I'm bringing this up because I've been obsessively following the progress of the main event at ESPN's poker page, their Twitter feed, and on Card Player magazine's website for the last two weeks, clicking refresh more and more as the field got down to 185 players, and then 64, and then 27, and now finally down to the nine. As the fields have gotten bigger it has gotten more rare for the professional poker players to make it deep, let alone to the final table, but this year had a very strong showing for the pros. 2005 winner Joe Hachem went out in 103rd, and two of last year's November Nine made impressive runs as well. Peter Eastgate, last year's champion, had one of the most impressive two-year performances ever, outlasting all of 6,843 players last year to become the youngest champion ever (22), and then this year he finished in 78th place, meaning that in two years, he survived longer than a combined 13,289 players. Perhaps even more impressive, Dennis Phillips, last year's 3rd place finisher, busted out in 45th place this year, meaning he beat out even more players in a two-year span! Phillips, with his trademark St. Louis Cardinals hat and friendly demeanor, is an ideal person to represent both poker and the idea that anyone could do this. Now a millionaire a few times over, I expect he'll come back next year, and hopefully he'll finish near the top again to really mark his name down in the record books.
That's part of what makes poker so appealing, the ability of Joe Schmoe to compete with the professionals, while also making the pros that much more impressive, because year after year they win (with the exception of the main event) despite the large amateur fields. And this year two noteworthy pros have survived to the November Nine, which will undoubtedly help bring even more publicity, and bring the rest of the pros out in force to root for their brethren, hoping to regain the bracelet that a professional hasn't won since 2001. The first is Jeff Shulman, and while he's not as regular a player as your typical pro, he finished 7th at the 2000 Main Event, and was featured on Fox Sports Net's Poker Superstars series a few years ago. He's also the chief editor and son of the founder of Card Player magazine. Shulman is 4th in chips, with about a third of what the chip leader has, so he has some work to do but is in good shape. What makes him even more interesting are his statements that he would renounce the title (though presumably not the money) and the bracelet if he were to win. It apparently stems from some issues he has with the way the World Series has dealt with Card Player and the prize fund, and it's being met with a lot of criticism, but as a friend of his said during the last day of play (because Shulman hasn't been granting interviews), he's basically setting himself up as the villain of the piece, and that's a good story however he finishes up. Part of me suspects it really is just an Andy Kaufman-esque ruse, but his friends in poker are insisting he means what he says. It'll be interesting to see what happens with him. UPDATE: Jeff Shulman explains his comments. So much for my Kaufman theory. (Again, Card Player is run by him, so no surprise they're the ones he talked to.)
Even if he were championing the event as the best thing since Pearl Jam's Vs. album, Shulman'd still only be the second most popular pro at the final table, and it's not even close. Phil Ivey, considered by many to be the best overall player alive, is 7th in chips but expertly navigated the final day to outlast his more reckless competition. He only got involved in a couple big pots, and picked away at some of the other players as they got more timid, every man very aware of the big payout jumps every few eliminations. Over the next few months expect to see the WSOP try to promote him as the face of poker, which should be interesting because he's normally quiet and withdrawn. There's no doubting his ability though, as he has seven bracelets from other events and now his 4th top 23 finish at the main event, and 2nd top 10. The man just sits and stares, constantly surveying the table, never getting too up or down, not speaking to his opponents too much, and you can see the other players react to his presence without him having to do anything. A friend of mine once said that Tim Duncan is a robot constructed to only play basketball; well, Phil Ivey is a poker robot, and if he manages to come back (he's roughly 40 million in chips behind the chip leader) the poker world will be able to reclaim its biggest event, for one year anyway. And I suspect Ivey will let a smile crack that robot facade if he gets the championship he's dreamed about for so long.
I'm obviously very excited about all this, and unless you're a glutton for punishment, I imagine you must be too if you're still reading this far. ESPN's coverage of the entire World Series starts Tuesday, July 28 at 8 ET, and the final table will be played November 7 and aired November 11. I can't wait.