The WSOP main event is the Holy Grail for poker players. We followed the action at this year’s tournament
|At least half of the players in this year’s WSOP main event qualified online|
As the sun started to creep up above the Nevada skyline at 6.46am on 15 July 2005, a turn of a card changed Joseph Hachem’s life forever. Hachem, a former chiropractor from Australia, had been playing almost non-stop no-limit Texas hold’em for 14 hours on the final day of the WSOP main event when he decided to go all-in against American Steve Dannenmann.
Hachem had flopped a straight, his opponent missed the chance to split the pot on the river, and suddenly the Aussie was a whopping $7.5 million richer. As the fellow countryman who had boisterously supported him throughout launched into chants of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!’ the 38-year-old took a joyous victory lap around the stage at the Rio casino and hotel and wrapped himself in an Australian flag.
That’s why they call it the ‘Big One’
This had been a classic showdown in the finest traditions of the WSOP. This year’s main event was so big the organisers couldn’t even stage it at Binion’s Horseshoe, the slightly raffish casino in downtown Las Vegas, where it had been held every year since the tournament’s inception in 1970. Instead, they brought the 2005 main event to the smarter and altogether more capacious Rio casino and hotel off the Las Vegas Strip.
The explosion in the popularity of poker was evident in the increase in the field of entrants. A throng of 5,619 hopefuls had together staked an incredible $52 million for their chance of glory. The number of participants was more than double the 2,576 of last year and almost seven times the then-record 839 players who entered in 2003, when the almost magically named (for PR purposes anyway) Chris Moneymaker triumphed. This year’s tournament certainly showed just why the WSOP main event was set up as a foundation for a world championship and why the winner can justifiably call himself World Champion.
Setting their sites
At least half of the players in this year’s main event qualified online at sites such as VC Poker. Indeed, WSOP main event final table competitors Aaron Kanter and Andrew Black qualified online with a poker site.
Kanter, from California, who finished fourth, won his seat through a tournament from just a $12 investment, while fifth-placed Black qualified on a $300+$28 satellite.
Of course, the WSOP’s ‘Big One’ isn’t the only opportunity to qualify for globally televised tournaments with huge cash prizes. Both the World Poker Tour and the European Poker Tour obtain most of their entrants through internet satellites, proving that it really does pay to regularly check the various online poker sites for details.
Back with 2005’s main event, all the colourful poker characters had shown up at the Rio, including Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson, Phil ‘The Brat’ Hellmuth, Daniel ‘Kid Poker’ Negreanu, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson, Phil ‘The Unabomber’ Laak, Antonio ‘The Magician’ Esfandiari, Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott and Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer. They joined a couple of thousand online aficionados who each aspired to make their fame and fortune.
Enter the A-list
There was no shortage of celebrities, either. Confirmed poker fans and Hollywood stars Shannon Elizabeth, James Woods, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Tilly, Mimi Rogers and, er, Stephen Hendry – not to mention the many who have played on Celebrity Poker Showdown – have all given the game a certain cool cachet.
‘I play every single day of the year – in private games, casinos and online,’ says Woods, who lasted 11.5 hours in the first round of the main event before he exited on the first Saturday night. ‘I read about it. I’m very committed to it. I’m passionate about it. It’s a challenge to your mind, your soul. You’ve got to be an artist and a scientist to play poker well. I’m a little of both.’
Asked whether his acting skills help him bluff, Woods says: ‘It’s more how I read other people. I know if they’re telling me the truth. I’m a director, too, so when I watch people, I can tell when they’re lying. It’s one of my strengths.’
The WSOP, buzzing with celebrities and fans (or railbirds as they’re known in Vegas) pressing in behind the ropes, felt more like the Academy Awards than a poker tournament. It was a day-and-night party that ended not just with one guy going home with $7.5 million, but also a no-limit hold’em title worth millions in endorsements and a platinum, diamond and ruby bracelet that will intimidate opponents for years.
Taking the strain
Imagine what it must feel like to reach the final table of the Big One. Start by imagining you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted (if not exhausted, at the least quite drained). Add into the mix that a chance of a lifetime (for most people) has presented itself to you. Next, sprinkle in some unfamiliar surroundings, and the knowledge that while only a few hundred people will be watching live as you play your game, tens of thousands of your peers and millions of spectators are later, through the magic of televised hole cards, going to dissect every effort you make, praising you when you succeed, but also look upon you with disdain if you make the slightest error. Just for kicks, add pure chance, which can at any moment jump up and ruin your best efforts, with no ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ involved.
To pursue the ultimate goal, you’ll not merely have to conquer the world’s toughest foe (yourself), but you’ll have to outwit eight skilled individuals who want the prize just as much as you do – and maybe some of them want it even more.
It’s Lady Luck and you against the world, or the world and Lady Luck against you. What a potential dream; what a potential nightmare; what a rush.
Every one of the nine brave souls who faced poker’s ultimate test acquitted himself with honour and distinction at this year’s WSOP. The game’s very nature – the turn of a card, the fact that someone must finish ninth and someone must finish eighth and someone must finish first – meant each competitor had to leave the table in a unique position, some much more desirable than others, but years from now, when the subject of the 2005 WSOP main event final table comes up, anyone who was part of it should be able to speak of his effort with pride.
The final countdown
Certainly, Joseph Hachem will have a few poker yarns to tell his mates back in his native Melbourne, although not many of them will be bad beat stories.
For 14 hours, Hachem and Dannenmann had outsmarted a stellar group at the final table. Mike Matusow, a professional player based in Las Vegas, was favoured to win after finishing sixth in 2001 and 87th last year. However, he was the first of the finalists to be eliminated, a setback softened by the $1 million paycheque he earned for finishing in ninth place.
The other finalists reflected the crosscultural appeal of poker. Brad Kondracki, 24, a law student at Pennsylvania, finished eighth; Daniel Bergsdorf, a truck driver from Sweden, was seventh; Scott Lazar, 42, who works on independent films and is a professional magician, was sixth; Andrew ‘The Monk’ Black, 39, a Buddhist charity worker from Dublin, whose hobbies include ‘contemplation and meditation’, came fifth; Aaron Kanter, 27, a former loan officer from California, was fourth, while John ‘Tex’ Barch, 34, who owns a bar in Texas, finished third.
For much of the final rounds, Hachem was among the short stacks at the table. At one point, he was down to 2.5 million in chips. Still, he stuck to his strategy, which was to play small pots and avoid risking all of his chips. It was the opposite approach of Dannenmann, who frequently raised all-in throughout the exhausting session.
Dannenmann, a mortgage banker from California, didn’t look too disappointed with second place: he hugged his wife having just made $4.5 million. By the end, as he later admitted, he ‘just wanted it to end’.
Hachem if you can
Here are the last few stages of how Hachem won the 2005 WSOP main event (not to mention a cool $7.5m). Dannenmann had the button, he raised to $700,000, and Hachem called. The flop came 6♥, 5♦, 4♦, Hachem checked, and Dannenmann bet $700,000. Hachem raised to $1.7 million and Dannenmann called. The turn card was the A♠, Hachem bet $2 million, Dannenmann slowly raised to $5 million, Hachem re-raised all-in and Dannenmann immediately called. Hachem showed 7♣-3♠ (7-high straight), while Dannenmann had A♦-3♣ (top pair). Dannenmann needed to catch a 7 on the river to chop the pot with equal straights.
The entire crowd was on their feet as the river card came. There were only three cards that could keep Hachem from becoming champion. The river was 4♣! Joseph Hachem had just become the 2005 World Series of Poker champion and winner of a once-in-alifetime pot.
‘A million would have changed my life, let alone $7.5 million,’ said Hachem. ‘It changes everything.’