Arash Markazi
Tuesday November 20th, 2007

LAS VEGAS -- Traveling with Jamie Gold has its perks. A flight to Las Vegas, for example, isn't simply a one-hour trip from San Francisco to Sin City; it's a theatrical production worthy of a casino showroom.

That's what happens when Sir Richard Branson invites you to host a celebrity poker tournament to commemorate Virgin America's first ever flight to Vegas. You get a terminal full of showgirls, lounge singers, silicone enhanced beauties and professional poker players, sort of.

"It seems like everyone's a professional poker player these days," says Gold, scanning the gate area. "You could say you're a professional poker player if you wanted to." I'm not, but Gold has invited me to play in tonight's charity poker game, and I'm in good company in the faux poker player department. I'm sitting next to Carmen Electra and Kyla Ebbert, a busty Hooters waitress that was kicked off a Southwest flight recently for dressing like, well a Hooters waitress.

One person who will never profess to be a professional poker player is Branson. He is dressed as an ordained minister the moment after being pre-ordained online the night before so he could wed a couple of Virgin employees mid-air with all the tackiness of a Vegas wedding chapel, sans the Elvis impersonator serving as a witness. "There's a hell of a difference between being an amateur poker player and a professional poker player," Branson says. "I haven't got the best poker face. I begin to smile once I get an Ace, Jack, Queen, King, but don't tell anyone."

Considering Branson is always smiling, he may have a shot after all. The smile on his face widens as he sips on a coffee while sitting in first class and tells me stories of his younger days. You know, before he was Father Richard.

"I remember one occasion when Keith Richards was misbehaving outrageously with somebody else's wife and I opened the door and there's this enormous angry husband with a gun in his hand, standing on the doorstep asking for his wife," he says. "I had to talk to him for about three minutes to try and give Keith and this guy's wife time to escape. The next thing I see is a naked Keith Richards and this man's naked wife running across the lawn behind him. I think they ended up in a prickly rose bush but they got away."

Sitting behind us is Electra, who has plenty of crazy stories of her own, although she isn't as willing to divulge them as she slips on her headphones and pretends to watch CNN on the flat screen in front of her. "You know I can't kiss and tell," she says softly. Fortunately the man seated a couple rows behind her, dozing off underneath a black Buzznation hat, has a pretty good story to tell, and it all started a little more than a year ago in the city we've just landed in.

Everyone checking into the litany of theme hotels (lions and pirates and clowns, oh my!) that line the Vegas Strip are trying to find the American dream or at least win a piece of it on three-team parlay.

They all want to have a Jamie Gold experience. Gold is returning to the main nerve of that illusive dream, where 17 months ago, he won the 2006 World Series of Poker and $12 million, the richest prize for the winner of any sports or television event in history. Not only is he set for life financially, he has become an overnight celebrity. As we drove to the Wynn hotel from the airport in a stretch limo, he laughed at a billboard featuring him in his customary lowered baseball cap for a poker Web site. "You can barely see my face," he joked. "Maybe that's a good thing."

This self-deprecating and soft-spoken Gold appears nothing like the cerebral villain he comes off as on television, where he has made a name for himself by talking his opponents into folding good hands, going all in on bad ones and altogether taking them out of their game simply with his gift of gab. It was, however, a promise that got him into some legal trouble after the World Series when Crispin Leyser, a British poker player and casual acquaintance of Gold's, sued Gold for half his prize after Gold promised him half his winnings before the tournament. The suit was later settled out of court, although the fact that there was even a lawsuit still amazes Gold, who had always planned on giving Leyser his cut after figuring out the tax implications of his newfound income. Oh yeah, Uncle Sam wanted half too.

"The lawsuit seems to be the most interesting thing to people but it was never something that should have happened in the first place," he says. "It's really unfortunate but everyone's moved on."

Gold seems to be doing a good job of that as he walks into Tryst, a posh nightclub nestled inside the Wynn featuring a 94-foot waterfall and $900 bottles of booze, and is greeted by Pamela Anderson and Rick Solomon. The newlyweds were invited to play in the celebrity tournament by Gold and are getting comfortable on a VIP couch set up near the waterfall. They're getting so comfortable that Solomon rubs his hands all over Anderson's chest before heading to the poker table, presumably for good luck. The rest of us simply rub our eyes in amazement before sitting down at the table.

Somehow I end up placing third in the tournament behind eventual winner David Zayas, an actor on the show Dexter, and Fred Reid, the CEO of Virgin America. With Gold offering me a few pointers, I find a way to outlast poker players such as Phil Gordon, Evelyn Ng, Robert Williamson III, and Solomon. Although watching Solomon go back to rubbing Anderson on the couch after getting ousted early there was little doubt who the real winner was.

It's a quarter past who-knows-what. Gold is sitting at a table inside the crowded poker room at the Venetian. He's been here for a few hours and will be here for at least a few more judging from the room service cart that's just been delivered tableside.

"I'm working so that someday I can be a really good poker player," says Gold. "I just want to be a great player and being a great player isn't about winning in poker, it's really about making the great plays."

That's right. The man who dominated the largest poker tournament in history, and claimed the largest prize the sport will offer for the foreseeable future, is still humping away in a smoke-filled room among collar-raising yuppies and Gimlet slurping oldies. He understands there's a good chance that he may never win another World Series, after winning it on his first shot, and it's just as well. Gold's World Series win last year was the high-water mark of poker's popularity wave. This year's winner, Jerry Yang, won almost $4 million less than Gold as the winner's purse decreased for the first time in over 20 years.

"There's only maybe 30 people in the world that have ever won the main event in the World Series of Poker and there's only maybe five who have ever won it with more than 800 people involved," he says. "I was playing against 9,000 people. Do I ever need to win it again? No, but I still want to be a great player. That's my dream."

As I prepare to leave Las Vegas, some 48 hours after I've arrived, Gold is still sitting in some poker room at the Venetian or the Bellagio or possibly the Wynn by now. He's staying here for another week he says. Apparently it's going to take him at least five to 10 years to become the poker player that he wants to be and he has to put in his time.

Picturing him sitting at some nondescript table, surrounded by amateurs, young and old, striving to get to where he's already been it finally hits me. That's the American dream. It isn't so much the realization of the dream, whatever that dream may be, but the pursuit of it. No matter how many times you find it, you always want to find it again.

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