Any doubts that the second edition of the World Poker Tour’s Premier Meet-Up Game wouldn’t live up to the event’s “electric” debut of last year were put to bed. And they were put to bed early.
Well before the call time of 9 a.m. (a nearly unheard-of start time for poker players), The Wynn Poker Room in Las Vegas was abuzz with players from all walks of life who were ready to not just play with some of their favorite poker celebrities and influencers, but also earn a shot at a free seat into the upcoming $10K WPT World Championship at Wynn Las Vegas.
In short: It was a zoo.
“This is definitely exciting,” said WPT ambassador Brad Owen as he made his way into the poker room before Shuffle Up and Deal. “The day hasn’t even officially started yet and the room is absolutely packed. This type of energy really rejuvenates me and keeps me motivated to keep playing.”
Brad Owen’s Meet-Up Game co-creator and fellow WPT ambassador Andrew Neeme was quick to agree. The vibe of the event and that kind of energy it radiated simply doesn’t get old.
“It’s tough for something like this to get old because of how much energy there is in the room at 9 a.m.. To get all the support that we have in this room now and throughout the day from all these awesome creators that are great people and also the faces that will be popping in later like Phil Ivey and Gus Hansen,” Neeme said.
For many of Neeme and Owen’s Meet-Up Games, it’s just the two of them on the road. But for the Premier Meet-Up game, the duo was joined by an avalanche of poker notables including headliners Phil Ivey and Gus Hansen, WPT Global ambassadors Ethan ‘Rampage’ Yau and Jonathan ‘Apestyles’ Van Fleet, as well as WPT Talent in Lynn Gilmartin, Tony Dunst, Matt Savage, and veteran WPT broadcaster Vince Van Patten among many others.
By the time Matt Savage invited the ambassadors to take their seats, all 28 tables of the Wynn Poker room were in action. One of those players getting in the mix was Las Vegas resident Alex Gennett who showed up at roughly 7 a.m. to ensure that she had a seat in the game.
“It just sounded like fun,” Gennett said. “I like to play poker and this felt like this was another way to engage in the game and meet people that might come out above just the regular poker players.
Gennett, a player of 12 years said that while, of course, she’d love to win a tournament ticket it was the community of the Meet-Up Game that got her out of bed so early.
“[It was] the whole community. I listen to a lot of poker podcasts and I just really enjoy it. I just think it will be fun no matter what,” she said. “You don’t see that many female poker players that play all the time so it’s nice to meet [those that come out.]”
And also: “To sit at a table with Phil Ivey would be amazing.”
At 7 a.m. one could walk up and get seated immediately. By 8:15 you were one of the last to grab a seat. An hour into the event, the list to be seated was more than 80 players deep and according to a member of the Wynn floor staff, only two people found a seat during that time. The game was going off.
Aside from the thrill of battling against the pros and podcasters they listen to, players had plenty of promotions to fight for. Every time they got all in against an ambassador, they received a ticket for an end-of-day drawing in which four players received a $1,100 tournament ticket to the WPT Prime Championship and one lucky player pulled a $10,400 ticket to the World Championship.
“The atmosphere is unlike any other at these Meet-Up Games, everyone is really excited to play,” said Ethan ‘Rampage’ Yau. “It’s not your typical show up to a poker room when everyone’s quiet, headphones in. It’s a good change, it’s fun, it’s relaxing.”
Having Rampage at the Wynn in any capacity shows the effort that was put in to the event. He was on-site early after he appeared in a massive nosebleed game the night before on Hustler Casino Live. Yau was in the midst of some severe swings, (both monetarily and in stakes) but he was in good spirits throughout the morning nonetheless.
“Last night I played the biggest I’ve ever played in terms of stakes and percentage of myself,” Yau said. “And here today I’m walking the room because I lost three buy-ins ($1,500) in, like five hands, so now I’m just saying hi to people. But poker’s poker and I’m happy to be here. Happy to play.”
He wasn’t the only one, it didn’t take long for the room to get wild. Only Friends Podcast host Conrad Simpson was energizing his tables, running a little too pure for those looking to stack him, picking up quads and a straight flush in over course of an hour. Tony Dunst was leading the ticket giveaway as well with his table continually in uproad as stacks were passed back and forth.
“I’ve been all-in more hands than I’ve folded,” said Dunst, noting that they’d given away about 15 tickets in roughly 20 minutes. “The players are splashing around the right amount. They’re picking some good hands to go with…gambling with some pairs, getting in there with ace high. Just look around, we’ve got [energy drinks] right next to you. Their caffeinated, they’re ready to go.”
Dunst’s co-commentator Vince Van Patten was at one of the tables in the back of the room with Wynn high-stakes regular Boston Jimmy and they had the entire table playing the stand-up game on top of all the action.
The temperature in the room got turned up a notch an hour into the morning when, side by side, Phil Ivey and Gus Hansen walked down the long hall of the Wynn and made their arrival. As soon as the pair hit the entrance to the room, fans were lining up asking for photos and a few fans even produced Hansen’s book Every Hand Revealed to get it signed by the three-time WPT champ.
“It was a confidence builder, knowing that there are lessons to learn to get to where he’s at,” said Bay Area poker pro Rellie Sigua who took the opportunity to grab a photo with Ivey. “He’s very inspiring.”
When the clock struck 1 p.m. the WPT Talent, with Matt Savage on the mic, as well as Gus Hansen moved a horde of hopeful players into the lobby outside the poker room to see who would win the grand prize of a $10K seat into the World Championship. In what is undoubtedly the worst bad beat of the day, the first player whose name was drawn was not present and missed their chance at what will likely be a $5+ million first-place prize.
Instead, second-chance winner Sunao Kithara heard his name called…but just barely.
“I was actually cashing out my chips over on the far side and I was ready to leave and I started hearing ‘Kitahara’,” he said. “And then I started to run.”
Kitahara, who entered roughly six entries into the drawing ran good on multiple fronts. In fact, he almost didn’t even make the MUG.
“I wasn’t even planning on playing today but I was at Bellagio playing yesterday and I heard a few guys talking [about the Meet-Up Game]. This is my first Meet-Up Game ever that I’ve shown up at and it was pretty rad to see some of the poker celebrities. Jump in bomb pots with Matt Savage.”
Not everyone walked away with a seat into a WPT event, but they likely walked away with a story. That includes Golan Hassim from Canada. The 23-year-old heard about the MUG from a Brad Owen vlog and diverted his West-Coast road trip to take part and while he didn’t win a seat he did walk away with his a keepsake of his own: and MUG mug he had autographed by both Owen and Neeme: “It’s one of one,” he beamed.
Kind of like this experience for most of the fans who came out.