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I admit it. My passion for the game of poker has dissipated. While I still enjoy writing about the happenings within the industry and some of the players in the game, my zest for “all things poker” is far from what it was when I first started working at the offices of the World Poker Tour in 2002.

At that time, I was so fascinated by poker that I consumed every article I could find about players and events. Strategy was never my forte, but I could not get enough of stories about players and places, tournaments and the overall evolution of the industry that was taking place before my eyes. That excitement pushed me to veer off into a writing career with a sole focus on poker.

Ten years after I ventured into the world of freelance writing, I found myself tiring of poker. The constant fight against misogyny in poker was discouraging. The dark side of the game seemed darker, as players were caught doing everything from welshing on backing deals to multi-accounting online, and companies defrauded players via Full Tilt Poker and Ultimate Bet, to name just two. And the bad beat stories became unbearable.

Yet, I kept writing for those who would allow it, all the while searching to find and read the articles, tweets, and blog posts of a hopeful and forward thinking nature. I even wrote a few of my own.

The Invitation

When the WSOP Main Event set its November Nine in the middle of July, I was simply ecstatic to see two older gentlemen in the mix. Pierre Neuville, in particular, caught my attention because of my knowledge of his poker endeavors to date. And I eventually wrote a piece for Poker Update about Pierre and the power of a potential victory to change the game for the better.

Pierre was moved by the piece and invited me to come to Las Vegas to join his friends and family in cheering for him at the WSOP final table. “You simply must join us,” he said as part of a very long online conversation. In short order, I had a flight scheduled, lodging set for my dogs, and a room at the Rio booked.

It was going to be my first time actually staying at the Rio, as all of the times I covered the WSOP in the past, I had arranged cheaper accommodations away from the Rio. It was going to be the only time I watched a live WSOP final table without a press badge, voice recorder in my hand, notebook in my purse, and assignments to complete.

And I was more than just a little excited about it all.

The Fan Perspective

As I walked around the casino, I occasionally saw a famous poker player, like Phil Hellmuth getting coffee at Starbucks. If I was a new poker fan, I imagined the thrill I might feel at seeing his tall frame within such close proximity, the nervousness about asking him for a photo. I saw various members of the November Nine walking the casino floor, likely on their way to a photo shoot or interview, and I thought of the excitement they must be experiencing.

My friend and I met up with Pierre and his wife, as well as some Belgian and French journalists, at Binion’s prior to the WSOP Hall of Fame dinner. Officially meeting him under the November Nine circumstances was unique and fun. We took a few pictures with photos around the Binion’s poker room, the best of which was the frame for 2015 with the empty space saved for the new champion. Getting to know Pierre, Claudine, and their guests was purely genuine, not out of a need for content for an article or descriptions for a player profile.

At the end of the night, I had the opportunity to talk to Jennifer Harman, who had been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame that evening. I watched as her nearly-nine-year-old sons smothered her with hugs and pride, and she watched them with a mother’s joy. I also had the opportunity to remind her that she and Marco Traniello were the first poker players I ever interviewed 12 years prior. When I worked in the accounting department of the World Poker Tour, I wrote for the PR department in the evenings to build a writing portfolio. My first assignment was for Midwest Gaming Magazine, and I wrote about poker couples, one of the most prominent of which was Jennifer and Marco. To my delight, she remembered. And in a true fan moment, I was able to tell her how much I respect and appreciate her.

On the first night of the November Nine final table, I had the privilege of sitting next to Claudine on the stage as Pierre played under the Penn & Teller Theater lights and the ESPN cameras. Kara Scott was seated with Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu on an elevated platform behind us, doing segments for the semi-live television broadcast, and we were in the company of quite a few poker pros on other parts of the stage, like Matt Glantz, Phil Laak, and Sorel Mizzi.

View from stage

Most of my focus was on Claudine, as I watched her experience the highs and lows of watching her husband get a bad run of cards and face tough opponents. And when he finally pushed all in with his short stack, despite having great odds and the best hand, Claudine buried her face in a friend’s chest as she couldn’t bear to watch the outcome.

Ultimately, Pierre lost the hand and was eliminated from the tournament. It was one of the saddest moments I had experienced in poker. It took the rest of that evening and much of the next day to get over the heartbreak of watching my friend bust in such painful fashion. Of course, Pierre handled it like the professional that he is, expressing happiness for the opportunity, excitement for the other players, and hope for the future. His reactions to it all will stick with me for a long time. To be able to handle such a moment with grace and gratitude is a lesson from which I can learn.

The final day of WSOP action featured three players, and my friend and I entered the theater to sit in the upper balcony and watch it play out. We watched Neil Blumenfield exit in third place and then speak to the media with the same mature and respectable attitude as Pierre. Moments later, the tournament was over, and Joe McKeehen became the champion.

Every poker fan should be able to experience the excitement of the WSOP final table in such a venue. The chance to congratulate a player who just won several million dollars is a unique one, and it does evoke feelings of wanting to play poker, wanting to strive to be the best, wanting to be on that stage. The opportunity to see the game made into a thrilling affair is a positive one for any poker player or enthusiast.

Pierre and Jen

The Return to the Keyboard

The experiences of attending the November Nine event as a fan reinvigorated some of my love for the game. Returning home and to the seat in front of my keyboard was refreshed by the series of events, and my ability to write about the game is rejuvenated by the lessons I learned.

Poker reporters and journalists are often misunderstood. Some of us have had the opportunity to travel. I was lucky enough to cover a tournament in the Bahamas at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure once, as well as casinos in Reno and Foxwoods for World Poker Tour events. However, those trips are usually limited to the days of the tournament, and long hours of work typically prevent any sightseeing, relaxation, or general enjoyment of the cities or properties. We see the tournament room, the path to the poker room, and our hotel rooms between arrival and departure dates.

However, I am lucky to have had those experiences, as well as to get to know many of the poker players that fans may only read about or view online. Entering the world as a fan for the WSOP Main Event offered a different perspective but, more than anything, helped garner more of an appreciation for the elite, unique, and sometimes strange industry in which I work.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.