For most of us, the thought of being a baller poker player in Las Vegas during the World Series is little more than a pipe dream. The tournament buy-ins are too high, the luxury hotels too expensive, and the hot nightspots too exclusive for the Average Joe.
But ever since 2003, when Chris Moneymaker famously turned $39 into $2.5m, the chance of winning the World Series, becoming a millionaire, and giving up the day job, has become a reality for many. Online poker sites now send thousands of satellite qualifiers to the WSOP every year, and the diversity of the packages on offer is getting greater every year.
One site that is never afraid to push the envelope and do things a little differently is next-generation online poker room PKR. With its 3D graphics providing a neat USP since launch in 2006, PKR has gone about amassing more than one million registered players, and through its live events and community-focused website has also created a tight-knit group of like-minded players.
At this year’s Series I managed to tag along with PKR’s WSOP entourage, which comprised 36 players from 15 different countries, along with three additional Team PKR pros. Each had won a $4,000 package, which included entry into Event 54 – the $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em.
I quickly got a sense of the famously strong PKR community when I rocked up at the welcome party in the Deuce Lounge at the Aria hotel. Strangely, this new addition to the Strip doesn’t really fit in next door to the well-established and garish Excalibur and New York New York properties, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the future of Las Vegas. With amazing architecture, a series of boutique hotels forming part of the CityCenter complex, and some incredible restaurants, it’s a high-class experience, and a wonderful treat for the PKR qualifiers.
As the drinks flowed and the party swelled, there was a lot of talk about how players qualified and all the different routes to the packages. In addition to the normal MTT stages, with buy-ins ranging from a few dollars up to the twice-weekly $360 final, PKR ran a 20-tournament league, which offered seven packages – one for the overall winner and six more across five playoff events.
Eleanor ‘Elz442’ Gudger, who works in IT corporate sales, admits that she didn’t do particularly well in the league, but still had a shot at the $4k package by finishing in the top 100 players across the series. From there she shipped the 100-player freeroll and was delighted to be in Vegas. ‘When I won the [freeroll], I was like “brilliant, I’m going to play the World Series” and a $1,000 tournament is a bit above my buy-in.’
Gudger stumbled across PKR in 2007 having been attracted by its ‘flashy advert and cool graphics’. But she was always a bit nervous about playing online until she qualified for the first PKR Live, met all the staff and players, and never looked back. Gudger had a very clear idea of what to expect in Vegas. ‘Going to a PKR event you know you’re going to have a good time. Everyone’s going to have a laugh. It’s not lots of nameless faces, people you don’t know… There are people who’ve qualified who I’ve never met before of course, but you go to the parties and meet people. It’s a great community spirit.’
Michael ‘Walshieblue’ Walsh, a mortgage advisor from Rochdale, was of the same mind. Having won one of the very last freerolls, he’s now on a three-month career break and looking to see whether becoming a full-time poker player is a viable option. Summing up his first three days in Vegas, Walsh admitted, ‘I’m just glad to be here. I haven’t even played any poker, it’s about the experience.’
PKR’s decision to only run qualifiers to the $1,000 No-Limit Hold’em event was no accident. Eschewing the usual Main Event hype, PKR marketing director Simon Prodger explained why the company was in favour of a more moderate package. ‘We love the WSOP, but there’s no doubt that the huge size of the buy-in puts satellites to the Main Event beyond the reach of most players. So we took a step back, looked at what was important, and tried to build a package that delivered what most of our players want out of the World Series. It had to be affordable right the way down the satellite chain. It needed to offer a serious amount of fun, while still giving people a shot at a bracelet. And it needed to be open to people who had jobs and families.’
The World Series Experience packages certainly ticked all those boxes, judging by the positive responses from satellite qualifiers in Vegas. Walsh said, ‘PKR is like a community – let’s get more people together rather than just seven. Also, if you won the [$1,000 NLHE] event you would have got over $500,000 – that is like winning the Main Event to me.’ Prodger reiterates that sentiment: ‘I think our World Series Experience packages…focus on doing what PKR does better than any other poker room out there – sending players to events to have fun. So, rather than send seven or eight people to the Main Event, we qualified nearly 40 players to enjoy a week’s worth of unforgettable poker action and experience everything that Las Vegas has to offer. Our packages offer fun and enjoyment [and] a sense of community, with everyone staying at the same place and partying together.’
Over And Out
Unfortunately, Walsh and Gudger both went out of the $1k no-limit Hold’em event on Day 1, but with amazing stories to tell. In Gudger’s case, a coinflip saw her left with a solitary 25 chip in the third level. But a series of improbable double, treble and quadruple-ups saw her get back to her starting stack before she eventually bowed out. Walsh, meanwhile, saw his chipstack soar to over 15,000 with blinds of just 100/200. But then he felt the crushing blow of tournament poker when he got it all-in with an overpair versus a ‘maniac American’ holding middle pair and a gutshot. Needless to say, Walsh's hand didn't hold and, as he says, it was a bitter pill to swallow: ‘I walked out and felt like someone had crunched me in the guts. I was walking around in a daze. If you’ve got 30k at 100/200 blinds you can play exactly as you want. That’s poker though – it’ll stand me in good stead.’
If there are any slight criticisms, Walsh suggests that in future it might be better to have a private tournament to welcome the players to Vegas, and better communication about how the other PKR qualifiers are doing in the WSOP so that those who are knocked out can go and rail their newfound poker pals.
Mix It Up
By the end of Day 1, the majority of the satellite qualifiers had gone out of the $1k event, but it was all forgotten about at the official PKR party. Last year’s Playboy Suite party was always going to be hard to top, but with a magnificent view of the Vegas Strip from Mix bar at the top of THEhotel at Mandalay Bay and, of course, a free bar to get stuck into, it was another memorable night. There were a smattering of poker stars in attendance – Brian Townsend, Cole South, Kara Scott, Erica Schoenberg – and even a moment of controversy when PKR-sponsored pro Vladimir ‘Beyne’ Geshkenbein got escorted out for a minor misdemeanour.
I managed to grab PKR marketing manager Erika Schwartz for a word or two about the important role that these parties play. ‘We really get to know the players, and they get to know each other. Just like with PKR Live, it’s all about creating a sense of community. It’s very hands on and they always know they can contact us if they have any problems, questions, or if they just want to get us out partying with them,’ she says. ‘Tomorrow we’re VIP clubbing in the owner’s room of Pure with a special appearance by Kelly Rowland, and there’s the July 4 pool party at Tao Beach with DJ Paul Van Dyk. We completely take care of our players and offer them an experience they’ll never forget.’
That much was true on Independence Day, when we headed up to the Venetian for an unforgettable pool party featuring ear-shattering house music, hundreds of scantily-clad bronzed beauties, and a private cabana for the PKR crew. The thermometer touched 100F, the vodka and beers flowed freely, and the beats just kept coming.
Vegas virgin Gudger called out the VIP treatment and plethora of parties as one of the best things about the whole trip. ‘The one at Mandalay Bay was absolutely fantastic – to have that view of Vegas was breathtaking. And I certainly wouldn’t have got VIP, or had the chance to do the beach party, so it’s made my first trip to Vegas something very special.
For Walsh, who had already visited Las Vegas four years ago with his girlfriend, this experience was completely different to his last trip. ‘It’s been messy basically. The parties have been absolutely fantastic – we’ve ruined the free bar.’
Walsh was also keen to stress how friendly everyone was, highlighting PKR Pro James Sudworth in particular. ‘He’ll come over to anybody,’ says Walsh. ‘There were people who were on their own and he was just going over and saying “Hi” to them – that’s the sort of thing that you want. I guess that’s why he’s been a pro on the site as long as he’s been.’
As for me, I had an awesome time, too. I left the pool just in time to see the fireworks outside the Bellagio, and made a mental note to do it again next year. If they'll have me...