Why (real) dogs playing poker stole the show at World Series of Poker Main Event

12 July 2012

LAS VEGAS -- At some point, no matter how humble, obscure or subversive its origins might be, every successful movement or organization becomes the establishment. It happened to rock and roll and hip hop. It happened to Google, Apple and Facebook. And it's happened to the World Series of Poker.

Being the establishment isn't necessarily a bad thing. It means you've figured out the formula to do something -- or a set of some things -- really well. You spend your time improving the formula and driving competitors away. And you dominate the marketplace.

For Apple, this means incremental tweaks to the the iPod, iPhone and iPad. For the World Series of Poker, this means new tournaments and forcing everyone to walk through the souvenir store on their way in and out of the tournament.

Two-time Main Event champion Johnny Chan played Wednesday in the WSOP Main Event. But (real) dogs playing poker stole the show.

Two-time Main Event champion Johnny Chan played Wednesday in the WSOP Main Event. But (real) dogs playing poker stole the show. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

But the problem with being the establishment is you have to try a little harder than everyone else to be cool. Buying an iPhone is so three years ago. iPods don't even move the needle anymore. What's next, Apple? Whaddya got?

The WSOP faces a similar -- yet wanted -- problem. Playing in the World Series of Poker Main Event isn't this crazy harebrained thing college dropouts do after they learn to play poker online. It's simply what you do if you like poker. Smart people like Nate Silver from the 538 blog on the New York Times do it. Billionaire CEOs like Cary Katz do it. And actors like Ray Romano and Jason Alexander do it. The WSOP Main Event is poker's only truly mainstream cultural touchstone.

Part of the WSOP's ascent to establishment can be attributed to ESPN. The WSOP's ubiquitous presence on the sports network has moved poker from the fringes and into the mainstream. The "taboo" of playing in the Main Event was removed, because if it's airing on Disney-owned ESPN, how bad can it really be?

The other part of the WSOP's rise to establishment comes from successfully riding the crest of the online poker wave, and building something that could survive the crash. The WSOP simply learned how to operate big poker tournaments better and more efficiently than everyone else.

The major gaffes, like cards players couldn't read, nightmarish registration lines and events with more players than available seats, have disappeared. And in their place is ruthless efficiency. This year, they successfully ran a Main Event Day 1 alongside other bracelet events and cash games.

The WSOP has become so good at this, they've successfully expanded into Europe and will expand into Australia and Asia next year.

But sheer normalcy and efficiency don't generate buzz or excitement. Just ask golf. When Tiger Woods isn't playing in a tournament, golf tournaments are normal and efficient. They're exciting for the small cadre of hard-core fans. But for the bulk of golf fans, no Tiger equals no interest.

From 2003-2009, the novelty of the Main Event was enough to generate excitement about the tournament. But since then, as the novelty wore off, so did the buzz around the game. In order to get poker fans excited now, you need one of two things to happen -- a truly devastating bad beat at a critical moment (like the one Matt Affleck suffered in 2010) or one of the stars of the game making a deep run.

The Main Event received the latter yesterday. Daniel Negreanu, Shaun Deeb, Jason Somerville and Vanessa Selbst charged up the leaderboard in Tuesday's Day 2A action, and the Main Event was hopping. Fans, players and the media were falling over themselves trying to keep track of the chips flying into the hands of four of poker's best-known players. All four ended the day among the top 50 chip stacks in the tournament. Deeb (460,900) and Selbst (350,400) finished in the top 12. And for a night, there was excitement (and not just the noise of chips clacking) in the air.

In today's Day 2B action, poker's biggest star, Phil Ivey, busted out of the tournament early in the day. And boom the excitement was gone -- until dogs started playing poker.

Cyrus (middle) decided to go with the head on the table late in the game. But the rest of the session, he remained upright and tough to beat.

Cyrus (middle) decided to go with the head on the table late in the game. But the rest of the session, he remained upright and tough to beat. (photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City)

Bryce Henderson, who operates Go Vegas Dog, a website devoted to showing the dog-friendly side of Vegas, reached out to the dog-training community in Vegas and a friend who worked at Caesars (which owns the World Series of Poker) to set up a real-life dogs playing photo at the Rio, which would mimic the iconic Dogs Playing Poker oil painting series by C. M. Coolidge.

A dog named Cyrus was the undeniable star of the photo shoot. He sat with his paws on the table while munching a fake cigar without moving for almost the entire shoot.

In 2006 and 2007, when you had strippers in dunk tanks as part of the sideshow at the WSOP Main Event, dogs playing poker would have fit right in.

But now that the strippers are gone and the game has gone mainstream, poker is discovering what actors everywhere already know -- you can't compete with a good animal act.

Welcome to the establishment.

NOTABLE CHIP STACKS
Erik Hellman 397,900
Sam Holden 352,600
Joseph Cheong 313,400
Ben Lamb 271,000
Antonio Esfandiari 205,300
Johnny Chan 194,400
Freddy Deeb 151,800

NOTABLE ELIMINATIONS
Viktor Blom
Doyle Brunson
Michael Mizrachi
Jason Alexander
Blair Hinkle
Jamie Gold
Joe Cada
David Sands
Kristy Gazes
Jennifer Tilly

Related Links
Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino Details
Nevada Gambling

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