Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
So begins the strangest hiatus in the world of sports.
OK, the world of competitive skill-based events, if you insist.
After 11 days of play in the World Series of Poker main event, the starting field of 6,844 players in the game’s premier tournament has been whittled down to ... nine guys you never heard of.
The 2008 edition of the annual $10,000-entry no-limit Texas hold ’em tournament now takes a break for 117 days before a two-day final table in November.
The unprecedented interruption — some have likened it to playing the Super Bowl in May after the conference champions are determined in January — could be making its debut in the best possible year, if nothing else.
The hiatus was designed primarily to generate hype and buzz around the final table, encouraging people to tune into ESPN’s coverage of the tournament’s conclusion in November.
World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack has said since before the tournament began that the nine finalists would all become household names.
As it turns out, they will need all the help they can get.
The “November Nine,” to borrow a phrase that has taken off in recent weeks, contains no widely recognized professional players, no poker-TV personalities, no immediate sentimental favorite.
Six of the finalists identify themselves as poker pros, but they’re minor professionals in the poker spectrum rather than brand-name pros.
So far, at least.
If Pollack’s dream comes to fruition, they will all be commanding star power by November, achieving a level of fame on the order of Chris Moneymaker, if not Doyle Brunson.
Pollack looks as if he’s well on his way to achieving another of his stated goals: having the finalists in the major World Series events outfitted like NASCAR drivers, with myriad sponsor patches on their clothes to take full advantage of poker’s marketing opportunities.
When the main event was pared to its final three tables heading into Monday’s action at the Rio, nearly all players were sporting the logos of various online poker rooms — excuse me, poker instructional sites, ahem — on their shirts, baseball caps and visors.
One-hundred-and-seventeen-day publicity push or not, the question of whether poker fans will embrace an anonymous final table speaks to a larger, modern-day classic debate. Do viewers like televised poker because of the game’s strategic nuances or because of the outsize personalities playing it?
No one — not popular tournament pros, not unknown players, not TV executives — has been able to answer adequately.
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, somewhere between the Unabomber doing push-ups and sullen, faceless 21-year-olds shoving all their chips into the center and waiting to see what comes up on the slot machine — I mean flop.
This year’s World Series final table could go a long way toward settling the debate. Will the winner be heralded as a dynamic new force in poker? Or will he be viewed as a soon-to-be-forgotten curiosity piece, the latest lottery winner?
If it’s the latter, maybe a tournament such as the $50,000-entry HORSE, or mixed-games, tournament at the World Series will generate even more attention than it has.
The HORSE event draws a field loaded with experienced professionals and produces people’s-choice champs such as Scotty Nguyen. Not coincidentally, its entry fee in today’s dollars is roughly equivalent to 10,000 1972 dollars. And the entry fee to the main event hasn’t changed since then.
Since its inception three years ago, the HORSE tournament has been seen as a companion event to the World Series championship tournament. Perhaps HORSE will emerge as the new “Big One” in coming years.
Meanwhile, it was a curious scene at the Rio as they played down to the final nine late Monday and into early Tuesday.
During breaks in the action, media members covering the tournament approached players to ask slightly more polite versions of the same question: “So, who the heck are you?”
In deference to the mostly young field (although the “old guy” at 53 will be the chip leader for the next four months), the announcers made jokes about “misclicks,” “click-raises” and other poker pseudo-terms derived from the online game.
Someone ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon for one of the tables, and a waiter expertly poured it into six flutes as at least five cameras took video and still pictures ... of the glasses of champagne as they sat on a tray.
Play at the final two tables bolstered the reputation of no-limit hold ’em as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, an apt description attributed to former world champ Tom McEvoy.
So for those with a stake or a personal connection, this final table promises a great deal of excitement.
The rest of us are reminded of the words of online multitable tournament partners Butch and Sundance: “Who are those guys?”