LAS VEGAS - The World Series of Poker Main Event gets underway in a few days - the American dream compressed into a week, where one might turn $10,000 into $10 million - with the magnificent and surreal sight of a football field of card players filling the ballrooms at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
Frankly - and I say this with equal parts affection and bemusement - it reminds me a bit of the dog shows I used to frequent.
Hidden in broad daylight, the poker-tournament and dog-show communities have a lot in common: They are an odd lot engaged in an odd pursuit, they are often obsessed in their efforts, they can walk around for days on end oblivious to the outside world.
How isolated and detached are my poker colleagues at times?
Coming to Las Vegas every summer for the last decade and spending many days in the Rio card room for 12 hours or more, I often feel cut off from reality. There are no windows and no clocks; it's as if time has stopped. I often say that we are so immersed in full houses and flush draws here, Soviet troops* could march into Chicago and none of us would know it until we drove to Dodge City.
*I know many readers will be quick to point out that Soviet troops could not march anywhere because there is no Soviet Union anymore. But most of us passing untold hours on the felt are unaware that the Soviet Union was dissolved - who knows? - 10 or 20 years ago.
(By the way, Cold War aside, I'm feeling quite a chill within our own borders lately: President Obama essentially says no to online poker and yes to online snooping. Geez. Poker would seem to be exercising our freedoms and surveillance would seem to be eroding our freedoms, unless Couch Slouch is missing something here.)
Before poker dominated my nights, dogs - and their owners - used to command my weekends.
As a child, I traveled throughout the Mid-Atlantic region as our Siberian husky, Tuffy the Snow Prince, competed in dog shows. My father never hired a professional dog handler - I assume to save money - and showed Tuffy himself. Tuffy never complained, but this was the equivalent of, say, Wilbur Post saddling up to ride Seattle Slew.
I loved the shows, but even as a sixth- and seventh-grader, I noticed that these people are weird; if you saw Christopher Guest's 2000 film "Best in Show," you witnessed a great comic chronicling of the dog-show fraternity. Their entire lives seemed wrapped up in these creatures - on any given Saturday, their dog pooping in the show ring could ruin the week, and beyond.
Anyway, Tuffy had decent results, so one year my father decided to take a shot at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show - that's right, The Big Show. They went up without the rest of the family. And they came back with their tails between their legs. Tuffy might've been overwhelmed by the bright lights/big city setting at Madison Square Garden, and my dad probably was overwhelmed by all the quarters he needed for Manhattan parking meters.
Westminster, of course, is the canine equivalent to the World Series of Poker Main Event, the grandest stage for the "sport." The most recent Westminster attracted 2,721 four-legged entrants; last year's Main Event attracted 6,598 two-legged entrants.
I never play the Main Event - though we say, "Anyone can play, anyone can win," that doesn't include me; I am what is known as "dead money," with large ears - but I wander the poker floor courtesy of ESPN, observing my poker comrades, and let me tell you: