Stinky's in charge of the 2002 Soiree

Some years ago, Matt had an idea to share our Vegas adventures with the readers of the Big Empire and CheapoVegas websites. He suggested we invite a group of regular readers to join us for cocktails at the Gold Spike, so they could see first-hand that we weren't completely making up our stories of the place. The response was better than we hoped. About ten folks showed up, we had a few drinks, a few laughs, tried to steal a Corvette, and went home happy. The next year Matt upped the ante -- adding a penny slot tournament to the cocktail soiree. As expected, the prospect of a roll of free pennies pushed the attendance numbers up. Over the course of the weekend, we met somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty readers, along with a couple wandering local drunks. By now, the event had the feel of an annual tradition, and being the kind of guy who likes to outdo himself, Matt suggested all kinds of improvements for the ensuing years. What began as a simple get-together had transformed into a full day of activities -- from the poker tournament in the morning to the afternoon ice cream social, all the way through the night, with stops along the way for cocktails, slots, trays piled with glasses of gooey shrimp cocktail, and plenty of booze.

The crowds grew in direct proportion to the amount of organizing required. It was no longer just a matter of fretting over whether the security guards at the Gold Spike would send a few folks walking because of boisterous laughter. Now we had people actually planning their vacations to coincide with our daylong party. They were counting on us. This was high-pressure stuff. Matt knew he had created something special, and did the only thing he could: he had a baby and bailed out, leaving the whole mess in my lap.

Saturday Morning -- Trial By Fire

One of the big advantages of not sharing a room with your obnoxious friends at the Gold Spike is that there is almost no chance you'll be woken up by a war cry and a flying pillow in your face. One of the big disadvantages is that it's very little fun to let out a wild whoop and leap on the extra bed when there's nobody in it sleeping off the effects of a few too many cans of Heineken at the El Cortez. Maybe a little fun, but after about six jumps, I had definitely had enough.

Phil, Ghizal, Mike and Steve met me in the lobby of the Spike. The night before, I had begged off getting pie at 3 a.m. after a losing craps session. My heart wasn't in it, as I was exhausted from a long flight and figured I had better get plenty of rest if I was to live up to my title as cruise director. I knew Lauren Tewes wouldn't be at the Gold Spike diner in the middle of the night just before the Love Boat left port, so neither would I.

We were headed for the Main Street Station buffet, to fuel up for the day. As always, the selections were plentiful and the food relatively fresh, but I could hardly taste anything, as my mind was focussed on my tasks for the day. I had stopped in at Bininon's Horseshoe on the way to breakfast, to reconfirm our reservation of two tables at the poker room for the 2nd Annual Solar System Series of Poker. I was armed with a notebook, a manila folder with some papers inside, a wallet full of 20s, and even a verbal confirmation from some guy named George or something like that. I approached the poker room manager and asked if the tables for our tournament were all ready. He gave me a blank look.

"You're from the Cheapo-what now?"

"Cheapo Vegas. We have a poker tournament here today."

"First I've heard of it."

This was not promising. I told him that George-what's-his-face knew all about it, and wondered if I could speak with him. This was the right thing to say. The man in charge of the poker room at Binion's is George Fisher. Steve, Mike and I were escorted to his office, where we were introduced. The poker room manager explained who we were and why we were there. George gave us all a blank look.

"The Cheapo-what?"

"Cheapo Vegas. They say they have a poker tournament here today."

"First I've heard of it."

I stepped in and told him how I had spoken to his assistant, who assured me that for a $10/person fee, we had been promised a couple tables for an hour or so in the room to hold our tournament. George looked at me with a face that said, "Well, why didn't you tell me you had money and you wanted to give it to me?" and smiled. It would be no problem, he said.

This organizing business wouldn't be too hard after all.

I left brunch early, so I would have time to fetch the box of SSSOP t-shirts in my room and make it back to the Horseshoe to be sure George and his managers hadn't already forgotten about the tournament. Not only had they not forgotten, they were busy making announcements over the P.A. system that players for the "Big Empire Series of Poker" should report to the poker room immediately. Close enough. I greeted some early arrivals and started collecting entry fees. As the crowd grew, so did the confusion, but we managed to get everyone seated at the two tables, and figure out more or less the structure of the tournament.

The poker got underway and chips began changing hands. I was trying to play my hands, count the entry money, decide how to award the prizes and talk to a few people I had never met before and others I hadn't seen since last year. It was not going well. I would say my poker playing suffered from the commotion, but that wouldn't be completely true. My poker playing suffered much more from the fact that I'm bad at poker.

We started out with two tables of 10 people each, and the plan was to condense to a single table as soon as the first 10 had run out of chips. Our first SSSOP took just over an hour from start to finish, so as the clock ticked and only a few players had been eliminated after about 45 minutes, I began to sweat. I had told George, after all, that we'd only need the tables for an hour, maybe an hour and a half if something very unusual happened. He came down from his office to see how we were progressing. He watched the game for a while, whispered into his manager's ear, then approached me. It felt like the jig was up. The day had already started and I was facing my first failure. George put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You know, if you can get another entry fee from everyone, we can play another tournament when this one finishes up."

I was stunned. They actually enjoyed having us there! Or at least having our money. I took this news as a good sign and got back to trying to survive the poker game.

Despite my best efforts, I was eliminated right before we condensed to a single table. I was all in at my table, while two other players had all their chips in the pot at the other. It was a simple matter of timing that kept me out. Sure, I lost, but had I lost approximately 30 seconds later, I could have been a member of the top 10.

Instead, we were left with a top nine -- an elite crowd, led by some wily poker experts like Scott Dummler and Mieko Sunbury, along with some lucky novices like David Feldman, Mike Ho and most notably, Ghizal Hasan.

Mike went out first, followed by David. Soon after, Bill Thompson -- a late entry into the action who did quite well for himself -- Andrew Skier and Phil Sunbury had to leave their seats. Mieko, Scott, Ghizal, and Bill Barstow remained locked in tight battle, with money changing hands, but no clear winner in sight.

Mieko went down first, on a heartbreaker of a hand. Scott beat her out with a pair of Aces and pair of Kings. I had my money on Mieko, because I figured her unique combination of actual poker skill and innocent-looking face -- all big cheeks and smiles -- seemed virtually unbeatable.

Bill was the next of Scott's victims, losing on a hand where he needed a couple Queens to make his full house. Unfortunately, Scott was holding one of them the whole time. Personally, I think the free booze is what did Bill in. He was drinking like it was his bachelor party, and not the most important day of cards in his life.

Ghizal had previously gone up big when he pulled out 4 Queens, so he had enough stake to make up for his amateur play. Mieko described Ghizal as dangerous, because he seemed to know just enough to play the hands fairly well, but not so much that you could get a read on what he was going to do. He stayed in on a hand where he ended up winning with a pair of 7s and a 10 kicker, and the general feeling was that he wasn't bluffing so much as not really paying attention. I've known Ghizal for years, and will never cease to be amazed by the depths of his trickery.

But a great outfit always trumps a sneaky disposition, and the dapper Scotty Dummler, decked out in his finest freebie El Cortez jacket and pants tight enough to fit a junkie supermodel, won the prize with a flush. I presented him with the $200 top prize, along with the gold-plated bracelet graciously donated by Lucky Ned and delivered, once again, by Andrew Skier.

Scott looked to be in a daze of joy and excitement at winning. He turned to me and said, "I only wish Matt was here." I wondered if he meant that he wanted to share his good fortune with a friend, and he said, "Hell no. That lanky bastard's been bragging about winning for the past year, and I want to shove this bracelet under his pock-marked nose and laugh!"

I was just glad that he didn't mean that Matt did a better job organizing the tournament than me.

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