Lee Jones: The WSOP rises to its feet, and to its best self

Lee Jones poker writer
Lee Jones
Posted on: June 12, 2023 07:16 PDT

It's been almost 30 years since I attended my first World Series of Poker.

It's been through innumerable modifications since then, including two venue upgrades. And on the whole, I'd say the changes have been for the better. Of course, I'm not referring to the substitution of $5 bananas for a sumptuous (and free) player's buffet. But in the important ways, the WSOP has truly improved.

First, and most importantly, it's bigger. That is, more people are playing poker. Let's stop and emphasize that: more people are playing poker. If there were nothing else to celebrate, and that's not at all the case, this would be worthy of rejoicing.

Poker is more diverse. It's less male, less white, younger, less straight, all of it. This old straight white guy couldn't be more tickled. Diversity makes this world go round, and because the poker tent has gotten wider, the game has improved exponentially.

Another important way the WSOP has changed is that the "W" has truly come to life. When they held the first couple of WSOPs back in the early 70's, I don't know that there was a single player from outside the United States. Now, players from all over the globe come to battle, and routinely take bracelets home with them. In short, the World Series of Poker is a hell of a lot more global than the World Series of baseball (and I'd say that right to Brad Willis's face).

Which brings me to a moment last week that caused me to write this piece...

I had abdicated my usual responsibilities to fly down to Vegas and play cash at the WSOP. I could play cash 20 minutes from my house, but I wanted to get coffee with a few friends, be able to play until 2:00am without feeling guilty, and mostly just marinate in the buzz.

So there I was, sitting in a perfectly fine $2/5 game at Green table #262, when Jack Effel stood up in the middle of the room and made an announcement. It was during a break in the tournament action, and they were having the bracelet ceremony for Alexandre Vuilleumier, a Swiss player who had won Event #2, the $25k high-roller. After a few introductory words, Jack said, "Now would you all please rise for the playing of the Swiss national anthem."

All my years of being around poker and poker players told me that this would never work out. Poker players were too self-absorbed, and couldn't possibly stop telling bad beat stories for three minutes to...

The entire room rose to its feet. Our cash games – cash games – stopped! Our dealer wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do, but eventually she got it that, yes, we were going to stop playing $2/5 no-limit hold'em to celebrate Alexandre's win.

The Swiss nation anthem played, and the room was as quiet as you'd expect a major league baseball stadium to be during the Star Spangled Banner. Then it ended, and the room erupted in applause for the newest bracelet winner.

Me, I was grinning ear-to-ear. If I needed any further proof that poker has "grown up," this was it. That the entire ballroom full of people could stop thinking about big blinds and Twitter feeds for a few minutes to celebrate a massive accomplishment.

As to the national anthem thing, I'm not sure about that. I'd mentioned it to Matt Berkey, who said, "I don't get the national anthem. It's not like he's representing Switzerland – it's not the Olympics." Matt's point is inarguable, but I guess they had to find something that could hold the room quiet long enough to let the moment settle in.

The room did remain quiet, and the moment did settle in. Alexandre Vuilleumier, he'll remember those three minutes for the rest of his life.

And during those three minutes, all the beefs and Twitter battles didn't matter. Nobody told bad beat stories. The cash games paused without the floor falling out from under us.

We were a community of poker players, celebrating one of the best, and I was damned proud to be there, and to be part of that community.