The rail is the demarcation line that separates players from everyone else. The term "railbird" was originally a derogatory nickname for players who just busted or the down-and-out gamblers who pathetically hung out on the rail like famished pigeons in a park waiting for someone to feed them.
In the parlance of our times, a railbird is a general term that refers to anyone who is not playing. But if you take a closer look at the anatomy of the rail, you’ll discover several poker subcultures.
Poker rooms in Las Vegas attract crowds of railbirds and, therefore, many casinos strategically place poker rooms near a highly trafficked area to snare tourists. After scouring a poker room for recognizable faces, tough-to-please railbirds soon realize that watching no-names play poker is not too satisfying. As a result, there’s a high turnover ratio for those railbirds who lose interest quickly.
Tournaments attract the most railbirds. The bigger the buy-in, the larger the crowd. You’re not going to find the citizen paparazzi and hordes of poker media sweating the final table of a $65 tournament at Treasure Island, but you will find tourists on vacation having a good time while watching friends and family take a shot at winning a few-hundred bucks.
One of the first major tournaments that I ever sweated as a railbird was the $25,000 buy-in WPT Championship at Bellagio in 2004. I remember walking near the poker room with my brother when we saw Phil Hellmuth. I stopped him and said, “I read your book, Phil,” to which he sarcastically replied, “That’s nice.”
I squeezed in between tourists gawking at Ben Affleck’s table while my brother sidled up to the rail behind Scotty Nguyen’s table. My brother had only seen poker players on TV and never in the flesh, so catching the Scotty Nguyen Show in real time was a surreal experience for him. After Nguyen won a pot, he turned around and gave my brother an enthusiastic high five. That’s one of the coolest things about poker — you can interact with the premier players in the world — free of charge.
The World Series of Poker Main Event is a mecca for railbirds. The entire convention center at the Rio is a zoo during the first few days as crowds swell. You don’t have any room to breathe in the hallways and especially inside the Amazon Ballroom. It takes several minutes to walk to the other side of the packed room because of the congestion of railbirds and media.
The freaks come out at night, especially on the weekends in Las Vegas, when the drunkards stumble around in full force. The Milwaukee’s Best Lounge was a clever marketing device, but its existence contributed to the demise of the rail on many nights. There were moments when entire sections of the rail were heavily impaired on canned schwill.
I’m surprised there has never been a riot at the WSOP. I’ve seen a couple of lewd drunks get into shoving matches, but nothing that would resemble a melee in the stands at an Argentine soccer match. Only obnoxious belligerents get cut off in Las Vegas, but on a few rare instances, snookered railbirds were prohibited from drinking any more.
At the 2007 WSOP Main Event, Maria Ho’s deep run secured her the “last woman standing” distinction but ugly circumstances surrounded her elimination. Kevin Farry, a player seated at Ho’s table, had the benefit of a large crowd of wasted frat boys as his cheering section. They were causing a ruckus, spilling drinks and using excessive foul language as they hovered a few inches from the table. When Farry knocked Ho out in 38th place, his friends erupted in celebration. Poor Maria nearly got trampled by the mob as they reached over the ropes to high-five Farry.
I’ve seen the rail equally as atrocious at tournaments in Europe. Most casinos don’t even enforce a rail, which means anyone can walk up to the tables at any time. Entire families pull up chairs and hang out behind players. In some countries, players like Gus Hansen and Patrik Antonius are more popular than the Beatles ever were. You can’t even get near their tables because they’re swarmed with rabid fans.
Many Europeans loathe the media. Rude railbirds won’t let you by to check up on a table. At a tournament in Barcelona a few years ago, the tournament area became a free-for-all and was not policed by the security staff. You had to throw elbows to make any headway in the crowd, which was whipped up in such a raucous frenzy that I wondered whether I was covering a cock fight rather than a poker tournament. A PokerNews reporter had to stand up on a chair to record hands and count chips. During a big hand, the hostile crowd surged forward and knocked her off the chair without helping her up.
The next time you’re in Las Vegas during the WSOP, watch the people on the rail for a few hours. Eavesdrop on their conversations. Your surveillance will reveal many fascinating observations about the archetypes of people in the poker industry. At any given time, a dozen or so different specimens flock to the rail.
Bored wives reading selections from Oprah’s Book Club. I feel bad for poker wives. They really want to be supportive but 95% of the time, watching poker is as exciting as picking out which pair of socks you want to wear that day. Smart wives bring a book and portable chair.
Enthusiastic friends. These fans are the most fun to watch. One of my favorite railbird stories involves Vivek Rajkumar when the online pro finally turned 21 and played in his first-ever WSOP event. He went deep and because he was playing in a limit hold’em event the tournament lasted late into the night. His friends got drunker and a little more wacky as the night dragged on until morning. Every time Rajkumar won a pot his friends screamed “Ship it to Vivek!”
Amateur photographers. They're constantly jockeying each other to get a blurry shot of the back of Doyle Brunson with their 2.0 mega-pixel cellphone cameras. There’s always one lady who forgets to turn off her flash and one of the staff grabs the microphone and reminds the rail “No flash photography” before another one goes off five minutes later and the process repeats itself.
Working girls. Let’s just come out and admit the obvious. Desperate men with money attract female entrepreneurs who are well-versed in relaxation therapy.
Models. Online poker rooms and other companies hire eye candy to walk around the Amazon Ballroom, sit in the stands at the featured TV table, and hang out on the rail to draw exposure to their product.
Greedy backers. These are the tense guys on the rail clutching the payout sheet and praying for more bustouts so their horse can move up a spot on the pay scale.
Debt collectors. During his dark period, when Stuey Ungar had a big score in a tournament, a swarm of debtors descended on his final table to get paid. Most of the pros you see on the rail are not actually there sweating players out of friendship and camaraderie. Rather, they are there to escort players to the cage and collect outstanding debts.
Broke dicks. Ah, the lowest of the low in the poker world -– players with little or no talent who are constantly cash poor because of life leaks and shoddy bankroll management. They hang out hoping to pick scraps from winning players.
Assistants. You can toss gophers and personal chefs into this category. Cyndy Violette hired a cook to prepare her vegan meals and bring them to the Rio while she played. Sports betting whales often have runners on hand to make bets and collect winning tickets.
Brazilians. They are among the loudest and merriest railbirds in the world who bring the festive aspects of Carnival to the rail whether you like it or not. You’ll be caught up in a blur of green and yellow and it’s hard to tell whether Brazilians are at a soccer match or sweating a poker tournament while chanting fight songs, blowing whistles, and dancing with scantily clad women.
Drunks. Poker can be extremely tedious to watch, so consuming large quantities of liquid libations helps you pass the time smoothly. But sometimes the word “moderation” escapes the vocabulary of railbirds and things get hairy. Don’t get too close to them because they will spill beer on you.
Troublemakers. Not every railbird has altruistic intentions. A few harass the players and do everything possible to get under their skin. I saw Irish pro Andy Black get into it with railbirds on two ocassions at the 2005 Main Event. At one point, he challenged one to a fight after the provocateur would not stop egging him on. Security was called in to quell the trouble. At the same tournament, one railbird continuously pestered Greg Raymer’s wife, who also stood on the rail. When the obnoxious railbird inquired about Raymer’s teenage daughter, the always calm and cool Raymer stood up and barked, “If you f*** with my daughter, you’re dead!” The instigator bailed before the security could intervene.
Media. Let’s not forget about my colleagues in the poker media. Many of them are blending in on the rail while trying to pick up stories and chip counts.
Cold-blooded poker agents. They are always slithering around on the rail trying to befriend the supporters of potential clients. They whore out their clients and make them look like total shills as their upper torsos resemble the outfield wall of a minor league ballpark.
Government agents. Every once in a while you hear a rumor that an IRS agent is spying on the players inside the Amazon Ballroom. I was told it was an urban myth, but who knows for sure? The Nevada Gaming Commission often sends undercover agents to check up on things, so why wouldn’t the IRS send in a couple of plainclothes agents?
Dreamers. Never underestimate the power of a dream. The guy standing next to you on the rail might be an up-and-coming player studying his future opponents with the hope of being on the other side of the rail.
As you can tell, the rail is often more exciting than the tournament itself. Although the game of poker has not changed, the people who gather on the rail have morphed into a preposterous manifestation of the best and worst that poker has to offer.