Then and Now
By: Josh Arieh
It’s 2am on a Friday night, sometime in the mid Nineties. All the desperate gamblers flock to the poolroom with high hopes of doubling their modest bankrolls. Fireworks are going off in my head, knowing that, within hours, I will have all these guys crowded around a small coffee table at the nearest hotel, playing my game – poker. On any given night, we would have a caravan of five to ten cars leave the poolroom parking lot, and flow into the closest Motel 6. I was the leader of the pack; I didn’t mind paying for a hotel room to play in, because I knew that by the end of the night all the money would be in my pocket.
Ten years ago, the games of choice were Omaha Hi/Lo and Limit Hold‘em. Boy, how times have changed. I started out playing in back-room pool halls and $30-a-night hotel rooms. Now we are playing in plush casinos, with television cameras peeking down on us from every angle. In the old days, you could mumble something under your breath and not worry about anyone hearing it. Now I have a wireless ‘mic’ begging me to say something controversial.
My opponents? Well, they used to be novices. I used to get my rush from busting players with names like ‘Jer Jer’ and ‘8-ball Paul’. Nowadays I’m getting check-raised by the likes of Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu, and I’d be the first to say there’s no fun in that.
It’s easy for me look back and visualize the beginning of my professional poker career in early 1999. Once I realized that being a courier wasn’t my life’s ambition, I quit to pursue something else; although I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be. I was playing poker part-time, picking up a little money here and there, when a friend of mine, Mark Wilds, asked me to come out to the WSOP to play a few events. In the preceding few months I had been playing a lot of heads-up poker, and Mark thought it would be great tournament experience.
I was young, wet behind the ears, and didn’t know what failure was. No matter what I did, I expected to win. If I was sitting across from Johnny Chan or Phil Helmuth, it didn’t matter; I was going to find a way to win. My first tournament was a disaster. I was too naive to realize that an all-nighter and a round of golf beforehand was not the right preparation for a world-class event. After one of my patented sixteen-hour power sessions of sleep, I was ready to get back in the box when the $3000 Limit Hold‘em tournament kicked off. After a grueling day of playing, I made the final table and was in fourth chip position.
If I knew then what I know now, there is no way I would have won that tournament. I hadn’t a clue who Howard Lederer, John Juanda, Tom Franklin, Humburto Brenes, and Jack Fox were. They were just players at the table, and to this day I have no idea how I won. I’ve always said that the stars must have lined up perfectly that day, for me to overcome that level of competition in one of my first major events.
I look back at that tournament as the beginning of my career. The days of flying below the radar were over; the days of picking off the boys at the poolroom were no more. It was time to say goodbye to ‘Jer Jer’ and ‘8-ball Paul’. I was still the same person; I just had more money and a whole bunch more ‘gamble’.
As the years flew past, you could see the face of poker changing. Many more young people were becoming attracted to the game, and that was when the television companies started getting involved. The World Poker Tour was born – and it was about to change poker, as we knew it, forever. Poker players were no longer looked down upon; on the contrary, we were placed right in the limelight like never before.
You have to remember the history of poker. It was played in the backs of bars and poolrooms, and, until recently, had been booted out of most of the nation’s casinos and replaced by highdollar slot machines. I remember clearly telling people what I did for a living and seeing their reactions; I was little better than a convict. I can’t tell you how many times I heard: “Isn’t that illegal in ?” and I must say it grew old fast. It got to the point that my wife was telling people I was ‘selfemployed’ and leaving it at that. Nowadays, the only time I tell people I’m a professional poker player is when I have half an hour to spare, because Joe Public is infatuated with the game, and wants to know every last detail.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the attention, and I’m extremely grateful to the people who have helped poker to grow. Less than two years ago, third place in the WSOP was worth less than $500k, and this year my third-place finish won me a whopping $2.5 million. Every poker player should be grateful to two people in particular for getting poker noticed by the mainstream: Steve Lipscomb, the brains behind getting the WPT on television, and Chris Moneymaker. After Chris won the WSOP, the number of entrants skyrocketed from in the mid-800’s to over two and a half thousand.
I have been fortunate enough to experience ‘TV poker’ from the inside
of both major venues. My first experience was the last few days of the WSOP, which I must say was the time of my life. I was able to play at the biggest table in the history of poker and show the world my skills. Had Lady Luck swapped a few cards here and there, it could have easily been me, the World Champion of Poker! Man, that’s got a nice little ring to it. Although, that’s not taking anything away from Greg Raymer; he played magnificently throughout, is a great guy, and the perfect player to represent poker as our World Champion.
The WSOP television coverage setup was excellent. For those of you unfamiliar with the routine, “Lemme tell ya!” Each of the nine spots at the final table has a lipstick camera in the railing with a small dot in front of it. Before you sit down to play, you are instructed to look at your hole cards over that dot so the camera can see your cards. I played hundreds of hands at that table, and was only once told to show my hole cards to the camera more clearly.
Recently, I finished third in the WPT event at the Borgata, and it seemed like every other hand they were asking me to show my hole cards to the camera again. That really screwed up my rhythm. I’m used to dim pool halls and hotel rooms with one lap, not game-show sets with cameras behind me. Maybe next time I’ll be better prepared for the WPT thing and know what to expect. I understand that they have a show to put on, but the gameflow should be the priority, not the production mumbo jumbo. So here is a bit of advice for someone that is going to a TV table: poker is not what it used to be.
When the big money is on the line, it’s going to be hard to get into your normal comfort zone, like you would at your local home game, or if you were coming down the stretch of one of these internet tournaments. Before the hand-play starts, get comfortable, take in all the sights and get ready for bright lights, smoke effects and announcers. Don’t act like I did, thinking you’re fine and you can get comfortable in any environment. It’s like preparing yourself for a big road-game in hostile territory.
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