An Appointment with a Bottle of Champagne — Nine Years Later
Writer’s Note: Following PART 1 and PART 2, here’s the story of my favorite dinner of the 2015 World Series of Poker, in other words — my top choice out of 51 such engagements. There’s also a brief interlude of thanks to some friends who presented me with various gift bottles of wine and assorted liquors, which sufficiently swayed me enough to write positive things about them here.
I. MEET “GENTLEMAN” JOHN GALE
Fine wine takes time, it’s been said. So too, does friendship.
One presumes the same applies to crafting the best champagne.
Here’s the story of a most special bottle of champagne, one that took nine years to open….and which tasted as bountiful as life itself.
Ten years ago, 2005, was my first occasion to meet an extraordinary man from Bushey, Hertfordshire — which I’ve been told isn’t too far from the north side of London. His name was (and is) John Gale. Actually, “Gentleman” John Gale is the full moniker within his trade, which just so happens to be the poker trade, that is, when he not doing other things.
Gale was bestowed that reverent nickname both for its distinguishing qualities and for his gentle-but-manly nature, abject sincerity, and genuine goodness of heart. In what’s oftentimes a cutthroat trade as poker can be, where compassion is too often mistakenly perceived as a weakness, Gale comes across as the very strongest among all those truly insecure individuals who somehow feel a need to mask the supposed determination to win with needless and often counterproductive bravado and indifference to the joy of simply being in the game and feeling lucky to be alive to play the next hand dealt.
Gale understands that with poker comes a perpetual state of vulnerability, as everyone is who stays in this game for any length of time realizes, and if they don’t know, they eventually learn (usually, the hard way) — vulnerable to the unpredictable whims of fate and inevitable storms of destiny, and vulnerable to the very real possibility of going bust. Then, there’s too the vulnerability of the far more important things than money over which one wrests little or no control. Some are indeed blessed with good health and live long lives. Others, through no fault of their own, struggle with sickness and other problems. Still others finally end up being dealt out of life’s game, sometimes with little or no warning, and far too soon before they’ve had time to cash their chips.
My intention was to tell you about a special bottle of champagne. Permit me to do so. That is, after I set up the story with a little more background.
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II. JUNE 2005: A SATISFYING DISAPPOINTMENT
Just in case you don’t know, or don’t know me, I work for the World Series of Poker, a much cherished and always engaging position that I’ve held for, let’s just say, a very long time.
I’m often asked if I cheer for some players over others.
The answer — yes.
Unapologetically — yes.
I usually manage to hide my personal preferences and often conceal my inner demons, masking the blisters of my prejudices as best I can. But sometimes, the serpent can’t be contained nor can my exuberance be hidden. So, why bother trying to hide genuine exhilaration? I don’t.
The night of June 20th back in 2005 ran extra late. Gale, who I’d met a few weeks earlier quite by accident at a dinner at Hugo’s downtown, had the chip lead and was playing heads-up in a WSOP tourney recorded and later broadcast on ESPN. He was just a hand away from winning what would have been his first gold bracelet. But, as all experienced poker players know, being close to the win and actually achieving victory can be the most unkind blend of segregation. It’s a tease. Close and there are not one and the same. Something about horseshoes and hand grenades comes to mind here. Getting close only makes the void of not actually achieving victory all the more empty.
Gale ended up finishing second that memorable night. As he walked away from the final table utterly exhausted after playing three consecutive 12-hour days and nights, through a nearly empty Amazon Room at the Rio in Las Vegas, two things seemed astonishingly genuine to me in a manner that’s tough to describe and I haven’t witnessed with anyone else, before or since. Those two things were grave disappointment for having missed this fleeting chance for victory, oddly mixed with what seemed like an aura of joy, that happiness driven by the satisfaction that he was granted what turned out to be a special moment in time. For Gale, the satisfaction of getting to the big stage and playing his best was enough to bring about a smile.
I think there’s a lesson here to be learned, juxtaposing those seemingly contradictory emotions of disappointment and satisfaction. Call it a most satisfying disappointment.
I think if we looked upon our disappointments in that way, as Gale did that night, we’d all be happier.
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III. JUNE 2006: VICTORY AT LAST
Wasn’t this supposed to be an article about my favorite dinner of 2015? And a bottle of champagne? I’m getting to that. Slowly. We’re taking the scenic route. Read on.
A year later, 2006, Gale returned to the very stage that he’d walked across earlier as the runner up. In a remarkable case of deja vu and rare second chances, this time the proud Englishman prevailed. In front of the same ESPN cameras which had recorded his mixed emotions some 365 days before, this time once the final fateful hand was dealt and the last pot of the tournament was pushed in Gale’s direction, he raised his fist high into the air and upon lowering it back down to the green felt, then was attached the circular band of 14k gold which became, as with many in poker, a defining moment.
Gale, a popular and sympathetic figure, was mobbed. Interviews ensued. PokerStars staff, on site to cheer on the amiable player who had won over a million dollars and a championship title months earlier at the PCA (PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, held annually in the Bahamas), served as his personal cheering section. Gale, absolutely beaming with joy, especially in the wake of the disappointment of the previous year, appeared to appreciate the victory all the more because of the trail he took to get there. Losing has a way of making victory, when and if it comes, all the sweeter.
Amidst this frenzy of madness and celebration, Gale spotted me working off to the side, furiously typing away, writing the official report of that night’s events. In an act I can only describe as a combination of selflessness and utter generosity, Gale approached and asked what I was doing while everyone else was enjoying the fun.
“I’m writing the report,” I told him. “Even though the final table is over, with all that’s going on, I still have about two more hours of work to do.”
Gale was taken aback. In a moment when he should have been off celebrating with his friends and colleagues, Gale urged me to drop what I was doing and go with him to share his moment of joy.
“I remember you last year and all the nice things you wrote,” Gale said. “I want to treat you and would like for you to join us. I have an appointment with a bottle of champagne, and I’m going to order another one with your name on it.”
Wow. What an invitation.
Unfortunately, duty called. I continued typing and working on what I do, while Gale and his pals went off and celebrated, and rightfully so.
One might have expected that to be the end of this story, and it normally it would have been, had it not been for the extraordinary events that were to occur over the next nine years.
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IV. GALE’S DISAPPEARANCE
The details are fuzzy now, and in the grand scheme of things — unimportant.
Gale gradually faded into the growing poker scene, caught up in the midst of the boom and gradual leveling off of poker’s popularity. He cashed several more times, not just at the WSOP but at tournaments elsewhere. Each time I saw Gale, he smiled or waved. Sometimes, he reminded me of that “appointment with a bottle of champagne” that I’d missed, promising to try again sometime.
By 2011, Gale was still attending the WSOP, but not playing nearly as many events. Perhaps the game wasn’t as fulfilling as it once was. Maybe it was money, or a lack thereof. Whatever the reason, Gale didn’t stand out as much five years later as the night I saw him win his gold bracelet, now a distant memory.
In 2012, I didn’t see Gale at the WSOP. When 2013 game, he didn’t show, either. By 2014, many of us who remember Gale wondered what had happened to him.
That’s when we discovered that while the cards had been especially kind to Gale during his hot run of 2005 and 2006, he’d been dealt the worst kind of bad beat when it comes to health.
We learned that John Gale had brain cancer. A golf-ball sized tumor had developed behind his right eye, and was in such a delicate place it was virtually inoperable. Gale had been undergoing various treatments the past three years, and wasn’t in any position to travel abroad, let alone play poker and come to the WSOP. Gale was facing the toughest adversary of his life.
So, that’s why we didn’t see Gale at the 2012, 2013, or 2014 WSOP. He disappeared. Gale was fighting the battle of his life, for his life.
No one expected to see Gale at a poker table again. Certainly, not me.
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V. INTERLUDE: WINE AND SPIRITS
And now for a brief interlude which gives me the opportunity to thank some of the nice people who offered gifts these past few months. Here are some of the most interesting presentations I received:
Donnie Peters is one of the most dedicated and hardest-working people in the poker business. He’s the editor of PokerNews.com and is very much “hands on” when it comes to writing and reporting just about everything that goes on in the game. I’ve known Donnie for nearly ten years and am struck by his consistency and humility. He never seeks the spotlight for himself, instead opting to shine the beams of inquiry towards the subjects he covers. No doubt, Donnie is one of the most underappreciated people in poker. He deserves a lot more recognition.
Early on at this year’s series, Donnie presented me with a very unique bottle of wine. It was labeled “Ravenswoood,” a wine I happen to enjoy. However, the bottle and its label was just a vessel for something far more precious. Donnie informed me that his grandfather lives in upstate New York. He grows his own grapes and makes wine. Donnie thought of me during his last visit and decided to bring one of the bottles to me for my enjoyment. I was touched by the thought and the notion that I was deserving of such a gift.
So, what does one do with such a rare delicacy from the Peters Family vineyards? I wanted to enjoy this bottle in a special way. One night during the series, I was able to slip away and enjoy a nice dinner with Marieta. Instead of our customary French wines we tend to prefer, we decided to crack open this rare vintage from the Peters estate. The wine was surprisingly akin to a rose, dry to the palate, with a crisp aftertaste. I would compare this favorably to one of the Provence-style wines I tend to enjoy on a hot day. It was the perfect accompaniment to a nice dinner, which was enjoyed even more so because it was a gift from the heart.
Thank you Donnie Peters (and his grandfather).
Chris Grigorian is a longtime poker player from Los Angeles who I have known for 20 years. He’s genuinely one of the nicest people I know in the game. I am deeply humbled by his friendship. He is kind, generous, and is one of those people who I root for whenever he sits down to play.
I don’t remember how the tradition started exactly. I think it had something to do with Chris taking tremendous pride in his Armenian heritage (he’s known in poker as “the Armenian Express”). Each year, for at least the past decade or so, Chris has given me a bottle of Armenian brandy. Each year has been different, as there are many varieties of this national drink. I don’t claim to know much about Armenian brandy other than I enjoy it, and my wife enjoys it even more (those pesky Eastern Europeans).
The most popular brandy is called “Ararat,” just like the mountain which is actually across the border in Turkey, near the ancient Armenian settlement of Van. This is considered sacred territory by Armenians. Here’s a picture of the brandy, with Mt. Ararat in the background:
Thank you to my dear friend, Chris Gregorian.
In a previous report, I alluded to a lengthy dinner at Buzio’s with Chad Holloway (left) and James McManus (right). What I didn’t tell you was precisely what we were holding in our glasses, and joyously consuming at the time. This was quite a treat.
Charlie Townsend (pictured below) is a poker player I regularly see around the country when I travel. He plays on the WSOP Circuit and at other events, mostly on the East Coast. Charlie lives in Delaware and even claims to be “a farmer.” He grows various crops, including corn. Charlie also enjoys bourbon — both drinking it and even making it. Start doing the math on this, people.
Charlie made 30 bottles of bourbon from his own private still (which is legal — what makes bootlegging illegal is selling the product). I was fortunate to be presented with a pyramid-shaped bottle during the WSOP.
Admittedly, this bottle posed something of a dilemma. Drinking a bottle of wine is customary, perhaps even enhancing one’s job performance (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). But one doesn’t drink a bottle of bourbon in the dinner break and then come back and work another several hours (that might make for an interesting story). I wasn’t sure of the right occasion to drink the bourbon, and presumed I’d just have to wait until after grueling 51-day ordeal ended. However, when I realized I’d be having dinner with two aficionados of whiskey, this trio seemed to be the perfect pairing. Holloway previous toured the great bourbon makers of Kentucky and did several tastings — a few of which I enjoyed with him. Meanwhile, McManus naturally leans to all things Irish when it comes to drinking fine liquor straight up (“neat,” as we say). Charlie’s triangular-shaped bottle, sealed with wax, was broken open and consumed by the three of us. What a treat.
By the way, the bourbon was delicious. Sweet, even. Charlie Townsend’s Bourbon Mash does have a nice ring to it, and taste to it, as well.
And now, a final note to Chris Quan, a WSOP dealer and floorman on the Circuit who I have known for a decade and who shares my love of fine wine and good food. Quan gave me a bottle of a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles, which frankly, I drank and then forget about (the name, I mean). All I can remember was, it was delicious. I don’t know the wines from Paso Robles very well, so I plan on learning more about them and perhaps even visiting there this Fall in order to further my “education.” Thanks for the primer, Mr. Quan.
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VI. “EVERY NEW DAY IS A GIFT”
And now, for the rest of the story….
My reaction was one of utter shock, the kind where you stop in your tracks and momentarily cannot speak.
Having not seen nor heard from John Gale for more than three years, imagine the jaw-dropping sensation of walking down the hallway at 1 am during the opening week of this year’s series and seeing a man who closely resembled the former gold bracelet winner, right there in front of my eyes, standing in line, preparing to register for the next day’s tournament.
It was John Gale!
What exactly does one say in such a situation? Hi John! Gee, I thought you were dead!
Actually, I think I mumbled something to that effect. So dumbfounded was I, there was simply no reason to mask my surprise nor conceal my curiosity. What the hell had happened?
Gale calmly explained he’d undergone several different treatments. At some point, more than a year ago, he simply came to inner peace with his fate, accepting the reality that the brain tumor lodged away but still so dangerously and pervasively there at all times was pretty much inoperable. Gale vowed to go on and live his life, or at least enjoy what remained of it. His choice was to live it to the fullest, enjoying time with his wife and children and friends, and seize the precious moments he had left all his own.
Oddly enough just as that decision was made, the cancer stabilized and even went into a state of remission. I’m not particularly good at describing such things medical, but what mattered was Gale’s recovery and new lease on life. It was a while new attitude, and a healthy one at that. He’d always boosted a positive attitude and a constant smile, but now Gale’s attitude was even more joyous and the smile more sincere, for being given yet another chance to live and enjoy the things that mattered.
I’m not sure if attending the series can be called a “bucket list” item for someone who’s already won millions in poker and owns a gold bracelet, but if ever there was a great comeback story in poker, this was it.
“I’m going to win this tournament,” Gale said jokingly as he stepped up to the cashier window, preparing to enter the following day’s gold bracelet event. I’d forgotten that prideful prediction until three days later when I saw him sitting at the final table, nursing the chip lead. No one realized the journey this man had taken to get to this moment in time. The webpage devoted to Gale’s tournament record and the reports of his victory don’t really tell much of the story. In fact, they don’t do justice to the struggle at all.
The following afternoon, I had the great honor to step up to the microphone inside the Brasilia Room at the Rio and speak to the 1,500 or so poker players gathered there to recognize and honor the latest gold bracelet winner. While these ceremonies might be considered routine and even dull by some out there, what many seem to miss is that behind each walk across the stage is a much longer journey, some more painful and poignant than others. None was more inspirational to me than seeing Gale there waiting off in the wings, ready to come and collect his second gold bracelet.
As I told the remarkable story of Gale and his recovery, yet his ongoing struggle and fears of mortality, the entire room became silent, I think a testament of appreciation for what he’d endured and the astounding tenacity he exhibited returning to Las Vegas for the first time in four years and not only playing well, but winning the game’s highest honor.
Indeed, for me — announcing this gold bracelet winner was a special honor.
Next, Gale came upon the stage to collect his second career WSOP gold bracelet.
To the cheers of the crowd, Gale raises his hands in victory, mixed in with a few tears.
Later that night, John Gale joined Mark Napolitano and I at dinner. We dined at Buzio’s. Mark and I brought along a few bottles of champagne for the occasion, from Schramsberg Vineyards. This has become a “go to” celebration beverage for me — cool, crisp, bubbly and unique since the cave where the champagne is made and stored was actually won in a poker game more than 100 years ago (true story).
As we raised our glasses in a toast, Gale reminded me that this initial sip of champagne together was nine long years in the making, But it wasn’t the lengthy wait that mattered most, rather it was the reminder given to all of us of the fleeting glory that is waking up to a new day.
“Every day is a precious gift,” Gale said.
Note: Special thanks for Dutch Boyd for the photos of John Gale receiving his gold bracelet from me on the WSOP stage.
Correction: The locale of Hertfordshire was misspelled in a previous version of this article.