Steve and the Australian
Woody violently shakes me awake at 6 o’clock in the morning.
Hours ago, I passed out on three aluminum folding chairs placed side by side. Now, dazed and still inebriated from a dozen gin-and-tonics and at least as many Coronas, I squint to get my bearings. We appear to be on the dark periphery of a crowded hotel function space. I make out metal bleachers filled with a far-too-animated mass of humanity. On the other side of the bleachers is a brightly lit poker table.
"C'mon, wake up," Woody implores. "It's down to just Steve and the Australian."
The fog in my brain slowly lifts. Las Vegas. Downtown on low-rent Fremont Street in the Glitter Gulch district. We arrived yesterday and have unexpectedly spent hours here at Binion's Horseshoe (now Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel), for the last day of the main event of the 2005 World Series of Poker, aka WSOP.
The action has played out through the night and if I understand correctly, our friend Steve Dannenmann and Aussie Joe Hachem are now the last two players left alive after a seven-day tournament.
"Get up," Woody hisses. "You'll miss it."
An Impulse Decision
Less than 24 hours ago, my college buddy Woody called at work and left a vague, dire-sounding message. He mentioned Steve’s name in a tone that made me wonder if our friend had befallen sudden tragedy. After all, I hadn’t known Steve all that long. He was by far the most charismatic member of a group of guys once centralized in Baltimore but now scattered all over the country. Woody lived in Orange County; I’d moved to San Diego. Our wolfpack converged annually in Vegas for the opening round of the NCAA basketball tournament and March Madness. But Woody's message came in mid-July. I feared the worst.
When I got Woody on the phone he calmly explained that Steve had reached out because he'd made the WSOP final table and sought onsite support. Steve would buy us a hotel room and take good care of anybody who flew out — today! — to cheer him on. I looked at the pile of folders on my desk and took stock of several looming deadlines for the magazine travel section I edited. Dropping everything would be reckless, irresponsible and out of character. A plane ticket wasn't exactly in the budget.
I paused, possibly for a full three seconds, before informing Woody, "I'll see you in Vegas in a couple hours."
Flying to Vegas (Baby)
The flight from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field to Las Vegas McCarran International Airport is short, a one-hour hop. It’s imbued with chatty excitement from passengers eager to pre-party in the air before the adventures begin in Sin City.
I spend the flight thinking about how I got here. I’ve recently taken up poker myself as a hobby, and can hold my own at low-stakes tables. But oddly, I never knew about Steve’s poker passion.
In all our March Madness outings to date, I’ve never even seen him play a hand. Craps, sure; he’s the guy who makes sure the pit boss knows his name while he rolls half a dozen points in a row.
But poker? When did he start playing poker?
Welcome to The Strip
The flight lands at McCarran, and I take a cab to The Mirage, the mid-range Strip hotel-casino where Steve has put us up. In the lobby, I meet Woody, who’s there with his neighbor, Andy, an occasional member of our March Madness group who has a flexible schedule. It looks like it’ll be an entourage of three.
We unload our backpacks in the room. Woody takes charge, though he’s working on limited information. We have to quickly get over to Binion’s, where the World Series of Poker final table is a hot ticket, thanks to the game’s growing, cultish following. The tournament will be taped to be shown later in the year on ESPN — and we have passes waiting for us at the door.
Exhilarated, we pour into a taxi.
A Brief History of Poker
Gregarious gambling icon Benny Binion created and hosted the first World Series of Poker in his eponymous hotel back in 1970. The inaugural event included Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Rudy “Minnesota Fats” Wanderone and “Amarillo Slim” Preston. Today there are more than 1,000 poker tables in all of Greater Las Vegas; back in ’70 there were less than 50. That first tournament was held in an alcove-sized room.
Fast forward to 2003. Aptly named amateur Chris Moneymaker stunned the poker world when he walked away with a $2.5 million victory. The next year, another amateur, Greg Raymer, claimed the champion’s bracelet and $5 million in cash. In 2005, the top prize was $7.5 million — at the time, the richest sporting prize ever. There were 5,619 players who ponied up the $10,000 buy-in.
By making the final table, Steve and eight others have been each assured at least a cool million in prize money.
VIPs No More
Down on Fremont Street, the line to get into the main event snakes out through the casino. We march past hundreds of casually dressed wannabes land-locked in line and approach the doorman at Benny’s Bullpen, a sports bar inside Binion's, where the poker action is happening.
“We’re friends of Steve Dannenmann,” Woody says. “There should be some passes here for us.” The doorman looks us up and down and doesn’t even bother to consult a list. “You show me a pass, you get in,” he says. “Otherwise, there’s the line.”
We’ve cast life aside at a moment’s notice to scurry to Vegas for this huge deal...and now our golden tickets are nowhere to be found.
Defeated, the three of us retreat to the bar. By a stroke of luck (and when it comes to poker, it’s better to be lucky than good), Woody recognizes Steve’s wife (now ex) walking by. She’s wearing the coveted VIP pass on a chain around her neck! Woody flags her down; she’s aware that Steve is expecting us. Within 20 minutes she’s back in the poker room, gathering up three passes, bringing them to the bar and walking us to the front of the line. Jackpot.
Like Walking Onto a Movie Set
It’s like we’ve stumbled onto a movie set. We become extras, minor actors in a cast of about 100, with permission to find our own marks and improvise at will. ESPN cameras are everywhere. Blue lighting on the walls creates an ethereal ambiance. The middle of the room is center-lit, with spotlights that hang from the ceiling and illuminate the green felt on the oval poker table. Nine players sit stone-faced around it. Dour-faced professionals at the felt include “Tex” Barch, Andrew Black and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow.
And in the middle of it all, there’s Steve, a smiling, free-spirited first-timer who’s been dubbed “The Everyman.” He has a green visor on his head and sunglasses wrapped around his neck. He’s superstitiously worn the same tan cabana shirt every day of the tournament.
I want to elbow people and say, “I know that guy,” but refrain.
The bleachers are hip-to-hip with spectators, so we wander around looking for a good vantage point.
“Let’s get some cocktails, boys,” Woody advises. We’re parched and soon discover that liquid courage is being dispensed by a sassy waitress with spiked-blonde hair wearing a low-cut black dress. We dub her “Annie Lennox.”
“Keep an eye on us,” Woody banters, and yes, he makes it clear we’re friends with a final table participant. Annie seems to take a genuine liking to us. Perhaps she’s taken pity on these three sheep who’ve wandered into the wolf’s den. Or maybe she’s just a cocktail server working in Vegas. One way or another, she keeps us well-lubricated.
"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!"
Early in the action, Steve goes head-to-head with The Mouth. Matusow has the shortest stack but is in the lead pre-flop with pocket 10s. He pushes his chips all-in. Steve calls with his unsuited A-J, turns a straight and knocks out The Mouth.
And then there are eight players left.
I saunter over to where the ESPN announcers are calling the play-by-play and become fascinated with odd-couple show hosts Lon McEachern and the rumpled, acerbic Norm Chad.
Chad is making note of how many fans Joe Hachem has in the room. Every time Hachem wins a hand, his horde of supporters wave flags and bellow: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, Oi, Oi!”
“Is there anybody left in Australia?” Chad quips.
I laugh — maybe a little too loud. I want to tell Chad I’m there to support Steve, but an ESPN producer kindly and firmly asks me to please step away from the booth area.
When I wander back and find Woody, he tells me Andy is taking a nap. Fair enough. We order another round from Annie. When the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chant starts up again, Woody and I decide that Steve needs a chant, too. We spitball. Steve is a CPA; how about if we chant “Taxman?”
Our pickled brains deem it a winner. Norm Chad will love it, I think. He’ll probably want to interview me. When Steve wins the next hand we croak, “Taxman! Taxman!”
Months later, when the ESPN taping airs, I learn that none of our cheers made the edited broadcast. In fact, there is no audio or visual evidence of my attendance at all.
Understandably, I’m devastated.
And Then There Were Two
The final table started up in the early afternoon; now it is well past midnight. The players vote to play through the night until there is just one man standing. This seems fine for the amped-up, sober participants, but I start to nod off.
There are five players still with chips when I start my snooze. The next thing I know, I awake to Woody shaking me at 6 a.m. I limp off the folding chairs and order a Red Bull from Annie. Woody says he’s fine, so nothing for him.
We push forward in an aisle between two sets of bleachers to get a better look at the poker table. Steve is sitting at one end, looking more serious than usual. The Aussie dons dark sunglasses and appears perturbed.
Resting on a separate table near the center action is the $7.5 million one of them will receive. The cash is wrapped in bundles but not stacked in neat columns. It looks like the money has been dumped into a pile like so many green-and-white Legos.
And the Winner Is...
In just their sixth head-to-head hand, the blinds have climbed to $150,000-$300,000. Steve raises pre-flop with A-3 off-suit. Then chips start flying. Hachem calls. Steve raises on the flop and Hachem makes a small re-raise, which Steve calls. Hachem raises on the turn and Steve re-raises three million in chips. Hachem moves all-in. Steve reciprocates.
Hachem flops the winning hand — a straight that fills his 7-3 off-suit pocket cards. Steve pairs his ace on the turn, prompting the all-in flurry.
When the final card is a blank, the room erupts. Australian flags fly, and that damn cheer is repeated over and over. Hachem takes home the $7.5 million.
Steve’s consolation prize: $4.25 million.
Hungover and Heading Home
The very first thing Woody does is to get a stack of programs signed by Steve; the waitress has promised she’ll waive our bar tab if she gets the signatures. (Had there ever really been a bar tab, or did the VIP ticket include the drinks? In retrospect, I wonder if Annie yanked our chains on that.)
With the money situation settled, a mix of emotions settle over the Taxman Trio entourage. We’re thrilled — but also tired, hungry and hungover. Woody hears that Steve is going to bankroll us all in an impromptu, celebratory craps game. But reality slaps us in the face after we make it back to The Mirage. Woody and Andy have to catch an early flight back to Orange County. Woody calls down for a wake-up call that gives them 40 minutes of sleep.
I crash, don’t hear them leave, miss the craps party and wake up a few hours later with just enough time to cab it back to the airport and fly home. As I journey to San Diego, I’m hobbled by a DEFCON 5 headache and the realization that I missed a once-in-a-lifetime high-roller after-party.
An Experience to Remember
At the time, we didn’t realize we’d witnessed history. That 2005 WSOP final table was the last one ever played at Benny’s Bullpen. The following year it moved from Binion’s to the much bigger and more accommodating Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino.
Today, our group still makes the annual March Madness exodus to Vegas. And I've been lucky enough to enjoy the city VIP-style several more times over the years, thanks to my job as a travel writer. Among other excesses, I’ve been put up in “The Real World” suite at The Palms and a Sunrise/Sunset suite at the Four Seasons; been comped a cherry red Porsche Cayman for a day from MGM and Cristal bottle service at the opening of Bare Pool at The Mirage; and been hosted for dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut and L’Atelier De Joël Robuchon.
No complaints, not a one. But the experience that still resonates loudest, conjures up the biggest smile and remains my most compelling Vegas memory? A once-in-a-lifetime, impulsive decision to watch people play cards while roughing it on folding chairs down in Glitter Gulch.