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Casino City's Top-10 most memorable WSOP interviews5 October 2009
With the 2009 World Series of Poker Final Table set to begin next month, Casino City is once again gearing up to provide you with wall-to-wall coverage. In the last two years, Managing Editor Vin Narayanan and Senior Editor Gary Trask have spent more than two months combined in Las Vegas covering the WSOP and they have produced numerous updates, feature stories and columns.
So before we start our coverage of the 2009 Final Table, we asked Vin and Gary to pick what they feel were their most memorable WSOP interviews during the past year. In addition, we've provided the links to the stories that resulted from the interviews and some background on how the entire story materialized.
Here's hoping that we'll be able to add a few more "memorable" interviews to this list come November. But until then, here are our Top-10 most memorable WSOP interviews.
10. Trip to Korea has Khan thinking, acting differently
Two days later I staked out Hevad's table. About 15 minutes before the break, I stood near the table so I'd be in position to grab him. Unfortunately, Hevad suffered some two consecutive brutal beats just before the break began and lost three-quarters of his entire stack of chips. Needless to say, he didn't appear to be in any mood to be bothered by a pesky member of the media. When the tournament officials announced that dinner break was beginning, Hevad sat in his seat looking a little shell-shocked for a few minutes before he slowly got up. As I approached him, I saw a look on his face that said, "Good God. Not now."
"Hey Hevad," I said. "We met the other night and you said you would be willing to sit down for a quick interview during one of the breaks. I saw what just happened so if you want to do it at another time, I understand."
Hevad took a deep breath, put his head down and paused.
"Is it going to help you if we sit down and do it now?" he asked.
"Um. Yeah. It would help me out," I said.
"OK. Let's do it," he said. "When I'm upset, it makes me feel better if I help people. So if this is going to help you, it will help me calm down. Let's do it."
Hevad walked me into the private suite for players that's just across the hall from the Amazon Room. We ended up sitting down and speaking for more than 30 minutes. He opened up and was as genuine as can be. Certainly not the same guy who was running around like a maniac the year before at the final table.
Since that interview, I've contacted Hevad two or three other times for different stories and he's always returned my call and given me all the time I've needed. He's a class act, for sure.
9. Victor Ramdin's charity work
"What I like about poker is when you have the chips, you're chatty and happy," Ramdin told me at the same PokerStars cocktail party that my colleague Gary Trask mentioned above. "But when you don't have the chips, you shut the hell up."
And when you win like Ramdin -- according to the Hendon Mob database, Ramdin has $2,626,441 in poker winnings alone -- there's plenty to be happy and chatty about. But at last year's PokerStars party at the Palms, I discovered a different side of Ramdin -- one that more people should hear about. Ramdin, when he's not playing poker, is heavily involved in bringing medical care to his native Guyana. Every year, he brings doctors from the United States to Guyana to provide medical care at clinics across the country. He's also helped fly patients from Guyana to India for heart treatments. And when you listen to how important this work is to him, and how passionate he is about it, you can't help but feel inspired. And when Ramdin's at the table, you feel almost compelled to root for him, because you know he'll put the money to good use.
8. A chat with a proud Phil Hellmuth Sr.
When he first sat down in the chair right next to me, I didn't realize it was Mr. Poker Brat. But once I noticed the black baseball cap with the "PH" logo in gold lettering on his head and the fact that he was probably about 6-foot-5, I had a feeling it was Phil's father. I politely asked him if he was indeed Mr. Phil Hellmuth Sr. and he gave me a big smile and a nod.
As Mr. Hellmuth intently watched his son, we chatted casually for about an hour or so. I started to jot down some notes and when he saw my pen and paper he asked if our conversation was going to be "on the record."
"If you don't mind, that would be great," I said.
He smiled at me again and then looked me straight in the eyes.
"Phil will probably kill me for it, but yes that would be fine," he said. "Just don't embarrass him too much. The last thing I need is for him to get all mad at me."
Mr. Hellmuth went on to tell me that he wasn't planning on coming out to Vegas that day, but had got a call from Phil early in the morning asking his parents to come because he felt good about the event. Mr. Hellmuth gave me plenty of other tidbits about Phil and his family, but the best part of the interview was finding out about Phil's other four siblings and how successful they have all been in their respective lives. Phil is definitely the most famous Hellmuth, but their old man is just as proud of his other four kids as he is Phil, which helped make for an intriguing story.
7. Post final table interview with Ylon Schwartz
After players were eliminated from the Main Event final table last year, they were supposed to come to a media interview area where they would answer questions from the media in a mini press conference. For the most part, players were quite gracious as they stood and patiently answered our questions just minutes after their poker dreams had been crushed. But not Schwartz.
The normally reclusive player tried to escape the assembled press and make a quick getaway. But a few of us tracked him down as he left the Penn & Teller Auditorium, where he told us -- with a smile and while walking away -- that the worst part of his final table experience was having to open up to the media.
6. Fatherhood adds new perspective to the life of Mike Sexton
It took me a while, but I finally got a chance to conduct that interview at the 2009 WSOP. I was sitting up on my perch on media row banging away on my laptop when I spotted Sexton right down below me watching the action outside the rail. I quickly grabbed my notebook and headed down to try and grab him. Unfortunately for me, Sexton just so happens to be one of the most popular and recognizable figures in the game. I stood by and watched person after person come up and shake Sexton's hand, ask for an autograph or picture and then tell him how much they loved him. In between handshakes and cameras clicking, I slipped in and told Sexton who I was and asked if he had a few minutes to speak. He obliged, but the poker fans that were in the area weren't so courtly. Sexton couldn't even put together two sentences without somebody tapping him on the shoulder asking him to say "Cheese!"
Finally, Sexton told me we should go somewhere where it wasn't so crowded, so we slipped into the ESPN Featured Table studio set that wasn't being used at the time and sat down and spoke for nearly a half-hour. I felt bad because Sexton told me that he was there to watch a few of his friends play in the final table of the $1,500 Seven Card Stud Hi-Low-8 or better event and he hadn't even had the chance to see a single hand yet. But he still gave me all the time I needed, which was obviously much appreciated.
After the interview I climbed back up onto media row to start transcribing my notes. I couldn't help but notice that Sexton was still having problems getting a look at the final-table action as the fans continued to pull the old "I hate to bother you Mr. Sexton, but could you please sign my shirt?" routine. Sexton signed everything that was put in front of him and he did it with a smile. Is there really any wonder why he's considered "The Ambassador of Poker?"
5. Michelle Murrell relishes special role as Lubarsky's 'reader'
The Hal Lubarsky Story is a fascinating one. The longtime poker pro suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disorder that prevents him from seeing anything more than just a few inches away from his face. Yet, he still plays poker for a living thanks to a special exemption that allows him to use a "card reader" at the table with him.
While Hal's story is perfect fodder for a guy like me looking for an interesting feature story, it's also been told many times before. So while I still wanted to write about it, I figured it would be best to try and find a different angle.
As I watched Hal play for an hour or so, I couldn't help but notice the chemistry he had with his female reader, Michelle Murrell. She not only whispered into his air what cards he had in the hole and what the flop looked like, but she would also calm him by rubbing his back. She had snacks or a drink ready for him when he asked and she seemed to always be able to say or do the right thing. But, in addition, it looked like it was grueling work. I quickly realized that her job involved a lot more than simply reading the cards. So I decided that the player-reader relationship would be the angle to take with the story.
When the next break in the action was announced, I approached Hal and Michelle and asked if they had some time to speak for a story. Michelle leaned into Hal's ear once again to see what he thought and they both agreed. I asked them if they wanted to walk down to the Champions Players Lounge that was set up in one of the hallways of the Rio and they agreed. As we walked to the lounge, it became obvious that I had my hands on a great story. Even the teamwork between the two to get Hal from the poker table and down the crowded hallway to the lounge was impressive to watch.
The interview lasted about 25 minutes and both Hal and Michelle were forthcoming and engaging, which led to heartwarming story from a totally different angle, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
4. Sliwinski making a dream run at WSOP Main Event
If Sliwinski had reached the final table of the 2008 Main Event, he would have been the main storyline for the November 9. Instead he finished 13th, and became just another interesting WSOP story.
The skateboarding enthusiast from a small town in Pennsylvania had been living on his friends' couches for the past two months after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Two weeks before the Main Event began, Sliwinski decided to move to Las Vegas to become a poker pro. And his first Main Event proved to be a magical debut. He won $463,201 and appeared on ESPN a couple of times. But if it hadn't been for his sister Melece, I would have never discovered his story.
I was wandering around a half-empty Amazon Room looking for an interesting story when I spotted a tall, leggy blond jumping up and down and screaming at the top of her lungs. I wandered over to the table the blond was watching to see what has happening, and saw Sliwinski raking in a pile of chips.
I turned to Melece and asked who he was. "He's my brother," Melece said proudly. And thus began one of the most interesting stories of the 2008 Main Event.
3. ESPN's Lon McEachern is riding the poker wave
Lon and I played at the same table in the media tournament earlier in the week, so I reintroduced myself and said hello, but wasn't thinking our conversation would turn into a story idea. But after about 10 minutes of speaking with him and hearing about his background, I stopped him and asked if he would mind if I used all the stuff we were talking about as a story for Casino City. He happily obliged. I pulled out my notebook and we ended up shooting the breeze for about 20 minutes. Believe me when I tell you that Lon is as personable and gracious as anyone you'll meet in this industry.
Later in the day I saw Lon's longtime TV partner Norman Chad working the room and figured I should get a quote from him for the story. When I introduced myself and told Norm that I was doing a story on Lon, he looked up into the air and screamed, "Finally!"
I was taken aback at first, and then I remembered that I was speaking with a guy that's the king of deadpan comedy.
"Myself and everyone else at ESPN have been trying to get this guy some pub for years," he said with a big smile. "Glad we finally found a sucker to take the bait."
I laughed along with everyone else that was standing around us and then got a couple more wisecrack comments from Chad about Lon.
A few days later I was walking through the Amazon Room when Chad grabbed me by the shoulder. I braced myself for another joke at my expense.
"Hey I saw the story you wrote on Lon," he said somewhat genuinely. "Nice job."
"Thanks," I said waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Glad you liked it."
"Yeah, it was very good," he said. "I only saw a couple of glaring errors. Other than that it was well-done."
He then simply walked away. Just another classic Norman Chad zinger at my expense. Now I know how Erick Lindgren feels.
2. Ivey provides WSOP Main Event drama while Wayans delivers fun
Wayans was funny, even when the TV cameras weren't there. But he was respectful of the game and the dealers. At one point a tournament supervisor had been called over to because players at the table were not sure if the dealer had interpreted the rules correctly. The supervisor determined the dealer was correct, and Wayans instantly made sure the dealer was acknowledged by the table as being right in the first place.
One dealer shared his story with fellow dealers during a break.
"I started to tell him my favorite line from 'Scary Movie,'" the dealer said. Then (Wayans) said "I'll give you the whole scene if you double me up." The dealers burst out laughing, enjoying their brush with fame. They then went on to share their favorite scenes from Mo' Money, another Wayans movie.
At the table, Wayans was focused on the game. But he still managed to have some fun with the table. "Can't you just let a brother limp in," he moaned after being raised once. "We (brothers) call that (limping) a bop. You guys call it a limp. We like to bop into hands."
I followed Wayans play for the better part of a day at this year's Main Event. And when he was eliminated from the tournament, he gave me, along with some friends who had been watching him play, some daps as thanks. Wayans made this year's Main Event a better tournament, and I hope he plays again next year.
1. Hot run at Bellagio helps Raymer buy into H.O.R.S.E. Championship
I had just wrapped up interviews with Doyle Bronson and WSOP Commissioner Jeffery Pollack when I realized I hadn't eaten since my layover in Utah and I was suddenly starving. I got out into the hallway and was on my way to the Rio sportsbook where I planned on grabbing a beer, a slice of pizza and placing some sort of bet on the nighttime baseball card when I spotted former Main Event champ Greg Raymer walking a few steps ahead of me. (Believe me, he's hard to miss). He had just been bounced from the H.O.R.S.E. event, but I figured if I could stop him quick and get a quote for the story it would be a nice addition so I caught up to him and asked if he had few minutes to speak.
Forty minutes later, Raymer and I were still chatting in the hallway.
If you've never met Raymer, you should know that not only is he a heck of a nice guy, but he's also a talker – especially if the subject happens to be poker. Undaunted by the fact that he had just been eliminated from one of the biggest events on the poker calendar, Raymer went on and on about everything from the lack of attendance at the H.O.R.S.E. event, to how he ended up playing in it (he won $30k in 45 minutes the night before at the Bellagio poker room), to his thoughts on the current state of the game. He spoke about different strategies and game theory, what it's like to be a Main Event champ and how he was kind of lonely in Vegas since his daughter and wife had left town for wedding. It was fascinating stuff.
As we spoke, Raymer was probably interrupted about a dozen times by fans to either pose for a picture or sign an autograph. In each case, he gave the fans as much time as they wanted and stood there posing for as many pictures as they wanted to take.
By the time Raymer and I finished our conversation, I had missed out on getting a baseball bet in and my hunger pains were really kicking in. But it was well worth it, considering I not only got a great quote from Raymer for the H.O.R.S.E. story but got plenty of material for a couple other stories as well. If only all of our interviews could be so informative and useful.
Casino City's Top-10 most memorable WSOP interviews is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Best of Gary Trask