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The Tournament of Champions, Day One: "Look What's Happened to Poker"

8 August 1999

664 tournament champions had just finished marching into the Orleans Hotel's Mardi Gras Ballroom, carrying their national flags and readying themselves for poker's first ever Tournament of Champions, when poker legend and former World Series of Poker Champion Puggy Pearson addressed the crowd.

"Look what's happened to poker since I was in them back rooms and pool halls when I was a youngster," Puggy said.

Look indeed.

Beginnings are supposed to be delicate times, fraught with peril, uncertainty, and missteps.

Obviously, no one ever explained this principle to TOC's creators Mike Sexton and Chuck Humphrey. Mark July 26, 1999 down in history as a day when these fellows hit a home run in their first major league at bat.

No one could say they weren't aiming high. Put on the first poker tournament ever with an "only champions need apply" sign on the front door. A stricter code of player conduct. Game rotation, so that dealers would have to switch from Omaha Eight or Better to 7-Stud to Limit Hold 'em every half-hour. A player vote on prize structure (democracy in poker!). Corporate sponsorship.

Heck, they might as well have tried for world peace at the same time. They wanted it all: the perfect poker tournament. And it appears they got it.

The logistical nightmare of 664 rugged individualists switching games every half hour melted away with a marvelous computer-controlled big screen video display that always told, at a glance, the number of players remaining, the game structure and limits, and the amount of time remaining in the round.

At each half-hour interval, the program (in a voice that would make most FM radio jocks jealous) smoothly announced the next game and limit.

The rugged individualists probably mellowed a bit with the opening slide show tribute to poker's champions, played to the tune of Queen's "We Are the Champions… of the World," and by the classy collection of TOC souvenirs and memorabilia awaiting each participant at his or her seat.

Then, just when it seemed everything was as perfect as could be, France's Michel Bittan decided to offer a bonus for perfection: Sexton announced that Bittan had donated $5,000 cash for the first player to hit a royal flush.

The bonus lasted exactly one hand, as longtime poker writer Mike Paulle hit a royal on the first hand of the tournament. Paulle, who had assembled his $1,500 entry fee by soliciting members of the poker community to donate $20 each as a "thank you" for his tireless Internet posting of tournament results, suddenly found himself five grand to the good.

Later, as the first session drew to a close, I spotted Paulle and said to him, "not only five grand, but some tournament chips too!" Paulle had a reasonable stack in front of him.

"Yeah, well, this is play money until Wednesday," Paulle said. "The five grand spends today!"

I drew table 46 in my own player-writer role, and was reasonably pleased with the line-up—it was no Table 11, which sported Huck Seed, Johnny Chan, and Doyle Brunson, among others—until the mysteriously absent player in seat 9 showed up just as the first hand was being dealt.

"Hi, Puggy," I said.

This proved to be the last thing I was able to say to Puggy Pearson that didn't eventually include the phrase, "you win."

Even though Puggy proved to be my nemesis throughout the opening six hours, and knocked me out two hands into the evening session when he reminded me that a nut flush beats a nut straight, I had fun playing with the colorful gentleman from Tennessee.

When he declined to call a raise on the tournament's fourth hand, he said "I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, because that's what the judge give me." I had a feeling this wasn't the first time Pug had used this particular line, but it still proved disarming, which was no doubt part of Puggy's overall plan to dis-chip me and the rest of his opponents.

Joel Fischbein, who had been relating the story of a 150-300 stud game in Atlantic City (which you couldn't leave, or you'd never get your seat back, so he played for two days straight) asked Puggy what was the longest he'd ever played in a game without stopping.

"Oh, about a week," he said.

"A week without sleep?" I asked, a bit incredulous.

"Well, I'd nod off now and then, but yeah, I never left the table."

After Puggy flushed my tournament chances away, I wandered around and looked in on some of the other poker legends participating. I got a few moments with Amarillo Slim Preston, one of the few players recognized in the mainstream media; he's been on The Tonight Show six times, we learned during his introduction.

Slim was walking around minus his famed cowboy hat, and even though everyone still knew it was Slim, it didn't seem right. It was akin to the Three Musketeers without their swords or Liberace without his rhinestones. Was this a new image?

"I'm miserable," Slim confided. "I had to have several teeth removed last week, and I've had enough oatmeal and Jell-O since to last a lifetime. I'm just in pain, so I decided to make dressing a bit simpler."

How so, I asked.

"Well, usually my buttons are $1 gold pieces, on studs, and I wear the hat and the boots and the whole look," Slim explained. "But I just wanted to make life as simple as possible until I felt better. Usually I can't walk without a hat," he said, smiling for the first time.

"The gold pieces are just for show, though," he assured me. "I'm still a lot more cowboy than I am a pimp." Despite the obstacle of his mouth pain, Slim is still in the hunt with $11,600 in chips.

Michel Bittan, who donated the $5,000 royal flush prize, seems to have received an instant karmic reward for his generosity: he leads the tournament with $34,000 in chips. He can hardly expect an easy ride from here; there's a long, long way to go, and there are a lot of big names in the top 20. For that matter, there are a lot of big names in the top 40, top 60, top 80… that's part of the beauty, and challenge, of the TOC.

The first six 90 minute rounds claimed 326 victims; 338 players remain to face the $500 and $1,000 limits when the tournament resumes at noon. This makes an average stack size $9,823, and ten big bets aren't exactly a huge strategic reserve. Stronger opponents and bigger blinds mean the action will only be tougher on day two, as the tournament whittles itself down to the final 27 players.

Perhaps anticipating this—or perhaps because a big majority of the players felt themselves likely underdogs to the many big names in the field—the players voted 451-143 in favor of the "expanded payout schedule" which will pay five tables (45 players), rather than three tables. This schedule moved $63,000 out of the top tables and will pay the nine 5th table finishers $3,000 each, and the nine 4th table finishers $4,000 each.

Although the high blinds and tough opposition will prove formidable challenges to the remaining players, they clearly won't be worrying about tournament mismanagement. "I haven't heard a single negative comment," said Lana Waggoner, daughter of Marsha Waggoner, who had been wandering through the room following her mom's fortunes. In a room full of some of the world's most opinionated personalities, the absence of complaints probably said more than any compliment could, and Sexton received plenty of compliments. He looked very much the proud papa as the day drew to an end: a little tired, and a lot happy.

The poker world witnessed a beautiful birth today, and while this particular baby may well grow into something even more spectacular, it came into the world ready to compete with its older brethren. That it did so is a tribute to Mike Sexton, Chuck Humphrey, the Orleans Hotel and Casino, and 664 champions who wrote a new chapter poker history today.

Although the World Series, the Carnivale of Poker, and the other major events are in no way threatened by what took place today—indeed, their position is probably strengthened, as this rising tide will float all of poker's boats—they will have to take note: the stakes in major tournament poker just went up.

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer:

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer: