Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
WORLD SERIES OF POKER FINAL TABLE
When: 10 a.m. Sunday (final nine players); 10 p.m. Monday (final two players)
Where: Penn & Teller Theater, the Rio (spectators welcome)
TV: 9 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN (Cox cable channel 30)
Dennis Phillips, Cottage Hills, Ill., $26,295,000
Ivan Demidov, Moscow, Russia, $20,400,000
Scott Montgomery, Perth, Ontario, Canada, $19,690,000
Peter Eastgate, Denmark, $18,375,000
Ylon Schwartz, Brooklyn, N.Y., $12,525,000
Darus Suharto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, $12,520,000
David Rheem, Los Angeles, $10,230,000
Craig Marquis, Arlington, Texas, $10,210,000
Kelly Kim, Whittier, Calif., $2,620,000
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
World Series of Poker officials announced May 1 that the tournament’s final table would take place after a hiatus of nearly four months, a first in the event’s 39-year history.
It was a risky move but one that showed creativity, imagination and a sense of fun, opening a spectrum of intriguing possibilities.
The break began July 14 after the field of 6,844 entrants in the $10,000 no-limit Texas hold ’em championship tournament had been whittled to nine players.
The revised format was designed to generate extra publicity around the final table, to increase interest in big-time tournament poker and to boost ratings for ESPN’s television coverage of the event — worthy goals all.
Perhaps the most appealing selling point, though, was the notion that the final nine competitors would become virtual folk heroes during the interim, newly minted poker celebrities with their own fan bases and the concomitant mainstream endorsement opportunities.
The new-look World Series has failed to deliver in this area. The so-called “November Nine” left the Rio in July largely unknown to the general public, and they return the same way for Sunday’s resumption of the tournament, which carries a $9.1 million top prize.
Besides the mandatory appearances on ESPN’s reliably strong coverage of the World Series, the nine finalists haven’t made much of a splash outside of the insular world of hard-core poker enthusiasts.
Poker pro Phil Gordon, a tournament specialist and host of a poker show on ESPNRadio.com, was hoping a greater sense of excitement would have developed around the November Nine.
“I’ve been personally pretty disappointed with the level of media coverage,” Gordon said. “I thought there would be a lot more media buzz and coverage of the final nine.”
Other concerns about the new format proved unfounded, Gordon said. No one died or became ill in the interim, for example. None of the nine finalists has admitted to undergoing intensive coaching to overhaul their games.
“I think the same nine players who finished up (in July) are the same ones who are going to come back,” Gordon said. “I don’t think anyone has changed their game a whole lot in the interim.”
A late surge in poker hype, capped by ESPN’s same-day coverage of the final table Tuesday, could enhance the visibility of the November Nine personalities.
And it’s possible the bold scheduling move came in about the worst possible year for the World Series of Poker. Since mid-July, an exceptional sequence of world events ranging from the tumultuous to the just plain distracting has kept the attention of would-be fans riveted on anything but the final table of a poker tournament on hiatus.
After all, consider some of the events that have grabbed the spotlight since the tournament broke up at the Rio:
• A historic presidential election campaign was marked by political passion, as well as the most copious use of the term “maverick” since the show about the old Western poker player went off the air.
• A massive financial crisis caused feelings of anxiety among Americans, incidentally contributing to an economic scene distinctly unfriendly to poker players seeking long-term endorsement deals.
• The Olympic Games made a national hero of swimmer Michael Phelps, who subsequently became a minor poker phenom in the card room at Caesars Palace.
• Capping a series of compelling pennant races, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series of Baseball, as it’s known among gamblers.
• Poker fans joined the rest of society in mourning the losses of Paul Newman (“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand”) and David Foster Wallace, who had a devoted following among poker players with a literary bent. (They considered the writer a kindred spirit given his skewed views of straight society.)
It’s no wonder the November Nine have been out of sight and out of the mainstream mind.
Still, regardless of any distractions, as finalist Ylon Schwartz told Gordon, you’re asking for trouble if you halt a marathon at the 25th mile to allow everyone to rest and then run the last 1.2 miles as a sprint.
We should chalk this up as a noble experiment that fell short, or, to paraphrase Wallace, a supposedly fun thing we’ll never do again.