The Ecstasy of Gold
The 2013 World Series of Poker Main Event Championship began today. For me, this is a special time.
Ten years ago when I was working at Binion’s Horseshoe, there was a critical junction on the WSOP timeline. We were given the cover story for Card Player magazine, which at the time was pretty much the voice of poker. I was told to “handle it.”
Binion’s Horseshoe’s steady decline and eventual demise has been written about in some depth here. However, that cover story provided a rare opportunity to re-brand ourselves and regain the high ground over everyone else.
Back then, an exciting new attraction called the World Poker Tour was kicking our ass. Sure, we had a far superior product, largely due to our prestige and tradition. But we weren’t marketing it right. I decided then and there that — for all the things the WPT was doing better than us — the one thing they couldn’t touch was the gold bracelet.
Who could have imagined this? Many years ago, gold bracelets weren’t thought of as they are today. Many of the players who won them, including quite a few poker legends, lost them over the years or simply gave them away. Quite a few gold bracelets ended up in pawn shops.
It seemed to me that the gold bracelet was that one item that simply couldn’t be equaled by any other poker competitor, no matter how hard they tried. As creative as our rivals were in trumpeting their own symbols of accomplishment, nothing quite matched the WSOP gold bracelet, nor would anything ever equal it so long as I was in charge of the publicity surrounding our event.
And so I wrote the cover story that year — not about the upcoming tournament as was standard practice — but about the gold bracelet and its rich tradition. That became the focus. We staged a photo shoot out in front of Binion’s Horseshoe that afternoon out on Fremont Street. Matt Savage and Jim Miller, the co-tournament directors that year stood out like two showmen welcoming the world to become a part of poker’s grandest tradition. As a side note, I was asked to be in the photo also but opted to pass on being on the cover for the first time, having been out the entire night before and going totally without sleep. Wrinkled clothes and bloodshot eyes weren’t the image I wanted to portray.
The strategy to accentuate class and prestige worked. Over the years, the gold bracelet came to symbolize precisely what it should — supreme excellence in the game of poker. ESPN latched onto this in a big way, and the rest as they say is history.
Today, when players enter the WSOP at the Rio in Las Vegas they hear what we call “cue music.” The idea is that players should be able to rely on a consistent audio prompt, knowing precisely when the event is about to begin. I remember back to the earlier days when the tournament room was completely silent, and all the sudden an announcement was made, followed by players scurrying around the floor to get to their seats in time. We didn’t want that.
Last year, I was listening to some different kinds of music and thinking about this. I have always loved the classic western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” In fact, it’s one of my favorite films. The showdown is very poker-esque. The soundtrack was composed by the marvelous Italian musician Ennio Maricone. His signature sound is instantly recognizable to hundreds of millions of people around the world familiar with the clever melding of different instruments orchestrating an epic tale of greed and adventure taking place during the Old West. If I were to play just a few notes from some of his songs, you would recognize them instantly.
The climax of the film occurs in a cemetery. It’s a brilliantly-filmed scene, and extraordinary mix of well-developed characters and suspense. When you consider this film was a low-budget move when shot back in 1967, and was even considered a second-rate “Spaghetti Western” by its critics, that makes you appreciate this memorable work even more. Now, nearly half a century later, this marvelous masterpiece has clearly stood the test of time. I think it’s one of the best movie compositions ever, especially when combined with several other tracks that run throughout the film.
Check out this classic scene which happens right before the climactic finish. Clint Eastwood and the great character actor Eli Wallach (who was absolutely robbed for not winning Best Supporting Oscar that year for his spot-on role as the despicable bandit and comical bad guy) finally stumble upon the Civil War cemetery where the gold is supposedly buried:
Poker remains synonymous with the Old West. Perhaps it always will be. While much of the music we now hear associated with the game seems campy, and even downright awful, this song perfectly captures the essence of what the WSOP is all about. Like the famous showdown we see in this movie between three determined players with guns and grit, poker is a similar test test of personal skills and willpower, combined with a randomness that creates the ultimate uncertainty.
The song play we play daily that some of you hear when you enter the Rio tournament rooms is called “The Ecstasy of Gold,” one of Marricone’s many movie masterpieces.
Hopefully, this background gives poker players some appreciation for how we do things a little differently at the WSOP. Usually, behind every decision is a story. And this is the story.
Given that the chase for the gold bracelet is now on, it is my view that “The Ecstasy of Gold” deserves to be the (un)official WSOP soundtrack.
While impossible to improve upon Marricone’s wonderful original, heavy metal band Metallica does one of the best covers ever, as you can see and hear below: