For those unfamiliar with BARGE, it stands for the Big August Rec.Gambling Excursion where, annually, Usenet personalities meet face-to-face to compete in several unique and sometimes quirky private events. These gregarious mathematicians, scientists, fanatics, and famous poker personalities ventured out of cyberspace and gathered this year at the Venetian in Las Vegas, where poker room director Kathy Raymond welcomed them with open arms. BARGE didn't disappoint, as over 200 participants flocked to the mega hotel casino resort to play, party, and blow off some steam. And as BARGE.org claims, "That's not hard to do in Las Vegas in August."
There were a few glitches along the way. After BARGE members had registered by the August 5th deadline, made their travel plans, and waited for confirmation, the "dot org" trekkers suffered a couple of venue setbacks. Nevada gaming regulators and their increasing enforcement of the "dot com" issue has created a nonsensical controversy of which many online groups have fallen victim. This was clearly evident during the recent World Series of Poker, where players were forbidden to sport "dot com" logos while participating in the ESPN televised events, (including one woman's BabysRUs.com label). So to make a point, WSOP protestors taped the endless supply of "dot net" stickers provided by Harrah's to their foreheads, hair, and other body parts. Thankfully, BARGE members were able to clarify their "dot org" position with casino and gaming executives, establishing their new residence at the Venetian.
After spending time with BARGE organizers Chuck Weinstock and Peter Secor (both certified geniuses), one either comes away believing they've learned something or - less fortunately - questioning their own intelligence. These people are smart, very smart. Back-to-back WSOP bracelet winner William Chen is an active member, as are creative sports columnist Nolan Dalla, FullTilt Poker Pro Andy Bloch, and the recent WSOP championship's last woman standing, Sabyl Cohen. So maybe there is something to "mathematics as applied to poker" - the subject of William Chen's highly anticipated new book. But that's a story for another day.
Kevin "Un" (the online handle printed on his BARGE pass hanging beneath a pocket protector) put it best when he said, "BARGE is just a bunch of math weenies that discuss highly sophisticated equations while talking over the heads of the rest of us."
For the cerebrally underchallenged, a straight game of poker lacks necessary complexities. In order to keep attention deficits at a sustainable level, BARGE members take a perfectly good poker game, and then toss in a dozen variations. One of their favorite pastimes is lazy pineapple. With three cards in the hand, and no discard after the flop, the player applies two cards to the board for a high or low draw, usually ending up in a split pot. But only nonmembers appeared confused.
Math scientist Bill Chen, matching his remaining three chips against nine other players at the table, expressed his preference for short-handed games. "Full games are hard," said Chen. "You have to fold." Chen made a comeback when the action was six-handed, collecting more than half the stacks at the table.
Testing one's knowledge and understanding of poker, then taking it to one more level, is the C.H.O.R.S.E. tournament, a six-game variation of crazy pineapple, hold'em, Omaha eight-or-better, razz, stud, and stud eight-or-better. But the strangest challenge of all is BARGE's signature Omaha variant, Chowaha, wherein the final board - if called down - resembles a slate of dominos. Players are dealt two downcards, then the dealer spreads three flops, two turns, and one river. But what might have appeared a technical nightmare for dealers and tournament directors proved otherwise, and curious onlookers laughed along from behind the ropes.
This year's BARGE excursion was chock-full of optional events. On Saturday, the Venetian sponsored a banquet, with BARGE member and TiltBoy Phil Gordon providing much of the entertainment as keynote speaker. And this year's calendar included a symposium - predictably a convivial meeting for drinking, music and intellectual discussion. On Saturday, two BARGE members united in a unique twist to the already nontraditional Las Vegas wedding. And for those who came along for the ride, there was a "significant others" tournament, in which spouses and travel companions could relax and enjoy a straight game of no-limit hold'em. All one needed to qualify for the event was a complete lack of knowledge or understanding of the game. Coaches and mascots were there to assist and encourage aimless participants.
If the Big Annual Rec.Gambling Excursion sounds like a lot of fun, it's because it is. Every year BARGE increases its member registration by coming to Las Vegas and sporting more than just intellect. And though they've packed up their abaci and returned to their lives as professors, scientists, and analysts, they'll be back next year for another five-day summer excursion, as poker nerds seek revenge on late-night side action grinders, by showing them how to party at the felt.