My Favorite Dinners (2015 World Series of Poker)
Between May 26 and July 15, I worked 51 consecutive days and nights at the 2015 World Series of Poker. These moments were the best of those days and nights.
And I have it easy. Just ask the immigrant who works outdoors and picks lettuce 345 days a year.
Such a schedule might seem excessively long, and it certainly provided yet another annual test of commitment and fortitude, an arduous ordeal which feels slightly tougher each year, first because my boss Caesar keeps on adding more and more gold bracelet events to cover (we hit 68 this year, an all-time high), but fatigue far better explained by losing sight of the evanescent signpost reading “you were once age 50” now a distant blur in the rear-view mirror.
That said, I have a bold confession to make. Yes, I do put in long hours. But I also enjoy some ridiculously long dinner breaks. As the saying goes — work hard, play harder.
So, that’s 51 dinners — a few of which I recall more fondly than others.
Buzio’s, which is the uber-convenient seafood restaurant inside the Rio, where the colossal WSOP is held (that’s the popular catchword we’re using this year), tends to be my office between 6:30 and 8:30 pm each night, that is unless my dinner plans get sabotaged by something as ill-timed as someone winning a gold bracelet, which then requires me to try and do a 600-yard dash in two minutes or less. If the final table becomes a drawn-out death-match, that means two things — first, I won’t complain since I can then squeeze in one final aperitif, and second, plan to walk out the back employee entrance at 4:45 am when the sun is cresting over the horizon of the bronze mountains cusping East Las Vegas.
Man, did I have some great dinners this year? Yes, indeed — I did. Let me tell you more about just a few of them, and then countdown my “Top Five” of 2015.
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My definition of a great dinner exceeds demands that the food simply is good. Great dinners require three primary ingredients — time, reciprocation, and dynamism. At one time, I might have insisted on eclectic alcohol too. However, I’ve now dined with enough fascinating non-drinkers in my life (which I once thought was an oxymoron) that I’m willing to concede a great bottle of wine or drinking your way through the house cocktail list doesn’t necessarily guarantee a wonderfully engaging evening (but it sure as shit helps).
Indeed, time is needed for the conversation to stew and savor. One cannot rush things — either in food or in the presence of good company. Sure, one can have sex in five minutes, or even less if you’ve got real talent. But I want to extend my pleasure in devouring that second slice of strawberry cheesecake as long as humanly possible. Hence, all great dinners require time.
Then there’s reciprocation, which is the tit-for-tat interplay between dinner guests. The very best dinners usually include a clever mix of attendees. You never want everyone sitting to be all the same (ever dined with a group of poker players who just talk poker strategy for two hours — just fucking shoot me. Pure torture). Same thing with Republicans. Point is, you want a spicy blend of ingredients in the conversational mix. A pungent anchovy can be delightful to the taste buds, but a plateful would make you throw up. So, go ahead and invite the token Christian, or observant Jew if you must. Just don’t get too carried away.
Finally, dynamism is an absolute must. By dynamism, that might mean the food, the ambiance, the dinner conversation — something about that meal must utterly stand out. Once you’ve paid the bill (or hopefully, someone else has picked up the check), if you don’t flashback the experience or to something that was said, you didn’t enjoy a great dinner. You poor thing, you might as well have ordered the nightly special at Applebee’s and choked down a Miller Lite. The horror.
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Before the countdown commences, here were some of my “Honorable Mentions:”
One-on-One with Paul Harris — a.k.a. Solving All Mysteries of the Universe in Just 2.5 Hours — Paul Harris is perhaps my favorite free-thinker and skeptic, and one dinner never quite does he or his ideas justice. He’s a Rubik’s Cube of ideas. Harris is known in poker mostly by his association with Dennis Phillips since both live in St. Louis (my condolences). Harris once did a popular radio show with Phillips for several years, which was even nationally syndicated. However, Harris’s real job is in radio as a talk show host. He once worked at epic DC-101 around the same time Howard Stern was there, as well. Harris is one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard and his guest list of those who have appeared on his various shows over the past three decades is an astonishing testament to his innate sense of curiosity combined with a gift for listening, and hearing what is really being said (think about that for a moment — take your time — let it sink in). Harris and I are philosophical and ideological comrades, which somehow makes me sound more intelligent than simply confessing that I sit there most of the time and just bait and badger Harris with questions, which I hope he’ll not tire of answering. A firmly devout Atheist and debunker of all that can’t be empirically proven by science and reason, Harris introduced me somewhat to the skeptics’ movement. Oh, and by the way, he’s one of those non-drinkers I warned you about. Good for me since I drank the whole bottle of wine for myself that night. I need to engage more non-drinkers. More for me. VISIT PAUL HARRIS’ WEBSITE HERE
- My Order: At Buzios…Silver Tequila Margarita on the Rocks, Bottle of Ferrari Carano (Fume Blanc), Rainbow Trout with Beurre Blanc sauce, double order of fresh green beans, cheesecake, coffee with cream
Face-to-Face with Mark “Pegasus” Smith — a.k.a. Dining with My Favorite Kentucky Republican — Okay, so he’s the only Kentucky Republican I know, but he’s my favorite. I first met “Pegasus” out on the WSOP Circuit, where he won five gold rings and was the all-time leader up until a few years ago. A former racehorse owner, avid poker player, and unapologetic Republican who made a lot of money off the government (that’s my best shot, Mark), this is a guy who tells it to you straight and comes across as fair, open-minded, and enormously fun to be around. Pegasus was such a delight, I had a second meal with him a few weeks later. He didn’t ask me to dinner again after that, so I figure he must have gotten bored with me or thought I was a real asshole. Perhaps both.
- My Order: At Buzios….(2) Silver Tequila Margarita on the Rocks, Bottle of St. Michelle Riesling, Rainbow Trout with Beurre Blanc sauce, double order of fresh green beans, tiramisu, coffee with cream
Trio with Dr. Arthur Reber and Ken Adams — a.k.a. If Words Were Weapons, I’d Be Togo Compared to These Superpowers — Question: What do you get when you combine one of the country’s foremost cognitive psychologists who wrote (excuse the reference) “the bible” on the subject, with a high-powered Washington-based attorney who defended Watergate convict Chuck Colson and won the (then) largest civil lawsuit in U.S. history in the Exxon-Valdez oil spill case? Here’s what you get — a clammed-up kid in an intellectual candy store named Nolan Dalla. Never at a loss for words, all I wanted to do on this night was to listen as the former professor of psychology from Brooklyn College (Reber) shared his insights into the influences of what makes us all tick and tock, juxtaposed against a brash DC-insider who once introduced me to a private poker game where I was playing with Bob Hope’s son and constitutional lawyers who argued cases before the Supreme Court. Fireworks ensured as Dr. Reber, Counselor Adams, and I argued for two hours over trout and two bottles of Conundrum. An appropriate wine for the occasion. VISIT DR. ARTHUR REBER’S WEBSITE HERE
- My Order: At Buzios….(2) Silver Tequila Margarita on the Rocks, (2) Bottles of Conundrum, Rainbow Trout with Beurre Blanc sauce, double order of fresh green beans, baked potato and butter only, tiramisu, coffee with cream, shot of Jameson, shot of Cointreau
And now, to the “Top Five” Countdown:
5th Best Dinner of the 2015 WSOP — Fogo de Chao with Mark Bonsack and Kevin O’Donnell What a blast this was. I would have enjoyed it more had I not felt like throwing up the next three hours after dinner since I ate so much. Now, imagine this: Think of a time when you ate so much food that you felt like your stomach was about to explode. That was this night, for me. We dined at a Brazilian steakhouse, the best in Las Vegas, which not only has this kick-ass salad bar (another oxymoron, it would seem unless you’ve tried this place), but food that comes to you non-stop. It’s like $60 and you get to eat as much meat of any kind that you want. I felt like Fred fucking Flintstone. They just keep bringing it. Then, there was the house specialty so far as drinks go, which was the Caipirinha, which sneaks up on you like an identity thief and makes you completely forget not only who you are dining with, but who you are. READ MORE ABOUT THE CAIPIRINHA HERE. Kevin O’Donnell, the arrogant non-stop talker from Arizona who seemed to cash in every event he fucking entered this year, and who always wears the San Francisco Giant jersey held a royal court in posture and prose. Now, when I saw he’s arrogant, that’s not meant in a derogatory way. Hell, I’m arrogant (and proud of it). But Keven just blows the table way with talk and stories and me and Mark Bonsack and another guest, not exactly verbal lightweights are sitting there like fucking schoolchildren listening to a teacher. Bonsack, from Seattle, is one of my favorite people in the universe (okay, planet earth since I don’t know anyone outside the Van Allen Belt who speaks English and we’ve shared some war stories going back ten years. So, we start ordering the Caipirinhas and the night just became a whiter purple haze of pale. I think Hellmuth won his 14th gold bracelet this night, but fuck it I remember much about the details of what happened.
- My Order: Meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, and (7) Caipirinhas, plus one glass of Pinto Noir
4th Best Dinner of the 2015 WSOP — Writer’s Bitchfest with James McManus and Chad Holloway This was one of several “writers’ dinners” I did and if were up to me (well, it is up to me), I’d rather dine with writers most of the time. When it comes to a gift of the narrative, McManus and Holloway are two of the best, albeit for different reasons. McManus needs no introduction to poker people since he penned what’s often considered certainly one of the top five narratives on poker in history — Positively Fifth Street. But that’s just a small part of McManus’ vast repertoire and inherent curiosity. Meanwhile, Holloway is what I call an heir apparent to what I and McManus do. Long after our ashes are spread and some worm is feasting on my fatness, I hope Holloway is out there continuing to share his love for the history of the game, combined with an insatiable interest in learning and experiencing more about everything, from scotch tasting to where Ernest Hemingway once lives (that’s inside jargon, for those who know and follow Chad). So, we talked a lot about Ireland, an almost divine subject close to the heart of McManus, with Irish roots. Irish history. The troubles. Irish writers and there have been so many greats, including McManus if you ask him. The conversation got really interesting when we turned our attention to who should be included in the Poker Hall of Fame, and naturally, we writers all thought that more writers should be included. I’m almost ballistic on this point, but also close to the stage of tossing up my hands and saying FUCK THIS, since David Sklansky not being included in the Hall of Fame by this point is about the most ridiculous oversight I can possibly fathom, and McManus naturally had his own internal biases reflecting similar affection for British penman Al Alvarez, and some others that he can attest to if he wishes since I’m not going to go to the bar for McManus here unless he pays me. Holloway really is the future and perhaps by the time McManus and I are sitting in rocking chairs dribbling all over ourselves wondering who the fuck we are and what year it is, the day will come when more writers in our mold will gain the poker public’s acknowledgment that there’s a lot more to promoting and making this game better than just winning a fuckfortress of money. There. Take that, bitches.
- My Order: At Buzios….(2) Silver Tequila Margarita on the Rocks, (2) Bottles of Conundrum, Rainbow Trout ALMONDINE with Beurre Blanc sauce, double order of fresh green beans, baked potato and butter only, tiramisu, coffee with cream, (2) shots of Jameson
3rd Best Dinner of the 2015 WSOP — Epic Dinner with Michael Baden, Linda Kenney-Baden, Wendeen Eolis, writer Jane Stanton Hitchcock, James McManus, and Mark and Tina Napolitano There are precious moments, rare instances in our lives, memories we cherish, sparks of internal awareness, and inexplicably exciting times we reflect upon which unfold over a dinner table as though its a laboratory of life where we are all attached to puppet strings pulled by Paul Erdos. This was one. The company, the conversation, the laughter, the sense of gamesmanship with words and ideas was almost too much to fathom. Ever sat in a conversation and had TWO equally riveting and “I can’t fucking believe this” discussions going on at BOTH sides of you? It’s torture! Listening in, I felt like a tennis referee going back and forth. (Note to Self: Never sit between Michael Baden and Jane Stanton Hitchcock ever again — you will need a neck brace and enough Percocet to kill off Rush Limbaugh). Imagine what it’s like to listen JUST to Baden, unquestionably the world’s foremost forensic pathologist — who led the House Select Committee on Assassinations (Kennedy Assassination ring a bell, anyone?), testified in the O.J. Simpson Case (for the wrong side — the killer was guilty as fuck — nice going Michael), did autopsies on more famous people than you can count (Sid Vicious, the Romanoffs), and then had the human kindness to sit there which he must have done like gadzillion times before in his life every time someone annoying like me wants to pick his brain, field questions for hours about his life’s work. What a mesmerizing few hours that felt like two minutes. Hold on, I’m just getting started. His wife, Linda Kenney-Baden is just as intriguing (more so, actually — I think it’s the cat glasses), not just because she’s defended rock genius Phil Spector and Casey Anthony and all kinds of other
guilty people defendants, but because SHE’S the real poker player in the family. Michael watches. Linda plays. She also won big on our TV show last year, Poker Night in America. Then, there was author Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who has written a number of books (Mortal Friends, The Witches’ Hammer, Social Crimes, and Trick of the Eye,) and like Linda, loves to play poker. READ MORE ON JANE STANTON HITCHCOCK HERE Wendeen Eolis, no stranger to anyone who knows poker or its rich history and one of the most quietly powerful and behind-the-scenes influential in New York (and even national) politics not only joined us, but she picked up the entire $600 tab — something that bears mentioning since she even had to leave the dinner early to fly back and do some important political work. Some history here: Wendeen and I have dined in numerous cities in the US and Europe and she’s always an amazing presence and a dear friend. There are no words for Wendeen. As one can imagine with the two Badens, Hitchcock, Eolis, and now three more guests, there was no pause in the conversation. And there was not since we all talked with our mouths full. Supporting actors in this spontaneous combustion of ideas — toss in James McManus, who I have spoken of earlier, and our dear friends who just moved to Las Vegas — Mark and Tina Napolitano (founders of PokerPages) — and you have not just a fireworks show, but an explosion of exciting and entertaining dinner conversation that went FOUR HOURS and left us all panting for more. A stunning evening. Impossible to describe. Should have been recorded and shown on C-SPAN. Now about a month later, I can still taste the champagne and hear Michael Baden’s voice. I’m not sure exactly if that’s power or intoxication.
- My Order: At Buzios…Wendeen changed my nightly ritual by ordering FOR THE FIRST TIME, the rainbow trout served ALMONDINE STYLE. (I will write a separate column on this). Since then, I have had Wendeen’s Trout Almondine about 12 times. (3) bottles of Shramsburg Champagne since that’s all Linda Kenney Baden will drink when it comes to alcohol, (2) Silver Tequila Margarita on the Rocks, double order of fresh green beans, baked potato, and butter only, strawberry cheesecake, coffee with cream, (2) shots of Jameson (because of James McManus)
2nd Best Dinner of the 2015 WSOP — Joe Hachem’s 10-Year Anniversary Party Coming Up Next (See Part II)
Best Dinner of the 2015 WSOP — Coming Up After That (See Part III)…..
Reminder: The best dinners take time, even to write about.