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Better to be lucky than good

Bill Simmons’ brutal early exit in the World Series of Poker showed him just how much the game has changed in the past few years.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the August 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

I believed Mike McD for eight years. “People insist on calling it luck,” he kept saying sarcastically. Sure. We all knew better.

If poker was about luck, as Mike says, the same guys wouldn’t be sitting at the final table of the World Series every year, right? Poker was about skill and intuition. Poker was about reading opponents like a police detective, outplaying and outwitting them, always remaining ahead. Poker was about shifting gears, changing betting patterns, appearing meek one minute and pouncing like a panther the next. Poker was about an accumulated series of gambling experiences, good and bad, that mold you into a real player. You didn’t lose because you were unlucky; you lost because you were outplayed. Big difference. That was poker.

Or so I thought.

You know what poker is really about? Luck.

I found this out the hard way in Vegas, on the heels of my abrupt departure from the Main Event at the WSOP. I played a hand perfectly and somehow lost a $20,000 pot. That was it.

I was done in two hours. Over the next 10 days, almost 9,000 other players were knocked out — some for the right reasons, some for the wrong ones. At the final table, no famous pros were left sitting. A former Hollywood agent won the whole thing. Twelve million bucks. Nobody was even surprised.

See, everyone thinks they know how to play now. Before Mike McD broke onto the scene, Hold’em was an underground game, the forbidden door most gamblers were afraid to open. But repeated cable showings of “Rounders” inspired a new breed of casual players like myself to give the game a try. ESPN popularized the pocket cam and made the game easier to understand. The Internet boom allowed shut-ins to hone their skill, cresting when no-name qualifier Chris Moneymaker won 2003’s Main Event. Websites and satellites even made it possible to qualify for the World Series without fronting the 10 grand. Poker shows popped up like pimples. Stars were made of pros like Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey, and celebrity junkies like Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck gave the game a little extra juice. Just like that, poker was a billion-dollar industry, the one “sport” that gave everyone a chance.

Like NASCAR, wrestling and porn, poker has become its own subuniverse. This summer’s Gaming Life Expo featured rows and rows of booths: for countless websites (even Anna Benson has one), start-up magazines and self-published books, for an autograph from your favorite player, for poker-related apparel and merchandise (if you’ve always wanted a polyester shirt with face cards sewn on the front, this is the place to find it). Skanky models were everywhere handing out free stuff, prompting my buddy Hopper to crack, “What time are they due back at Cheetahs?” The place makes a Star Wars convention look hip. At one point, my friends and I were staring in shock at a booth that featured giant oil paintings of various pros. What amazed us wasn’t that these paintings existed, or that they cost $300 apiece, but that someone was purchasing one of Johnny Chan. Like at the porn expo, you see things at the poker expo you can never unsee.

This is why there hasn’t been a “Rounders” sequel. Mike McD wouldn’t be an underdog anymore. He’d be a minicorporation, a hero to Internet poker nerds, with a $300 portrait of himself, a fleet of agents and PR people, a couple of sponsors, a gigantic ego, a best-selling book and a popular website, maybe even a minimansion outside of Vegas with a driveway that looks like a giant poker chip. He’d be worth 10 million. Easy.

You know what else? He’d be bummed out. This year’s Main Event featured so many players, they had to split Day 1 over four days. Thanks to the waves of qualifiers who didn’t have to front 10 grand, a different style of play emerged: overaggressive, cocksure, reckless. Winning the tournament isn’t a realistic dream, but wiping out a famous pro and having a memorable war story for your buddies … now that’s realistic. Pros were getting bounced left and right. Everyone was gunning for them, all-in calls be damned. I mean, how can this be an accurate representation of skill? If you enter a major chess tournament, no matter how much you’d practiced, you’d get wiped out. Same for the Golden Gloves, a PGA tournament, PBA, you name it. But everyone has a chance in the WSOP. On the bright side, anyone can win. On the flip side, you can say the same about keno.

I will say this: The World Series brought the best poker out of me. You feel the tension from the beginning, as you greet everyone at the table, as the dealer shuffles the cards, as you stare at $10,000 worth of chips and realize they’re yours. Every time a yellow $1,000 chip moves, you can almost hear the blood swishing in everyone’s veins. It’s palpable. It’s incredible.

Even two weeks later, I remember every nuance — what everyone was wearing, all their faces, how my chips were stacked, everything. I chugged along for two hours, winning one big hand and battling a steady stream of lousy cards. Meanwhile, a wild Internet qualifier was calling everybody, trash-talking, even showing his bluffs after he won. He reminded me of a football QB who keeps throwing deep; eventually, you switch to zone and start to pick off his passes. Basically, he was Jeff George.

And I wanted to pick him off. Holding K-10 suited, I called his $550 bet along with two others. The flop? K-10-6. First guy called. Jeff came barreling in for another $1,200. Third guy folded. And I knew four things: First, I had the best hand (nobody had trips, I could tell from the body language). Second, I needed to steal that $3,400 in the middle. Third, having played one big hand in two hours, everyone would know I meant business with an all-in wager. And fourth, with 20 grand in chips, Jeff George might be dumb enough to call me. Which he was. And you know what this nitwit had?

A-K. With the odds now significantly in my favor (84.3 percent), I was two favorable cards from taking control of the table. Even in that brief instant — couldn’t have been more than eight to 10 seconds — I was dreaming about lasting the day, building a nest egg, getting lucky a few more times, maybe even making it through the week …

Then, BOOM! It was over. The dealer turned over consecutive queens, improbably giving us both K-Q pairs, but with an ace kicker against me. The rest was a hazy blur: watching Jeff celebrate in disbelief … muttering, “Wait, did I just lose?” … hearing the jerk next to me say, “You’re done” … debating whether to punch the jerk, then deciding against it … eventually stumbling away like Bill Buckner at Shea. I wandered aimlessly through the Rio, legitimately in shock, replaying the hand again and again. I couldn’t get over it. Within an hour, I was renting a car and fleeing Vegas like it was a crime scene. I had to get out of there.

It’s one thing to get outplayed. It’s another to lose to a reckless idiot. But that’s poker in the 21st century: You need to be lucky. Period. I know Mike McD disagrees, but only because he’s trapped in a suddenly dated movie.

Make the sequel already.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace is available on and in bookstores everywhere.