Where $350 gets you $19,000 — and it ain’t Wall Street

16 Mar


He was short, wore a hoodie and was happy. A student at Penn, he had come in second at a World Series of Poker Tournament in Atlantic City this past week. His investment was about $350. After beating all but one of the 268 contestants, his prize was a little more than $12,000.

He was fun to watch because he smiled all the time.

The winner, a young man from Ohio, never smiled. He seemed sour and unhappy. For his efforts he received a little more than $19,000 and a huge gold ring.

Unlike most professional sports, poker is free to watch. The competition is keen and intense. Spectators can learn, and they can walk into the next room, sit at a table and apply what they’ve learned. You can’t do that at a hockey match.

The final table I watched represented a fairly low level of play. Play level rises when you pay more to get into the game. The winner of the main event, the top level, took home a ring and $191,194. I believe it cost about $1,500 to get into that game.

Some observations:

  • Watching poker in person is much better than watching it on TV, where there is selective editing, you can’t see all that is happening, and you don’t get a full grasp of the dynamics. Unlike TV, you can’t see the hole cards, so you don’t know what a person had when he folds after several raises. But that adds to the mystique.
  • I said when “he” folds. The sport is mostly male. Young and male. Mostly white, young and male, although the Asian presence is notable. At the table where I watched, however, a black guy was the chip leader most of the time.
  • Endurance is critical. There are breaks, but the tournament lasts three days. While you play, you can drink booze or coffee or orange juice or Red Bull. Whatever works. But if you don’t stay sharp, you lose. The chip leader I spoke of got tired, made bad plays in the last couple of hours and was knocked out (although he still won prize money). The Penn kid was alert and rallied back from a short stack.

The poker culture is interesting to follow; the language, the different ways to wear hoodies (almost a uniform), the ways to play with your chips, the various attitudes and poses. At Caesar’s, where the competition was held, a few players hired women to massage their backs while they played.

I’m convinced many life lessons can be learned in a poker match. I’m half tempted to start practicing and invest $350 the next time the WSOP comes around. It seems like a small price to pay for the experience.

Are there any tournament players who can share some of their thoughts here?

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