The Imperial Ballroom of the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island has 50,000 square feet of floor space. The ceiling is 26 feet overhead. At capacity, it can seat 4,000 people. It's barely big enough to handle the amount of celebrity that just walked through the door.
Photographers walked backward, boom mics glided through the air, and heads turned as 18-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps crossed the garish carpet looking for his seat among nearly 600 other poker players. Six months ago in London, everybody wanted a piece of him. Today, Phelps is just another guy with a $10,000 receipt for a seat and stack of poker chips.
Unshaven, a Baltimore Orioles cap pulled down over his head, Phelps looked the part of a man who didn't feel like being recognized. As one of the world's most well-known sports celebrities, it's hard for him to go anywhere without some sort of minor disguise. Though he's a man known for incredible victories, Phelps is the underdog here today. An amateur poker enthusiast (with, admittedly, a ton of cash), he sits among some of the world's greatest poker players in a $10,000 buy-in poker tournament known around he world as the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
At Phelps' side walked Antonio Esfandiari, one of modern poker's most recognizable faces. Six months ago, the one-time magician won a tournament that cost $1 million to enter. Today, he took it upon himself to help Phelps navigate the maze of poker tables and find his assigned seat. It must be said, for a man who has spent his entire life swimming in a straight line, there is some entertainment value in watching Phelps stroll without direction between tables full of people who haven't yet discovered who he is.
Now retired from competitive swimming, Phelps has been seen playing cards in various hot spots around the world. Rumors swirled that he would show up here at the PCA to play, but no one was sure the Olympic legend would arrive until late last night when he poked his head in the door to watch the end of the $100,000 buy-in Super High Roller. Today he walked in a few minutes late for his own event, but nonetheless laser-focused on the task at hand.
It's interesting in this world of high stakes poker players--people considered filthy rich--that only a handful could even conceive of Phelps' wealth. Forbes estimated the Olympic legend's net worth at $40 million. There are a couple of people in the room here who might be able to relate to that, but for most everybody else, making it to the final table could result in life-changing money. For Phelps, it it would just be more for the pile.
The degree of Phelps everyman-ness as he sits here today simply can't be overstated. The democratic nature of this game means anyone can enter. Phelps is used to competing in a pursuit only open to people who train seven days a week for most of their lives. Today, Phelps is competing against people who have literally never played a major live tournament before. It's not a level playing field, but it's a lot more fair than anybody here trying to race Phelps in the pool.
As if to put the finest point on it--to fully confirm Phelps is just one of the guys--Esfandiari, the professional in the pair, wandered away just as soon as Phelps had found his seat.
As Esfandiari walked, he called over his shoulder, "Good luck, Fish Nuts."
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging