Our group gathers at the Gold Strike not long before sign-up begins for the first big no-limit event in the tournament, a $500 buy-in contest to be held the next day at noon. Thanks to the proliferation of poker shows on television (ESPN, Fox Sports, even the Travel Channel), similar events across the country are drawing overflow crowds, so we want to get in line early.
There are six on the trip besides me: The Raccoon, still asleep at the hotel, as it was only 2 p.m.; Señor Cowboy, a salesman for an Internet concern; Sweater Vest, a lawyer; Dr. Real Estate, an expert in price per square foot; Vino Corleone, a wine-store owner; and High Roller, a partner in a law firm who doubles as Dr. Real Estate's father. We arrive en masse at the top of the escalator like three pairs of Raymond and Charlie Babbitt from Rain Man, ready to take down the house. We're met by a line of more than 300 people. (I count them. Twice. Seriously.) Only one thing to do. Get in line, wait three hours, and be overserved by cocktail waitresses.
High Roller, who usually pays underlings to wait in line for him, grows antsy. A gentleman in line tells us he's a good backgammon player. (Many top backgammon players are also top poker pros.) High Roller says he'd love to play. The man suggests High Roller play his friend, whom he promptly introduces. High Roller declines. "I don't know him, but I know of him," High Roller says. "One of the five best backgammon players in the world." As always, High Roller has made a good lay down.
Just before we reach the front of the queue, a man approaches me and asks if I will sign him up, as he doesn't want to wait in line.
"I'm afraid I can't do that, sir," I say. "It would be wrong."
"I'll give ya 50 bucks."
Up $50, and I haven't even played a hand yet. Sweet.
After we sign up, we visit High Roller's palatial suite at the Horseshoe (high ceilings, lots of marble, flat-screen TV on a swivel next to the whirlpool tub). He and the Horseshoe's VP of Operations, Ed Farrell, look out the window at the river. They explain that the casinos aren't much different from the riverboat (really, river-barge) casinos in other cities in Mississippi, because they're technically on the river. The Horseshoe, in the event of a flood, could float, Farrell assures us.
He invites us to continue our conversation over T-bones at Jack Binion's Steak House downstairs, unconcerned that I'm wearing a football jersey and Sweater Vest is, well, in a sweater vest. Over wine and medium-rare meat, Farrell answers all of our questions (worst behavior? biggest spender? do you dip the lobster tail in butter, or the other way around?). He tells us about the area, an agricultural center that began casinoing in 1992. He patiently explains how this tiny region of fewer than 20,000 residents draws more than 10,000 people a day to the Horseshoe - north of four million visitors a year.
Dr. Real Estate, perhaps bored, mentions that Clonie Gowen, the beautiful poker pro from Dallas who sometimes graces our little game, is on her way to Tunica for the tourneys.
"You got her number?" High Roller asks. Four cellphones shoot toward him. He grabs one, which is already ringing.
"Clonie, darlin', are you coming here?" he asks. They've never met. Doesn't matter when you're High Roller. "When do you land? I'll send a limo to pick you up." Which would have been very classy and cool, if we weren't all giggling and high-fiving each other.