BY RUSS SCOTT
JULY 8, 2008
STAGE SET FOR BIG WORLD SERIES OF POKER FINISH
LAS VEGAS — Poker’s biggest show is poised to put an exclamation point on its six-week spectacle.
The main event of the World Series of Poker is playing now with a starting cast of more than 6,800, and it’s fair to say poker’s most prestigious tournament could even top the drama of the 53 acts preceding it at the Rio Casino.
Here’s a recap of the 39th WSOP so far:
* The series began in controversy with word that the main event final table would not be played next week. In a historic break with tradition, WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said that once the final nine players are determined late on July 14, action will be suspended until November 9-10 and then aired the next night in prime time on ESPN.
The change sparked howls of dissent from poker fans. Poker Web sites lit up with tons of comments labeling the four-month delay “a stupid idea” and a threat to the tournament’s integrity.
The questions were legit: What if a player dies or is disabled and can’t compete? Why remove physical and mental stamina as criteria in determining the world champion? Why change a competition that has exploded into the richest anywhere?
After a week or two, the protests died down when it became clear that Pollack, the WSOP players advisory council and the TV execs weren’t bluffing. The potential wisdom of the change emerged as fans realized the added hype and near-live airing of the final table actually should be quite exciting.
When the curtain finally falls Nov. 11 on this year’s World Series, poker stands to gain a spike in interest not possible otherwise.
* Heading into the main event last week, the current popularity of poker was affirmed in 53 preliminary events, which attracted nearly 51,000 entries and created an overall prize pool of more than $126 million.
Those totals surpassed comparable 2007 results of 47,930 players and $100 million for the same number of events. It’s a lock that the final 2008 totals will top last year.
As of late Sunday, the last of four starting days, the total number of entries in the main event had topped 6,800, which should yield a $9 million or so payday for the champion. Last year’s winner, Jerry Yang, took home $8.25 million against a field of 6,358.
* It’s hard to imagine a more popular victory this series than the one Scotty Nguyen pulled off June 29 in the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament, dubbed the “players’ championship” because the mega-sized entry fee assures a field dominated by the game’s elite.
Just 148 battled this year for the coveted title now named in honor of the late Chip Reese, winner of the inaugural event in 2006. Widely recognized as a true gentleman at the felt and one of the absolute best to ever play the game, Reese excelled at all five poker disciplines — hold’em, Omaha, razz, stud and stud eight-or-better — which provide the event’s acronym.
Nguyen, a Vietnam refugee at age 14, barely survived a harrowing 23 days in a boat with 16 others trying to sail to Thailand. Now 45, Nguyen is one of poker’s most popular players, noted for taking the time to chat with amateurs, sign autographs, and treat even strangers with respect.
In a media session afterwards, he explained his connection with fans: “Without them, they would never have Scotty Nguyen now… You got to give them what they fly out here for. That’s why, wherever I go, baby, I’m the home-team favorite.”
The H.O.R.S.E. title was Nguyen’s fifth WSOP victory, and he is the only player who holds both that and a world championship bracelet (1998). The nearly $2 million first-place prize pushed his career winnings to about $9.4 million.
Only a victory in the event by Reese’s best friend Doyle Brunson, the 74-year-old godfather of poker who holds 10 bracelets, would have been more compelling.
* Early on, this 39th series was dubbed the “year of the pro” when big-name stars kept winning bracelets, including several top players breaking through for the first time such as Erick Lindgren, J.C. Tran, David Benyamine, David Singer, Kenny Tran, and John Phan (twice).
Top pros adding to their bracelet collection included Daniel Negreanu, Mike Matusow, Barry Greenstein and Layne Flack. Not on the list was Phil Hellmuth, who came close but was unable to add to his record 11 WSOP titles.
* Two amateurs stole the spotlight with their bracelet victories and generosity.
Jimmy Shultz, who lost a close friend when nine firefighters died in a horrific warehouse blaze in his hometown Charleston, S.C., pledged 25 percent of his $257,000 in prize money to that city’s fire department after winning a limit hold’em tournament. While dominating the final table, the poker rookie wore a ball cap sporting the letters “CFD” to honor the firefighters.
Just two days later, Eric Brooks captured a stud tournament for $415,856 and said his entire first-place check would go to the Decision Education Foundation. He’ll hang on to his first bracelet.
Check out WSOP main event updates this week from Las Vegas at www.luckydogpoker.com.
E-mail your poker questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org for use in future columns. To find out more about Russ Scott and read previous LuckyDog Poker columns, visit www.creators.com or www.luckydogpoker.com.
COPYRIGHT 2008 RUSS SCOTT
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