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October 23, 2014

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Mafia championship comes to Vegas for some friendly psychological warfare

Poker players: Your game sucks. By comparison, at least. If you really want to put your bluffing and reasoning skills to the test, you have to play Mafia.

Mafia is big in Russia and Armenia, but Maf World Cup director Armen Hagopjanian wanted to hold the first-ever international championship in Las Vegas at the Tropicana. Why? Because the Trop used to be owned by the Mob and because it plays host to the newly refurbished interactive Mob Attraction.

Nearly 80 Mafia players flew in from Russia, Armenia and LA to compete for a chunk of the $30,000 prize pool. How’d they look? Like young KGB recruits. Seriously, if you’d wandered into the Tropicana convention area last weekend, you would have thought they were the real deal. Usually, in game settings, I’m the competitive gunner. At the Trop, I was the goof-off.

As a result, I was underestimated. Although I’ve never played Maf Club Mafia before, I have played a similar game, also called Mafia. In fact, I’ve hosted dozens of Mafia parties and introduced hundreds of people to the game. The rules of Maf Club Mafia and Rick Lax Mafia are very different, but the skill sets (persuading, lying, reconsidering, thinking ahead) are identical. In each game of Maf Club Mafia, 10 players are assigned secret roles: Three are Mafia, seven are Citizens. The Mafia members know who’s who, but the Citizens are clueless. The Mafia tries to kill off the Citizens before the Citizens figure out who’s in the Mafia. Victory goes to whichever team accomplishes its goal first.

I decided to pony up $333 of my own money to compete. Poker players have a term for this: “dead money.”

The first game, I drew the “Don” card and led my fellow Mafioso to a “clean” victory, meaning we assassinated all the Citizens before they outed any of us. After the game, I went to shake the hand of one of the Citizens and give him the obligatory “good game.” He looked me square in the eyes and said in a thick Russian accent, “I’m not shaking your hand.” He wasn’t kidding.

After my third game—another Mafioso victory for yours truly—one girl started telling people that I was lying about being a reporter, that she’d seen me playing in the LA Maf Club before.

After 11 games, I was ranked No. 4 and had made it to the final table. My fellow finalists: Rustamov, Bakunts, Khachatryan, Apoyan, Mkrtoumian, Gharibjanyan, Tokhatyan, Hovsepyan, and Petrosyan.

Yet again, I drew the Don card. Only this time, the Citizens were flawless. They outed us one-by-one, swiftly and surely. I lost. Badly. And I hate losing, but it’s hard to be upset when I was so clearly outmatched.

I walked away with tremendous respect for the Citizens who vanquished me, for director Hagopjanian and for game host Hayk Petrosyan. And for making the final table, I walked away with $1,500, too.

During the closing ceremony, the Russian guy who’d refused to shake my hand tracked me down. He shook my hand, patted me on the back and told me, “You play well.” I told him the same. And I’m positive we both meant it.

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