2003 World Series of Poker Behind the Scenes (Moneymaker Series Continues — Part 3)
Writer’s Note: This is the third in an extended series of articles about Chris Moneymaker’s victory at the 2003 World Series of Poker and what went on behind the scenes at Binion’s Horseshoe — before, during, and after.
Part 4: Send in the Clowns
Binion’s Horseshoe was freak show.
Not a day passed without a “you’re not going to fucking believe this” moment.
A typical work day: Vagrants wondering in and out, crashing on the furniture inside the sportsbook. Nests of hookers at the bar. Cowboys shouldered up next to gangsters wolfing down hot pastrami sandwiches and guzzling Dr Brown’s cream sodas at the Horseshoe deli. Fistfights. Drunkeness. Card cheats. The mentally ill. Drug dealers and junkies. You name it — you saw it at “the Shoe.”
One of the most detestable of all the regulars was a crusty curmudgeon named Sam Angel, quite possibly the most repulsive person to have ever lived in Las Vegas, and that’s really saying something. A part-time pawnbroker and full-time hustler, Angel was the devil in disguise. By the time I had the misfortune to know him, Angel was pushing 80 years. His pot belly hung over his britches. Half the time his fly was open. Once, a bystander whispered to him about it and Angel said he didn’t care.
He always wore loud checkered coats that hadn’t been dry cleaned in years. He cursed profusely — no matter what company happened to be around. The old crab with the most ironic of names, Angel spent years hanging out at the Horseshoe. Decades earlier, he’d befriended the late family patriarch Benny Binion, and later son Jack, trying to persuade them to set up a temporary pawn shop right inside the casino. He reasoned that some people might be desperate enough to pawn their rings, their watches, and precious jewelry to raise more money to gamble with. Benny and Jack rejected the idea for its obvious crassness. They’d have none of this. But by 2002, the Horseshoe was in such dire financial straights management were willing to try and do anything. And so Angel set up a couple of folding tables that looked pretty much what you’d see at a flea market and propped up his business next to the hotel front desk. While I was there, he manned it 12 hours a day, while taking frequent breaks to drink Heineken beer and play poker, while he spewed ceaseless strings of f-bombs and insults at those he didn’t like.
Here’s Sam Angel, in a good mood, years before becoming broken down and bitter:
Another salty character was named “Jabber.” Seriously, that was his real name (his last name, I think). Jabber was a so-called “friend of the family.” That meant something special. “Friend of the family” had a unique connotation at the Horseshoe. The person was pretty much untouchable. That meant, he had a free ride to do whatever he wanted. Jabber detested me. From day one, we never got along.
Jabber was a barrel of bitterness. Standing perhaps 5 feet all and probably 250 pounds, Jabber was shaped like a bowling ball. In what has to go down as one of the most bizarre personnel decisions in the history of the casino business, some years earlier he’d been hired to run the sportsbook, and in the process managed to turn what was a virtual printing press into a broken-down vending machine. It’s inconceivable to this day why this idiot was hired to do anything. Jabber was utterly useless. He had even less brains than charm.
Anyway, Jabber waddled around like a duck. By that time, he was his late 70’s, so he was allowed to stay on and collect a full-time salary, still acting like a big shot. In reality, Warren Schaeffer, a perfect no-nonsense casino manager intimately close to the Behnens due to his Montana roots (the Binion Family owned a ranch up in Montana and spent a lots of time there) ran both the spotsbook operations and later the poker room. In all the time I hung around Jabber, I don’t think I ever heard him say an intelligent thing. I don’t think the man knew what a pointspread was. And he was supposedly in charge of the fucking sportsbook. No wonder the casino was bleeding money on life support.
I’d post a photo of Jabber if I had one. Instead, just think of a tomato.
Even though I reported directly to Nick, I developed a close personal rapport with Benny Behnen. Recall, he was Nick’s son and the grandson of Benny Binion. Noted for a playboy lifestyle and some genuine affiliation with underworld types, fact was — Benny was as dedicated as they came to the family business. He was constantly around and involved in most decisions. Moreover, Benny didn’t have any of the self-destructive habits that might have destroyed others in his situation. He had no use for drugs, rarely drank, was unfailingly courteous to everyone he dealt with. I came to very much like and respect Benny.
But like his father, Benny also had a violent streak. The story of a fight at Piero’s Restaurant with casino mogul Bob Stupak made the local newspapers (READ: “Stupak, Behnen Animosity Heats Up”)
I bring Benny into the story because he seemed to be a magnet some of the most outlandish characters in the history of Las Vegas. One of these men was contract killer and lifelong criminal named R.D. Matthews. By this time, Matthews was in declining health. He wore an eye patch. But age didn’t slow Matthews down a bit. Even at 80, he reportedly took a swing at Stupak and landed a punch in the infamous Piero’s Restaurant incident cited above.
But R.D. Matthews was more than just a bruising senior. He may have had a very real connection to one of the most famous crimes in history. His real claim to infamy was a close association with the late Jack Ruby (the Dallas strip club owner who gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald). There were also allegations that Matthews was one of the three “hobos” seen on the railroad tracks overlooking Dealy Plaza on the fateful day President Kennedy was assassinated. Some people even speculated R.D. Matthews was the so-called “second gunman.” No doubt, his dubious record and known ties to organized crime in Dallas (and later presumably Las Vegas) made all the speculation plausible.
Here’s R.D. Matthews (READ MORE HERE) in a file photo from the 1960s:
The circus parade went non-stop.
Another mysterious performer under the big top was Phil Tartaglia, better known as “Philly Brush.” His name might also be familiar. This was Stu Ungar’s shadowy “protector,” dating back to his early days in New York. Philly allegedly murdered lots of people as a hitman for one the major crime families. He moved to Las Vegas and settled down years ago, at times serving a vital father figure in train wreck of a life that was Stu Ungar. When I was with Ungar, he often referred to Philly. He was really as close to family as Stuey had here in Las Vegas.
During the time, I was writing the Stu Ungar biography that became known as “One of a Kind” (the great Peter Alson would come onto the project a year later). Philly was an integral part of the Ungar story. In fact, there were huge gaps in the timeline that only Philly could fill with some detail (Ungar died in 1998). Trouble was, Philly absolutely refused to talk to me. He wouldn’t talk to anyone that could identify him. Philly kept such a low profile that he supposedly didn’t have a social security number or an identity. It was as though he didn’t exist. Philly wanted to keep things that way and talking to me would have potentially exposed — not just his background — but his actual identity. Philly wanted to stay in the shadows.
But Philly loved to hang out with Benny and the feeling was mutual. They hung out together often. When I burst into the circle, usually at the sportsbook or coffee shop, Philly would scurry away immediately without saying a word. In all the times I saw Philly, he nodded to acknowledge me just once. Otherwise, he wanted nothing to do with me, or anyone else except for Benny for that matter.
The list of outlandish characters goes on and on. The stories are endless. One of these days, I might write a book about the wild final year that was Binion’s Horseshoe at the end. Those times were great. They days were awful. The nights were worse. And I loved every minute of it.
In fact, the ambiance become infectious. Although I took the Director of Public Relations position partially as an excuse to hang out and be a part of the gambling scene, I actually came to deeply care and love the place where I worked. I gradually came to think of myself as the caretaker of a monument — like it was the Lincoln Memorial or something. Indeed, rather than spending my time goofing off, I found myself more dedicated than ever to helping to turn Binion’s Horseshoe around. I started putting in 70-hour weeks with no days off. I pretty much lived at the Horseshoe. It became my life for nearly two years.
When the eve of the 2003 World Series of Poker came upon me, I had no idea of the magnitude of what was about to come. A sleepy and dysfunctional madhouse was about to be transformed into the a global stage — epicenter of the poker universe and the incendiary which was to light what became known as the worldwide poker boom.
Part 5: The Decline and Death of the World Series of Poker
Recall that this series started out with the demise of a long ago forgotten poker tournament called the “Hall of Fame.” It was held at Binion’s Horseshoe every year and folded in September of 2002.
What at one time had been the second-most prestigious poker event in the world faded to a distant memory. To this day, few records survive. The winners are now mostly forgotten. It’s as though the tournament never existed. It’s a ghostly reminder that all glory is fleeting.
The World Series of Poker very nearly had its own obituary and it was close to being scribed in April 2003. Outside of a few people, no one quite realized how dire the situation was at Binion’s Horseshoe when dozens of poker tables were dusted off out of storage, hauled upstairs, and locked into place inside the tournament room known as “Benny’s Bullpen,” an old Bingo Hall that had been converted into the stage of the richest and most prestigious gambling event on the planet.
Leaks to the media made a bad situation worse. Could the 2003 WSOP actually be worse than the year before? Might this be the end road of a legend? Instead of the lead up to the series being one of the most anticipated times of the year for every poker player, the local atmosphere resembled a deathwatch.
The Horseshoe had been hit with millions of dollars in judgements. There was a $2 million debt owed to the Fremont Street Experience. The Horseshoe also ignored its obligation to pay contributions to the employees’ health insurance and pension funds, mandatory under a federal law called the Employees Retirement Income Security Act, which had to do with medical benefits plans. SIDE NOTE: I once went to the doctor and used my company-provided health insurance. Months later, I received a bill for the entire medical procedure because my employer had stiffed on making the insurance payment. Then there were other creditors, too who pretty much were fucked at the end of a long line. Some of them tried to negotiate for pennies on the dollars and still couldn’t get paid.
A dire situation was made worse by the WSOP being housed in a building that was utterly crumbling. One estimate found it would take millions of dollars to tear out the old asbestos from the walls. The air conditioning unit was at least 25-years-old and dated back to the time the main tower was still part of The Mint. The overworked and exhausted water coils struggled desperately to pump cool air into a baking concrete building which broiled for months in the heat of 110-degree afternoons. Even the rooftop pool was closed down because it was too expensive to staff and maintain. Given all it’s massive problems, the only solution seemed to be a wrecking ball and bankruptcy court.
The “B” word frightened the shit out of a lot of people. Especially poker players.
Given all the lawsuits, the judgements, and the distressing financial issues of the Horseshoe, would cash deposits at the Horseshoe be safe? What if a federal marshal stormed in on Day One of the Main Event Championship with a court order and confiscated the estimated $10 million prize pool to pay off creditors? The WSOP wasn’t just sinking. Financially speaking, it had already hit the rocks. And pirates were swarming onto the deck.
On top of all this, the tournament rake was jacked up. The timing of that decision couldn’t have been worse. Players were being asked to pay a higher entry fee for what amounted to the same, or less perks.
There were other troubles, too. In some ways, worse than those with management. Assorted cheating allegations and scandals from the previous year — such as too many chips in play at the end of some tournaments, disappearing large-denomination chips at the end of other tournaments, and a hopeless operation overall to control and police due to lack of proper controls and updated technology badly tainted the WSOP’s prestige.
Matt Savage and Jim Miller were brought in as Co-Tournament Directors that year. They would share the title. Savage pretty much controlled the tournaments (held upstairs in Benny’s Bullpen) while Miller ran the cash game action and satellites held downstairs. Savage (from Bay 101 in San Jose) and Miller (from the Hustler Club in Los Angeles) were both contract employees. But they basically ran everything. Essentially all the decisions having to do with poker were theirs alone. The Behnen’s basically stayed out of the way and let the staff run the show. Which is why — aside from the building falling apart — the tournament and poker games ran reasonably well.
The case of Matt Savage bears bonus commentary. Matt and I had our differences over the years, but back in 2003 we were all a close-knit team. Before the series began, the Behnens decided that this would be Savage’s last WSOP as Tournament Director (he’d worked the same role in 2002). He’d essentially be mothballed out of the WSOP after just two years. Their reasoning was — they didn’t want anyone to acquire too much power. They didn’t want another Eric Drache or Jack McClelland/Jim Albrecht situation where the heads of the tournament got all the fame and glory. So, the powers the be decided (before I joined staff) that the WSOP Tournament Director would serve in a two-year “term.” The talent would be rotated to a new director every few years, supposedly rewarding the best of the best with the most plum assignment in poker.
So Savage come into the series thinking this was his last. Washed up at age 32. As a token of appreciation, Binion’s Horseshoe also decided to create what was to be called the “Tournament Director’s Hall of Fame.” Had this been proposed on my watch, I’d have never gone for such lunacy. But by the start of the WSOP, it had already been announced. Matt Savage was to be the first (and only) inductee into the “Tournament Director’s Hall of Fame.” It was pathetic.
I had to go and get a plaque made, emblazoned with Matt Savage’s name as the only inaugural member. Forget Drache, McClelland, Albrecht, Thompson and all the rest of the pillars of tournament poker. Matt Savage trumped them all and was to be the first inductee. It was a sick joke.
Savage undoubtedly would deserve an honor today. But the cloud of knowing he was about to be set out to pasture after just two years couldn’t have been good for morale. Savage was indeed given his “honor” and introduced to a mostly disinterested half-empty room of poker players as the first pick in the “prestigious” club. It was an embarrassment.
Before the WSOP began that fateful year, George Fisher has been deeply involved in just about everything that happened on property. He was the only reason I was working there. But as the days passed, George spent less time in the poker scene. By the end, he had all but disappeared leaving Savage, Miller, McDonald, Schaeffer, and myself in charge. We wouldn’t see George for days, or even weeks.
However, before we leave the understated subject of George Fisher, it bears noting how important this man was to the WSOP as a great visionary. George probably saved the WSOP as we know it. I mean that. He saved the WSOP from ruin. Allow me to explain how.
The Horseshoe poker office was slightly larger than a broom closet. It was nestled beneath a set of iron stairs leading up to the employee cafeteria. It was comprised of two rooms the combined size of an Winnebago. The smaller room had an old desk crowbarred inside. You had to squeeze around the desk and press your ass against the walls to move around. Somehow, George and Steve McDonald (WSOP Administrator) worked side by side in this tiny space.
I said previously that I’d explain how George saved the WSOP. Now, let me explain.
On the wall of that tiny office with the dimensions of a closet, hung a large white board blotted with black marker ink. Written in tiny letters which upon closer inspection filled the entire board were what George called his “satellite stations.” George had come up with the brilliant idea to sign up bars, casinos, cardrooms, private companies, brothels — anyone who would partner with the WSOP and send a player to the Main Event. In exchange, the locale was given the designated title of an official “WSOP Satellite Station.” The response to George’s idea was enormous. He worked the phones and turned on the charm like the master salesman and marketer he was born to be. By early April, the white bulletin board was covered in ink — listing the dozens of locations around the world and number of players coming to play in the WSOP Main Event.
A few lines entries up on that board attracted no special attention. They were online poker sites. One of the “WSOP Satellite Stations” was a relatively new site called “PokerStars.com.” It had been around for about 18 months.
Think about it. Looking back now, imagine how things might have been different had George not come up with the crazy idea to reach out to “competitors.” How might the poker landscape be different today had PokerStars.com not accepted the invitation?
Another hero working behind the scenes was Dan Goldman. At the time Dan served as head of marketing for PokerStars.com. Dan and I later became the best of friends. Some time later I even went to work for him and PokerStars.com. But back then, I barely knew Dan. George Fisher reached across the great divide the separated what at the time were bitter enemies — land-based cardrooms versus online poker sites — and extended his hand in partnership. On the other end of the spectrum, Dan Goldman was there to shake it and create a bond that’s probably the most important alliance the game has ever seen.
Dan Goldman isn’t properly credited for playing a vital role in the history of the game (until now). Had Dan not worked tirelessly to persuade Isai Scheinberg, the owner of PokerStars.com to partner with the WSOP and send players to Las Vegas that spring, the poker landscape might be very different today. Certainly, no one would have ever heard of Chris Moneymaker. SIDE NOTE: For a more thorough account of this story from Dan’s perspective, check out his blog HERE and be sure and scroll the to section about fighting with management to send online players to the WSOP. It’s a terrific read.
One more incident (of so many) bears remembering. This was the first year we used an official photographer. We decided to pay a professional photographer to document the entire series. I’d been close to Eric Harkins from ImageMasters out of St. Louis. We worked together on all the Jack Binion tournaments in Tunica. Eric was the best. He was easy to get along with and had just the right mentality to be able to step into a madhouse like the Horseshoe and make it all work. We agreed on a figure, with the stipulation that Eric would get booked at a hotel room close by.
For some odd reason, George refused to book Eric and his staff in the hotel and instead booked them at a weekly dive down on Industrial. Harkins and company had reservations for four weeks at $159 a week at a motel which shared a common wall with an adult bookstore. When Eric showed up anticipating a nice comfortable hotel room nearby, instead he pulled up to a motel filled with hookers and junkies. Worse, Eric would be walking through infamous “Naked City” at 2 or 3 am, will thousands of dollars in camera equipment in tow. So, Eric opted instead to pay for his own room elsewhere.
The 2003 WSOP began with the $500 buy-in Casino Employees event. We drew a big turnout. Then, the numbers began to decline. By the end of the first week, we were all in a panic.
The Limit Hold’em tourney, normally a huge opener for the WSOP every year took a huge hit. Attendance dropped from 610 down to 422.
Things were just as bad for the Seven-Card Stud event which followed. Participation dropped from 253 to 177.
Then, we all began to think this was the end when the Omaha High-Low Split numbers surfaced. The event declined from 339 to 175, down almost half!
The next few events weren’t much better. By the end of the first week of the 2003 WSOP, our overall attendance was down a whopping 30 percent over the previous year, which had been equally a disappointment.
As I walked through a nearly empty poker room during the $5,000 buy-in Deuce-t0-Seven Lowball championship, trying to keep my head up while staring at rows of empty tables and vacant seats, everyone in the poker universe was raving about the Bellagio. Excitement focused on a new poker attraction called the World Poker Tour, which had begun broadcast on The Travel Channel. We were a horse and buggy up against a race car. The WSOP seemed to represent the past. The WPT was the future.
Binion’s Horseshoe was in rapid decline and the WSOP seemed just about dead.
COMING NEXT: THE CLUSTERFUCK CIRCUS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS (MONEYMAKER SERIES CONTINUES — PART 4)