The unexamined life, as the Greek said, not being worth living, it was left to me, last Friday morning, to ponder:
Why was I sitting hunched over green baize at Casino Arizona on the Salt River reservation, just off the metro-Phoenix grid a little before three in the morning? Why was I riffling two stacks of five-dollar chips with my right hand while a film of black grime accumulated under my fingernails? Why wedged between two indifferently bathed men, the one on my left a former hog farmer (he used to ship whole hogs to San Francisco's Chinatown, he told me, at $80 a head; the butchered version cost double); the one on my right, Josephus by name, all exhalations of Jack and Coke while explaining why he'd habitually raise my big blind with garbage hands like jack-four suited?
The answer came, deus ex machina, from the massive flat-screen televisions perched like buzzards above the cardroom; at three on the nose, they switched simultaneously to ESPN, rebroadcasting the final table of this year's World Series of Poker. (This will appear roughly one thousand times on various tentacles of the ESPN family in the next year. It is instructive, when watching these reruns, to consider the nature of the commercials that accompany them, particularly at early hours of the morning).
This summer, drunk, bleary-eyed, T-shirt hung irreversibly with the tang of cigarette smoke after a six-hour session at a bar on Avenue B in New York City, I came home and found Fox Sports Net's Championship Poker at the Plaza on; knowing their audience, the commercials were for a debt consolidation service, a mail-order college, and Odor-Eaters.
On those TVs, Joseph Hachem's image soon appeared. Hachem, an Australian pro, bought into this year's WSOP main event for $10,000, and after a week of bobbing and weaving, won the thing when he called Steve Dannenman's preflop raise with three-seven off, and promptly filled the straight. I know little about Hachem, only that, in a gesture that for some reason greatly endeared him to me, fairly deep into the tourney, he flopped the nut flush with ace-six of clubs while Irish pro Andrew Black flopped top set. Black moved in, and Hachem turbo-called, then got up from the table and, in his inimitably Aussie accent, cried, "Pass the sugar!"
But I've chosen Hachem for Sportsman of the Year because he represents the viability of the everyman's participation in sport -- it would be ludicrous to put oneself on a diamond with Roger Clemens or to play Steve Nash one-on-one--- and the possibility of life-changing success in the space of six days. Or, as the wasted frat boy at the cashier's window in Phoenix, longingly eyeing the healthier racks of those on line in front of him as he fingered his handful of dollar checks, put it epigrammatically: "Sometimes this game makes you feel great, and sometimes it makes you feel like you got kicked in the balls."