Poker is a game where players never know what kind of hands they will be dealt. However, there is one way that a player can be sure of always getting good hands:
Ask for a massage.
For many players at the WSOP, getting an invigorating, soothing, relaxing hands-on massage is more than a luxury or an indulgence – it becomes a necessity when forced to sit for long periods in a chair during 12-hour tournament sessions, trying to stay relaxed and focused without the distraction of a sore and aching neck or back.
Enter Professional Massage, Inc. This is the fifth year they have contracted with Harrah’s to provide masseurs and masseuses during the WSOP, and the demand has increased every year. In 2006 there were 60 massage therapists – mostly women – on call. This year the number has jumped to about 300, with 100 or more on duty during tournament time.
The therapists have a flexible schedule and can make their own hours, explained Tori Bowman, one of the Professional Massage managers. An average session lasts 10 or 15 minutes, but often can be much longer. The longest continuous massage she can recall went for six hours. At $2 a minute (split between the therapist and Professional Massage) that would come to $720 (plus tip) because there are no discounts for protracted rubs.
However, Bowman points out that even that marathon session pales when compared to the 36 hours or so that David Bach, winner of last year’s $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, kept a therapist on duty during his tournament play. He even slept in a back room during that time to be available whenever he requested his services. Pretty big bill at $2 a minute, but still small change if it helped him to a win of $1,296,000 that works out to about $600 a minute for the 36 hours!
Massages generally are confined to the neck and back, though occasionally a player will ask to have his arms, hands, legs or feet rubbed. Sometimes his scalp if he has a headache. The massages stimulate a player’s circulation and allow him, if he’s in a cash game, to stay at the table longer, she explained.
Are there ever any kinky requests? “No,” Bowman laughed. “We try to be as professional as we can.”
The therapists are trained in technique by Professional Massage and also given special instructions, such as how to make eye contact and make arrangements for their services. They are warned not to approach and talk to a customer in the middle of a hand, only when the cards are being gathered and being shuffled, or during break time. They are not allowed to look at or comment on hands, and of course cannot respond if a customer jokingly asks for advice on how to play a hand.
Even so, some players are superstitious, will think a therapist is bringing him good luck during a good run of cards, and keep him or her around for an extended period during that time. For example, a therapist named Sarah recalls how she started to give a massage to a player in a cash game at 2 a.m. He immediately won a big pot. “I knew you would bring me luck,” he exclaimed, and kept her working until he left 45 minutes later.
Professional Massage provides therapists year-long for all 11 Harrah’s properties in Las Vegas as well as a few other places along the Strip. Their workers are licensed by the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapists and all have health cards and liability insurance.
The company is owned by Rolando Coro, who once was the therapist for the Cuban national volleyball team before immigrating to the United States 12 years ago. He started his business with a single chair in the outlet shops at Primm in 2002.
Phil Ivey is one of the most frequent massage customers, sometimes getting hours-long treatments, along with other name players such as Daniel Negreanu and Jamie Gold. Miami John Cernuto, the former air traffic controller turned pro, loves massages, saying they calm him down.
Some players have special needs. Bernard Lee, the poker pro/writer/Internet radio host/spokesperson for Foxwoods, says he has a very tight upper back, and has difficulty finding a therapist who can do a satisfying job. Last year he found one named Mandy, made contact with her again this year, and is looking forward to having her fingers dig in to his back again.
While their pay is pretty good, the therapists also enjoy their work for other reasons as well. “I’m a people person,” says Shannon, a veteran therapist with 16 years experience and her second at the WSOP. “I enjoy the interaction among the players, the intensity, the electricity, the click of the chips, the buzz that’s all around us.”
“I love this work,” echoes another therapist named Pennie, who worked at another hotel spa before coming to the WSOP three years ago. Her longest session was three hours.
Shannon, who is Johnny Chan’s favorite therapist, has one of the most interesting stories of all to relate. She was once working on comedian (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and poker enthusiast Brad Garrett during a tournament. The other players at the table were commenting on his massage, and he asked if any of them had ever had one. When all said no, he offered to pay for a 15-minute session for all of them, and a crew of therapists were called over. Five minutes into the sessions, an announcement was made that WSOP and Professional Massage would foot the bill, whereupon Garrett said, “OK,” I’ll take care of the tips.” Shannon says she immediately knew he would tip every therapist $100, and that’s what happened.
Of course, not everyone in the poker world is a massage enthusiast. Take Barry Greenstein. Years ago at an L.A. casino, he noticed one massage lady was getting no takers. Being a good guy, he decided to give her his business, and soon found why no one else did. She pinched him so badly that he paid her to stop, and that was his one and only massage.
Also, some players feel that therapists can be a distraction while working at a table. And the always-outspoken Barry Shulman, Card Player publisher and reigning WSOP Europe champion, feels that they “invade people’s space.”
Well, maybe, but the “invading” therapists seem to have established a secure beachhead at the WSOP, and appear destined to be a continuing and increasing presence for years to come.
And remember, don't forget to tip!