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World Series of Poker: South of Heaven, North of Hell

by Brendan Murray |  Published: Oct 01, 2007

I recently spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness of the desert. During this time in Sin City, reporting on the 38th-annual World Series of Poker, I faced temptation at every turn and endured long dark nights of the soul, but ultimately discovered a life-affirming truth.

Drifting through the dusty Nevada landscape, the incidental traveller faces many crossroads, not the least of which are in Las Vegas, that neon oasis of salvation and sin. Moral quandaries, psychological predicaments, and risk calculation are common currency, and at the 38th World Series of Poker, even the most worldly adventurer takes many a wrong turn.

With a record 56,000 entrants at this year's Series, the avenues and alleyways of the human mind were explored like never before, but in poker, just like in life, sometimes two wrong turns make a right.

Alongside the tears and terrors were great triumphs - not just as a result of cunning, often sublime, card play, but often simply of the indomitable human spirit.

Main-Event Machines
Jon Kalmar from Lancashire, England, shouldn't even have been there. He was fed up, on a bad run, and wanted to go home. He baulked at paying the few hundred bucks to change his flight and reluctantly used the last of his money to play the final supersatellite into the main event.

He won a seat, steamrollered a field of more than 6,000 players, and incredibly found himself at the final table of the greatest poker show on earth. He didn't win, but he did pick up $1,255,069 for a remarkable fifth-place finish, and is a shining example of the redeeming nature of the game Alexander Kravchenko, the Russian pro who had earlier in the Series picked up a priceless bracelet as well as a ninth place in the $5,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, probably shouldn't have been there, either.

He played near-miracle poker with a short stack for most of the run-in, including the final table, and succumbed only with the finish line in sight. His determination earned him a fourth-place finish and $1,852,721, bringing his total winnings for the Series to $2,120,905.

Kravchenko had been an unremarkable rounder for most of the decade. He had some credible results, but few would have predicted that he could crush player after player the length and breadth of the Series. He was arguably the most impressive European poker machine there.

For the Victors, the Spoils
Then there was Frenchman Bruno Fitoussi, boss of the Aviation Club in Paris. He outshone a field of big-name "stars" in the marathon five-day $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event to finish second to Freddy Deeb, collecting $1,278,720.

Rene Mouritsen from Denmark came agonisingly close to winning a bracelet on two occasions, finishing second both times for a total of $612,670.

Italian Marco Traniello, often unfairly overshadowed by his more well-known partner, Jennifer Harman, made three final tables, as did Swede Chris Bjorin and Dane Thor Hansen.

Hendon Mobster Ram Vaswani, having a poor Series by his own high standards, knuckled down to win a long-overdue bracelet in the $1,500 no-limit hold'em shootout.

Ciarán O'Leary, the U.S.-domiciled Irishman, fended off nearly 3,000 challengers in the $1,500 no-limit hold'em event to win his first bracelet after almost a decade of trying, and Alan Smurfit, another Irishman living in the U.S., won the $1,500 pot-limit Omaha rebuy event after a remarkable 250-hand heads-up battle.

This was evidence, if it were needed, that human spirit could be found in spades, despite the dark side of the game lurking around every corner, ready to snare the unsuspecting or embrace the willing.

Bad Luck and Bad Manners
Tales of woe and crass behaviour were a daily occurrence, told in hushed tones over cigarettes during breaks in play or in bars during downtime. There was rumour, conjecture, hearsay, and, somewhere in between, the often squalid truth.

There were stories of players getting rolled by opportunistic hookers - masters of the craft - or losing it all and more at the gaming tables.

There were borrowers and lenders, but mostly borrowers, usually casually indifferent to this common hazard of the profession.

To be successful in poker, it is necessary to take the long view, but human nature, being what it is, doesn't make this easy, and every success story could be countered with a sob story. C'est la vie.

Remarkable, often near-unbelievable, stories abounded. Paul "Eskimo" Clark, the former Vietnam veteran and three-time bracelet winner, suffered several medical emergencies during the Series, including at the final table of the $1,500 seven-card razz event.

Having collapsed earlier in the Series, he returned from hospital, allegedly walking on a fractured foot, to become the chip leader in the tournament before reputedly suffering once again from numbness on one side of his body. Collapsing from his chair and unable to sit upright for much of the game, he didn't go quietly and ended up taking fourth place.

In the $1,500 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event, London European Poker Tour winner Victoria Coren voluntarily busted herself in protest of the arctic conditions in the Poker Pavillion - the controversial overflow tent outside at the back of the Amazon Room.

She was seated directly underneath a hole in the air conditioning, and the air flow caused her cards to flip over on several occasions. She was so cold that her hands turned pink, and she was involuntarily trembling. Eventually, she could take no more and, having been refused assistance from the floor staff, shipped her $9,000-plus in chips to an opponent so that she could remove herself from the uncomfortable conditions.

The controversial Brandi Hawbaker disgracefully told one player, "Go f--- yourself," when he offered her his hand after busting her from a tournament. She subsequently apologised publically for the outburst, but it is likely to be remembered as typifying the dearth of class and manners prevalent in the modern game.

The normally mild-mannered and jovial Andy Black also suffered a breakdown in cool when German motormouth Davood Merhmand's incessant trash-talking caused him to lose his temper as he busted out of a tournament.

Brunson, and Bobby's Room
While the lowlights were many and common to most journalists - long hours, bad food, aches and pains, and sniffles - they were transitory, and the highlights are likely to live on in the memory for years.

Interviewing Doyle Brunson in the forbidding environ of Bobby's Room at Bellagio is one such memory.

I was given a number to call to arrange the interview, and almost dropped the phone when the great man himself picked up. "Sure," he replied when I explained the purpose of the call. "I'm just heading over to Bellagio now. Come find me in Bobby's Room."

At the door of Bobby's Room, I explained why I was there. "Is he expecting you?" the door man asked.

"Yes," I replied.

"Go ahead, then," he said casually.

I popped my head into the room rather sheepishly and spotted Doyle sitting at a table beside Barry Greenstein. I waved a greeting and he waved back, immediately rising from his seat and moving slowly toward a small lounge area in the legendary poker room.

He was the epitome of class - mannerly, attentive, and thoughtful. He called me "Sir," and as I exited the room with a handshake, suddenly the long, hard, slog of the many days and nights I'd spent in Vegas, thousands of miles from home, my partner, and my friends, was all worthwhile.

I went to Las Vegas on very short notice. A week before the start of the Series, I told my girlfriend that Card Player wanted me to go to Vegas. "How long for?" she asked, barely looking up from whatever was distracting her.

"About seven weeks," I muttered apprehensively. That got her attention.

"When?" she asked, shocked.

"Next week," I responded, resignedly expecting a mushroom cloud of wrath to engulf me. But it never came.

She has always coolly accepted that I live by my pen, that I write about gamblers in an environment that is often unhealthily obsessive and neurotic, and that I work hours that the European Union has long since outlawed in most other industries.

Weeks later, when she heard me interviewed on an Irish national radio station about the Series, she told me she was very proud of me and knew how hard I was working.

So, when she came to Vegas after the Series for a holiday, I asked her to marry me. She said, "Yes, of course I will."

And that is probably the most fitting metaphor there is for the World Series of Poker, a love affair that survives and overcomes the hostile and volatile environment it is born out of - and I'm already looking forward to next year.

Brendan has worked in journalism and public relations for a decade, across economics, consumer issues, pop culture, and poker. He is now the bureau chief of Card Player Europe and is the kind of impatient guy you want at your table.