Bringing It All Back Home: Reflections of BARGE 2015
This past week, I attended BARGE 2015, held in Las Vegas.
B.A.R.G.E. is actually an acronym meaning “Big August Recreational Gambling Excursion,” a name sounding a bit pompous and pretty like a weekend gambling junket, which I’m told is precisely what it once was when it first began 25 years ago.
This eclectic group comprised of both men and women skews somewhat older now than when it was initially made up of lots of Silicon Valley types in their late 20’s. Today, BARGE includes loyal attendees ranging from 21 up well into their 70’s. It’s an astounding makeup of highly-interesting and supremely talented people from all over North America, who also know how to have fun both at the poker table and just about anywhere else for that matter. BARGE attendees never ask where the party or the action is taking place. They are the party and provide the action, wherever they go. Make that — wherever we go.
In today’s column, I’d like to tell you a bit more about BARGE, including some of the unique histories of this group as well as my personal experience from this past week. Unfortunately, lack of time and space makes this a writing exercise in futility since I’m hardly scratching the surface. Indeed, what follows is merely one card from a far more extensive full deck loaded with memories and stories.
Imagine having fun at the poker table. Think about that for a moment. That’s not as easy as it used to be, is it? No, not with so many players who take the game so seriously all the time, most who seem to sadly have forgotten the basic precept that, after all, we are playing a card game.
It’s a game, people.
The good folks at BARGE not only remember this fundamental philosophical canon, but they also embody it. They live it. They breathe it. They practice it. And, it’s infectious, just as all acts of goodwill should be.
Consider what happened last Saturday afternoon inside Binion’s Gambling Hall and Hotel in Downtown Las Vegas, our beloved host, where two poker tournaments were taking place at the same time.
Dating back to its origins, BARGE established a tradition, which is whenever someone busts out from any of the tournaments held over the course of the week-long gathering, the player is afforded a polite ovation from fellow competitors. It’s basically a way of saying, “thanks for playing.” Some players, the most attractive and inviting targets, also become instant fodder for catcalls and some teasing which is all in good fun. Since there’s a bust out about every 5 to 10 minutes, one sees a gauntlet of eliminations, and then that applause finally turns your way when you finally run out of chips.
We thought the applause was unique to BARGE. Yet as another tournament was being played at the same time, a smaller group (which I was told was comprised of Las Vegas police officers and firefighters), this other group, seeing the fine example set by BARGE, then began their own ritual. As each police officer or firefighter busted out, he or she was afforded a round of applause.
So what, you ask?
Clapping might not seem like a big deal. And, I suppose, it’s not. But the sportsmanship exhibited by the gesture exemplifies what the BARGE experience is all about. Yes, it’s about winning. It’s about playing your best. It’s about taking pride in doing well. But it’s far more about the friendships we make and the fun we have while at the poker table. It’s also about displaying good sportsmanship.
BARGE started out in 1991. That means this year (August 2015) was the group’s 25th anniversary. My first BARGE was back in 1996. Hence, I have now attended BARGE for 20 consecutive years. I’m not alone. Many of my closest friends are people I met at BARGE over the years. We are not just friends through poker. We also visit each other when we travel. We have formed business alliances. There have even been marriages between BARGE members. And now, a few divorces, too.
BARGE began as a small group of high-tech specialists, mostly software engineers, web designers, Internet-savvy types, and even some business owners (a few of which became fabulously wealthy). The first BARGE had about a dozen people. The next year, there were perhaps 20. I don’t know the exact numbers, but by BARGE 1996 (my first), we were up close to 100 in attendance.
During those early years, BARGE was barely noticeable. I think the first one was held at the Mirage. Then, there was one at the Luxor and then the Rio, which was a few years before my time. Most gatherings have taken place at Binion’s Horseshoe — now simply called Binion’s. Over the years, there were also BARGE events held at The Orleans, Union Plaza, and The Venetian (before we found out what a bad guy Sheldon Adelson is).
Now, attendance is up around 200 each year. A bit more if you include spouses and friends who also come and hang out. It’s just the right number, although we’d like to see more people come and join the fun. In recent years, the organizers of BARGE have made a concerted effort to attract a wider variety of people, including younger attendees. We’ve had mixed results on this. Hopefully, this column will entice a few more to join us next year. As former organizer Peter Secor famously said, which has become the BARGE motto — “there are no strangers at BARGE, only friends you haven’t met yet.”
As for the official BARGE events, it’s basically one poker tournament per day, over the course of a Monday through Saturday schedule. Some BARGE attendees can’t come out for the entire time, so they arrive later during the week. The tournaments are a mix of poker games people know, and new forms of poker, and even some games that were invented at BARGE over the years. For instance, one of this year’s tournaments included a 25-Game Mix. Imagine that — 25 games played in rotation! Not even the World Series of Poker (with its 18-game mix) is daring enough to pull that one-off. But, it’s also made up of far-simpler games like No-Limit Hold’em, the Tournament of Champions format, HORSE, Pot-Limit Omaha, and other games that vary by the year. We’ve even held quite a few Lowball events in the past. A few years ago, we did Five-Card Draw. Remember that one? The idea is to provide an extensive menu for everyone, but also push the boundaries a little and encourage players to learn and enjoy new games. The buy-ins range from $50 to $300 per event. Most tourneys are in the $100 range, which is the most fun you can have for the money and still have somewhat of an upside if the cards fall your way.
Oh, one more thing. Don’t think for a moment the players don’t take this tournament seriously. Winning a BARGE event has become a huge bragging right. It’s quite an accomplishment to win any BARGE-related event, and so for this reason, while there’s plenty of joking and laughter around the tables, it can also be as intense as any high-stakes event you might see on television. Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of both and BARGE is right up there as an event that just about everyone takes seriously.
I entered five BARGE tournaments this year. I finished 7th in the HORSE tournament (Wednesday) and took 10th in the NLHE Main Event (Saturday). My other three events didn’t go so well. I played horrifically in the Pot-Limit Omaha tourney, which I consider to be my best game. I also torpedoed my comrades in the team event. What this meant was, there is one event where we have teams of six players who play a mix of games. Naturally, I am on the “McLibtards” team, which is basically a group of hard-core Leftists who worship global socialism. Other teams are the Bostonians, the New Yorkers, and some other teams with crazy (sometimes unprintable) names.
Overall, my expenses were about $550 for everything — registration which included five tournaments, a cocktail reception, and a banquet. I earned back just about that amount in tournament winnings. In cash games, I made about $150 — although I played very little. In past years, I’d spent massive hours playing all the crazy games and even had years when I experienced $6,000-$7,000 cash swings (we sometimes have big games break out). But this year was considerably lighter since I was eager to spend more time with many of my friends away from the poker table.
This now brings me to the other activities at BARGE.
You can do just about anything with this group. There are sushi dinners, beer guzzlings, whisky tastings, steak dinners, smokers, anti-smokers, gun range visits, golf outings, karaoke night, fun runs, craps crawls, and who knows what else that goes on? Every night of the week, there are optional things to do aside from poker. It’s like a cruise ship, only it’s on land and there are no annoying kids around.
This year, I went to the Chicago Brewery three times with friends, ate lunch at the Carson Kitchen (a new upscale place within walking distance), and had a fancy dinner at The Meat Bazaar (SLS Casino) with Bruce Kramer, Stevan Goldman, Ben Gamble, Asya Kamsky, and Chuck Weinstock. Then, there was karaoke night held at Binion’s which went for many hours until like 3 am. I missed the golf outing and the fun run this year because there’s no way in hell I can wake up at 6 am to either play golf or go for a run. A man’s got to know his limitations.
I was explaining earlier about some of the interesting players who come to BARGE. What’s really amazing is the success stories that have come out of this annual gathering. I know I’m missing quite a few names, but here’s just a shortlist of those who have attended BARGE, in most cases, multiple times:
JP Massar (“Mr. M” from Bringing Down the House)
Greg “Fossilman” Raymer
Dr. Arthur Reber
The Tiltboys (Perry Friedman, Rafe Furst, Phil Gordon, etc.)
I know I’m forgetting a ton of people on this list, especially the far larger group which includes business owners, college professors, writers, software designers, and other interesting people, many of whom are at the top of their fields. Then again, there are just as many cool people who are now retired, going to college or work in sales, or have other “regular” jobs who attend BARGE each year who are just as fun and engaging.
By the way, I didn’t include the list of BARGE speakers who also attended the tournaments and played in the cash games. This is a far more extensive list and includes many of the world’s most well-known and successful poker personalities over the past 25 years.
Women in poker is a hot topic right now.
Gee, I wish more people could see what goes on at BARGE. I think there’s a lesson here for us all.
Women are the fastest-growing contingent of our group. There were hardly any women involved the first ten years. Now, perhaps 25-35 women attend each year, which is about triple the normal number you would see at any poker event. I think there’s a very simple reason for this. Women are treated properly and with the dignity they deserve, which unfortunately isn’t always the case in other areas where poker is played.
This year, we even had our first female champion in the Main Event in the 25-year history of BARGE. The champion will come as no surprise to anyone who understands the power of knowing game-theory.
Jennifer Shahade, the chess grandmaster from Philadelphia, came to BARGE to speak to our group as the main attraction at Saturday night’s banquet. At the time, she was one of the chip leaders in the championship event. Little did anyone know that by 1 am, she’s become the first female ever to win the BARGE Main Event.
I didn’t know Shahade very well until she beat me playing chess in eight moves at a recent filming of the television show, Poker Night in America. Either Shahade is a great chess player (duh!) or I suck at chess. Okay, it’s probably both. Well, Shahade has transitioned to poker and was a terrific choice as a speaker where she talked about the similarities and differences between chess and poker, and also presented us with a brief history of the art of chess which was interesting.
The tournament that began at 10:30 am that morning finally ended about 14 hours later, with Shahade given no rest break since she was out the speaker. Yet she managed to pick up right where she left off (we had a two-hour break for the banquet) and managed to run over the tournament. I was fortunate to finish 10th, bubbling the official final table. Nevertheless, I stuck around and watched much of the finale, enjoying another first since a female (Bree Goldman) finished second. In fact, three females made the final table, and five out of 16 places cashed.
The bottom line is — we need to attract more women to play poker. I think BARGE is an excellent place to start.
There are many people to thank.
First, I want to express my gratitude to the organizers of BARGE, not just presently, but over the years. The heads of BARGE since the beginning have included — Chuck Weinstock, Peter Secor, Michael “mickdog” Patterson, Nick Christenson, Bree Goldman, and Mike Zimmers. I also wish to thank all those who have served in the BARGE Board of Directors.
I also want to thank the organizers of other BARGE-related events throughout the year, who run ATLARGE (Atlantic City, NJ), FARGO (Mohegan Sun, CT), and EMBARGO the winter version of BARGE which takes place in Las Vegas), and a few events which used to be held — MARGO (Biloxi, MS), SARGE (Tunica. MS), and ESCARGOT (Los Angeles, CA). We will likely have other venues as well, in the future as the organization grows and other casinos open up that want to host us.
Lastly, I wish to thank the wonderful Binion’s casino and poker staff who have been an integral part of having a good time and are part of the BARGE family. They have welcomed us with open arms every year.
Finally, I hope those of you who are reading and who have not yet attended an event of this kind sign up for FARGO which is coming in October, or EMBARGO in January, or ATLARGE in April, or perhaps next year’s BARGE 2016.
All are invited. Trust me, if you aren’t having fun while playing poker, then you’re just at the wrong place. Come. Join us.
Note: Special thanks to those who provided photos — including Rodney Chen, David Soussan, Warren Sander, Erin Ramsey, and Peter Secor.