Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In which we learn what "expensive" really means, and Dan has a brush with fame

January 9, 2005
In 2005, PokerStars ran its second World Poker Tour event, the first on dry land (for more on the 2004 cruise ship debacle, see "How I almost went to jail as a terrorist" and "Revenge of the girlfriend"). The 2005 event marked our first time ever at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in the Bahamas, a relationship that continues to this day. 

We had a whole host of challenges in putting this event together that we hadn't adequately planned for, or even thought about. For one, Atlantis was among the most brutally expensive places I'd ever been, and I've been around the block a time or two. On the first day of one of our planning trips, I went to the lobby for something, and stopped at the lobby bar/lounge for a cup of coffee. The bartender poured me a cup, brought me cream and sugar and set the check next to my cup. I was stirring a creamer into my coffee as I looked at the bill: $7.75. And that didn't even include the automatic 15% tip, so we're actually talking just over $9.00.

$9.00 for a cup of coffee. And I'm not talking about a foofy half-caf peppermint latte with an extra shot - this is ordinary coffee from a carafe, just like Denny's serves, with free refills, for $1.75. In fact, it was a half-step below that - Denny's has sufficient turnover to ensure that its coffee is fresh.

On our first trip to Atlantis, a scouting trip, we were wined and dined by Atlantis staff and never saw a bill. Now just to be clear, we weren't really babes in the wood here - we knew Atlantis was expensive. But now we were footing the bill ourselves and seeing exactly what everything cost, and it was stunning. The breakfast buffet was impressive, but at $38 it was hard to do enough damage to make it worthwhile (and remember that $38 is actually $43.70).

We had no idea how big of a deal some of the logistics would be. We needed to bring 40 poker tables with us - Atlantis had none, since poker wasn't yet legal in the Bahamas. We learned (or rather Rich Korbin, perennial lifesaver of PokerStars events, learned) that bringing stuff into the Bahamas was not as simple as filling out customs declarations. And he learned a trick - there's a big difference between shipping stuff and bringing stuff. If you put 40 poker tables on a boat and sent them to the Bahamas, you paid $X. But if you got on the boat with those same 40 poker tables, then you weren't shipping them; you were taking them with you, and you paid $X minus 75% of X. The rules didn't always make sense, and they also weren't always the same from month to month, or from customs inspector to customs inspector.

Everywhere we went, someone was there to 'help' - and by 'help' I mean they had hands discreetly held out. I'm not talking about bribes - I'm talking about paying people to get things done that are normally taken for granted. Example: we had a shipment of boxes coming in by boat. Our primary logistics contact at Atlantis, a wizened fellow with the delightful name of Lincoln Hercules, offered to help. He knew what day the shipment was arriving, and arranged transport from the dock to the Atlantis storage facility. He arranged for manual labor to get the boxes unloaded and moved into the facility. He also connected us to a third party who helped us with the paperwork to get everything into the country.

We didn't know any better, so we just filled out the paperwork, paid the people who gave us invoices and moved on. But we started to see that it was taking more and more time to get stuff from point A (usually the dock) to point B (usually the storage facility). All of this was under Lincoln Hercules' control.

And suddenly I noticed that everything had started to move faster. I was having lunch with Rich that day, and I mentioned that it seemed like the dock staff and the Atlantis staff were getting better about delivering stuff to us in a timely fashion. It was then that Rich revealed the reason - after fielding some rather broad hints, Rich had slipped Lincoln $500, and suddenly everything worked the way it should have. We later came to realize that this was just the way business was done in the Bahamas. We came to take it for granted in the same way that we took "Island Time" for granted. it's just the way business is done.

We had an amusing exchange with the Atlantis Food & Beverage team just before the event started. Since poker isn't a house-banked game (that is, the house can't win from the players; it charges a fee for the right to play), F&B and the Casino decided there would be no free drinks. This wasn't too surprising, and in fact this is the way most California card rooms are. But we knew that players would want cocktails and beers, and wouldn't want to traipse all the way to a bar or the casino to get them. We leaned on the F&B management very hard to put portable bars in the poker room for the duration of the event.

They were surprisingly reluctant to do so. Finally, the head of Food & Beverage called me about a week before the event.  He had decided that they were willing to put portable bars in, but only if PokerStars was willing to guarantee a set amount of gross revenue for each bar shift.

I didn't like where this was going, but asked the logical next question: "How much?"

My contact immediately responded: "$500."

"You're asking us to guarantee $500 per bar per shift?" I asked. 

"No," he said, "just $500 total per shift."

Atlantis charges $8 per drink, and they were worried that our 1,000+ guests would drink less than 63 drinks per shift. 

"OK, we're in," I told him.

I didn't keep close track of this because I didn't need to, but the head of Food & Beverage later told me that they grossed just under $8,000 that first day.

I'm going to advance the time wheel here a bit, mostly because the tale of the next five days is a substantial story in itself that I promise to get back to. Suffice to say for now that, with a substantial amount of sweat and horror, we got through to the Final Table.

The prior year, since we were on a cruise ship, there was a lot of flexibility about who could do what. I dealt in the poker room a few times, something I find a great deal of fun (probably because I wasn't doing it for a living). Sharon and Lee dealt, as well. But this year, we all had to get gaming licenses, and what we were allowed to do was severely limited by Gaming Commission rules. I'm not at all certain that the Commission understood what they were telling us not to do, but we were certainly not in a position to challenge them, especially because they had only granted us a provisional license to deal poker.

The day before the final table, I was surprised and pleased to have Steve Lipscomb, then-CEO of the World Poker Tour, ask me if I wanted to deal a few hands at the final table. I have to admit that I thought this would be the coolest thing ever. I knew how to deal and could easily pass any audition the Gaming Commission wanted to subject me to (they didn't - they just said yes). I just loved the idea that, since I couldn't play, at least I could participate in the event in a way that would have some permanence.

This was setup day for the WPT crew. Their teams were filming B-roll on the floor, the stuff they use to round out the story they try to tell. The logistics team was working out camera and sun angles - we were shooting outdoors - and took a few minutes out to give me some instruction on final table procedures. They put six players around the table and asked me to deal a hand. I did.

"Uh - Dan, can you deal with your other hand?"

I had never really paid much attention to it, but l deal left-handed. I'm one of those people who probably would have naturally been left-handed, except I was discouraged from writing with my left hand so I became a righty. But I kick left-footed, throw a Frisbee left-handed, and deal left-handed.

I tried. I just couldn't do it. Dealing right-handed seemed entirely unnatural. I asked why it mattered, and to my dismay they did have a good reason. Left-handed dealers spread the flop from right to left. This was inconsistent with the way all of the other (right-handed dealer's) flops came out. It wasn't "visually appealing." Just what I wanted to hear.

And just like that, I was out as a dealer. True, it's not big in the larger scheme of things. But I was already mentally gearing up for it, and this was a very disappointing development.

Not long after skulking away from the table, unable to deal the way they wanted, my cellphone rang. It was Linda Johnson, the delightful and highly professional in-studio commentator for the WPT. She had heard about the Lefty Dealing Debacle and knew I was upset.

"How about if you take a turn doing the studio commentary?" Linda asked. Wow, I thought, this could be even more fun than dealing! I would be out there at the final table, announcing to the studio audience and getting some substantial face time on TV. I told her I'd be thrilled to do it.

I suddenly realized I had no clothes that were suitable for the occasion. I talked with the WPT wardrobe people, and they didn't, either. But there was a Paul & Shark store in the Coral Tower, so Sharon and I headed over there to find me an acceptable wardrobe.

$1,300 later (this is Atlantis, remember), I emerged with white slacks, a Tommy Bahama silk shirt and new shoes. Just then, my phone rang again.

This time it was Steve, and he was none too pleased that Linda had made the offer. He had no idea whether or not I could stand in front of an audience and do poker play-by-play. He was worried about continuity. He just absolutely hated the idea of anyone but Linda doing in-studio commentary.

After a great deal of wrangling, I was very honest with Steve. "Look, you wouldn't let me deal because I'm left-handed. I can live with that. But I've been in front of audiences all my life. And I really, really want to do this. At least give me a shot."

Unbeknownst to me, Linda called Steve right after this call. She must have done quite a sales job. Steve called me back and told me that I could do the first ten minutes of play-by-play, and that he'd make his decision then.

And it all went very well. I didn't realize it, but well over ten minutes passed. After about 30 minutes, while we were on a break, I asked Linda if she wanted to tap me out. She smiled, told me I was doing a wonderful job and moved on.

In the end, I did play-by-play for nearly the entire final table (save the occasional bathroom break). I don't know if I ever told Linda how much that meant to me; I hope she's reading. But just in case not, I think I'll go write her a thank-you email.

1 comment: