No Country for Old Men

These Guys are a Different (and Maybe Better) Breed

On The Road

WSOP Flashback time. Let’s take a short trip in the time machine and leap back to last summer when Mike Sexton took a shot at a bracelet on the same day as the seniors event.

If you wander into the Rio’s Pavilion around 2:20 p.m. or so on any given day, you can watch the daily bracelet ceremony at the front of the gigantic exhibition space that houses cash games, satellites, and Day Ones of Donkaments. The front stage displays brightly lit shelves with shiny, sparkly WSOP bracelets — the sole reason why thousands of card junkies make their yearly pilgrimage to poker’s Mecca. It’s all about the bling.

The events at the 2011 WSOP had two distinct start times — high noon and 5 p.m. The noon tournaments went on their first break around 2 p.m., so then everyone returns to their seats, the action is paused for a few minutes while the bracelet ceremony takes place. Typically, the bracelet ceremony honored a player who won an event the night before.

On the days I was stuck in the press box and unable to head to the Pavilion to watch the ceremony in person, I could at least listen to it because the audio broadcast was pumped into the Amazon Ballroom. The ceremony was brief. Tournament director Jack Effel presented the newly crowned champion with a bracelet and a Diamond Club Card, before he said a few sycophantic words about the winner. That’s when their home country’s national anthem is played over the PA.

Outside of the WSOP, I’ve heard the American anthem too many times to count. I was born during Tricky Dick’s reign in the White House, and like most of Generation X, we were not as demonstrative with our patriotism as Baby Boomers. I used to work in the World Trade Center, so I’m well aware of the patriotic fervor (and ensuing fear mongering) that swept America in the days after 9/11. Americans don’t have the same nationalistic pride as other countries at the WSOP, which you will see (and hear) whenever a foreigner advances to a final table. We take it for granted that the WSOP is an American-dominated event, whereas foreigners go bonkers when they win a bracelet on our home turf. Whether it’s a Brazilian, Brit, German, Dutch, Russian, or Frenchman — their fellow countrymen and women show up in droves to cheer on their hero. And if they happen to ship a bracelet, it’s not just a victory for the person — it’s also a victory for their country — and an entire contingency flocks to the Pavilion to soak up the bracelet ceremony.

Midway through the third week of the WSOP, the Brits heard their anthem thrice. The Canadians and the French heard their respective anthems played at least twice, while the Russians got their anthem only once. Whenever I heard the Russian anthem, I instantly thought about the heyday of the World Wrestling Federation (when it was still called that). During the height of the Cold War, Nikolai Volkov was typecast as one of the bad guys in the Faustian wrestling universe. The Russian villain taunted WWF audiences by waving the old CCCP red flag — the hammer and sickle — ominous symbols of the evils of communism. When Volkov attempted to sing the Russian national anthem, the feisty pro-American crowd drowned him out with a tsunami of boooooooos.

At the WSOP, it’s customary for everyone to stand up when anthems are played, but not everyone follows suit. I always stand at attention (despite my obvious anti-establishment leanings as a Jeff ersonian Anarchist) because my father was a United States Marine and my grandfather was a medic in WWII (the original Dr. McGuire, a true American hero).

I’m a creature of habit. Whenever I hear the opening notes to the Star Spangled Banner, I place my right hand over my heart. Why? Out of respect — not just for my father and grandfather, but for all the men and women who defended, and currently defend, our country against tyranny and evil doers. Even though I never served in the military, I hold the utmost respect for our veterans.

On any given day, about 75 percent of all tournament players stand for the anthems, but less than 10 percent are actively paying attention, Most of
them rest are dicking around on their smart phones, counting their chip stacks, or chatting with their neighbor.

However, on Day 18 of the 2011 WSOP, I noticed something completely different — almost 95 percent of the inhabitants of the Amazon Ballroom stood up (and more importantly, and almost all of them were attentive) during John Monnette’s bracelet ceremony. I never made it to the Pavilion in time, but arrived shortly to the press box just as Jack Effel handed out a bracelet to Monnette and the opening notes of our national anthem echoed on the PA system.

So what was the fundamental difference of Day 18 compared to other days? The seniors event.

Everyone in the field was at least 50 years or older, and I’d say the median age was probably in the early 60s. The majority of the seniors were veterans of the U.S. armed forces. You’d be surprised how many Millennials don’t know that only 40 years ago, men were conscripted. Baby Boomers didn’t have a choice and had to serve in the military or come up with a clever way to dodge the draft.

The elevated press box allowed me to survey the entire Amazon Ballroom and I saw a strong sense of respect and reverence during the Star Spangled banner. The eldest seniors survived the Depression and WWII. They were from a vastly different generation of sacrifice, humility, and honor.

I was overcome by a wave of humility. I felt guilty about all the old people jokes I’ve written over the years because it’s disrespectful to take cheap shots at veterans. They deserve more respect from a half-baked junkie like myself regurgitating jokes about Ben Gay, dick pills, and adult diapers.

I want to respect my elders, but a few of those old farts almost ran me over with their motorized scooters. The hallways are congested enough, but they become downright dangerous when you have senile octogenarians operating runaway scooters. On the day of the seniors event, scooters cluttered the hallway and the rail. Security was called in to investigate a potential scooter theft. Who knows if someone actually stole a scooter, or if the old coot simply had a “senior moment” and forgot where he parked it?

Speaking of absent-minded seniors, two security guards hovered over sections that were being broken down because when seniors moved tables, they often left personal items behind like jackets, prune juice, and magnifying glasses. Someone even left behind their wife, who nodded off in the corner.

WSOP media director Nolan Dalla tracked down the oldest player in the crowd. Claude Smithern, at 87 years young, spoke to the crowd for a few moments. He must have been a former Catskills comedian, delivering witty zingers like, “I don’t know what’s gonna last longer — me or my chips!”

While several thousand seniors battled it out to determine the “best old guy poker player,” the press gathered at the Mothership to watch the conclusion of Event No. 25 $2,500 Stud 8 or Better. Mike Sexton is a veteran and eligible to play in the seniors event, but poker’s ambassador skipped it because he was gunning for a bracelet in Stud 8. Sexton got heads-up against Chris Viox the night before, but action was suspended
on Day 17 due to the controversial hard-stop rule. When action resumed on Day 18, Sexton trailed Viox by a margin of 3 to 1.

Sexton won a similar event 22 years earlier for his only bracelet. Men the Master was also at the final table of the 1989 $1,500 Stud 8 event, which attracted 174 runners. Poker was a completely diff erent game during the halcyon days of Th e Horseshoe. In 1989, Tom “Durrrr” Dwan was still a toddler and Johnny “Fucking” Chan ruled the poker universe.

Sexton hoped to relive his glory days. He had not won a bracelet in more than two decades and smelled blood in the water. It reminded me of Jimmy Connors’ sensational run in the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows when he was in his 40s. Everyone rallied around their hero. Sexton was a universal favorite and well-liked by every facet of the poker community. Everyone’s enthusiasm about his run was genuine.

Despite trailing 3 to 1 in chips, Sexton expected to come back and win his second career bracelet. Alas, the heads-up match didn’t go as Sexton planned and lasted less than an hour before Viox prevailed and won his first bracelet.

In my notepad, I scribbled down: “Sexton looked pissed off.”

Even though Sexton put on his best face after his elimination hand, you could see the frustration seeping out of his ears. His face turned as red as the shirt he was wearing. It’s not easy to make the final table of a WSOP event, and it’s even harder to get heads-up for a bracelet. It must be incredibly frustrating to finish in second place because you worked your ass off for three days (or in Sexton’s case, four days) without anything to show for it. But instead of kicking over chairs or blaming everyone else in the room for his loss, Sexton accepted defeat like a true gentleman and answered questions for the media before he quietly exited the Amazon Ballroom through a side door.

The second-place money was nice, but the greenbacks didn’t mean as much to Sexton as the bling. Bracelets trump Benjamins at the WSOP.  

Paul ‘Dr. Pauly’ McGuire is the author of “Lost Vegas: Th e Redneck Riviera, Existentialist Conversations with Strippers, and the World Series of Poker.” He also wrote a novel titled “Jack Tripper Stole My Dog.” Follow his half-baked musings on Twitter via @taopauly.

July 2012