The Unseen Series: Off Hours at the 2008 WSOP

By Haley Hintze

There’s never truly a down time at the World Series of Poker, once festivities begin. It’s essentially a poker festival running for well over 1,200 consecutive hours, from the opening of the registration booths and satellite and cash-game play in late May through the resolution of the Main Event in July. This year, of course, that last final table won’t be held until November, yet there will come a point in mid-July that the sprawling hive of activity in the Rio Convention Center called the World Series of Poker will cease to be.

Most days, play in the night’s longest-running event winds down around 4:00 AM. On occasion it’s a bit before 3:00, but seldom much before, since the 5:00 PM start time for most days‘ second, late-starting event demands that play continues until 2:40 AM or later, given the opening session’s eight levels of play plus breaks. On occasion the play stretches to six or seven in the morning, when it’s already full light outside, most often when a final table needs to be set to meet broadcast requirements of one form or another for the following day.

Still, there’s a rhythm to it all, one day to the next, especially in the meaty part of the schedule when as many as six events run each day.

There isn’t a moment amid its run when the WSOP truly shuts down, even when tournament play itself has ceased for the night. The cash-game area dwindles as dawn arrives, from a packed region encompassing 50 tables or more to a low point when maybe a half dozen ring games are in play. Across the hall in the Tropical Room a late-running – or early-starting — satellite might be enjoying an all-but-quite room, and next door the registration booths are always manned. The nightly 7:00 pm USD 340 cash tourney and 9:00 PM mega-satellite qualifier might also run well into the morning hours.

There’s upkeep, too, the process of getting the facility ready for the following day’s play. From the electronic paperwork that keeps the Series flowing to the physical labor required to keep the Amazon Room and the Convention Center in poker-playing shape, it all has to be done – and it has to be done in the overnight hours.

The Amazon Room gets cold at night, with the industrial air conditioners blasting away and gaining ground on the body heat produced by the thousands of visitors during the day. The Convention Center is always well-chilled, of course; if you spend an extended time here, you learn to prepare for the processed chill. The toughest gig at the entire WSOP has to be that of the late-night cashier in the Poker Kitchen, just out the back door from the Convention Center itself. In the Kitchen an industrial air conditioner blasts away as well, and overnight the temporary structure becomes an icebox. Worse, the cashier is directly in the line of fire from the cold-air vents, making the shift one chilly proposition. I’ve seen 3:00 AM cashier-sicles on more than one occasion.

Elsewhere, the maintenance continues. A regular crew comes into the Amazon Room in the early-morning hours to prepare the facility for that day’s play. There’s always general cleaning and tidying to be done, and most days other special tasks wait as well. Short-handed tables might require chairs to be removed throughout the ballroom, or as in the case of the USD 50,000 H.O.R.S.E. championship, a roomier layout is created from scratch to allow for the crush of major media on the scene.

More mundane but still necessary tasks also need doing. From table and seat repair to the collecting of empty chip trays and the vacuuming of carpets, it’s all there in the overnight hours. Early on the Amazon Room was plagued by pigeons – not bad players in the French sense, but real flying, eating, and possibly pooping pigeons — requiring said pigeons‘ removal from the scene before the noon crush of play begins again. The pigeons, apparently veterans of flying in through the Convention Center’s double sets of doors and exterior service hallway, roam the carpet looking for food crumbs before the vacuuming begins in earnest. Not many pigeons, mind you, but between one and three were regular visitors each night the first three weeks of the Series. Each visitation required a concerted (and sometimes hilarious) shooing effort by Rio staffers to make the ballroom bird-free for the following day’s play.

It’s not the only „wildlife“ invasion. Late at night, one notices that occasional mosquitoes are resident to the Convention Center as well. In the hum of the day, amid 2,000 poker players, a handful of skeeters goes unnoticed. Not so in the wee hours; working the overnight shift, a small spray bottle of what we northwoods Midwesterners call „bug dope“ was my most unanticipated purchase of the summer to date.

The security guards float through the room and building as well, invariably with little or nothing to do but perch behind one of the room’s podiums and wait for a buzz from someone else on their walkie-talkies. Usually it’s just the security form of a dealer „push“ – the decision to move on to a different security podium, if just for the new scenery.

Along about 9:45 each morning the „poker“ operation shows a renewed pulse. The first shift of tournament directors arrive, to verify the room’s layout for the day and go over the „maps“ for the coming day’s events – showing tournament structure, location, breaking order and so on. Cash-game play slowly begins to swell in the room’s southeast quadrant; by three or so in the afternoon it’ll again be wall-to-wall players.

A few „tourist“ players, for whom participating in the WSOP is a novel, first-time experience, make early visits to scope out their table and seat locations and get a feel for the room. They’re pretty much left alone by security until 11:00 or so, about when the day’s first shift of dealers emerges from the service hallway, streaming inside in a large conga line to get their first table assignments of the day. While players not in cash games are shooed from the room, the dealers move to their respective tables and sit patiently for the next half hour or so. Part of the day’s job for the lead tournament director – usually Jack Effel – is to get the dealers themselves pumped and alert for the day’s fun, which can include „Dealer of the Day“ giveaways (as voted on by players), random prize drawings and more good-natured fun. Soon enough the tables are manned and ready.

Players are usually let back in around 11:40 AM for the day’s first event, while a staffer comes over to the room’s sound-system center and preps the day’s theme music. Steppenwolf’s „Born to Be Wild“ and Ant and Dec’s „Let’s Get Ready to Rumble“ are typical daily selections, though the playlist varies. It’s often too loud at first blast, of course, and has to be toned back down to allow the TDs to once again be heard. The sound system’s hub sits on the far, north wall, within arm’s reach of my own overnight station directly underneath the „Doyle Brunson“ banner, itself one of perhaps three dozen that ring the room’s outer walls, honoring Main Event winners and recent Player of the Year champions. The hub is also a good windblock against the room’s overnight draftiness. It’s home, with a decent vantage point across the vastness of the Amazon Room, whether largely empty or packed to the gills.

And then it’s time for the surge of players, the day’s announcements, and often an honorary „Shuffle up and deal!“ call by the day’s chosen poker luminary. It’s again full-on WSOP time at the Rio, though in truth, the Series never went away. It just ebbed a bit before the full flow picked up once again.