OLD PHOTOS: DAY 3
TUNICA, MISSISSIPPI (JAN. 2000)
“A photo does no good tucked in an album or stored away inside a box. A great photo should be shared, especially when it tells a story.”
I’ve interviewed (the late) Doyle Brunson 15 to 20 times, including multiple occasions on camera and in front of live audiences. But the very first time I interviewed the legendary Brunson was unexpected, and quite intimidating. It happened in the first month of the new millennium in the year 2000, in of all places — Mississippi.
How the “Jack Binion World Poker Open” came to be is a gritty backstory all its own, born at a time way before the poker boom, when the game was perhaps at its lowest point. The Binion Family was bitterly divided. Patriarch Benny (and son Jack) had created the World Series of Poker 30 years prior, but the daughter/sister Becky inherited control and then mismanaged poker’s world championship to such a degree that her brother Jack was fed up and had enough, and decided to launch a new premier annual poker tournament that was to be televised on ESPN. I’m one of the few people around who at various times worked for *both* sides of the blood-feud rivalry.
From the moment the doors opened, the annual Jack Binion World Poker Open was a smashing success (credit the management of Ken Lambert). It was held over a three-week period in early 2000, and then every January thereafter until Jack Binion sold off his interests in the Horseshoe properties. The Horseshoe (and adjacent Gold Strike) casinos in Tunica, Mississippi were the new hosts, which were glittering towers out on the middle of nowhere in what was the poorest county in the United States (Tunica, MS), located about 30 miles south of Memphis. This seemed like an absurd place to hold a nationally-televised poker tournament. Surreal even. The highest cash games in the world were played next to flood basins and cotton fields, and that’s precisely what happened. It’s numbers were even bigger than the WSOP.
I was writing for Card Player magazine at the time, and the casino people must have liked my stuff because
I was offered the “job” to fly in, stay on their dime, and write all the official tournament reports (credit to Mark Napolitano here). Compensation: $5,000 cash, free room, free food, transportation — to watch final tables, hang out with the biggest names in poker, and write about it. Not a bad gig back in 2000.
Two weeks into the tournament, before the Main Event started, ESPN arrived. They planned a one-hour prime-time telecast. This was before networks carried any poker on television. It was also at a time when poker had a lot more “characters,” which isn’t the case so much today. So, it was the only *poker thing* on TV, which made it a huge focus of attention within the poker and gambling community.
Doyle Brunson was boycotting the WSOP (he skipped playing for four years), and was 100 percent loyal to his longtime pal Jack Binion. That made it a given Brunson would arrive in Tunica for this special televised event, which added even more drama to the spectacle. While ESPN was setting up, Brunson walked in, and someone on the crew decided on the fly this was the perfect opportunity to get him in an interview on camera. The trouble was, nobody was around to do the actual interview. The crew didn’t know anything about poker. So, I happened to be standing there and the director came up and said, “would you interview Doyle?”
I was like, “whaaaaaat?” (I’d never interviewed him before).
“What do I ask him?”
“I don’t know, you’re the poker guy.”
So, with that as my “rehearsal” and my cue, ESPN did a two-camera set up, tossed me a hot microphone and I got to interview the most famous player in the history of the game for half an hour (most of it was not used in the telecast). Looking back, it was probably good I had no time to think about it in advance and get nervous, which created a more relaxed exchange.
Someone snapped a photograph of the moment, but I forgot who it was. I also have no idea why B/W film was used. This was the start of a great relationship and in the years to come, much bigger things. I worked the first 5 or 6 Jack Binion World Poker Opens, and loved the excitement in a place that had no other reason to be exciting, except for the people and the poker. Of all the events I attended and worked over the years, those days in Tunica were my favorites.
So, that’s the story, or at least part of the story.
Okay, one more story from that same trip:
I have tons more stories from those days and nights in Tunica. One night, we were playing at the Horseshoe (after tourney ended, which were held next door at Gold Strike). I played a lot back then and was sitting in a $20-40 limit game (booked a $4,000 win-biggest ever at those stakes….the games were insane!). The tables were all scrunched together. My chair back was right up against Bobby Baldwin, who was sitting in some nosebleed game with several million dollars on the table). An argument broke out over some misinterpreted action, and the entire room just came to a standstill. I forgot who was in that game other than Baldwin, but it was an all star lineup. They argued back and forth and the shift manager had to go into surveillance and look at the tape. So, the cards and chips are all piled up which was like a mountain of chips (there was probably $3 million on that table). The players got up and milled around on the break while they were looking at the tape upstairs and Baldwin is standing over my shoulder watching me play $20-40, which maybe had pots averaging $300-400. I was on a huge heater, like I said, and had racks of red in front of me. Baldwin eyes my stack and says, “you ought to be sitting over in this game, partner.” I think I mumbled something back like, “I’m about $46K short of your buy in.” The floorman comes back and declares to the upset losing player, “the action is binding….you owe the pot $313,000!” I leaned back in my chair and whispered to Baldwin. “I think I’m going to stay over here for now.”
Note: We held a garage sale recently and I’m going through lots of stuff, including old photographs which I’ll be sharing in the coming days and weeks. My philosophy is — a photo does no good tucked in an album or stored away inside a box. A great photo should be shared, especially when it tells a story. To quote Rod Stewart, “every picture tells a story (don’t it?).” This is Day 3.