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July 29, 2014

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WORLD SERIES OF POKER:

Poker players relax with massage at table

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Leila Navidi

Massage therapist Alana Madsen gives player John Juanda a massage during the World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio.

WSOP massage

Massage therapist Paula Steiner works on a player during the World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio. Launch slideshow »

A poker player with a small chip stack looks at his hole cards and decides they are strong enough to move all-in with on Friday at the World Series of Poker.

An opponent who easily has his raise covered calls the bet.

Most of the players at the table stand to get a better view of the cards being dealt.

One player, however, stays in his seat. Who could blame him?

The seated player was one of several in the ballroom at the Rio receiving a massage while playing for millions in the Main Event. The tournament is marathon of sorts for the players, who can become tense and tired from 12-hour days of play during the two-week — if you are lucky enough to advance — tournament.

For the past four years, massage therapists from Professional Massage Inc. have been contracted by Harrah’s, which owns the Rio, to provide massages for the players.

Table massages have become so popular that the company’s stable of therapists has increased from 60 in 2006, its first-year working the series, to 250 this year.

“You are more relaxed and focused on the cards when you are getting a massage,” said Regie Layog, one of the massage company’s managers.

The therapists are licensed by the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapists and are required to have a health card and liability insurance.

A massage costs $2 per minute with the company and therapist splitting the fee, Layog said. Therapists also receive tips.

An average massage is 10 to 15 minutes and is concentrated on the neck and back. Some players, however, have been known to get a multi-hour massage while others have a favorite therapist.

Professional Phil Ivey is one of the company’s best customers. He received a four-hour massage from Sophia Lonsinger while playing on Wednesday. She has massaged him in previous years.

“I don’t know if I bring him luck,” Lonsinger said. “He’s a good player. He doesn’t need a massage for luck.”

Some of the players are superstitious and someone on a hot streak might not want to send a therapist away, Layog said.

David Bach, who won the prestigious $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament at the series last week, kept one of the company’s therapists nearby for his run to the bracelet. The therapist even slept in a back room waiting for Bach to request his services.

Other players, like 2006 Main Event champion Jamie Gold and professional Daniel Negreanu, are repeat customers.

Other players think getting a massage can be a distraction and hurt the player’s concentration. The therapists have other opinions.

“They are in for some long days and this helps to relax the muscles,” said Victoria Bowman, a therapist. “When they are intense in the middle of a hand, this allow them to better focus.”

During a busy day like Friday, the company will make sure to have 120 therapists — mostly females — working from when the tournament starts at noon to when the last card is dealt in the wee hours of the morning.

There are a few rules the therapists follow.

They aren’t allowed to look at the players’ cards or give advice on how to play a hand, and cheering is prohibited. Massages are mostly to the neck and back but can include hands, arms, legs and feet.

“We are just happy to be part of the event,” Bowman said.

The company’s therapists work at all Harrah’s properties during the year and have massage chairs at places such as the Fashion Show Mall and Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.

Rolando Coro, who emigrated from Cuba to Miami 11 years ago, started the business with one chair in the outlet shops at Primm in 2002.

Now, his therapists are serving the biggest poker tournament in the world. “It’s the American dream,” Layog said.

Coro, who used to be the therapist for the Cuban national volleyball team, knows very little about poker. He does know what a good massage brings to the series.

“I guess you could say we have become popular,” he said.

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