The World Series Of Poker Main Event continues to be a pilgrimage for thousands of poker players. We decided to look into its enduring appeal

With numbers as strong as ever, the WSOP Main Event continues to be poker’s ultimate draw

I hit Las Vegas in time for Day 4 of the Main Event. Nolan Dalla, the World Series of Poker’s bearish media handler, spots me dodging an ESPN cameraman as I cruise through the Rio’s Amazon Room. Busy poker tables spread out for as far as the eye can see. Sounds of riffling tournament chips permeate the air. ‘Just got here?’ Dalla asks rhetorically, as I watch a Slovakian internet kid pushing all-in and sucking out. ‘Guess you’re coming for the gravy.’

Maybe so, but the fact of the matter is there are still around 800 people left in the running. They represent a fraction of the 6,494-player starting field, but, even at this point, not long before the money bubble bursts, it is still a huge tournament. To put things in perspective, the 2009 Main Event at this point is about the same size as the starting day in 2003, the year Chris Moneymaker changed everything by outplaying Sammy Farha.

Tight Is Right?

Leading the pack today, with more chips than anyone else, is platinum-haired Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier. He flashes a million-dollar smile while raking in one pile of chips after another. Insiders are already musing about how great it will be to have poker’s first rock star champion. ElkY himself dismisses such talk, reminding me that it’s too early in the tournament to think about glorious endings.

He’s prophetic. Seemingly in no time at all, ElkY shamelessly burns through his millions, flames out in 122nd place, and inspires a rant from Joe Hachem: ‘Look at these people who had two or three million in chips and are now out of the tournament. How does that happen? Players like that are good for me, but it gets me upset for the game.’

Phil Hellmuth, who makes the money but will get nowhere near sniffing distance of the final table, pulls me aside to explain that things are different in 2009. Never mind that I hear him giving tablemates his old lecture about the risky nature of trying to bluff him – he says his strategy has been retooled. ‘The players are better this year,’ he acknowledges, offering an opinion that runs totally counter to that of Hachem and maybe underscores the fact that there are all kinds of players here who play in all kinds of different ways. ‘They know that super-tight is right. People are playing more like I do. But that’s exploitable. I’ve loosened up. I bluffed and called a bet with 6-7 offsuit. Then I raised with Q-5 of spades. A Queen came, but I lost to Aces.’ He smirks uncomfortably and shakes his head with a bit of disgust, maybe at himself. ‘My heart was racing and I didn’t know what the hell was happening.’

Kill Phil

Days grind on, tables condense, and superstar players bite the dust. Through it all, a few clear-cut leaders emerge. Most notable of the lot is Phil Ivey. He’s taking the tournament seriously, amassing chips like mad, and so in the moment of the game that he clearly isn’t thinking about how he looks with his weird stare, mouth half-open, tongue curled in between his upper lip and front teeth. A dealer on a break gushes about Ivey’s propensity for showing up early, situating himself at the table, and never taking his eyes off his opponents.

One of them is a Steve Buscemi lookalike named Blair Rodman. The co-author of Kill Phil, he went deep the year Greg Raymer won and spends much of this tournament playing at the same table as laser-staring Ivey. After losing six figures in chips to him, Rodman groans, ‘What can you say about Phil? He plays like God and runs like God.’

Sometimes, though, it takes more than God for phantom cards to materialise. Going beyond prayer, Antonio Esfandiari enlists the help of a dealer when he finds himself badly out-carded, with his tournament life on the line. ‘I told the dealer that if he delivers me a flush, I will wash his car,’ says Esfandiari, dressed in knee-length shorts and sandals. ‘I was all in with Ks-Js against pocket nines. He gave me the flush and now I’m going to wash the guy’s car.’

No such compacts need to be made by James Akenhead. A former train driver from London, he emerges as a rollercoastering, chip-hoovering monster. Enduring violent swings, this member of the London-based Hit Squad reveals himself to be a real contender with a ton of heart.
I can’t help but wonder how he’s dealing with the mega shifts of fortune that seem to plague him. ‘You can’t let anything get to you; you need to continually assess your stack and get on with it,’ he says, describing a tournament start that would have done in just about any emotionally weak player. ‘During the first level I lost back-to-back hands with sets. Then I got it in bad and played pots very poorly. After all that, at the dinner break, I reminded myself that this is the World Series. I told myself, “You came to this with confidence, you thought you would do well. Play tight!” I decided not to play a hand for one hour.’ Now he laughs a bit and adds, ‘As soon as I got back, though, I flopped a set. I had to play it.’

As Akenhead surges, former champ Peter Eastgate falters. He busts out and exits the Amazon Room. Walking beyond the action, Eastgate looks like he doesn’t know what just hit him. He says he’s taken aback by the melancholy that comes with his lacklustre 78th-place finish, just one year after being poised for poker immortality. ‘I’m shocked to be this depressed by my result,’ says Eastgate, heading off to cash out and start winding down his reign as world champion. ‘I wasn’t prepared for busting out when I did. I didn’t expect to duplicate, but I really wanted to keep on playing.’

Over The Moon

One day before the final table will be set there are 64 players remaining and a good number of well-known pros are using big stacks to push around amateurs. Many of the non-pros are now hurting themselves by committing errors that betray recreational status.

Too often they’re making plays based on their stacks relative to others in the game, rather than focusing on the number of blinds they have left. ‘Playing for all these days breaks you down,’ explains Mike Matusow, who busted out early this year but has lots of WSOP experience and a mouthful of opinions. ‘That’s why Phil Ivey will make the final table and win. He’ll chop his way up and watch people break down in front of his face.’

As the field thins, it becomes increasingly obvious that things are toughening. Now even top pros are having a hard time of it – Dennis Phillips goes down in 45th place, trailed by a bearded friend carrying an airhorn contraption that never quite got working during this event – and paving the way for dark horses. An unexpected chip leader rises in the form of Darvin Moon, a self-described redneck logger from the state of Maryland. Continually bobbing atop the chip-count list, he threatens to be the Jerry Yang of 2009: a WSOP champion who clearly wants the money but has no interest in pumping up the game.

He stands out from the crowd of remaining players by keeping himself unadorned with company logos. It’s not from a lack of offers – the usual suspects are circling with dollar signs in their eyes – but a desire to keep things uncomplicated and to be beholden to no one. If Moon wins, he insists he’ll go right back to work at his logging company. He entered a satellite with funds garnered in a tournament at his local American Legion Hall, aced a Series seat, and came to Vegas. Thus far in the World Series, he’s folded pocket Kings preflop, turned down every sponsorship deal, and insists that he is from nowhere and that’s where he wants to stay.
‘A lot of these guys live for these events; if I win here, I’ll go back home and return to what I was doing,’ Moon says, insisting that the secret to his success is incredibly good luck. ‘We started with 6,494 players, and I’d say that 6,400 are better than me. With the cards I’m getting, I haven’t even had to gamble.’

Then, stoking a suspicion that maybe his lucky neophyte image is being played a little too hard, he motions for me to turn off my tape recorder. I do, and Moon tells me, ‘Nobody out there can beat me.’

Meanwhile, Antonio Esfandiari is playing for all he’s worth. Under TV lights at the feature table, The Magician changes gears, weathers swings, and, finally, at 10.25pm, with 28 players left (the plan is to play down to 27 tonight), shoves all-in and gets called. He turns up Aces, faces an opponent’s Jacks, and sweats the next five cards in a huddle with family and friends. They explode in relieved applause as the board blanks and action concludes for the day.

The penultimate day of the WSOP (which, of course, concludes in November) begins with Barcelona’s pretty Leo Margets busting out. She tells me she has no nickname because her first name is so short. I say we christen her Spanish Fly. At any rate, she’s clearly sensible and insists that being the longest-lasting female in the 2009 WSOP will not go to her head: ‘I don’t plan on burning through this money,’ she tells me of her $352,832 prize. ‘I will keep playing the way I’ve been playing – mostly entering small tournaments – and use the money to make my lifestyle, away from poker, better.’

She heads off with a quartet of poker pals. The remaining field, composed mostly of pros, battens down the hatches. James Akenhead continues to ride the poker-coaster, enduring more volatility than just about anyone else remaining in the tournament. Two hours into the day, Antonio Esfandiari busts out in 24th place, after losing a hand to Steve Begleiter, a hedge fund executive from New York City. Asked for a comment as he departs the Amazon Room, Esfandiari dips his head a bit and says, ‘Not now. I’m feeling a little sick.’ In the meantime, Begleiter begins to turn steroidal, taking off on a tear of heavyweight chip building.

Real Deal

During a break in play, I spot Mike Sexton, looking sporty in an untucked button-down shirt and schmoozing it up with the otherwise taciturn Phil Ivey. I overhear mention made of 6am and Sexton exclaiming that Ivey is sick. I wonder if they’re discussing a golf tee-off time and ask Sexton to clue me in. ‘We’re talking about poker,’ Sexton tells me. ‘Phil is playing sky-high every night in Bobby’s Room and then coming here for the tournament at noon. The guy’s a machine.’ Furthermore, Sexton reveals, Ivey has the kind of incentive that will keep him focused on the World Series: back when 2,000 players remained in the tournament, he got 100-to-1 odds on a $20,000 bet that he’d win the bracelet. Plus, he’s now freerolling on four $1m win-the-bracelet bets.

James Akenhead needs no additional encouragement to win. But he is struggling along through a dramatically low ebb. Just 14 players remain, and he’s the tournament short-stack with only two million in chips. Looking nauseous, trying to be patient, slam-riffling chips on the table, he finally makes his move, shoving all-in against a raise from fitness fanatic Jamie Robbins. Akenhead shows K-Q offsuit. Robbins reveals Aces. Before the flop Akenhead approaches previously unseen levels of misery. He resembles a man girding to witness his own death. Then the flop comes a miraculous K-Q-J. The turn and river are bricks and Akenhead’s Hit Squad mobs him.

Reigning chip czar Steve Begleiter pumps Akenhead on the back and seems genuinely pleased. Soon after, as he races past the Rio’s roaring slot machines, en route to a steak dinner at Voodoo Lounge, Begleiter tells me, ‘That kid James Akenhead – he’s the real deal. He’s as good a player as I have ever come across. I am glad he hit that flop.’

November Nine

Maybe he’s right. Despite a perilously close call, the London-based pro makes it to the semi-final table of ten and survives that cut to be one of the elite November Nine. As the final hand finishes, dispatching a player whose name will be lost to history books and esoteric records of the game, a crush of friends and fans push in on the table. Players whip out their cell phones, sharing good news with the folks back home. Logger Darvin Moon seems mildly impressed with himself for somehow managing to snare more than 25% of all the chips in this game. Kevin Schaffel, with nearly 13 million, is already plotting how quickly he’ll need to double up. Porters immediately get to work dismantling the WSOP set, working around the flock of reporters who close in on Phil Ivey.

Not only is he the most famous poker player in the world, but, true to Matusow’s prediction, he has made the final table – three from the bottom in chips. There are whispers that Ivey’s very presence in the November finale will be enough to endow poker with the big boost it needs. Given that, it’s difficult not to wonder how the intensely private Ivey will deal with spending the next four months in the media glare. ‘I’m just gonna change my cell phone number and leave the country,’ he says. The comment elicits a few nervous laughs, and Ivey adds, ‘I’m serious.’

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