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Decade-long poker boom reaches its peak as a great Dane scoops millions 15/11/2008
The Guardian

It was long past sundown on Monday night in Las Vegas, and sport's greatest announcer Michael Buffer strode on to the stage at the Rio Hotel and Casino. To a capacity crowd, he introduced two contenders - a 26-year-old Russian and a 22-year-old Dane - before dusting down a variation on his signature catch-phrase: "Ladies and gentleman, lllllet's get rrrrready toooo ... Shhhuffflllle up and deaaaal!"

Despite the clear inspiration from a heavyweight title fight Buffer, the Russian, the Dane, the 100-strong press corps and 1,000-plus spectators were there for poker: more precisely, the final hours of the 2008 World Series Championship Event. It is the game's flagship tournament and they were playing for a $9m (£5.89m) first prize, but still the razzmatazz was nothing like it had ever been before.

Buffer was flown in at the start of the final passage of play in a tournament costing $10,000 (£6,542) to enter and beginning in July. The Russian - Ivan Demidov, from Moscow - and the Dane - Peter Eastgate, from Odense - outlasted more than 6,800 players and were about to go heads up, mano-a-mano, for poker's premier prize.

This, really, was only the logical conclusion of the spectacular poker boom of the past decade, during which the game has risen out of boozy basements to feature on just about every bus-shelter, taxi door, laptop and satellite channel.

Although the all-out assault on the mainstream media may have eased off in the past couple of years, poker remains hugely popular worldwide. Lines of spectators snaked from the Penn and Teller Theater at the Rio, each waiting for a seat in view of the final table. Furthermore the television broadcast will attract millions of viewers and be repeated endlessly, while many thousands of internet players will enter satellite tournaments for seats in next year's main event, probably at one of the online cardrooms whose logos were splashed across the chests and baseball caps of the new stars.

The man all others will want to emulate turned out to be Eastgate, who beat Demidov over four hours' play and became the youngest champion of the main event. He shaved two years off the previous record held by Phil Hellmuth, who was 24 when he earned $755,000 (£495,000) for winning in 1989. This year Demidov took more than $5m (£3.28m) for second place, ahead of seven other players competing on the final weekend. Of them only Craig Marquis, eliminated on Sunday, earned less than a million bucks. He had to make do with $900,670 (£590,162) for ninth place.

The central controversy of this year's World Series was the decision to delay the final table until four months after the tournament began. The original field of 6,844 players was sliced to its final nine over 11 days of play in July, but the winner would not be decided until Monday. Organisers reasoned that the postponement would give the so-called "November Nine" an opportunity to secure lucrative endorsements and raise their public profile ahead of the multi-million dollar showdown. The volatile nature of tournament poker, especially an event with so many competitors, meant that a final table of established professional players was always highly unlikely, and the delay allowed the previously unheralded November Nine to make themselves known.

Cynical poker purists were predictably outraged by the postponement, regarding it as an unnecessary tinkering with a long-established format, and one that might even be detrimental to the players. In order to emerge from the massive field in July, the final nine would have been both "running good" (ie hitting good cards at the right time) and in a unique zone of focus and concentration, something that could be broken through the intervening months.

Certainly the organisers' motives were not entirely altruistic. Those with most to gain from the delay were the various corporate entities associated with poker, none more so than ESPN, the television network whose World Series coverage draws massive audiences in the United States. ESPN screened the preliminary action from the entire World Series (a seven-week jamboree of more than 40 tournaments) over the past few months, essentially serving as a trailer to its final table coverage, hyped beyond hype and screened on Tuesday night, about 15 hours after the live action wrapped.

European poker fans weren't quite so lucky, with the prohibitive time difference and lack of mainstream broadcaster consigning potential spectators to live web updates and online streams. The World Series accredited 535 journalists for this year's summer tournaments and 102 for the final table, most of whom were representing a dedicated poker outlet and who brought regularly updated chip counts and reports from the tournament floor.

Despite the lack of a broadcast, it was the Europeans who were left with most to cheer, and the duel between Eastgate and Demidov was the first time in the 38-year history of the World Series that an American was not in the final two. Dennis Phillips, a 53-year-old truck firm account manager from St Louis, was the highest-finishing US player, earning $4,517,773 for third.

Phillips, who was chip-leader going to the final table, seemed already to have invested much of the winnings before his return to Vegas by bulk-booking the Rio Hotel for more than 300 supporters flown in from Missouri. Harrah's Entertainment, owner of the Rio, salivated at its enhanced slice of poker's biggest prize pool, while Phillips' supporters each donned a red hat and white shirt to turn themselves into a clone of their hero, evoking a red-state version of the restaurant scene from Being John Malkovich.

Unless they invest particularly badly, each of the November Nine is now more than comfortable for a few years at least. Their official payouts are not necessarily the precise amounts they will take home as the taxman (especially demanding in Eastgate's native Denmark) and any pre-tournament backers will want their cut.

But the real estate on their shirts and hats has just grown tremendously in value and the online cardrooms, sticky logos in hand, will be lining up to extend and renegotiate sponsorship contracts as the players hit poker's equivalent of the chat-show circuit.

And then this time next year, we'll be getting ready to rumble all over again.

1 Peter Eastgate, Demark, $9,152,416
2 Ivan Demidov, Russia, $5,809,595
3 Dennis Phillips, US, $4,517,773
4 Ylon Schwartz, US, $3,794,974
5 Scott Montgomery, Canada, $3,096,768
6 Darus Suharto, Canada, $2,418,562
7 David 'Chino' Rheem, US $1,772,650
8 Kelly Kim, US, $1,288,217
9 Craig Marquis, US, $900,670
Buy in: $10,000
Number of players: 6,844
Number of players paid: 666
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