The 2006 World Series of Poker is over -- no surprise there. But after 45 events, there were quite a few surprises for me during this mad marathon. Here are some of the highlights, lowlights and unexpected happenings at this year's Big One:
• Jeff "The Kid" Madsen
How in the hell does a kid barely out of puberty make four final tables and win two bracelets in 12 events? I'd hate the kid and curse his name if he weren't so damned likable. He's down to earth, has very little ego, and seems to understand that this is, more than likely, an aberration. Rumor has it David Letterman offered him a spot on "The Late Show" which he promptly turned down because he'd have to miss a $1,500 buy-in event. He's staying in school at UC Santa Barbara too, despite winning $1.4 million. There is really only one phrase to describe Jeff's performance and crowning as the WSOP Player of the Year: "KEG PARTY!"
• Phil Hellmuth Jr.
Here is the guy we all love to hate. And yet, he did it again, firmly solidifying his place in history. Just when we all thought we were done hearing him talk about being the all-time bracelet winner, he won his 10th -- another no-limit hold 'em title. Phil came to this WSOP focused, prepared and determined. And he walked away with eight cashes (a WSOP record), his 10th bracelet (tying a WSOP record), a second-place finish and four final table appearances (a WSOP record). All in all, a very strong performance from the guy proud enough and comfortable enough with himself to walk around sporting a jersey that reads: "Poker Brat" on the back.
• Andy Bloch
Andy is on the short list of players who deserve a bracelet but doesn't yet own one. And this WSOP put no bling on his wrist either. But Andy's runner-up performance in the first $50,000 H.O.R.S.E event against more than 150 of the best players in the world will get him some of the recognition he deserves. Getting deep in that event is no fluke -- that final table was the most stacked of any in the history of poker: Brunson, Cloutier, Reese, Ivey, Tomko and Betchel. Chip Reese won the event, but only after Andy had him all-in with the best hand two or three times. Congrats to Andy "Blackjack" Bloch -- and a news flash: you can buy your own bracelet with the $1 million-plus second-place prize money.
Let me repeat that: 8773. By all estimates and expectations, this was many, many more players than anyone predicted for the championship event. Four starting days of nearly 2,200 players per day was just an incredible, monumental turnout. Is there any hint that we've "topped" out? I can't see it happening, especially when people see the play at the final table over and over on ESPN. Expect 10,000-plus players next year. When I interviewed Doyle Brunson for the live pay-per-view event, he said he wants to bet that this event will have 50,000-plus players in 20 years. And Dolly, we sincerely hope you're around to collect, sir.
• Team Full Tilt: Tilted
Juanda, Seidel, Ferguson, Lederer, Ivey, Harman, Gowen, Matusow, Lindgren, Hansen, Gordon, Bloch. I would've given pretty good odds against this group getting shut out of the bracelet race, but that's exactly what happened. The team made some great runs, but at the end of the day, only ancillary team members Rafe "Tiltboy" Furst, Mark "Aussie" Vos, and Allen Cunningham were able to add to the garish display of poker prowess on exhibition at the Full Tilt Poker hospitality suite: 44 WSOP bracelets. Oh yeah, Allen had a pretty good run in the championship event as well, finishing in a solid fourth place for a $3 million-plus cash. All in all, Team Full Tilt (45 or so pros) racked up about $8 million, or 6 percent of the total prize money at the WSOP this year.
• Steve Lipscomb
I saw the CEO of the WPT walking the halls of the WSOP lifestyle show. Ah, what must have been going through his mind as he witnessed the enthusiasm and excitement of nearly 8,800 players in a $10,000 tournament while the stock price, credibility and importance of the World Poker Tour (symbol: WPTE) slides steadily into the abyss. In my opinion, the WSOP is everything the WPT is not: fair tournament blind structures, fair player releases and a management team that cares enough about the players to listen and implement their suggestions.
• William Chen
This cyberkid wonked his way to two bracelets this year. One in limit hold 'em, and one in no-limit. I was at his table in the no-limit event he won, and he played a fearless, solid, aggressive big stack. Congrats to a guy it would be easy to hate if I didn't have a soft place in my heart for the geeks in the world.
• A day off?
The final event was supposed to run straight through after the field entered the same room. Instead, play proceeded at such a breakneck pace, the players actually got a day off. After the bubble/dam burst, the tournament lost 20 percent of the field (160 players) in two hours. Then, with an average stack size of $2 million and the blinds at a paltry $12,000-$24,000, they went from 45 players to 27 in only five hours of play. What's the hurry? Then, 27 players played to nine in just a little more than five levels. Finally, when the players convened for the final table, the blinds were at 80,000-160,000 with a 20,000 ante and an average stack of around 10 million. There should have been tons of play, despite Jamie Gold having a huge stack. Instead, the final table continued at an unbelievable speed, with nearly every single pot being contested preflop with a raise and a reraise. With the number of chips in play and the extremely slow structure, I really thought we'd be in for a 30-hour final table. Instead, it was over in a little more than 12.
• Race offs?
Speaking of the final table for some reason, there were more than $90 million in chips in play despite the fact that there were only 8,773 players and $87.73 million in chips purchased for the tournament. The $2 million-plus differential was blamed on "coloring up" -- but off-the-cuff calculations make that seem completely impossible to me. I have no idea where all the extra chips came from, but I will say that I believe the championship event should be using a completely different chip set than the ones that are in use for preliminary events.
• The $2 million tip
Jamie "Ari" Gold, the winner of the championship event, is reported to have tipped $2 million of his $12 million prize money to the dealers and floor staff of the WSOP. While Mr. Gold is free to do whatever he wants with his well-deserved money, I fear that his actions (from a self-described non-poker player) will haunt us. The pros know that the dealers are "toked" from the rake -- and we're paying a pretty significant rake, folks. For the championship event alone, Harrah's withheld more than $5 million from the prize pool. Jamie, perhaps overwhelmed by his win, will make all future winners look like cheapskates and, perhaps, give the dealers (who did a marvelous job, by the way) an unrealistic expectation for future tournaments. It is the belief of most full-time players that when we are paying 6 percent to 10 percent juice of the entry fee to the house to enter tournaments, it is completely up to the house to compensate the dealers and ensure that they are paid a fair wage for their services. Were I to become WSOP commissioner for a day, I would make it a standard policy to discourage or even ban tipping the dealers -- but I'd also give them a nice little 25 percent to 30 percent base-rate pay hike.
• Live from the Rio
For the first time in history, the WSOP was covered live -- card for card. First, Bluff magazine, the class of the business, stepped up to the plate and formed a partnership with Sirius Satellite Radio. For 45 days, these guys were on air 10-plus hours a day calling the action, interviewing players, taking phone calls from listeners and bringing the excitement of our biggest event to people around the country. Great job, Bluff. Also, the final table was broadcast on live pay-per-view via ESPN. I felt extremely fortunate to be tabbed to lead the analysis for that event. Many of the legends of the game joined me and my broadcast partner, Ali Nejad, to offer their insights and color commentary to the proceedings. The reviews of the broadcast were, in large part, very favorable. And while we could not show the hole cards, I believe that this is finally a format that a television audience can support. My prediction: next year, at least four or five tournaments will be shown via pay-per-view in this fashion. I sincerely hope to lead those broadcasts as well -- this was the biggest honor I've ever been awarded and quite a step up from calling the action for Dennis Rodman, Colin Quinn, Jason Alexander and Nicole Sullivan on "Celebrity Poker Showdown."
Well, that's it. The 2006 WSOP is finished. Every single pro I spoke to after the main event said the same thing: "I'm exhausted and burned out." This record-breaking tournament is in the history books and clearly in good hands under commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and Harrah's Entertainment. What's next? Bigger and better, of course, and I'm already looking forward to June and July of 2007.
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour champion, co-host of The Poker Edge on ESPNRadio.com and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker. Phil Gordon's educational poker DVD and books are available at ExpertInsight.net.