Decade-long poker boom reaches its peak as a great Dane scoops
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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