LAS VEGAS (11 July 2017) – It's early afternoon in Day 2A/B of the 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event, and the Rio Convention is abuzz. Main Event play has continued, following three separate Day 1 opening flights, and the scene is different than what's found through most of the rest of the WSOP.
There are more fans present, in the halls and at the rail, and the movable rails themselves have changed positions for the upteenth time this summer. Film crews and poker writers proliferate as well, tracking the game's biggest names as they try to work through a field of more than 7,200 players, with an $8.15 million winner's payday going to one of these players, a little more than a week hence.
It seems the cameras are everywhere, but they're not, not quite. And away from the star-stuffed tables, there are other stories to be told. Each year, hundreds of poker players enter the Main Event for the first time. Most of them are known only in the poker world to family and friends, and barring a deep run themselves or a random all-in collision against one of those poker superstars, the cameras will likely pass them by. Yet they're all here in the hopes of writing their own Chris Moneymaker-type tales, emerging from obscurity to climb to the top of the poker world.
For a first-time Main Event participant, however, just being here is part of the special experience as well. Some first-timers are experiencing a mammoth poker event for the first time, while other aren't really that new to big poker tournaments. That latter group includes some veteran players who, for one reason or another, have never before played in a WSOP Main Event. Today, the WSOP sampled a handful of these Main Event first-timers to show a different aspect of the poker world's grandest tournament.
Many of these first-time players arrive at the Rio in July via the hometown-satellite method, winning a seat through a private club or group. The experience of Prior Lake, Minnesota's Michelle Day is typical as seen from the outside, though for Day, it's all new. A dispatcher for a school bus company in the Twin Cities' northern suburbs, Day won her Main Event seat the old-fashioned way, winning an unofficial league of about 30 players that played a series of tourneys to determine who won the seats, as Day was one of two players from the league to win a seat at the Rio..
Day's first and second Main Event days were a sharp contrast to each other, she said, from her seat in the northwest reaches of the vast Amazon Room. “On Day 1, I was in the Brasilia Room; it was nice, and it made me forget that it was this many people. It was smaller, and I could only see a few tables.” The Brasilia Room is the home of the Mothership, the unofficial term for the WSOP's filmed feature table and the two secondary filmed tables that flank it. Early in the Main Event and throughout much of the bulk of the WSOP, the opposite corners of the room are filled with roughly three dozen tables, and it was there that Day played in Flight 1B.
“It was really fun. It was quite an experience,” she added. That even included being in close proximity to a “scuffle,” as she described it, in which penalties were assessed to the players involved. “My earbud fell out,” Day joked.
Winning one's way in via a local league is the theme of the table about 40 feet away from Day's seat. Early on Day 2, this table boasts at least four Main Event first-timers. Three of the four won their way to Vegas in a similar manner to Day.
Robert Reel is one of them. He's a 45-year-old lawyer who won his seat in an Indianapolis-based league of about 45 players. Reel is scraping along early on Day 2. He made it through to second-day play on a short stack and spent the first hours searching for that much needed double-up. It's a too-common ailment, and it afflicts all players, amateur and pro alike.
It's by far the largest event, by buy-in, of Reel's poker career. Reel, though, has played some deep-stack tourneys on other Vegas trips, so he had at least some familiarity with the WSOP spectacle.
As to his struggle on Day 1, Reel said, “It was frustrating, but it was fun, a good experience. I met a lot of people. It was still frustrating, though; I had the second-best hand a lot of times.” Reel wasn't faring much better on Day 2, though he managed to stay afloat through the early going.
There are two other local-club winners here at Table 79 in Amazon, and they've been talking to each other the whole day, because they're both from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada. Coincidences such as this abound at the WSOP. The two are A.J. Taillon and Trent Leavitt, and no, they didn't come from the same unofficial league. Leavitt's club sent two other players to Las Vegas in addition to him, while Taillon is his league's sole representative here.
“I won my league back home; the winner got a flight (to Vegas), accomodations, and a seat into the Main Event,” said Taillon. It's not his first visit to the WSOP, though, and he's played a handful of smaller bracelet events in previous years, though without success to date. If there's anything he was grappling with, it was the sheer size of the Main. Taillon summer up his first day's Main Event play by saying, “My Day 1 was really interesting. I had a really friendly table. A lot of action. I guess my biggest realization was that it was just a regular poker tournament.
“It is a grind, but I don't mind it,” he added. “I like sitting down. I love to play. It's been a memorable experience so far.”
Opposite Taillon is Leavitt, who, unlike Taillon, played a handful of smaller events as warmups for the Main Event. Leavitt (pictured above) said his attention remained focused on his upcoming ME, however. As with some of the other newcomers, the overall speed of action was something new.
“It was a little slow(-paced), I guess I wasn't expecting that, but I was happy with the chips I had at the end of Day 1... even though it wasn't many. I didn't have a lot of hands to play. Day 2 has been more of the same. I have more than I started with, but I haven't picked up many hands or been able to see too many flops. I made a few steals.”
As for Day 2 and beyond, when the slow grind toward the money continues. Leavitt claims he's ready. “I'm excited for eight more days of poker, actually,” figuring in a couple of scheduled off days as well.
There's definitely some characters around here that you run into. Nothing too unusual, but it's my first time in an event this big. It's kind of overwhelming at first.”
One of those characters might have been another of the Main Event first-times at this same table, Ryan Schnabel. The outgoing Schnabel is technically a first-timer, but he's an outlier on the scale. He's a well-known online pro, originally from the Chicago suburbs, and he ended up in Costa Rica for a stretch following 2011's “Black Friday” online-poker crackdown. Later, he returned to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he spent a couple of years. These days he's in the process of moving to Vegas to become a full-time cash-game pro.
The thing is, he wasn't even thinking about playing the Main Event. We'll just let Schnabel describe how his appearance in this event came to be.
“I came out to play cash for a couple of weeks and I figured I would be out here anyway. I had a friend who went deep in one of the [other Vegas] tournaments. He sold some action to get into the main, and I found out about the mega-satellite to the Main Event two days ago. He convinced me to play the mega-satellite, so I played the mega for $575 and got my seat, and I'm effectively freerolling the Main.... This is the only event that I've played. All these other times I've played cash.”
Regarding his Main Event experience, Schnabel was more technical in his recap. “Day 1 was pretty good. I didn't have that great of a table draw. I had Brian Hastings four to my left and then I come to find out that the gentleman to my immediate right (the UK's Harry Lodge) took third in the $888 (Crazy Eights). So the table was not soft at all. I was happy to bag a stack for Day 2 and that was the original goal, to come back and make Day 2. Now the goal is to make Day 3.”
Unfortunately for Schnabel, that second goal went unfulfilled, as he was knocked out about an hour after speaking with the WSOP. However, that bustout carried its own odd coincidence. Schnabel remained in the vicinity of his Amazon Room table, and out the many hundreds of players in the room who could have arrived to fill it, it turned out to be Schnabel's friend, Fausto Valdez. It was Valdez who convinced Schnabel to play the mega-satellite, and he later ending up occupying Schnabel's vacant seat. Not to worry; they're still good friends.
Then there's the WSOP Main Event as bucket-list item.
Terry Moore, 68, the owner of an interior construction company in Muncie, Indiana, has played dozens of Circuit tourneys and preliminary bracelet events. However, he's never played the Big One. This year, he decided it was time.
“I just decided to finally play in it,” he said. “I never have; I always wanted to, but I never wanted to spend the money. So this year I decided to.” Moore made the 2017 WSOP a double-dip adventure, too, having traveled to Las Vegas last month to play the Seniors Event, returning to Indiana, then flying west for the Main.
Moore also noted the Main Event's overall slower feel, both in pace and structure. Regarding that structure, Moore said, “It's excellent, really, Very good for play. You get your money's worth.”
The Main Event continues to draw people from all walks of life, many of whom only dreamed of the chance to play before it actually happened. Not many of this year's first-timers will cash in the Main Event, but a few will. And in a way, they've already won, getting the chance to compete on poker's biggest stage.