With his chips stacked up and cards facing down on the green-felted table, poker Hall-of-Famer Daniel Negreanu leaned his body on a cushion tucked between his chest and a chair's backrest while he focused in a recent dealer's choice tournament he entered at the ongoing World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
A massage therapist stood behind him for more than an hour, running her hands up and down his back, shoulders and neck as he played.
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Three other poker pros sitting at the same table in the $10,000 buy-in tournament also received massages while competing that night.
Poker players participating in the weeks-long, annual poker event in Sin City often remain seated for hours at a time trying to win big paydays. To deal with the inevitable aches and pains — and, for some, to get a hands-on dose of good luck — players turn to massage therapists who have been trained not only on how to properly manipulate a seated body, but on the etiquette of poker.
"Sitting is not good for you, so having them is really valuable just to loosen everything up," Negreanu said during a break. "It allows me to feel more relaxed. Instead of thinking of how sore I am, I can just focus on the game."
The series draws tens of thousands of poker fans to compete for millions of dollars in prize money and coveted champion bracelets.
Players at the various convention center halls of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino where the tournament takes place can request a massage online, over the phone or by flagging down therapists who walk by the tables carrying a specially designed cushion emblazoned with the word "massage."
More than 400 therapists with Las Vegas-based Professional Massage Inc. are working this year's 54-day event.
At $2 a minute, the massage therapists can work a player's body from the scalp to the feet without interrupting the game. Players requesting a massage usually straddle their chair before the therapists begin to use their hands, elbows, forearms and, sometimes, knees to massage them through their clothes.
"You have to be aware of what's going on at the table," said Alicia Coro, whose father, Rolando, pioneered the concept of massage for players at the poker room of the Caesars Palace casino-resort in 2004. "You have to know a little bit about the game because if they are in a big hand, you don't want to be shaking them or putting too much pressure."
Some of the etiquette rules that the massage therapists follow include not talking at the table unless they are spoken to, avoiding looking at the cards and never, ever commenting on a player's hand.
Physical therapist Chris Kolba, with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said prolonged sitting over time can weaken the structures that help support the spine and make them less tolerable to stress and force, increasing the risk of injury.
"Over time, they start to develop these aches and pains, headaches and things that go along with these poor posture positions and the lack of muscle activity," Kolba said. "And then, you go to do something outside of playing poker, where maybe you jump in the pool or run around with your kids, and all of a sudden, you are pulling a muscle or straining your back or your neck."
With so much money at stake, massage is not just for wellness for some players. They will repeatedly hire the same massage therapist if they start to win, thinking of them as their lucky charm.
"There's a young lady I really like. Last year, I had her massage me for like four days straight, and as soon as she left me, I got knocked out of the tournament within 10 minutes, and I was like top 10 in chips," pro poker player Jean "Prince" Gaspard said. "So, we have a little superstition about that, too."
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