By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So that's it, right? End of story? Local kid makes good, wins money, enjoys fame? Not quite. Poker players are different--or at least this one is. Despite the good fortune, he remains tortured, beating himself up over what could have been instead of enjoying what is. The parallel life he could have led preoccupies him at times: He went to Princeton for a while, then left because it wasn't for him; he never knew his dad; and he did well in the World Series, but if he had bested just one more player, he would have been a god instead of just another guy who didn't win it all. He sometimes obsesses over that stuff, and he knows it, but he can't help it, either.
"I think about the final hand every day," Williams says. "I think about it all the time--the way it went down, getting so close to being the champion. I mean, it wasn't about the money. OK, sure, it was about the money--the money was nice. It is nice. But it wasn't entirely about that. Winning was so much more important to me. If first place had paid $3.5 million and second place had paid $5 million, I still would have liked to win. I really wanted to win...I think about that all the time. All the time. The way it went down--I don't know if I'll ever get it out of my head."
Vegas was a madhouse from the moment Williams stepped off the plane in late April. Poker players are generally immune to the commotion. They go to Vegas all the time; it's business for them. The serious ones move there. But if it's possible for poker players to catch the fever that average gamblers get when they walk the Strip for the first time, then it happens during the World Series of Poker.
Since its beginning 35 years ago, the WSOP has been held at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in old downtown Vegas. No one is certain where it'll be next year. Harrah's recently bought the rights to the World Series of Poker when Binion's got into tax trouble. It gave this year's scene a little extra pop; poker greats, first-timers and spectators came wondering if they were witnessing the end of one of the world's grand gambling joints.
Last year, more than 800 people crammed into Binion's to play in the main event at the World Series of Poker, a $10,000 no-limit hold 'em tournament simply called "The Big One." This year, 2,576 wannabe champions entered the event (a byproduct of the poker craze/addiction that many have caught glimpses of on cable or read about). It was a lot to take in, and Williams wasn't sure he was ready. He'd never played in a tournament half that size. Months before the WSOP, he won an online tourney that qualified him for a World Poker Tour event in Aruba. He and Brittany packed their bags and hopped a flight for what he hoped would be quality poker against quality competition. And it was. The bummer was that he lasted only a few hours before getting eliminated.
"That was disappointing because of the way I finished," Williams says. "I don't think I played badly, but I only played for, like, three hours. There wasn't much to it."
It didn't affect his confidence so much as it made him realize how good and lucky you have to be. When he qualified for The Big One by winning an online tournament that offered the $10,000 WSOP entry fee as its prize, he resigned himself to playing without adding too much pressure. That was the plan, anyway.
When he arrived at Binion's that first day, he had to wade through a sea of people just to get to his table. In addition to the thousands of players, there was a crush of spectators and friends and poker freaks who came to watch the spectacle. Security guards had to holler "player coming through" to part the masses. Williams and his buddy Noah Boeken, who was also in Vegas to play in the WSOP, remarked on the energy in the casino--a din saturated the air like humidity.
Williams was calm at the tables, fine as long as there was a dealer and cards in front of him and chips to win. The breaks between rounds were the killers. He had too much time to think about the enormity of it all. He's usually a big eater, but during the WSOP he hardly ate--maybe half a sandwich or a few sips of soup each day. He slept less than six hours a night.
"Oh, for sure, I could tell he was nervous," Boeken, 23, says with a heavy Dutch accent. He's from Amsterdam--part of Williams' cabal of international pals. Williams, Boeken and a few other good friends of the same age met as teens while playing in Magic tournaments all around the world. (Don't laugh. Williams made more than 50 G's in his Magic career.) When they were 17 or 18, one of them watched Rounders, a favorite poker movie among players. Before long, they were playing poker when they were done with Magic. Soon, poker became the primary game for almost all of them. Now, instead of meeting in Russia or Japan to play Magic, they meet to play hold 'em--international swingers, and all before the age of 25. "We've known each other for a long time, and I could see that he wasn't eating too much. But that was natural if you think about it. There was so much on the line. Especially when he kept going. I was out after two days, but he kept going. It was fun to watch. But there was a lot of pressure there. In poker, you make one mistake and it's all over."