Los Angeles, CA
What a long strange trip it's been.
Robert Hunter penned that lyric in a well-known Grateful Dead song. I often find myself uttering those words when I find myself in unbelievable and ephemeral situations... like Saturday night as I walked into Commerce Casino to play in the WPT Celebrity Invitational.
"Look," cried Michalski. "William Hung is here."
All I saw was the back of an Asian man with an orange shirt.
"Dude, it's Commerce," I explained to my gawking colleague. "There's probably at least a dozen guys in here who look like William Hung. Stop being one of those racist Texans."
Just as I finished my sentence, the Asian man in the orange shirt turned around. Shit. It was William Hung. I quickly apologized to Michalski.
"He's the most famous person I've seen here," Michalski said as Bobby Bellande, a well-known constantly broke pro, scribbled down an autograph from an elderly fan wearing a white hat with a Lexus logo.
I caught former WSOP champion Jerry Yang out of the corner of my eye. I quickly tweet'd that I spotted Hung and Yang. I'm sure somewhere out there in the annals of the adult entertainment industry that Hung and Yang has to be the title of a really really bad low-frills tit flick.
Nicky overheard a bit of Jerry Yang's conversation with his guest, "Oh man. I should have probably worn my bracelet."
Probably so. That's the kind of petty shit that matters in Hollywood... what kind of car do you drive... what brand of watch do you have on your wrist... who are you fucking.... where do you work out... who is your agent... where do you get your cocaine... all of those seemingly annoying questions cause many micro-celebrities to hyperventilate at the thought of not having a cool and hip answer to that question.
I fuckin' love Hollywood for the absurdity and plasticity. Stephen Elliot, author of The Adderall Diaries, wrote that L.A. is the perfect place to be discovered and hide out simultaneously. I'm paraphrasing here... but since everyone in the City of Angels is desperately seeking attention, all you have to do is stand still and you'll disappear. That's one of the most accurate description of L.A. and Hollywood that I've come across. Elliot simply summed up one the main reasons why I migrated to the left coast and settled down in La-La Land -- it really is easy to disappear within the city limits and become invisible. Lost in the shuffle.
All I had to do was stand still at Commerce to harness my powers of invisibility... which is something I actually prefer to do most of the time. As a writer, I obtain better material when I can be the fly on the wall and record what I see anonymously. On Saturday night, I was surrounded by poker's aristocracy and a bevy of familiar faces in the entertainment industry. Some of the Hollywooders were genuine poker enthusiasts, while a bunch of them just loved the distinction of being a "celebrity" which entails walking the red carpet and having their photos snapped by paparazzi. For those seeking the warmth and adulation of being famous, it doesn't matter if it's Paris Hilton's dog's birthday party or a poker tournament, because they'll show up to anything if they think it will make them look cool.
The fabrication of cool. I can write a book about that. I've carved out a good life for myself because of my ability to fabricate "cool" within the poker industry. Some of your favorite poker pros that you see on TV are among the most immoral twats in the universe, but I'm very good at hiding their secrets and whitewashing their sordid past, sort of like how the White House press corp maintained a wall of silence during JFK's short reign. Bill Clinton got nailed for getting his cock sucked by one chubby intern. God knows the field day that today's voracious gossip hounds would have while lapping up fodder about Jack Kennedy's nightly beaver hunting trips.
While the pretty people of Hollywood and the titans of the poker industry rubbed shoulders upstairs in the tournament room, the unwashed masses on the gaming floor barely noticed the Gatsby-esque scenes raging above them. The Commerce Casino, like many regional casinos, generate their income on the degeneracy of locals. If you have never set foot inside Commerce, let me tell you, the facility is massive with dozens of rooms connected to each other with hordes of crazy Asian gamblers. The casino floor reeks of desperation, body odor, and Korean BBQ. At least Vegas has a semblance of normalcy (CUT TO... a young family on vacation pushing a stroller through the Bellagio flower observatory) and a sense of revelry (CUT TO... a rabid pack of frat boys chugging Jager Bombs at a black jack table). But sometimes, taking a stroll through Commerce at 2am is sort of like making the rounds at an insane asylum.
I never thought that I'd ever get a chance to play in a WPT event, yet somehow that's what happened. I'm used to being on the media side of major events, so this rare experience was sort of like the help getting invited to the feast. Matt Savage, tournament director extraordinaire, is running the show at Commerce including their highly popular L.A. Poker Classic tournament series. Savage extended an invitation to the WPT Celebrity Invitational for a few of us in the media. It was an awesome gesture and demonstrates why Savage is one of the most popular figures in poker.
It wasn't officially official until I checked in at the desk. I always have a moment of panic when the person with the list flips through pages in search of my name. Yep. I was indeed invited and they handed me two wristbands; a black band with my table and seat assignment written in a silver Sharpie, and a grey band for my +1 guest. I gave Nicky her +1 wristband and headed upstairs to the free bar and swanky buffet spread. The first person I spotted was Thor Hansen, the Godfather of Scandi poker. Did he want any side action on the rest of the Olympics? I'll bet against any Scandis in any event except the biathlon.
I arrived at the heart of cocktail hour. The key to surviving these in Hollywood is to drink heavily and surround yourself with a couple of your friends so you can stand in a circle and make other adjacent circles highly uncomfortable by laughing uncontrollably. Nothing freaks out Hollywood hipsters than someone having a better than than themselves. I circled the wagons with Parvis, Nicky, Laney, and Michalski as a sullen Eskimo Clark walked by us in slow motion. Eskimo is one of the worst degenerate gamblers in poker and he clutched an unlit cigar that I saw him bum off of someone in the hallway before he wandered towards the buffet and piled his plate with chicken satay before he disappeared into a crowd, ignoring the wine-induced conversation around him.
I devoured a couple of tepid yet tasty Kobe meatballs... passed on the prawns because as a rule of culinary thumb, I avoid shellfish inside casinos... watched one female pro bust Michalski's balls for posting erroneous info on his blog... wondered if our buddy Stapes' +1 was a Craigslist hooker... and then I hopelessly attempted to make eye contact with Tia Carrere, the object of Wayne's obsession in Wayne's World, a flick popular among Gen-X stoners such as myself.
Instead of linking up with Tia, I stood face-to-face with... William Hung.
I don't pester people for photos, but this was a rare opportunity to make a few friends of mine in the music industry chuckle. William Hung politely agreed to be photographed. I think he was happy that someone noticed him as he wandered around the buffet area in a slight daze with not a soul paying attention to him. Nothing against Hung, but he's the byproduct of one of the worst facets of the sensationalistic media after the producers on American Idol aired his horrendous audition when he butchered Ricky Martin's smash hit She Bangs.
Hung went on to record an album because of his astronomically high Q-rating buoyed by the trainwreck value of his atrocious singing. The freak is far more entertaining than the melodious voices of the best amateurs because the current American past time is reveling in the dismay of others. Fifty years ago, you usually had to do something good or accomplish a noteworthy achievement to draw attention in the press. These days? Just do something stupid, moronic, or retarded and you'll achieve immortality on YouTube.
A bunch of people in the tournament room fell into that category, while the majority of the other celebrity players were hard-working actors constantly worrying about their next job. I couldn't tell you the names of dozens of somewhat familiar faces that I came across. In my notebook, I scribbled down things like "the dude from Freaks & Geeks" or "Wil Smith's brother in the Fresh Prince" or "Joe Toye from Band of Brothers."
I discovered a pecking order among actors. Many of them loathe reality TV stars. I overheard a couple of snarky comments at my table about fame and reality TV. But these days, the lines in Hollywood have been blurred. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. With that said, the meatheads and the spray-tanned orange chick from The Jersey Shore were not in attendance, which meant that I'd have to find some other celebs du jour to mooch drugs from.
I made my way through the tables inside the black-draped tournament room at Commerce Casino. Record-setting field of Johnny Dramas and Troy McClures. 567 players in all including a few big named pros. I passed a couple of the Van Patten clan including the elder Dick Van Patten from Eight Is Enough fame. I spotted a few more pros that I knew including Joe Sebok, Liz Lieu, and Kristy Gazes. A few pros wandered around checking out the hot tail inside the ropes. They were not used to seeing so many glamorous people at a poker table.
I took my seat and the adjacent table featured L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, which meant that one of the many Asian girls in his harem would be sweating their sugar daddy. In case you're wondering... Buss wears white Nike socks. But does Buss gets Nike socks for free, or if one of his bitches fetches a new package for him every week?
Trishelle from the Real World Las Vegas took a seat at the table behind mine. She established herself as one of the original reality show trollops after a steamy threesome in the hot tub. Trishelle is a Swahili word for "mountainous regions", which was apparent after I got a close up of her twin donuts. Wow. Lemme tell ya... them some tig ol' bitties. No fancy lighting or camerawork there. I salute her plastic surgeon.
By 8:15, my table began to fill up. I sorta recognized the guy next to me but like so many actors and actresses in the room, they looked vaguely familiar. Seat 4 was a loud fat guy who did voiceovers for cartoons. Seat 6 was Erik Palladino from ER. Seat 8 was my local weatherman in LA and Nick Gonzalez sat next to me in Seat 9. I quickly found out that Nick was the runner-up in last year's WPT Invitational. He held the distinction of being the last celebrity standing. That juice goes a long way in celebrity poker playing circles, and anyone in this town will tell you that any type of buzz is good buzz, especially since he was running around for auditions sweating it out during pilot season.
Nicky went downstairs to play cash games and I sent her a text inquiring about the actors at my table. I figured that I'd consult the former Hollywood exec about the background of my thespian tablemates.
"Palladino got fired from ER after two seasons for mouthing off to the show's producers," she texted me. "And Nick is a hipster actor who was in The OC and the new Melrose Place."
Ah, that's where I remembered Nick, from his role as D.J. the yard guy who was schtupping Mischa Barton's character in The O.C.. Like most of the actors that I meet in Hollywood, I was much taller than him in person. Since Nick Gonzalez was the celeb who went the deepest the previous year, he garnered a significant amount of attention from the cameras. For the first couple of levels, the WPT film crew hovered around our table. A constant flow of photographers snapped photos and I accepted the fact that my ugly mug would be the "most cropped" photo at the WPT Invitational.
"You look familiar. How do I know you? You a pro?" asked Nick Gonzalez.
"No. I'm a writer. Do you read Bluff Magazine?"
Nick Gonzalez mentioned that he had just met my editor at Bluff, Lance, when he played in a PokerStars Celebrity Charity tournament less than 24 hours earlier in Las Vegas. The drunk guy from ER sitting across from me was super drunk and kept apologizing for his high state of inebriation. He wanted to know where else I wrote. I told him that I'm also the author of Lost Vegas.
"Lost Vegas? Oh, I read that. Good stuff," barked the drunk guy from ER as he took a swig of his vodka cocktail.
I didn't have the heart to call his bullshit. I picked up an obvious tell... Lost Vegas hasn't even been published yet, but that's the sort of shady shtick that the denizens of Hollywood sling back and forth. Even if you have no idea who someone is, you always tell them that you admire their work. It's such a terrible Hollyweird cliche, but deep down actors really want to know that they are relevant... even if you have to lie to them to massage their egos.
"Thanks," I said. "You're no slouch yourself. You practically carried ER during your time on the show."
That was a low blow on my part, but sometimes writers have to put actors in their place.
The continual cameras were my least favorite part of sitting next to Nick, although that's just a relatively minor gripe because I certainly understood the purpose. And hey, who knows if I get on TV so my mom can see me. Regardless, the positives of sitting next to Nick far outweighed the negatives. For example, Nick is a handsome actor who knew an impressive number of actresses in the room. A steady stream of starlets stopped by our table to flirt, schmooze, and sneak in a few seconds of camera time. I didn't mind the starlet parade one bit.
Trishelle sat only a few feet away and spent a lot of time leaning over to talk to Nick, but of course, always within camera shot. I can't tell you how many times I turned my head to be greeted by Trishelle's misty mountain tops. I snuck a few peeks down her dress like a leering deviant out of a Bukowski poem. Judge me all you want. You would have done the same fuckin' thing. Magnificent. The melons are currently in season.
One starlet, who played one of the cheerleaders from Friday Night Lights, became a frequent visitor to our table often bouncing by with the grace of a ballerina. She had recently gotten engaged and happily showed off her ring.
"How many carats?" asked drunk ER guy.
"3.4," she proudly announced.
Jaws dropped. Silence. Even drunk ER guy was at a loss for words. The rock on her finger was the size of a bull's testicle. If she sported that on the NYC subway, she'd get her hand lopped off in seconds. God knows how many miners from Botswana shed blood for that warped symbol of eternal love.
The table banter was fun, friendly, and at times kinda loud with most of the chatter was down on my end between ER guy, the weatherman, and Nick. The looseness of the tournament equated into less hands per hour. The action was slow. Seemed like everyone was Hollywooding it up on every hand for the cameras. Gah. Fuckin' actors. The excruciating pace might have driven me nuts if I didn't have Twitter to keep me occupied during the downtime or the fragrant-smelling starlets buzzing by Nick to keep us distracted.
I lost a hand early on to ER guy and lost about 40% of my chips within the first ninety minutes. Due to the lack of cocktail servers, the drunk ER guy took matters into his own hands and fetched beers at the cash bar. He took a huge chiplead after he won a pot on a sick beat. ER guy jumped out of his chair. Cameras swooped in. Beers were spilled. One of the girls from Jerry Buss' harem curiously wandered over.
I won a big hand against Nick with pocket Aces. I avoided elimination and doubled up. Of course, the one time I win a pot against Nick, the camera crew had taken a break.
My buddy Chicago Bob stopped by to sweat the event and Nicky was kind enough to grab me water on one of the breaks. Michalski and I recorded a podcast where I described the tournament area as a "room full of cliches."
Nick busted out shortly after the break ended, and the drunk ER guy bitched at the guy who busted him, "Way to go. You just knocked out the pussy magnet."
The starlets and busty Trishelle weren't stopping by to see us... they were there for Nick... well more for the cameras surrounding Nick.
I won another hand against drunk ER guy and he begged me to show him his cards, which I refused to do unless he gave me $100 in cash. He declined my offer and declared that I was his enemy.
I pulled off a huge bluff and went on a rush. I won three hands in a row and was finally above water when the actor who played Joe Toye from Band of Brother joined our table...
Joe Toye and I quickly were involved in a hand together. We got it all in on the flop. He had the best hand with a set of nines, but I had a flush draw. I took the lead on the turn, but he took it back on the river when the board paired. My flush lost to his full house. Out in 390th place or so.
"At least I got busted by Joe Toye," I said as I shook his hand.
Toye smirked and said thanks. He put my chips to good use and ended Day 1 fifth overall. He went deep but buted out before the final table. Inc ase you were wondering... Trishelle from the Real World advanced to the final table of the WPT Celebrity Invitational. The apocalypse is near. Cue the raining frogs.
Editor's Note: Excerpts of this post originally appeared on Tao of Poker.