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Off the Rail: Poker as a Spectator Sport
Every great sport has them and every marketable sport needs them.
Poker is starting to join those ranks.
This year there’s been an explosion of fandom taking place at the World Series of Poker.
The tone was set when Jake Cody won the $25,000 Heads-Up Championship. After making Day 4 of the championship, Cody was set to go heads up with Gus Hansen.
The event was broadcast live on ESPN 3 and both players brought their A-game.
But Cody brought a secret weapon: A large, energetic, coordinated rail.
They cheered, chanted, drank and screamed for Cody, causing a roar heard throughout the entire Amazon Room.
ESPN loved their energy, other observers laughed at their humorous chants and waiters enjoyed gratuitous tips for delivering beer after beer.
After Cody won, the floodgates for poker fans seemed to open.
There's been a surge of large and loud French, American, British and Brazilian rails taking the stage every time one of their countrymen makes a final table.
Soccer has its hooligans, professional wrestling has smarks, Star Trek has Trekkies, and now, poker has the almighty rail.
But the inklings of the overpowering rail started long ago.
Australia and Brazil Change the Rail Forever
Back in 2005 Joe Hachem egged on the crowd to cheer, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!”
But the rail that's starting to become standard today, took root recently.
“The trend started last year,” said WSOP security supervisor, Tony Spencer. “Young players traveled in groups with their friends and then cheered them on when they got to the final table.”
And now they're more experienced, confident and prepared.
In general, players, fans and employees alike enjoy the attention the sport is getting.
“I think its good for the game,” said Spencer. “And I want people to enjoy final tables and have a good time.”
And few people had a better time than Andre Akkari and his rail of Brazilians. They cheered on Akkari when he won a $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em event.
Dozens of Brazilians, including fellow pros, Maridu Mayrink, Alex Gomes and Gualter Salles joined in to cheer on Akkari.
They preformed national chants, wore Brazilian flags and had a few well coordinated waves. Akkari thanked them on Twitter and was even moved to tears after the event.
He thanked everyone for all their support and noted the passion that his countrymen had.
“Brazilians play everything like soccer,” Akkari said. “Even if we were playing chess it would be with [the same] passion.”
But Akkari doesn't think the rail just helped him, it helps the sport in general.
“I think it's good for poker,” said Akkari. “Poker should be more like a sport with more energy and more cheering.”
The Dark Side of the Poker Fans
Some players without a large rail at the final table don't seem to mind them.
Joe Ebanks won the $10,000 Six-Handed No-Limit Championship and was faced with opponents whom had larger, louder rails.
“It didn't really bother me,” said Ebanks. “It made me laugh a bit. I thought it was funny.”
But not everyone would feel the same way about their opponent's.
“If it was me, and I was playing for a million dollars,” said Spencer. “ I wouldn't want 5,000 people screaming in my ear.”
And final table players aren't the only ones who have to deal with the noise. Spencer said that he and the floor staff have already gotten several complaints from players in different tournaments who are bothered by the noise.
While this may be an unavoidable consequence to a healthy, enthusiastic chant, a player can feel more directly – and personally – attacked by a rail.
This was Owais Ahmed's case when he was heads-up against Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi in the $2,500 Omaha/7-Card Stud Hi/Lo event.
“I was actually being heckled by this one guy on the rail and I told the floor about it and they did nothing, which really upset me,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed was even more upset that some of the heckling was due to his race. “For the first 20 minutes it was overwhelming and it felt like the whole room was against me.”
But Ahmed managed to overcome a chip deficit and felt more confident when his friends showed up to cheer him on. He then went on to win the match and his first WSOP bracelet and $225,959.
Security notes that some fans cross the line, especially when alcohol is involved. During the event that Joe Ebanks won, one of Chris Moorman's railbirds was removed from the final table.
He was encouraging bet action from the rail and was told repeatedly, by both the tournament director and security, to stop.
“No one's surprised when I kick someone out,” said Spencer. “Sometimes I give people more chances than I should because I don't enjoy throwing people out of the final table.”
And fans are encouraged to be loud, cheer and have a good time. There are just a few things that fans are discouraged from doing.
“They're all common sense really,” said Spencer. “Like no encouraging bet action, don't say anything malicious to other fans or players, don't cheer when players are in the middle of a hand and no violence.”
If fans need an example of what kind of fans are encouraged, they don't need to look any further than the Brazilians.
“The Brazilians were great and conscious of what was going on at all times,” said Spencer. “During hands they'd break out into a wave which is a great, silent way of encouragement.”
But Spencer and his team recognize that fans are humans and sometimes they get out of hand.
Spencer won't throw out every player who boos, but he'll always be there to do his job.
“I don't arrest people,” said Spencer. “They arrest themselves.”