Last year, the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions was an invitational. A $2 million winner-take-all freeroll. Harrah's put up the cash, talked it over with ESPN, and gave chips to the likes of Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu. Annie Duke won it all, and that was that.
This year, the Tournament of Champions was a qualifier. Still a $2 million freeroll, but it was advertised as open to those who finished in the top 20 of any of the five World Series of Poker circuit events this year, along with the nine players who reached the final table of the 2005 World Series of Poker main event, and that was that.
But as the TOC began this week at Caesars Palace, there were the likes of Brunson, Hellmuth and Johnny Chan, players who hadn't qualified the way everyone else had.
Poker forums were filled with discussion of the apparent unfairness of the situation, of how suddenly the rules changed -- most notably starting with Daniel Negreanu's blogging that players "were lied to'' about who exactly the competition would be.
Here's the deal: After the WSOP Circuit events were under way, but before the TOC began, Pepsi came in with a $2 million offer to bankroll the TOC. The soft drink company wanted to pump its new energy drink called Adrenaline Rush, and for its $2 million, it wanted some sponsors exemptions, and it wanted Brunson, Chan and Hellmuth because Pepsi will be running a nationwide campaign around them.
And so Harrah's was faced with the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. Brunson, Chan and Hellmuth were in.
Now if you're looking at having champions in the Tournament of Champions, you start with the three players who have been World Series of Poker champions the most. You start with Brunson and Chan -- both of whom won back-to-back in the main event, don't you know -- and their record 10 bracelets apiece. You then go to Hellmuth and his nine pieces of WSOP jewelry. I mean, if you're taking a WSOP team picture, these guys are sitting in the front row. You can see why Pepsi would build a campaign around them.
But the issue -- the point made by Negreanu -- is whether players knew going in that the TOC would allow the equivalent of sponsor's exemptions that you see at golf tournaments.
Fact is, players didn't know this. They figured they were the ones who qualified, so they were the ones who earned the right to play for the $2 million prize pool without the threat of, say, the "Poker Brat'' sitting down next to you, not having earned the right to play for the $1 million top prize, and probably berating you for the way you played.
Another fact is, Harrah's also didn't know this.
"We didn't intend to offer sponsor's exemptions [when the WSOP Circuit events began],'' Harrah's director of tournament operations Gary Thompson told me during Day 2 of the TOC.
But Harrah's did offer sponsor's exemptions because nobody could say no to that kind of sponsorship money, especially when it comes from a mainstream sponsor that might have the stake to stick around for a long time.
From a strictly competitive standpoint, Harrah's sounds like it knows this is not the way to do things. But from a long-term financial view, this is an error that could be a jackpot for both the company and the game.
"There will be growing pains,'' Thompson said. "There will be mistakes made. I couldn't anticipate that a sponsor would come in [with such a big financial offer].''
"The bigger story is we are bringing in sponsors that have never been a part of poker before,'' Thompson said. "We've had $4 million in sponsors in freerolls the last 14 months. We're moving aggressively to bring in other sponsors who want to participate in the growth of poker. I think it benefits Harrah's and it benefits poker.''
And just so there are no surprises at next year's TOC, Harrah's has already said it reserves the right to offer six sponsor's exemptions.
PLEASE, MR. POSTMAN: Just thought I'd share an e-mail I received last week from Phil "The Unabomber'' Laak. It is unedited. It is so Phil.
This is a mass emailing.
I am sorry that I am such a lame ass. I know mass emails are lame.
But I am lame......you have a lame ass friend. His name is Phil.
Yesterday Phil returned from the United Kingdom.
He played a 6,000 pound 56 entrant poker tournament.
It was called the William Hill Grand Prix.
It might only show in the UK. It might not make the USA TV poker rounds.
Here is a recap just in case it does not hit the USA airwaves.....
Phil won it.
The horseshoe is still firmly lodged up his [expletive].
He was massively outchipped (like in the 50 vs 260 vs 330 range) when it was three handed. But the horseshoe would not budge. And he could do no wrong.
He won 150,000 pounds.
In cash money USA $$$$ style that translates to 261,802.53 $ (New York Currency exchange rates as of last night)
rounding up to the nearest thousand this translates to 262 thousand dollars.
262 big ones
262 thousand (one dollar) fish tacos
26 college educations (state school -- 1,250 per semester)
about 750 I Pods
Two Hundred Sixty Two Thousand Dollars
The Most Money I Ever Won in my Life
about 7 Lincoln Continentals, 1965 ish (black w/ black interior, in very good condition with suicide doors)
A Thwackin chuck o' dough
13,100 cool T-shirts
55,000 plates of Tu-Lans #24 (Shrimp Fried Rice)
(at two plates a day, this would be 75 years, 4 months of Tu-Lans)
(for those of you not lucky enough to have had this dish I am sorry.)
1,310 sixty second free falls from 10,000 feet.
And that is that.....
Life is good.
GETTING SCHOOLED: Amir Vahedi, known for being one of the top tournament players as much as for holding an unlit cigar at the table, doesn't really like the actual playing of poker. It's a job, he says, and the hand he cites in my upcoming book "The Best Hand I Ever Played'' gives you an example of the type of critical business-like thinking involved. Fun for Vahedi involves hot cars and trucks.
"I ask my students, 'If you drive 45 minutes to play poker and have decided that winning $1,000 would satisfy you that day, what would you do if you won $1,000 in 15 minutes? Would you get up and leave?''' Vahedi said. "If they say no, they'd stay, then I tell them they aren't doing it the right way. They're playing for fun.''
NET PROFIT: One of the events that took place before the World Series main event was an Internet gambling show put on by BoDog.com. It featured seminars that included speakers such as Negreanu, former Bears coach Mike Ditka and Yankees Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. I caught up with Ditka after the WSOP, and he was knocked out by the party that BoDog threw at Rain in The Palms. Top-notch and packed is the short version. Oh, and expensive, Ditka concluded. Which shows you how much money there is in Internet gambling.
Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback, check out his mailbag.