Main Event countdown

The familiar faces of Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow made sure the real story of this year’s main event was played away from the TV cameras…

I’m choked up right now. I never thought I’d have this chance again and it sucks

At 11am on Sunday 13 July 2008, it was clear that we had finally arrived at the business end of the WSOP main event. A total of 79 runners remained on day six and we were just two days away from establishing the final table of nine players. But for once the chipcounts were not the hot topic flying around the Amazon Room.

At the conclusion of the previous day’s play, Phil Hellmuth had been given a one-orbit penalty after an outburst against fellow player Cristian Dragomir at the ESPN feature table. According to Jeremy Mader, the dealer at the table, it was a well-deserved punishment. ‘The other guy in the hand was in seat three. He made it 80k. Hellmuth is in the small blind and makes it 225,000. The other guy calls,’ said Mader.

‘The flop comes 10-9-7 and Hellmuth checks. The guy bets 300k and Hellmuth folds face up. When the other guy shows his hand (10-4), Hellmuth flips out saying the other guy was the worst player in the room. He was just berating him incessantly. Everybody at the table agreed that it was out of line.’


So as day six got under way, all eyes on the raised stands around the main feature table were on Hellmuth. But those hoping for a flare-up were to be disappointed. The 11-time bracelet winner strolled up to the ESPN feature table and proceeded to greet each member of his table with a handshake. Apparently Hellmuth had brokered a deal with WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack to retract the penalty, and the Poker Brat was off the hook.

And as tournament director Jack Effel announced ‘Shuffle Up and Deal!’ for almost the 50th time in the Series, Hellmuth was clearly eager to take advantage of his reprieve. On the very first hand he raised from under the gun, adding 81,000 chips to his 720k stack, and before the completion of one orbit he had managed to double his chipcount.

Outside of the main feature table, spectators moved between eight other tables, one of which was the secondary ESPN feature table, home to some huge stacks including chip-leader Mark Ketteringham. But easily the biggest swathe of supporters was hunkered down around the table officially designated ‘Green 1’.

Mike Matusow was in seat seven and although he had a lot of work to do with his 1.1m stack, there seemed to be a real expectation that this was his year. Every now and again, shouts of encouragement such as ‘C’mon Mike!’ and ‘I’ve bet on you Mike’ would pipe up and every second person seemed to rate Matusow as their favourite player. Matusow’s autobiographer Tim Lavalli had been standing doggedly on the rail throughout the Series and he was in no doubt that Matusow was in the form of his life. ‘He’s got a better mental attitude than he’s ever had,’ said Lavalli. ‘Yesterday he had a hard day mentally and with his medication. Today he’s feeling really great. He won’t be happy with anything but a final table but he will be able to take it better if he busts out.’


Early play was fast and dirty. Before the first break, 22 players had been sent packing. Bust-outs weren’t subtle affairs either. Every time two players had all their chips in, a gaggle of ESPN cameramen, boom operators, floor people and a handful of bloggers would sprint over and the crowd would shift its collective attention.

As we raced inexorably towards the final 27, the tension was beginning to tell. One verbal altercation at Green 4 involved an overzealous security guard who had clashed with a player’s wife, resulting – somewhat strangely – in the guard being ejected from the Amazon Room and sent home.

The sole UK representative left in was the fresh-faced Aaron Gordon. The 21-year-old student from Brighton had surprised no one more than himself by getting so far and started the day a remarkable sixth in chips. ‘I was just happy to make the money,’ Gordon said. ‘Now my goal’s changed and I want to get as far as possible.’

By the dinner break, the field was really beginning to thin. The most notable casualty was Phil Hellmuth, who finally succumbed in 45th – his A-Q failing to improve against Jacks. To his credit he bowed out to rapturous applause with good grace, signing autographs and of course giving the usual Poker Brat bombast in his exit interviews.

‘I didn’t falter for six days. I only played one coin-flip for more than 50% of my chips – no one does that. I didn’t really do much wrong. I could have slow-played Aces, could have slow- played the nut flush. I could have re-raised someone with 7-9 when I was supposed to. Just tiny little things. But I was strong and I’m proud of that.’

After his departure most eyes were on the ESPN secondary feature table, with at least three rows of Matusow fans eager to see their man make it through. However, The Mouth was showing serious discomfort and at several junctures was heard to shout, ‘Can I be moved off this goddamned table?’

‘We have a beast of a table,’ said New Yorker Paul Snead who was sitting two seats to Matusow’s left. ‘It’s by far the most difficult table we’ve had at the Series. Every player at the table can play post-flop, pre-flop, play to the river and is capable of firing three bullets. Mike was complaining because he couldn’t steal chips without a hand.’

With just three players left to go until the final 27 Matusow seemed safe, but there was no escaping his final hand against Snead. All the chips flew in on an A-A-5-9 board with Matusow holding A-J but Snead flipping a full house with A-9. The Mouth was visibly distraught. ‘It’s not the way I wanted to go out,’ he said, wiping away the tears. ‘I’m choked up right now. I never thought I’d have this chance again and it sucks.’

Following Matusow’s exit, it took just one more hour for the field to dwindle down to the requisite number and day six of the main event officially concluded at ten minutes to midnight. The final 27 would have just 12 hours to get some sleep, gather their thoughts and return for a guaranteed marathon final day.


If you walked into the Amazon Room just before noon on day seven without knowing much about the World Series, you could be forgiven for asking why such a gigantic room was being used for something so small in scale.

The image of endless ranks of poker tables with no room to breathe and even less to move was a distant memory. All that remained of the WSOP 2008 was huddled in one corner. The hulking tiered decks which had hugged the feature table for weeks were now flanked on either side of just two tables.

What started as relative calm then turned into pandemonium as the 300-strong crowd waiting outside rushed to find their seats in the feature table area and capture prime spots along the rail. The secondary feature table proved to be extremely popular, no doubt because of the player sitting in seat eight, Tiffany ‘Hot Chips’ Michelle.

Over the past six days, the funkily dressed actress had become a WSOP marketing dream. Attractive and with an established fanbase, the 22-year-old was the last woman standing and a big-time result was beckoning. Starting the day third in chips with close to 10 million, she seemed destined to become the first female since Annie Duke in 2000 to make a main event final table.

Michelle had got lucky at times – most notably on day five when her Aces found another Ace to beat a set – but she was quick to point out that she had more experience than people gave her credit for. ‘When I’m in LA, I play tournaments at the Commerce and at the Hustler – not at the $10,000 scale but anything from $300 to $1,000. I’ve been grinding it out for years and would like to be respected as a poker player.’

It was also hard to miss a pink-haired Johnny Chan stalking the sidelines. In much the same way as he had done with Jamie Gold in 2006, Chan had taken 23- year-old Nick Sliwinski under his wing, apparently tipping him early on to win the whole thing. ‘I think he’s got a lot of heart; he’s a good player,’ said the two- time World Champ.

Elsewhere, with just over an hour of play gone, British hopes were finally extinguished when Gordon pushed with Q-10 and got called by Jacks. A tough day six had left him short-stacked with no real options but his delight at going so far was undimmed. ‘I was making my opening range really tight but widening my re-raising range,’ said the Brighton man. ‘I needed to play that way to stand a chance of making the final table. I’m not at all disappointed though.’

Gordon’s elimination seemed to light the touchpaper for some swift bust-outs and four hours into day seven we were already redrawing for two tables. Word of the fast-diminishing field was filtering out to the rest of Vegas fast. By 4pm a swarm of well-known faces had joined the likes of Chan at the Rio.

Men ‘The Master ’ Nguyen, both Michael and Robert Mizrachi, Tom ‘Durrrr’ Dwan, Marcel Luske and recent bracelet winner JC Tran were all huddled around the secondary feature table – and interestingly the majority of pro support was for David ‘Chino’ Rheem in seat nine.

‘He’s always been around the scene,’ explained Tran. ‘He’s capable of being a very good player but sometimes he just goofs off a lot. But it’s the main event so there’s a lot of us putting him in check and he realises how important this is. I told him to play like it’s his last tournament ever and I told him that a lot of us that are watching would pay a lot of money to be in his spot.’


Chino may have been on the way up but since her move to the main feature table Michelle had been taking a beating. She eventually departed in 17th to a standing ovation. Four more runners followed in relatively rapid succession, leaving Michael Mizrachi gobsmacked. ‘I don’t think anyone wants to make the final nine!’ he quipped. ‘If I was playing I wouldn’t be trying anything too advanced, just ABC poker.’

Another of the crowd favourites, Nick Sliwinski, went out in 13th as Johnny Chan’s young charge bluffed into Dennis Phillips’ made flush. An understandably distressed Sliwinski later explained the thinking behind his suicidal move: ‘I wasn’t entirely sure what he had but I thought I could get him to fold a better hand. He was a very tight player.’ Chan’s reaction to the outcome was short and sweet: ‘He’ll be fine.’


At five minutes past midnight, the remaining ten players made their way over to the feature table to conclude their epic journey. As ESPN funnelled each individual player’s fans, friends and family into specified areas around the main stage, it was impossible to move around without hearing an opinion about how to approach this life-changing moment.

The scene was like the dying moments of a basketball game where the clock stops, the players huddle and the coach delivers one final play. Even the ESPN cameramen and dealers could be overheard discussing tactics. The only point that everyone could agree on was that we were in for a long night.

But then on the very first hand Craig Marquis raised to 525k, Ylon Schwartz re-raised to 1.6m and Marquis came right back at him with 4.5m. The crowd immediately rose to its feet, a wave of gasps flying around the arena. When Schwartz pushed all-in for the rest of his 10 million stack, the crowd were willing Marquis to make the call.

Marquis tanked for a solid five minutes but eventually folded in disgust. Schwartz flipped over Aces and his supporters went ballistic. Robert Williamson III was convinced that he knew what Marquis’ hand was. ‘He took too long to think to have Queens. He must have folded Kings or A-K.’

After the spectacular start, play settled down with no player willing to give an inch. Two and a half hours on with two breaks gone, the audience were getting restless, some even nodding off in their seats. ‘Maybe they’ll just play until November,’ joked one spectator. Finally at 3.28am, the breakthrough came and again Marquis was at the centre of it all.

Dean Hamrick moved all-in for 3.4m and it folded round to Marquis who made a decisive call with pocket Queens. Hamrick flipped over A-J and could barely look as the board was dealt in achingly slow time. And as the blank river came down the remaining nine exploded into delirious celebration.

It was a strange moment, and as the ragtag group of low-key pros, online whizz kids and unknown amateurs hugged their friends and family, the media and spectators scanned the scene trying to pick out who might become the next poker icon – the next WSOP main event champion. But they, like the final nine themselves, would have to wait four months to find out. The real story of the 2008 main event has only just begun.

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