The Ghosts of the Rio

Poker

Do you believe in ghosts? I’m far too close to the rational end of the spectrum to place too much stock in paranormal beliefs, but there is a specific type of ghost I do believe in. There’s an old Jewish proverb that says everyone dies twice: when we die ourselves, and when the last person who knew us dies. As we go through life creating our own story we intersect the lives of others playing small or big roles in each other’s stories. Most of these are transient roles associated with a specific time and a place, and we often don’t notice they’ve ended until long after they have. That’s when they become ghosts: spectral presences that linger only in our memories of particular times and places, unchanging, fading and fully realized.

The Rio and the WSOP house many such ghosts for me. I first went there in 2008, and every year since I met some people for the first time, and others for the last. Players who shone as bright as stars but no longer show up. Some dead, some others departed for greener pastures, most sadly put out to pasture by the cruel meritocracy that is poker.

Some of these ghosts were never even there. My first year there was an unmitigated disaster financially. My second was turning out the same way until my sister-in-law convinced my wife that the reason for this was I only wanted to succeed for selfish reasons, and if I changed this, results would change. Again, I’m far too rational or prosaic to subscribe to this kind of belief system, but happy wife happy life I can get behind so I agreed to commit a portion of any profits to charity. Results did not change and charity didn’t get a cent from me at the end of another barren summer at the tables in the desert. My sister-in-law sadly succumbed shortly afterward to cancer it turned out homeopathy and other alternative medicines were no match for, and she became a friendly cheerful ghost in my mind with a hotchpotch system of beliefs I could never get behind but thought none the less of her for espousing them with genuine passion.

This year we all knew it would be the last at the Rio. The home of all the WSOPs I’ve attended was dying on its feet with all the dignity of an incontinent old man in the form of exploding urinals and horrible transmissible diseases and was about to become the biggest ghost of all. We players responded for the most part with the indulgence and patience we uniquely afford to the dying, thinking back to happier times, and the gallows humor of we are all in this together and we will look back and laugh.

One common trope was “the thing I’ll miss most about the Rio is….”. I tweeted that mine was the Gold Coast. For most of my WSOPs, I’ve stopped at the considerably cheaper and more cheerful option across the road from the Rio. As such, I’ve walked the short distance between the two hotels across the car park more often than I’ve walked the similar distance from my house in Dublin to the nearest train station.

This year, a constant staple of each walk was an elderly homeless man. He was a cheerful eccentric presence who never hassled for change or anything else; instead, he just nodded in acknowledgment every time I made eye contact and said something cryptic like “I may be crazy but I’m not stupid”. Every day’s saying was different like he was channeling fortune cookies from any of the excellent nearby Chinese restaurants. I found his constancy oddly comforting, and as I walked from the Gold Coast to Rio for what I knew to be the last time in my life, I remembered the ghost of my sister-in-law. The memory inspired me to approach my homeless buddy and offer him a banknote, not without a little trepidation since he’d never asked for or hinted at donations. What was to say it would be even welcome? Thankfully it was, and he responded with a smile and a simple “God bless you, sir”. I smiled in relief and disappeared into the Rio for the last time.

Twelve hours later I found myself on the final table of my final event ever there. When I bust in ninth, I thought again of my homeless buddy, and the ghost of my sister in law, and smiled as I imagined her telling me if I’d only been more generous with the amount of my donation, I’d surely have shipped the bracelet. With that, I walked back to the Gold Coast for the final time and ate a final Ping Pang Pong with a friend almost certainly destined to be a future ghost in my memory.

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