-wives. As for my current helpmate, Toni — aka She Is The One And Then Some — she will be taken out to a splendid, non-drive-thru dinner.)

Along the way, I sat with 1998 Main Event champion Scotty Nguyen, who showed me videos of his pet cheetahs and invited me over to shoot hoops.

I sat with Frank Kassela, who owns six businesses and was the World Series player of the year in 2010.

I sat with Cyndy Violette and a very pregnant Karina Jett, two savvy pros who have proven for years that poker has no gender barriers.

And I sat with Mike Sexton, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, a Poker Hall of Famer and World Poker Tour broadcaster with whom I pleaded not to call one of my final bets because, well, he’s got everything a man could have and all I had were a few chips to my name.

In the end, I was knocked out by Chris Viox, 35, an investor, poker pro and all-around nice guy who won the bracelet and $200,459. Viox, a University of Illinois grad, is married with two kids, and he kept a photo of them nearby on the table all night. A real degenerate.

Ask The Slouch

Q. Does Couch Slouch have any career second thoughts — maybe a job you once had that you regret quitting? (Christopher O’Neal; Beaumont, Tex.)

A. I worked briefly as a consultant to OPEC in the late 1970s but didn’t like the hours. I miss those people.

Q. Why are you such a pessimist in terms of the players’ side in the NFL lockout situation? (Ray Masters; Chicago)

A. Management is always a 12-to-1 favorite in any dealings with labor, unless Sally Field is involved.

Q. I noticed there are no trainers in attendance at poker tournaments. What happens if a player gets a cramp? (Bob Miller; Pittsburgh)

A. I like to check-raise in that spot.

Q. Off all the human growth hormones available to athletes, shouldn’t a super-sized container of McDonald’s French fries be considered the leader of the pack? (Steve Clark; Richmond)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just e-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!

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