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Poker

Raise, fold … Or tweet

Twitter is giving new life to the World Series of Poker

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Legendary sports announcer Michael Buffer introduces and kicks off the much-anticipated battle between Ivan Demidov and Peter Eastgate at last year’s WSOP.

On Saturday, when I had planned to hang out at the Rio taking in some World Series of Poker action, I found myself stuck in the squalid Meineke waiting area, learning that my long-term neglect of my brakes and muffler was going to cost me dearly.

There was, however, a bright spot. As it happened, Saturday was the day at the World Series’ $10,000 Buy-In No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em Main Event when the “money bubble” burst—when the field was reduced to the point where everyone still in the tournament is guaranteed to receive at least $21,365. In this case, it was when the field of 6,494 players had been whittled to just 648. It’s a pretty fun moment of celebration when the 649th-place player busts out and everyone left cheers their common successes.

I wasn’t there, but I had the next best thing: World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack’s Twitter feed. In real time, @JeffreyPollack was blasting out 140-character-or-less updates on what was happening. It got interesting, too, as the field narrowed and then hung at 649 through 12 tense hands during which nobody was eliminated. None of the details about the game mattered so much as the suspense, that feeling that something important—to someone, anyhow—was about to happen, and that if we couldn’t be there, this was the next best thing.

In the modern poker era, there have been several developments responsible for the game’s enormous growth and maturity. The film Rounders made it cool among college kids. The hole-card camera made it interesting for TV viewers. The Internet made it easy for millions to play. And everyman Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP championship made it an accessible glory for all of the above.

Now, I submit, the rise of tweeting poker players will someday be viewed as another turning point. Twitter solves some important problems for the WSOP. First, it gives people who cannot attend an easy, brief and mobile way to keep up as the action is happening, important because you can usually watch every other sport on TV live during the competition, but not poker, because gambling laws prohibit that. Suddenly, the WSOP isn’t something for just the heartiest fans to follow on poker sites but an event revealing itself as we go about our days. (In that regard, it helps that Pollack doesn’t tweet in pokerspeak.)

More importantly, the public gets inside the heads of the poker players. Via Twitter, we have Daniel Negreanu, as @RealKidPoker, writing after a particularly brutal hand on June 30: “Oh. And stay calm. Don’t lose it. Don’t freak out. Don’t do anything stupid. Stay strong! Self affirmations lol.” Outwardly, he was not letting his tablemates or the audience see his angst.

The WSOP quickly added an icon on the online chip-count listings to indicate which players were tweeting. That’s how I learned of Joe Sebok, who now has my attention. He’s got nearly a half-million followers, in part because he founded and operates a major poker website, but I’d not known of him before.

Sebok’s feed flows with commentary on poker nitty-gritty and personal views, as well as you-are-there photos. As that bubble-bursting moment approached, for instance, he shot images from his phone of crowds getting excited. Late Sunday brought this tweet: “Made a horrendous play from being so tired. Need to knock that shit off, and focus. No excuses. Have 330k. 367 players left.”

That 500,000-follower figure is by far the largest I found among poker people. Pollack has 2,200-plus, all-time bracelet leader Phil Hellmuth has 18,000-plus at @Phil_Hellmuth, and Annie Duke has just 14,000-plus at @RealAnnieDuke, despite her crossover fame from NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.

When done right, poker tweeting provides refreshingly unvarnished commentary. (Phil Ivey, who has a sidekick typing bloodless tweets about the chip count, is an example of doing it very wrong.) One recent example came from Doyle Brunson, 75, who never talks much smack about competitors in interviews. As @TexDolly, he’s full of piss and vinegar. “I saw a video of Helmouth’s entrance,” Doyle wrote of Hellmuth’s bizarre entrance to the Main Event, on a special platform carried by several centurions and adorned in Caesar regalia. “I love Phil, but come on man. WTF.”

By far, though, Negreanu is the most compelling poker tweeter. He’s brutal and funny and often offensive, snarking about players at his table while they’re playing. On June 15 he wrote: “80 Just made a bad laydown in a monster pot vs Eli the nutcase. He saw me tweet that, screw him.”

Other classic Negreanu lines: June 8: “On break woman with her hubby kisses my cheek then licks my ear saying ‘you are on top of my list’ and hubby confers! He would let me um ...” June 5: “I’m now mildly obsessed with bringing back the C-word for use when appropriate. If the MF word is fine then a Shakespearan C-word should too.”

Poker tweeting is the best Vegas-related application of Twitter to date. The hotels and nightclubs are largely treating the medium as yet another advertising vehicle, so most folks tune them out. And the town’s entertainment and gossip scribes—myself included—use it to dump bits of grist that are less vetted and less substantive than what we would print in a newspaper, air on TV or even post on a blog.

In poker, though, it turns the players’ worlds into a sort of reality show, which is good because these are interesting, often witty people who get to have unusual experiences.

The WSOP went on a four-month hiatus this week until the November finale. I suspect the WSOP gods will lean hard on these players—most, if not all, of whom were unknowns before this—to tweet. And I suggest all of you folks—even you who don’t care about poker—to follow them. With yet another barrier between the public and these people broken down, I’m all in.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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