Scandal just part of the deal at WSOP

8 July 2012

For a game supposedly mired in its own version of the Black Sox Scandal, the world of poker isn't losing much sleep these days.

That's the only possible conclusion you can reach after visiting the World Series of Poker at the Rio Convention Center.

That a poker tournament must be held at a convention center tells you just how obsessed we've become with the subculture of nut flushes and river cards. In the hold 'em religion, these are the high holy days. There are more masseuses in the Rio's hallways than there were participants in the early years of the WSOP. You could land a Learjet in these poker rooms, where green-felt tables stretch into the distance and attract players from Green Valley to Genoa, Italy.

On the day I roamed the rooms, there was next to no buzz about the ongoing Department of Justice investigation of an alleged bank fraud, money laundering, illegal gambling and multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme involving the Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars online sites. Although the FBI's April 2011 raid on the online sites is commonly referred to as "Black Friday," the throngs of players dreaming of piles of prize money and coveted gold bracelets at the WSOP weren't going to let a little corruption keep them from the tables.

The FBI and DOJ can sort out the ugly details. At the WSOP, it's Mardi Gras every day.

The tournament has no official uniform, but attire generally falls into one of two categories: Guys who own an iron, and everyone else. Representatives of the new generation of players appear to be competing for the "Most Rumpled" bracelet. They clog the halls wearing three-day's growth of beard, wrinkled polo shirts and baggy shorts, and sneakers or sandals.

As a reminder that clothes don't make the man at the WSOP, Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari discarded his flip flops and was barefoot when he won the Big One for One Drop, a $1 million buy-in tournament that netted him an $18 million payday and was billed as the "largest prize in sports history." Eat your heart out, Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Those looking for signs of fallout from the Full Tilt and PokerStars scandal won't have to strain. A sampling of opinions from players and their pals reveals the prevailing view that this year's flooded field is missing a substantial number of superb online players, who saw their fortunes either frozen or disappear entirely. Millions allegedly flowed into the pockets of Full Tilt CEO Ray Bitar and the professional player/owners who have enjoyed rock star celebrity status in recent years.

While Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Howard "The Professor" Lederer have made themselves scarce at this year's tournament, former Full Tilt star Phil Ivey hasn't missed a beat. Ivey has competed in numerous events, and so far no one has thrown a rotten tomato at him. In fact, he still draws a crowd of gawking fans. Who knows, perhaps they wanted to hit up Ivey for a loan.

The once ubiquitous caps and shirts heralding the now cursed Full Tilt and Poker Stars sites are noticeably absent from the tournament. Not only have WSOP officials wisely changed the endorsement rules, but these days no player - especially all those burned ones - wants to be reminded of what a rube he's been.

The online poker bums have their critics. Pro Michael "The Mouth" Matusow said in a recent interview on poker.org, "To me, I think they're a bunch of criminals."

But for every moralizing Mouth there's an army of cheerleaders in the poker press. Developments in the online scandal, such as Bitar turning himself into federal authorities this past week, are duly noted. Then it's back to the breathless hero worship and statistical probabilities.

You see, the game is strong. Outside of federal court, it appears to be as popular as ever.

The professionals, at least the ones not in hiding, haven't missed a beat. The Internet phenoms, those with an accessible bankroll, wouldn't miss the chance to score.

The rest? Well, it's obvious there's a sucker born every minute, whether you're a busted flush from Binion's or a bug-eyed game geek from cyberspace.

Poker's Black Sox Scandal? I think the players are getting over it.

Take one look at the World Series of Poker, then say it ain't so.

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