I see England, I see France: The 2004 WPT Grand Prix de Paris
Erick "E-Dog" Lindgren and I headed out of Turning Stone, which had generously comped my room after I showered their craps table with chips in colors they didn't even know they had, and we set the Neverlost in the silver Taurus for the easy drive back to Syracuse airport. E-Dog, one of the nicest guys you'd never want at your poker table, was as bright and cheery at 8 a.m. as any other time I've seen him. We got to the airport in plenty of time and camped out at the gate until it was time to board. We crammed into the Embraer regional jet and hopped back to Newark, where we separated to check in at our separate counters: E-Dog to Delta on the extreme right of the terminal and me to British Airways on the extreme left. We met back in the middle a minute later after ascertaining that nobody was working at either airline until four hours before flight time. E-Dog suggested getting a day room at the airport Marriott so I tagged along and we walked across the parking lot, which was clearly not made for walking across since we had to portage our luggage over several fences. With a little room service and high-speed Internet access time flew by and before we knew it we were portaging back to the terminal. I said goodbye to E-Dog and headed to the British Airways counter.
Several agents were working on the economy-class line but I stood in the empty First Class queue for five minutes before anyone acknowledged me. Then a harried man, not particularly friendly, checked me in and directed me to the lounge. There were two security checkpoints. The first, simply to check if you belonged in that concourse, had no priority line and I waited several minutes to get past it. The second, the familiar luggage-screening checkpoint, had a priority queue but the TSA officer directing traffic consistently directed the First Class passengers to the longest screening line, which had 20 people in it, instead of the short one, which had five. Once at the front I breezed through and headed for the luxury of the British Airways First Class lounge. Unfortunately there wasn't one and the Business Class lounge was undergoing renovations. It had no Internet access and, like all airline clubs at Newark, no free local calls due to an inscrutable edict form the New Jersey Port Authority. I was, however, able to pick up two bars from the WiFi in the concourse so for $6.95 I was able to get my Internet fix for the couple hours till boarding. When it came time I was escorted to the gate and settled into one of the First Class cubicles in the 777 to London. I got a Johnny Walker Blue Label on the rocks and perused the menu. We took off on time and I tested out the seat's ability to convert to a completely flat bed although I didn't plan to sleep on this flight since my plan was to stay on Vegas time the whole trip.
Dinner was a decent steak washed down with the 1995 Ch. Lynch-Bages, one of my favorite second-tier Bordeaux and a good year. The six-hour flight passed quickly as I studied Howard Lederer's "Secrets of Hold 'Em" DVD in order to learn his secrets. We landed in London and I had only 10 minutes to enjoy the Concorde Room, formerly the posh holding area for Concorde passengers but, now that the speedbird was defunct, available to all First Class passengers. I went to the boarding gate, where they told me I was supposed to have a ticket inside the pocket of my boarding pass since it didn't say e-ticket. I said I was pretty sure it was an e-ticket so they put my in the penalty box and typed for five minutes before clearing me to go. The flight to Paris had the usual European business-class configuration of three-and-two slightly wider seats. They served a standard breakfast, which I picked at, and soon we were on the ground in Paris. Charles de Gaulle airport is universally despised for many things, including inadequate signage. I saw one sign pointing to the RER train to Paris and walked in that direction for about two miles, passing six out-of-order ATMs on the way, until I finally found the train station. I bought a ticket for €7.95 and made the easy trip to the George V Metro stop, where it was less than a five-minute walk to the Westin Prince de Galles. I had emailed them that I would be arriving early and would be sleeping during the day so they had my room ready. They showed me to a quiet, drab standard room on the second floor, which they called the first floor, with a courtyard view. I bought a WiFi card at the business center for an outrageous €140 for the week, piled chairs against the drapes to shut out the light, and crashed. It sure was a long way to Europe.
To Market, to Market
I awoke shortly after six local time and headed to the Aviation Club de France (ACF) for a party thrown by UltimateBet, at which site I had won my entry into the World Poker Tour event that started the following day. I found my buddies Jim "Krazy Kanuck" Worth and Paul "Beanie" Nobles as well as some other UB satellite winners and Jack McClelland of the Bellagio poker room. There were a few artistic if mysterious hors d'oeuvres and a selection of alcoholic beverages but I had to ask for water, which was apparently not popular in France. I had brushed up my French and ordered a café americain at the bar since it was morning for me. None of us was particularly enamored of the hors d'oeuvres so after the party we walked to the Prince de Galles and asked the concierge if he could fix us up, a party of 11, at one of the best trendy restaurants in Paris. Amazingly, he succeeded in getting us into Market, celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's new place off the Champs Elysées. We walked over there and were shown to a big egg-shaped table in a private room. I was now ready to echo every review I had heard of the Prince de Galles: the building itself was aged well past American standards of acceptability for a fine hotel but the staff was friendly and helpful.
Service at Market was slow to nonexistent, very much like Vongerichten's Las Vegas restaurant, Prime. The food was terrific, though, and we had a few bottles of the house Bordeaux, a light but delicious 2000. Krazy Kanuck and Beanie were there with their hot babes as were a few of the other UB winners, poker celebrity Clonie Gowan, and east-coast attorney Russell Rosenblum, finalist at both the WPT and WSOP Championships. America can rightly lay claim to world leadership in many ways but no one can touch France when it comes to their specialty: overcharging. Because we went easy on the wine, l'addition came to only €85 each. We walked back to the club, said hi to some friends including E-Dog, and then Russell, Mike "Kazoo" Keohan, and I walked back to the Four Seasons George V, where Russell was staying. I had to see an €890/night room so we went up. It was far nicer than the Prince, almost up to American standards. We chewed the fat awhile and then I returned to my room next door to sleep up for the big day.
Weak field? What weak field?
All the top pros had told me what a great tournament this was because it was such a weak field. Apparently, though, word had got out and every top pro in the world was here to take advantage of it, resulting in one of the toughest fields I'd ever faced. There were 212 starters ponying up €10,000 each. It wasn't clear how much was taken out for juice although I thought it was about 4.5%. Although the tournament area was non-smoking, the common areas of the ACF were choked with smoke at all times. The club had installed air conditioning since last year but it was largely inadequate and most of the rooms were uncomfortably hot even in the mild, rainy weather we were having. The seat drawing was done by fishing cards out of a bowl with nothing written down, inviting cheating by trading seat assignments. I drew table 27, seat one and ended up with two of the toughest pros on my left: John "JJ" Juanda in seat two and Barry "Spock" Greenstein in seat three. Seat four was Irish pro Padraig Parkinson, known to viewers of Late Night Poker. Seat five was James Vogl, who won the first televised event at this year's WSOP. Seat eight was Bill Chen, a respected Internet player. It was not a particularly easy table. I got bullied by JJ, didn't catch any flops, and was down to 6600 at the end of the first level from my starting 10,000.
Now Sammy Farha, runner-up to Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 WSOP, sat down in seat nine and Jack McClelland took seat 10 when the players there busted out. I was able to take a couple pots from the aggressive Sammy and chipped back up to 9475, when we finally got a break after three hours of play. When we got back JJ busted Barry and moments later Barry's ex-girlfriend Mimi Tran sat down in seat seven after the player there busted. She didn't last long, though, because Sammy broke her and was accumulating a nice stack. Although we had never played together before, Sammy and I were already on a first-name basis. Every time I played back at his bluff and he had to fold he told me, in a very friendly way, how much I now owed him. I smiled back and assured him I'd give him a crack at my chips. I had 8675 at the dinner break.
I ate in the club restaurant with Krazy Kanuck and Beanie and their hot babes. I thought it was comped but it turned out they charged us €60 each for the dinner with no wine. I wouldn't be coming back here real soon, I thought. Service was almost nonexistent and we resorted to begging other tables for pieces of fruit.
When I returned I won some chips from JJ when I limped on the small blind with Ace-Trey of Spades. I expected him to raise but he didn't. The Flop came with two Sixes and two Spades. I bet 500, he raised, and I moved in. He couldn't call and I was up to 13,750. I won another small pot and had 15,800 when they moved me to balance the tables.
I was now at table 28, seat nine. English pro Gary Bush was at my left in seat 10. Elie "Rocky" Marciano took seat two soon after I sat down. The obnoxious angle-shooter Tony G was in seat three, bragging about his chips. My arch-nemesis David Singer, this time wearing only seven silver rings, was next to him in seat four. Seat five was a UK pro I didn't know. Steve "Z" Zolotow had seat six. The fearsome Gus Hansen was in seat seven with a big stack and in seat eight was Caprice, the spokesmodel for Paradise Poker, who was entered in the tournament as a publicity stunt. She had no idea how to play and looked miserable.
Gus and David, predictably, raised my blind most every turn around the table. Finally I had a Pair of Tens against Singer and called his 1400. The flop came Jack high and I check-called for 2000, figuring I had the best hand and he would bluff again on the Turn. An Ace came, though, and when he bet half the pot, 3500, I chickened out and folded. Then I picked up Aces in early position. Everybody folded except the small blind, who called. The flop came three small Spades and neither of my Aces was a Spade. I bet 2700 and he check-raised me all in. I figured him for a Pair and a Flush draw so I called. Unfortunately he turned over Ace-Jack of Spades and I was drawing virtually dead. Tony G, delighting in the misery of others, cried out, "The Nuts!" My Aces were cracked and I was out of the contest, finishing about 105th and missing day two by just a few minutes. I returned to the hotel and crashed.
Stuck in Paris
I tried to reach British Airways to change my flight but their world-renowned customer service didn't include being open for business on Sunday. I had my €28/day Internet access, though, so I played on the Internet a little and then headed over to the club, where I met Russell. He had just busted out and was ready for dinner so we went to Le Cinq, one of the top restaurants in town and conveniently located at his hotel. We ordered the "light" tasting menu and a bottle of the 1999 Ch. Lynch-Bages, which looked like the best value under €200. Service started well then flagged as they rushed us through dessert while we still had wine on the table and then abandoned us for 45 minutes with empty water glasses and coffee cups until we asked for l'addition. The food was good but not enough to fill up Russell, a devoted eater. Dinner came to an outrageous €458. Service was included and we saw no reason to leave anything extra.
The next day we dined with Howard "Bub" (The Professor) Lederer and his hot babe Suzy, her friend, and Steve "Z" Zolotow at a nice Italian place, Casa di Delfo. Z had another nickname, "The Bald Eagle," but I didn't think it was good karma for me to be calling anyone else bald so I just called him Z. I had tuna carpaccio and a nice veal dish with lemon sauce. Suzy ordered the wine, two Bordeaux: a nice St.-Emillion to start, which didn't overwhelm me with Merlot content, and then with no prompting the Ch. Lynch-Bages 1997. It was all Lynch-Bages all the time. Overpriced Italian food was cheaper than overpriced French food, but not much. I finally reached British Airways, which informed me that is was not possible to change my flight as they were fully booked. I watched the tournament whittle down to the final six.
On finals day I went over to the club to say hi to Shana and root with the crowd against Tony G, who apparently wasn't a bad poker player despite his obnoxious antics. The cashier's cage had been robbed at gunpoint at 7:30 that morning but no one was hurt and no money was taken from customers and Bruno, the manager, seemed unperturbed. The smoke in the club was overwhelming and I left with Beanie and his hot babe for dinner at what many consider the best restaurant in France, Taillevent. We were escorted into the beautiful upstairs dining room by the owner and subjected to cigar smoke from the only other table, also poker players from the ACF. We ordered the more expensive of the two tasting menus and a cheap 1999 Bordeaux, Ch. Brown, which was fine but not worth the €60 they charged for it. The six-course meal was creative and delicious. They served the foie gras course after the fish, which I thought was not a bad idea as foie gras tended to stanch the appetite. There was a cheese course and then two desserts, which as a rule I don't eat but they were included. Once again they shoved the dessert at us before we had finished the wine. They failed to ask us if we wanted coffee or an after-dinner drink and when I asked the second time for coffee apologized for it by comping us snifters of the house cognac. Dinner came to €633. The service was included and once again we saw no reason to add to it. I thought the dinner much like Las Vegas's Renoir if it didn't have a non-smoking section and cost twice as much. We returned to the club just in time to see the winning hand. Mike Sexton toasted the winner with Champagne, apparently having lost the awkward sponsorship deal with Budweiser. Many of the players hung out in the thick cloud of smoke and we partied at the bar awhile.
Au revoir, but not any time soon
I arranged with Steve "Brec" Brecher, who made the final table at this year's Bellagio WPT Championship but resists all attempts to come up with a more interesting nickname, to share a taxi to the airport the next morning. I paid the hotel bill, which included almost €200 for one room-service snack and assorted items from the mini-bar. It was a quick drive and I got to Charles de Gaulle about 90 minutes before I needed to. I practiced my French one last time, asking the guy at the information booth, "Ou est British Airways." He rattled off something in French that I had no hope of understanding but pointed to the left so I went there. There didn't seem to be any check-in counter, just a queue with a sign stating, "ticket sales only" so I went to the self-service kiosk, which demanded the credit card I used to pay for the ticket. I got it right on the third try but the machine printed two blank boarding passes with a "void" watermark on them. I cried for help until a BA staffer came and after 10 minutes of typing in the back room they returned with my boarding passes. I exited passport control and lugged my luggage up a flight of stairs to the shared business-class lounge after ascertaining that there was no elevator, at least none that worked after the recent terminal collapse. There was fish-netting on the ceilings, presumably to mitigate future collapses. I made myself a café americain from the machine and kept awake until boarding time. Just as I was leaving Vince Van Patten, tired as I was, walked in. I told him I'd see him at the Mirage next week and headed to the gate. The flight was uneventful and they served a very nice snack of shrimp salad on the 40-minute flight, which I washed down with a screw-top Bordeaux.
I finally had time to enjoy the First Class lounge at Heathrow but I was so exhausted I don't know how much I appreciated it. I found the ubiquitous Ch. Lynch-Bages, the 1995 again, and poured myself a few glasses while I awaited the boarding announcement. I left at the first announcement, which was a bit too early because there was a formidable queue in the business-class line when I arrived. I got on, turned left, and settled into the cubicle.
It was 7 a.m. Seattle time and I told the steward I wanted to sleep right away so he brought me pajamas and a Scotch. I donned the blindfold provided in the amenity kit and got a nice five hours in before awakening. I watched the rest of The Professor's videos, had a delicious Indonesian chicken dish in honor of John Juanda, and before I knew it we were on the ground in Seattle. I called Shortstack, who squealed with delight and came to pick me up in her sparkling clean black T-Bird. We had less than 24 hours before we flew to Vegas for the next event.