This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The World Series of Poker is tilting toward its denouement in Vegas at the moment. Over 54,000 people have been throwing in their chips at various games, starting back on June 1. But right now the big money is up for grabs in what they call The Main Event. Last Friday, 6,358 gamblers plunked down $10,000 each to play Texas No Limit Hold'Em until they all drop, save one. Guys nicknamed 'The Mouth,' 'The Master,' 'Texas Dolly,' 'Amarillo Slim.' A few women in The Main Event, too. Very few. Tomorrow the real drama begins. The field will play non-stop until only nine remain. Those nine will bluff and check and raise and die, praying for that Queen on the River, until only one is left. The winner's take? $8.2 million.
The World Series of Poker began in 1970, the winner taking home not millions of dollars, but a lovely silver cup. I took a guess that the history of poker dated back to the Wild West, those craggy outlaws gambling the nights away in the 'olde towne saloon,' belting down warm shots of cheap whiskey. But it turns out poker stretches back a fer piece farther than the American cowboy. The Persians played a card game that entailed guessing who had the best hand, which they called Asnas, and Persian sailors brought their game to New Orleans which later sparked the card games on the big-wheel Riverboats. New Orleans also greeted French settlers in 1480 who played a game called Poque, which certainly sounds like a precursor to the work Poker. Poque was the first time a deck with four suits was used.
The Germans also played a game called Pochspiel, roughly translated as Pokerplay. We modern poker players touch or brush the felt in front of our hand to indicate we want to Check, or play but not bet at the moment--evolving from the Germans knocking hard on the table and crying out "Ich Poche" in their game of Pochspiel. The English played a game called Bragg which was purportedly the first card game to incorporate bluffing. And there are both Indian and Chinese legacies of poker. In the mid-1800's, Chinese Emperor Mu-tsung and his wife were playing a leisurely game of Domino Cards one day. They threw caution to the wind and decided to modify the game, just for fun, and came up with something akin to modern day 5-card Stud.
It's a running debate these days as to whether poker should be reported as a sport, as it is. ESPN runs 32 live hours of the World Series and pulls in pretty good ratings at that. But ESPN presents the Spelling Bee and the Hot-Dog Eating Contests as sport as well. Staring at cards for hours on end, trying to read the "tells"-- body language, glances, nervous mannerisms--of your opponents, is not sport. It's a game. Other fine games, such as chess and bridge, are covered in the Arts pages. But poker doesn't have the intellectual chops of chess, nor the genteel manners of bridge. It's rougher, more robust. There's bravado, intense competitive spirit... and endurance. The Main Event goes about ten days, with only a few restroom breaks and time outs for some short sleeps.
My father was a rabid poker player. He grew up in Egypt where private home cash games were popular when he was young. As a matter of fact, the World Series of Poker will expand from the Las Vegas strip to International sites this fall, starting with a two-week tournament in London and with plans to stage an event in Egypt.
My father would wake us kids up at 3 in the morning, giddy with the news that he had hit his Full House, tell us he had just bought a 60-foot yacht and we were going to Havana for a couple of days of adventuring. I remember the manic fire in his eyes. Winning was sheer intoxication for him. But, as any gambler's family learns, there were more often early mornings on the down side of a flush that hadn't come through. Suffice it to say those mornings at our house were not pretty.
Those families rooting on their own at this very moment at the Main Event inVegas know only too well just what I'm talking about.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images