“May I have your attention. For your own safety, please remain calm, head for the nearest exit, and leave the building. Do not use elevators. Thank you.”

That’s the announcement that woke me out of a sound sleep and scared the hell out of me at 2:40 this morning at the Beau Rivage, where I’ve spent the last three days playing poker in a tournament and cash games. The announcement was preceded by a loud bwoop-bwoop alarm sound. At first, I wasn’t sure where I was or what was going on, but the announcement was loud and kept repeating. I thought it might be some false alarm that would be turned off in a minute or so, but when three minutes had gone by and it was still blaring, I looked out the window to see if I could get a clue as to what was happening. I don’t know what I was looking for (the other side of the hotel in flames?), but I figured I ought to get dressed and leave the room, if only to get away from the noise.

I walked down to the exit stairs at the end of the hall, opened the door, and saw a stream of people on their way down. They looked stunned, but kept moving, albeit slowly. Guests in a casino hotel tend not to be the fittest people in the world. Many are senior citizens, who wouldn’t be moving too quickly if this were 2:40pm. Others, who spend their sedentary leisure time in front of slot machines and blackjack tables, aren’t in the best shape either. Then there was the woman who weighed 500 pounds, minimum, whose body was not happy about the 14 flights of stairs she was being forced to descend. Neither were the people who were backed up behind her rather large behind.

With the outdoor temperature at 19 degrees, no one was anxious to go outside –- particularly Gulf-Coasters who aren’t used to this kind of weather and weren’t dressed for it. Still, there was a minimum of complaining, particularly since we could hear fire engine sirens in front of the hotel. Thankfully, no one was panicking. I think that was because we couldn’t smell anything. The first whiff of smoke would have changed things dramatically. Ironically, as we emerged through the exit door, the first thing we encountered besides the cold was a phalanx of smokers, whose bodies had been forced into some physical activity against their wills, so they were going to make up for it with a few Marlboros.

A Beau Rivage employee pointed passers-by toward the lobby, saying we could go in there to stay warm -– an odd thing to say considering the alarm announcement was still repeating inside. Since we nothing seemed ablaze, we tromped through into the atrium. Or maybe some folks were hoping something was on fire because it would warm them up.

Once there, many guests kept moving towards the casino, as if the only thing to do during a fire alarm was try to hit a jackpot. I stayed put in the lobby, observing how people were handling the situation. I ran into Eric Harkins, whose ImageMasters company is the official photographer for most major poker tournaments. He had been in the hotel nightclub when the alarm went off, but said the announcements couldn’t be heard over the music, so most people were still in there.

Eric told me that this was the third alarm at the Beau in the last few days, and chalked it up to some idiot inconveniencing everyone by smoking too close to a smoke detector. We chatted for a half-hour or so until the all-clear signal came over the alarm system. At that point, the crowd headed for the elevators, but I knew it would take at least another half-hour for the crowd to get back upstairs, so I talked some more with Eric and poker circuit veteran Doug Carli and his wife. Doug had just been knocked out of that day’s tournament (he cashed, which he does a remarkably high percentage of the time).

Finally, around 4:00am, with the elevator queue down to a few people, I headed to my room, knowing my iPhone alarm was set to wake me in four hours for my trip home.