In early July, players and fans will flock to the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for the 48th annual World Series of Poker Main Event—the first WSOP Main Event to take place in Nevada’s legal retail cannabis era.
While most Vegas casinos are maintaining strict no-cannabis policies, clandestine consumption has always been a part of the scene on the Strip–regardless of whether it’s been legal, illegal, or somewhere in between.
“It’s not talked about much, but it’s pretty pervasive in the poker culture,” says Dutch Boyd, a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. Over the course of his career, Boyd has posted $2.6 million in tournament earnings and made eight WSOP final tables.
“Marijuana is part of poker,” says Boyd. “If you’re ever on the tournament trail and stop in a Tunica hotel room during a World Series of Poker circuit event or in Los Angeles for a stop on the World Poker Tour, just walk down the halls and it’s everywhere. It smells like weed. It’s part of the game’s culture.”
Above: Dutch Boyd vlogs from the Mid-States Poker Tour earlier this month. “Marijuana is part of poker,” he says.
Even these days, with security tight during the series, if you walk the perimeter of the Rio near the exits you’re likely to see little cliques of poker players passing around a one-hitter or smoking a joint during breaks in play.
The risk is high. In recent years, Caesars Entertainment, which owns the WSOP brand, has stepped up its security measures and reserves the right to disqualify or ban players caught using cannabis on casino property. Imagine having the chip lead at a final table, playing for millions of dollars, only to have your tournament end because a security guard nabbed you smoking a bowl in your parked car? It has happened—and likely will happen again. It’s made players “coy” says Boyd, who points out that many players now vape cannabis concentrates in what looks like an innocuous e-cigarette. It’s their way of beating the man.
‘It Doesn’t Make Sense To Me’
Not everyone on the circuit is cool with cannabis on the down-low, though.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Allen Kessler, a well-respected professional poker player with more than 55 cashes at the WSOP and career earnings of close to $3.5 million. He is a strong opponent of marijuana use during tournaments.
“Even the $1,500 buy-in preliminary events can attract enough players to generate a million-dollar first place prize,” he says. “It amazes me that as the seconds count down toward the next break players are in mad rush to get to their car to smoke up. They hide out and smoke up during stops in play. When they come back to the table they smell like weed and they’re not playing right. It’s crazy when you think about it.”
— Allen Kessler (@AllenKessler) June 24, 2017
At the Venetian a few years ago, Kessler watched as one of the tournament chip leaders was nabbed with a joint during dinner break and wasn’t allowed back inside the casino. Staff members simply removed his chips from play and he was disqualified.
“It’s a security issue,” says Kessler. “They don’t want people smoking on their property. If you go out to your car at the WSOP to smoke and you get caught they can throw you out. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense to me. When you go home you can smoke all the weed you want. Why would you want to impede your ability to play in a tournament?” Some of these players may have backers, he says—financial investors who contribute to the player’s entry fee. “Do those backers know the players they’re supporting are getting high?”
The Cost of Hard Living, Hard Playing
Kessler’s opposition may also stem from the difficult history of other drugs in poker culture.
Drug use and abuse have long been part of the history of poker and its modern-day marquee event. The most infamous character in recent poker history, the legendary Stu Ungar, won three world championships and earned a place in poker’s Hall of Fame. But hard drugs brought him down.
In the book One of a Kind and the movie High Roller, Ungar was immortalized as a brilliant player whose career and life were destroyed by cocaine addiction. Ungar broke onto the poker scene in 1980, claiming the world championship when he defeated one of the best ever, Doyle Brunson. Ungar was just 26 and, at the time, the youngest ever to win the title. Amazingly, he defended his title the following year. A poker superstar was born. Ungar, a 10th grade dropout, was suddenly a kid millionaire. Money, fame, and Las Vegas offered him temptations he was unable to resist. In the end, he succumbed to them.
“There is cocaine in the poker community,” Boyd says, “but marijuana is king when it comes to cards.” In Poker Tilt, Boyd tells a great story about smoking a joint with Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari and Phil Laak, two of poker’s household names, in a hotel room at Binion’s Casino during his first visit to the series.
“I watched the magician quickly and efficiently roll the most perfect joint I had ever seen,” Boyd wrote. “He even pulled a deck of playing cards out of his pocket, ripped a quarter inch off the side of a joker, and rolled the torn part into the joint as a makeshift filter. The resulting creation looked like it could have been a co-branding effort by Camel and Bicycle.”
‘It Helps Me Think Things Through’
When he thinks back on the 2006 WSOP main event now, Bryan Micon believes that cannabis worked in concert with his game.
The ’06 main event featured 8,773 players, all of whom ponied up a $10,000 entry fee to play. The prize pool was life-changing money, $82.6 million. The winner would pocket $12 million and lucrative online poker sponsorships, not to mention the coveted WSOP gold bracelet and lifetime bragging rights. Could marijuana use be optimal at a time like that?
It was for Micon.
“It calms me down in big tournament spots like that one,” Micon explained. “It helps me think things through clearly in the face of pressure. In that spot every decision matters, every chip counts. The weed relaxes me. Some people believe marijuana impairs or clouds your judgement. To each their own, I guess.”
Micon would go on to place 63rd in the main event that year, earning $123,699 for his deep run at poker’s biggest prize, taking him over the $200,000 mark for the summer. Good work if you can find it.
In Poker Tilt, Dutch Boyd wrote about consuming cannabis daily while playing poker in his 20s.
“For a long time it was pretty much every day,” he told me. “I’d be one of those guys running out to the parking lots during breaks, smoking it up.”
This year’s World Series of Poker main event kicks off on July 8. They’ll play down to the final nine, then take a short break to promote the final table showdown. It’s high drama. If you’re watching, be sure to keep an eye on the winner’s poker face. That calm demeanor and sly smile just might have more behind it than you know.