LAS VEGAS -- Traveling with
That's what happens when
"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
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
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
"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
Somehow I end up placing third in the tournament behind eventual winner
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,
"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.