So what I saw then, I wouldn't see if I were arriving for the first time now.
As I first passed through the golden doors at Binion's, I was amazed at what lay before my eyes. Tables upon tables of cash games were raging. As many tables as could fit in the room were packed with players.
I don't remember more than a couple of No-Limit Hold'em games, but was shocked to see waiting lists for multiple Pot-Limit Omaha games that were filled with players with stacks and stacks of chips and cash. The games were mostly split between PLO and Limit.
Upstairs was a room that was probably an eighth the size of the Amazon Room, where the tournaments were held. If there was any spillover, the players would take posts at the tables down in the main poker room. The tournaments were small back then so there wasn't usually a shortage of tables.
The poker room was a much different scene back then. It was really busy, really noisy and really, really smoky. The smoke-free poker room revolution was still its infancy.
The scene was like something out of a movie. It was everything I could ever have imagined Binion's to be. The room was littered with old-timers. There weren't any young Internet kids, railbirds or poker energy drinks. There was just a lot of booze, a lot of tobacco and a lot of gambling. Poker in its rawest form.
The biggest game in the room was a minimum million-dollar buy-in cash game. I recall Greg Mueller was playing in them. I had no idea who he was at the time, but I knew he was one of the better players. Two seats were given in each satellite and we got heads-up in one of them (we both got seats).
I was excited at the prospect of winning a Main Event seat, but didn't really want to spend too much money. I went up to the main tournament area and sat down to play with my one bullet.
I had Simon "Aces" Trumper on my left as well as a fresh-faced Antonio Esfandiari across the way. Of course I had no idea who these players were at the time but I definitely remember Esfandiari being one of the more annoying players I had played with to date.
He busted during the rebuy hour and stood up to leave. Phil Laak came running over to him and asked him what he was doing and why he wasn't rebuying. This was probably around the time when Esfandiari was on the cusp of quitting poker forever.
"F**k it man, I'm done. F**k this shit," said Esfandiari. Even though he did quit that night, it's a good thing he decided to keep playing after all!
I made it past the rebuy hour and had a decent stack, more than I would have had if I had just shown up and bought, rebought, and added on. All the other players at the table were adding on and I figured I was in fine shape, so I declined.
I played for a few hours after that and was somewhat surprised to last that long, but I failed to come anywhere near winning a seat. No big deal; back to the Limit games.
During the afternoons, if there was an interesting final table going on, I would go and check it out. Back then the cash would be presented in a different manner than they do it nowadays.
Two guards with shotguns followed a third who was carrying an empty cardboard box that had at one point been filled with fresh rolls of toilet paper. It was now filled with a different type of paper, and it wasn't like the made-for-TV bundles of cash that are 98 $1 bills sandwiched by two $100 bills - these were the real deal.
There were no cameras, no sponsor booths and no lines of fans clamoring to get in. The final-table area was set up with a couple of bleachers like ones you would find at a Little League game. A few family members and friends would sit and watch - there was a maximum capacity of maybe 40 people. Quite the contrast to today, that's for sure.
I didn't even stay until the Main Event. I had other things going on that prevented me from staying for the whole time, but I left with a feeling that things were going to start changing soon. I knew that things would never be the same.