“No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em is the Cadillac of poker. Each player is dealt two cards face down. Five cards are then dealt face up across the middle. These are community cards everyone can use to make the best five card hand. The key to the game is playing the man, not the cards. Bet an eight ball. There’s no other game in which fortunes can change so much from hand to hand. A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt… and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him. This is why the World Series of Poker is decided over a No-Limit Hold ‘Em table. Some people, pros even, won’t play No-Limit. They can’t handle the swings. But there are others, like Doyle Brunson, who consider No-Limit the only pure game left.” - Matt Damon’s character, narrating Rounders
Before there was the Moneymaker Effect, there was Rounders, a film starring Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Gretchen Mol, Martin Landau, and John Malkovich. Damon and Norton, promoting the film, played in the World Series of Poker Main event in 1998. The movie was well-done, riveting regardless of one’s knowledge of poker, successful and helped begin the process of bringing poker into the mainstream culture.
Before I had played a single hand of poker, I had most of this monologue describing the game memorized.
Then, after seeing Chris Moneymaker turn $39 into $2.5 million on ESPN against some of the best players to ever play the game followed by Greg Raymer, a patent lawyer, winning $5 million the next year in 2004, I decided I had to try this game. The first night I ever played, I put in my 10 bucks, figuring it would be a $10 beginners lesson. I lucked out, began to figure out the basics of the game, and walked away with my $10 at the end of the night.
I started watching old poker tournaments on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN Classic. I watched WPT on Travel Channel and Poker Superstars Invitational on Fox Sports South. I began to play poker about once a week in person. I ordered books by Doyle, Dan Harrington, and Phil Gordon (who hosted Celebrity Poker Showdown) on Bravo. I began to learn the math. I consumed who the big players were, how they were doing. I studied it. And I played it.
*Fun Fact: The strong bond between the three original Wise Guise was basically due to poker. Clayton and I were the two most regular players in our game. Rarely did one of us ever play without the other one. At times, we’d even get together to play Heads Up matches for a few bucks just to test out each other’s games and sharpen our skills. In the summer of 2005 when Clayton and I were participants in S.O.S. in Memphis, we couldn’t have cell phones or internet. So intern/counselor Colin was our connection to what was going on in the WSOP Main Event that week. We talked trash about our favorite players and made predictions. This was followed by years of playing poker together. Each of us will tell you that we’re the best. Only one of us would be right.*
Through college, I’d play some at school, but rarely. Whenever we came home for holidays or summer, we’d get the gang back together. We would have as few as 5 or 6 and as many as 22 or 23 people playing in tournaments. It wasn’t about the money… it was about the bragging rights – who made the final table? Who won? Who bluffed who? We lived the poker boom. Some of our friends tried their hand at online. But it was about the camaraderie and the stories. We rarely play together anymore, but I still remember those years in the mid-naughts very fondly. Like Smalls and The Sandlot…
Every summer, I temporarily dive back into the poker world during the World Series of Poker. Whether working on The Hill in D.C., at Teach For America boot camp in Atlanta, or traveling the world on my two-month honeymoon extravaganza, I would periodically check in on the World Series of Poker to see who was winning bracelets and what history was being made. To most people, this would seem silly. But it’s just another example of an intriguing American subculture that piques my curiosity to no end. The oddballs and superstars. The sordid past of Vegas, this game, this tournament, and its players. The mainstreaming thanks to ESPN. The mythology. The modern-day online poker scandals. But, most of all, the notion that anyone can sit down and give it a shot with the best and possibly win one of the biggest cash prizes ever offered for any game or sport out there. A chip and a chair, and you’ve got a prayer.
This year, it’s been no different.
A poker professional who began her career while attending Yale Law school has just won her second bracelet (the winner of every tournament receives the ultimate prize in poker… a WSOP bracelet), continuing to not only be a trailblazer for women, but also staking her claim as one of the best players playing today.
One of the youngest, boldest, brashest, and most successful superstars from half a decade ago went broke. He was counted down and out. Then, in the last several years, he’s put on the most amazing World Series of Poker performances by winning the $50,000 Players Championship in which only the best poker players play because it consists of almost every main type of poker. He’s won it not once, but TWICE, winning the world’s most prestigious tournament prize, receiving the Chip Reese Memorial Trophy and multi-million dollar cash prizes. AND the first time he did it, he also made it to the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event, the biggest tournament in the world and the one every legend hopes to win at least once. Today, with the huge fields and everyone knowing how to play No-Limit Hold’em, this feat is even more difficult and therefore his performance that much more astounding.
Then there’s Phil Hellmuth, the Poker Brat. One of the most well-known and more divisive players, known as much for his success at table as his infamous blow-ups. This year, he padded his lead on the WSOP all-time bracelets won list by winning his record 12th WSOP tournament, adding a twelfth bracelet to his list.
The last two days have brought one last piece of history to the World Series of Poker, this one being the biggest one yet.
Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque Du Soleil, has worked with the World Series of Poker to put on the richest poker tournament of all time. All In for One Drop is an initiative to bring the business community and the poker community together to promote the need for clean water in the poorest parts of the world that need it most. The Big One for One Drop is a $1 million buy-in tournament in which the casino and WSOP take no cut out of the pot and $111,111 from each buy-in goes to Laliberté’s charity to help bring clean water to those communities that need it most. With a field of 48 players (about half professional poker players and half ultra-rich businessmen), more than $5.5 million is going to charity and the rest goes to the biggest cash prize in poker history. With first place receiving more than $18 million and second place receiving more than $10 million, this poker tournament shatters the previous record ($12 million to Jamie Gold when he won the 2006 Main Event) and will have a huge effect on the WSOP All-Time Money List and the All-Time Poker Tournament Earnings List. Will it skew the tops of these lists? Sure… but no more than each of the WSOP Main Events since the Moneymaker Effect have done relative to the WSOP and poker tournaments before that point.
The Final Table for this HUGE EVENT for charity will air live (well, a few minutes delayed) on ESPN 2 this afternoon and ESPN this evening (check your local listings). The chip counts for the final table in which each player is guaranteed at least a million dollars and the winner will walk away more than $18 million richer (unless of course the winner was staked by investors that he’ll have to pay back):
Seat One: Guy Laliberté – 21,700,000 in chips – Creator and CEO of Cirque du Soleil – one of the founders of this very tournament.
Seat Two: Brian Rast – 11,350,000 in chips – Two-time bracelet winner, professional poker player who defeated Phil Hellmuth heads up in the 2011 Poker Players Championship.
Seat Three: Phil Hellmuth – 10,925,000 in chips – 12-time bracelet winner. Holds most WSOP records. 1989 World Champion in the Main Event. More cashes than anyone else. He’s already one of the all-time greats. His place here just seems appropriate.
Seat Four: Antonio Esfandiari – 39,925,000 in chips – One of the icons from the Moneymaker Effect-era, appearing on every major poker show on TV. One of the true superstars, who has not had as much success as many of the others. He has been criticized often for not playing at the level deserving of the star power he had/still has. But “The Magician” has put on a CLINIC at this tournament and is the overwhelming chip leader. Hoping he puts on a helluva show and finishes this thing off.
Seat Five: Bobby Baldwin – 7,150,000 in chips – Four-time bracelet winner and winner of the 1978 World Series Main Event, Baldwin is also the CEO of MGM-Mirage. He’s short on chips, but a Vegas legend.
Seat Six: Sam Trickett – 37,000,000 in chips – Young British poker superstar. I’ve never heard of him, but he has a lot of chips and is going after his first bracelet. Hope he loses to one of the Americans. #justsayin #IndependenceDayEve
Seat Seven: Richard Yong – 7,475,000 in chips – Poker player and businessman who spends most of his time in Asia, and is known as one of the top gamblers there.
Seat Eight: David Einhorn – 8,375,000 in chips – Hedge fund invested and financial mogul who is no stranger to playing well in big poker tournaments and helping charity – he finished 18th in the 2006 WSOP, which was the biggest tournament of all time. He gave his entire $600,000 winnings check to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
So the final table of the richest poker tournament in history is set. As always, the final table is eclectic with so many story lines and so much possibility. One thing is for sure – the poker will be exciting and, with Phil Hellmuth and Esfandiari in the mix, entertaining. But, then again, poker always is. No Limit Texas Hold’em is the cadillac of poker.
Some say it’s the only pure game left.