The Tao of Poker … The World Series of Spectacle

The WSOP is a circus and all are welcome

The World Series of Poker. A spectacle within a spectacle. Las Vegas, a spectacle itself, unabashedly celebrates bacchanalian hedonism, ravenous greed, and lewd extravagance. Almost nothing can triumph the absurdity of Sin City itself, yet the WSOP perennially rises to the occasion by delivering everything it claims to offer as the richest tournament series in all of poker. Sure, some of the WSOP’s seedier edges have been rounded off, but in a city swimming in over-stimulation, the WSOP is an electrifying and nonpareil experience.

The WSOP is an egalitarian forum to earn significant sums of money and achieve instant fame without demeaning yourself. Reality TV participants are easily exploited by producers and painfully discover their “15 minutes of fame” trip was paid at their own humiliating expense. The WSOP rewards skill and intelligence and you can legitimately earn money without prostituting yourself or your integrity. Battling and beating the world’s elite players is significantly more dignified than winning prizes for eating a bowl of live cockroaches, or getting bitch-slapped by a foul-mouthed, spray-tanned drama queen drowning in chocolate cake-flavored vodka.

The World Series of SpectacleIn an era of social media domination and obsessive online interaction, walking into the Amazon or Brasilia Ballroom is one of those visceral experiences that cannot be replicated by an Instagram, Tweet, Vine, or Facebook “like.” Wandering the floor at the WSOP for the first time is an overwhelming encounter. “Awesome” is a word that’s overused and misused, but it’s hard not to be awed when you pop your WSOP cherry.

The WSOP stands out as one of the remaining Las Vegas institutions that respects its past and celebrates its lush history. Modern Vegas is engulfed in amnesia. To live in Vegas as a local is to ignore the past, which is easy to do when all the treasured antiquities and relics have been destroyed. Cities like London, Paris, and New York offer a blend of modern architecture contrasting with styles from two or three centuries ago. The original Vegas casinos are a wispy memory. Blown up. Plowed. Paved over. Old Vegas is imploded and before the dust even settles, the new Vegas is already under construction. The past fades into oblivion and every time you return to Vegas you’re greeted by resplendent new edifices, but those “gaudy monstrosities” won’t last for more than a couple decades before they’re torn down and replaced by something even more mod, sleek, and ultra-cool.

The American experience is fractured in our new digital age and as a result of technological bombardment, our culture lacks true spectacles. Sure, we all get giddy over the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, the Kentucky Derby, and the annual hot dog eating contest in Coney Island. But that’s about it. No wonder we’ve become a nation of Twitter trolls after restlessly flipping through a 1,000-channel dial, or getting stuck in a K-hole after binge-watching every possible TV show on Netflix.

Post-modern American culture is oversaturated by facsimiles of mediocrity, which is why every so-called adventurous enterprise seems mundane and unauthentic. America as a democratic utopia is nothing more than a series of illusions reinforced by mass media and perpetuated by social media. Our culture is highlighted by numerous pseudo-events (e.g. The Oscars, a Presidential election)  and its accompanying nauseating promotion and exhausting buildup, so it’s impossible to ever live up to any of the hype. Alas, we’re often left with a hollow event and prevailing sense of emptiness, so it’s difficult to get enthused about something tacky, watered-down, superficial, and outright cheesy.

Las Vegas is the antidote to the banality of pop culture. In one sense, Vegas is a pornographic theme park for sadists featuring bars that never close and hookers delivered to your room in 40 minutes or less. Carnal pleasures can be a temporary cure for everyday depression. How could you not snap out of a down cycle when you’re immersed in an orgy of self-indulgence? Vegas imports human misery by the planeload, enticing nihilists and solipsists alike. The dearth of squares and 9-to-5 pikers are all too eager to succumb to a whirl of loose morals while recapturing their lost childhood or reliving glory days from their raucous 20s. Casino moguls and conglomerates profit off of the rapacious appetites of its visitors. No matter where you go in Vegas, you’re surrounded by cannibals trying to eat you and steal your every dollar. The odds are stacked against you no matter where you gamble, but at least you have a shot at winning something at the WSOP, one of the rare +EV situations in Vegas.

The American Dream is an antiquated mirage and most of the nation has plunged into debt chasing that elusive dream. Our fear-mongering politicians completely whored us out to oligarchs and corporate interests. We’re living in a corporatocracy and police state, but Las Vegas is one of few bastions of freedom left in America. If you’re good enough, Vegas poker rooms can be veritable ATMs and legitimate venues where you can turn around your financial woes.

There’s a festering seductive illusion that we all can rise up from the peasant class and become an overnight millionaire. Of course, most of those “get rich quick” schemes are complete malarkey. But tournament poker is the real deal where anyone can legally parlay a few grand into a seven-figure payday. The Rio Casino originally gained notoriety as the “best seafood buffet” in town. When the WSOP migrated from downtown Las Vegas in 2005, the Rio finally shed its “best all-you-can-eat shrimp” reputation and quickly became the epicenter of poker. For seven weeks every summer, the Rio is Mecca for poker players, many of whom make the annual pilgrimage to the middle of the desert for a shot at a WSOP bracelet and a million bucks.

OK, so it’s not that easy. The Rio becomes the crossroads of shattered dreams and fulfilled aspirations, but mostly shattered dreams. The sobering reality is that 90 percent of everyone that steps into the Rio is roadkill. There’s a fine line between gross ignorance and a fearless gambler, but there’s a heroic admiration knowing you’re doomed, yet you’re taking a shot anyway. Then again, roughly 10 percent of every tournament field gets paid out. Sounds like terrible odds, but when you realize that America is rigged and table games in Vegas are a black hole for your money, then that 10 percent shot looks a lot juicier.

Economic opportunities are few and far between for individuals in 2014. If you’re among the shrinking middle class, the WSOP helps supplement your income to fund a family vacation, or home repairs, or a much-needed donation to a college education fund. If you’re in desperate shape — unemployed due to harsh economic times, or a down-and-out pro deep into debt — then Vegas is truly the end of the line and the WSOP is a do-or-die situation. But that’s the beauty of poker because anything can happen with the turn of a card. Fate can tickle you, fate can enrapture you, fate can destroy you, or fate can bless you. A suckout is often the deciding factor between living in a suite at the Bellagio, or sleeping in your car tucked behind the dumpster at Roberto’s taco shop.

The WSOP is wide-open to anyone with the proper buy-in. The last one standing wins most of the spoils. Survive a couple of days swimming with sharks and devour the waves of lambs being led to the slaughter, and you too can become the newest WSOP champion. Inside of a three-day weekend, I’ve witnessed rube amateurs wander into the Amazon Ballroom with $14 in their checking account and leave Vegas with enough money to pay off their mortgage. I’ve witnessed pros (with six-figures of makeup) wipe out their debts with a single deep run. One day you’re eating off the $1 Menu at McDonald’s, then next you’re crushing $100 filets of grass-fed Kobe beef and exotic sushi dishes you never knew existed.

The WSOP doesn’t offer up vacant promises and empty dreams like politicians. The WSOP doesn’t provide escapism like Hollywood and a chance to hide from the harsh realities of the world. The average poker player isn’t a hopeless dreamer hopelessly buying $100 worth of POWERBALL tickets. The average player isn’t a crusty old man hoping to hit the Superfecta at Belmont, or like your grandmother donking off your inheritance at the Lion’s Share slots.

Ever fondle a $10,000 stack of $100 bills? How about bear hugging a small pyramid of cash? The WSOP Main Event Champion gets that dubious honor, sort of the proverbial victory lap for poker players. Win the big one and a menagerie of international press snaps a photo of you jubilantly hoisting bricks of greenbacks over your head, thereby enshrining your shit-eating grin for eternity.

You know the analogy with the carrot dangling on a stick in front of the donkey to make the cart move faster? Well that’s the illusion of the American Dream. The WSOP is the antithesis of the donkey cart/carrot scam. The WSOP offers a legit chance at an actual payoff. We’re constantly getting shortchanged by the Man, yet the WSOP is where a redistribution of wealth and financial magic occurs on a daily basis. Welcome to the donkey revolution, where donkeys finally get to feast on the carrot.

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June 2014