Four months after the Main Event began, Michael Kaplan heads back to the Rio to watch the November Nine play on for world poker supremacy and a $9m bracelet
Fifteen years ago I interviewed Phil Hellmuth during the World Series of Poker Main Event. Chatting in a back corner of the old Horseshoe casino, he made a number of statements that were clearly over the top. The most outrageous, though, was a prediction for the future of poker. Sitting in a smoky room, surrounded by gamblers of a decidedly non-commercial bent, he described a world in which players would wear corporate logos in the manner of Formula 1 racers; poker tournaments would be held in sports arenas; and money earned at the table would be dwarfed by what could be made through promotions.
Fast forward to the morning of November 9, 2008. We’re inside the Penn and Teller Theatre at the Rio, poised to spend today and tomorrow night watching the WSOP Main Event’s final table (held over from July). The theatre is a modern performance space, custom-built for the magical duo. A tournament table stands onstage, behind a gigantic wall. The table is ringed by steel bleachers. Enormous monitors will capture the action for 1,400 fans in orchestra and mezzanine seats. It feels like a completely legitimate sporting event.
The Poker Brat is on hand to watch this final table. He stands at the edge of the stage and looks up toward the top tier of the theatre. ‘You thought I was nuts, huh?’ he asks, clearly relishing my recollection of our conversation. ‘Well, that’s one that I predicted accurately. It’s getting bigger and bigger.’
Members of this capacity crowd would agree. Poker fans began lining up at 3.30am, hoping to get seated by the 10am start time. Dewey Tomko, who gets inaugurated into the Poker Hall of Fame during a break in Series play, surveys the crowd and seems a little miffed. ‘I saw these lines,’ he says, ‘and I figured that the people were waiting to vote or something.’
One of only two non-pros at the table and opening big stack with 26,295,000 in chips, Dennis Phillips has invited 300 of his nearest and dearest to occupy some of the theatre’s seats. He’s outfitted his contingent in matching white shirts, with identical logos to his. They root for his every move, holding up signs and chanting the spelling of his name. Milling around the theatre lobby, these folks identify themselves as friends, relatives, old college buddies, workmates. Essentially, he’s corralled people from every stage of his life to revel in his great poker achievement.
Initially, it must be a bit of a letdown for them. In no time at all, damaged largely by a big bluff from the aggressive Moscovite Ivan Demidov, bearded and burly Phillips drops down to around six million in chips. Then, soon after, strapped in for the rollercoaster ride of tournament poker, he bounces back up to more than 21 million. But by the first two eliminations (Craig Marquis in ninth place and Kelly Kim, one hand later, in eighth), the former leader is now one from the bottom with around nine million in chips.
Meanwhile the first two casualties are taking their losses in good form. Marquis’s mum tells me about the truck he bought her and that, long before Marquis achieved his current status, she didn’t mind the idea of him quitting college to pursue poker. Considering that he was first to go out, despite starting with a decent stack, it’s impossible not to ask whether or not the 117-day break hurt him.
‘I wish we’d played the final table straight through,’ he acknowledges. ‘That way there’d have been less of a build-up and fewer disappointments right now.’
The player who seems to have everyone a little rattled is the mysterious Ylon Schwartz. A frizzy-haired pro from Brooklyn, New York, he has totally reconfigured his style of play. He’s transformed from an ultra-tight player to a bit of a wild man. ‘I don’t know if he thought about it during his time off, but his play has definitely changed,’ says Kim, on his way out of the building and trailed by his doppelganger girlfriend and gang of followers, all off to his place in Henderson for a celebration (really, not finishing last was the woefully short-stacked pro’s goal – and it was worth nearly $ 400,000 to him). ‘Suddenly Ylon was pushing all-in and putting pressure on everyone. That was a real surprise.’
It works. By the time Kelly departs, Schwartz, who’s vowed to ‘go off the grid and disappear’ if he happens to win the Series, is putting himself in position to do just that. After catching two-pair against Demidov – and not falling for a bluff on the river – Schwartz edges his way into the chip lead.
Bearded and moody, like some Dostoyevsky anti-hero, Demidov is always mentioned as a favourite to win this tournament – and not just because he managed to final-table the WSOPE Main Event. His play here is unpredictable and effective.
Like everybody else at the table, Demidov has a cheering section. Unlike the others, though, his group is small, less than a dozen strong. But they make up for the lack of size with oodles of emotion. They sing Russian drinking chants, the women (one of whom, a pretty Eurasian, is Demidov’s girlfriend) wear traditional garb, and Stanislav Alekhin, who finished second to John Juanda in the WSOPE, has donned a crisp white New York Yankees shirt, contrasted by his Russian-flag cape. Then there is the group’s distinctive headgear: Russian navy hat, Russian army hat, and a big furry number that would not seem out of place in the wilds of Siberia.
Catching the Russians on a cigarette break, I find out the obvious – the hats and traditional clothing are a goof; nobody would wear this stuff on the streets of Moscow – and the not-so-obvious. Demidov is on a small team of players backed by Sergey Rybachenko, a self-described pro who’s enjoyed some success on the tournament circuit and claims to have made considerably more as a cash game player. He’s cut a sweet deal with Demidov, receiving 80 percent of the player’s winnings.
I quickly calculate that Demidov would have taken home around £67,000 from his WSOPE finish, as compared to the £270,000 or so bagged by his backer. As if reading my mind, Rybachenko points out that putting money behind Demidov was not exactly a risk-free proposition. ‘This is only Ivan’s second international event,’ says Rybachenko, looking disco dapper in a pair of cream-coloured shoes. ‘At one point he had a make-up number of $ 150k. But he was an internet player and I knew he had a lot of talent. He just needed live experience. But I never worried about the make-up. This isn’t about the money.’
Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re in the running to win 80 percent of a $ 9m payday.
Stars on show
As play heats up, pros become increasingly visible in the crowd. PokerStars players are well represented, wearing their colours, and, seemingly, fulfilling commitments for the site. When Daniel Negreanu chugs in, a Rio handler tries to find him a place to sit. Scanning the room, Negreanu gestures toward the poker table and suggests, ‘I see a pretty good seat right next to Dennis Phillips.’ The crack generates a big laugh and Negreanu takes it further. ‘I’ll buy in. What will it cost me? Ten million?’
He looks over to Phil Hellmuth, who sits alongside sometime nemesis Barry Greenstein, and Negreanu asks, ‘Hey, Phil? You have ten million I can borrow?’
At the table, the mood is anything but light. David ‘Chino’ Rheem underscores this as he opens with a pre-flop shove of his remaining three-and-a-half million. It’s a perfect play at the perfect time as his A-K offsuit dominates the lone caller: Peter Eastgate, a gold-locked 22-year-old from Denmark, with A-Q offsuit in the hole. Then the flop comes Q-5-7 and the cruelty of this game is displayed for all to see. Rheem is promptly eliminated for making the right play at the right time with fabulous odds in his favour.
He heads toward a group of waiting reporters. Chino, as everyone calls him, appears wiped out and resembles a Buddhist monk with his closely shorn brown hair. A radio commentator innocuously asks how Chino is feeling. ‘What the f♣♥k kind of question is that? Are you serious?’ Chino wants to know. The guy tries to stitch a response, but Chino cuts him off. ‘I put my heart and soul into this. I’m man enough to know that you get unlucky, but this sucks.’
Maybe attempting to lighten the mood, someone asks what Chino did over the last four months and if he focused on poker. ‘I travelled a lot and thought about poker every f♣♥king day’, he says. ‘When I thought about it too much I felt that I was losing my mind.’ He gathers his thoughts and adds, ‘I always say in my interviews that I play for the money, not for the glory, not for the ego, not for anything else. But this tournament is different. I can tell you that this means more than just money.’
No doubt, it’s a sentiment that’s shared by Jack Binion, the man who helped create the World Series of Poker back in 1970. Jack, the most level-headed of Benny Binion’s offspring, has been a rare presence at recent World Series events. He has shown up this year for the induction ceremony that ushered his friend Dewey Tomko into the Poker Hall of Fame.
Exiting the Penn and Teller Theatre, gentlemanly Binion appears to view the current state of the WSOP as bittersweet. ‘It’s great,’ he acknowledges. ‘It’s nice to see the World Series being so successful. We started it, but the hole card camera really elevates it.’ Asked if he ever imagined the WSOP getting so big, Binion exposes the bitter side of the equation: ‘Of course not. If we had, we never would have sold it.’
The two Canadian contenders – Scott Montgomery and the diminutive, baby-faced Darus Suharto bust out in quick succession. As Suharto exits the table, there are sniggers about the irony of him having the testosterone booster Gamma-O Plus logoed on his jacket. It doesn’t matter that when he stands on his prize money of $2,418,562 Suharto looks plenty big, one security guard can’t help cracking, ‘In three weeks, he’s going to have one hell of a rack.’
Meanwhile, just four players remain and backmarkers Ylon Schwartz and Dennis Phillips each reside a double-up away from being back in the thick of it. Tension escalates as it becomes clear this is anyone’s game.
Cheering sections rise and fall with the turn of every card. Schwartz’s group gets into a Beastie Boys-inspired chant of No Sleep Till Brooklyn. Emotionless front-runner Peter Eastgate sometimes seems invisible at the table, making small moves, taking few risks, and building his stack in modest increments. With every one of his wins, though, a brown tee-shirted posse of supporters explodes. As for Phillips, well, he’s got so many people, all dressed identically to him, that after every suck-out, he seems to disappear into a cloud of white shirts and red St. Louis Cardinals hats as he steps toward the bleachers and his fans mob him.
Eastgaters get reason to celebrate when their man calls down an Ace-high bluff from Schwartz – a friend of Schwartz’s insists that he risked his tournament life on weak cards because, deep down, he didn’t want all the attention that comes with winning a Main Event – and then knocks him out with a full house that he catches on the river.
As soon as the hands are revealed, Schwartz and his group leave grumpily, as if they’re dragging their asses to the subway on a stifling Brooklyn morning. Wedging myself among them, I can’t help but wonder where Schwartz’s off-the-grid destination would have been. ‘A plethora of places,’ he tersely answers, as if his relocation plan might still be in motion.
Before Schwartz, who despises media attention, can be pressed for something more specific, a friend steps between us and tells me, ‘He’ll put one body part in each location.’
That said, Ylon Schwartz is hustled out of the Penn and Teller Theatre, happily disappearing from the public eye of poker, for now at least.
Then there were two…
Day one of the final table ends with just two players remaining. Next night Ivan Demidov and Peter Eastgate face off from opposite ends of the table. Dennis Phillips, third-place finisher and possibly the most gracious loser in World Series of Poker history, is in attendance for the heads-up showdown, exposing nary a shred of bitterness or remorse. Stands around the table are packed with poker luminaries. Hotshots Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein, Chris Ferguson and WSOP Player of the Year Erick Lindgren all occupy front and second row seats.
Before we know it cards are in the air, and history is in the making. Eastgate begins with 80,300,000 and Demidov has 56,600,000. Blinds are 300,000/600,000 and antes are 75,000. In short order, without making any huge moves, Demidov gets to within one million of his opponent. But it doesn’t last. By inducing bluffs when he has superior hands, Eastgate regains his lead.
Things break out in a serious way after Eastgate limps on the button and calls a 1.95m raise from Demidov. He shows no emotion while calling a 3.265m bet on a flop of 9-7-6. Both players check a Jack on the turn. And after a Queen lands on the river, Eastgate insta-calls Demidov’s bet of seven million. Considering that Eastgate only has a pair of Jacks, which beats Demidov’s Ace-high, there are whispers around the bleachers that Eastgate has a read on his opponent. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but at this point it really doesn’t matter. Eastgate has slightly more than 100m chips and Demidov is down to 36.6m. With each round now costing 1.4m, Demidov will have to act quickly unless he wants Eastgate to chisel him down to nothing.
That’s precisely what’s in the process of happening when I happen to spot Madeline and Stefanie Ungar, wife and daughter of the poker great who died a tragic, drug-related death. Madeline gushes over how much Stu would love to be here and the degree to which he’d be outshining the competition. But, of course, she believes that there would be a catch: ‘Stuey wouldn’t have been able to wait four months for the final table. He would have gone through the first payment of $$900,000 long before the start of the final.’
Back at the table, things become dire for Demidov. He’s down to 12m and gets it all into the pot with two-pair. Unbeknownst to him it will be the worst time in which to hit a decent hand – as Eastgate has him beat with a straight, Ace to Five.
The wheel rolls over Demidov and Peter Eastgate emerges as the 2008 world champion of poker. Photographers close in on the table. The new champion poses with his bracelet and cash, blinded by flash and appearing imperturbably cool as he basks in the brightest limelight that the game has to offer.