The Series looms

ESPN.com, huh? No pressure.

I mean, I've written for some pretty major bodies in the poker world; Bluff magazine, the
World Poker Tour … I should be able to handle this, right? I mean, so what if I grew up reading guys like Peter Gammons? So what if I'm writing for the same Web site as they do now? Is that supposed to intimidate me?

I mean, sure, Steve Rosenbloom wrote one of my favorite reference books on the game and I'm filling some of the space that used to be his. Yeah, my name is sitting next to Phil Gordon's in the contributors area, but my resume doesn't include the main event final table, twin World Poker Tour victories, television gigs and multiple books.

Why should I feel intimidated again?

Truth is, this three-paragraph display of defense mechanism is my way of telling you that ESPN does intimidate me; it should intimidate me, because, well, it's ESPN. We're talking about the same company that broadcasts the World Series of Poker and the same company broadcasting its 16th WSOP this fall. These guys knew that poker was TV waiting to happen before anyone else did. Consider me proud to be intimidated.

Thing is, I'm not going to have time for intimidation. Friday marks the beginning of the WSOP, the ultimate of ultimates in the poker world. The 2007 edition is my fourth WSOP, and while I'd still be a rookie in baseball or football, that makes me a veteran in the dog years of the poker world. Just about everyone who covers poker wishes they were playing instead, and unlike those other games, there's nothing so obvious as physical limitation to show us the folly of our thinking. There will be a lot of new faces in the press corps this year, as there have been every year since Chris Moneymaker won it all in 2003. They'll only know what's coming if they read these next bullet points:

• 16-18-hour days.
• No weekends.
• A consistent diet of sugar and lard.
• The musky smell of a room inhabited by 3,000 poker players.
• Professional competition.
• Politics.
• Intrusive camera folk.
• No time to play the game.
• One winner for every 1,999 losers.
• 1,999 bad beat stories in every tournament played.
• Verbal abuse from every guy with a buy-in and a chip on his shoulder.
• The bottom of the totem pole.

Welcome to the 2007 World Series of Poker. That list right there is me loving life.

Making the inherently insane decision to do 16-18 hours a day, seven days a week coverage of an event like the WSOP, at least in my case, was easy for the stories. For me, good stories are currency. They're why I do what I do. When you're looking for good characters and good stories, poker provides. When the new stories start getting old, there's always another batch awaiting consumption.

The action begins this week, and with it the annual pilgrimage of the entire poker world to Las Vegas for networking, business, parties, booze and the occasional game of poker. Forty-six days, 55 events, eight second-chance tournaments, countless satellites, endless side games, and that's all at one of many casinos that will be catering to the flux. The parts you see on TV are only the beginning. The WSOP is a force of nature.

Some of the stories that will emerge from this year's WSOP are beyond the realm of possibility to us right now. I wasn't exactly predicting twin bracelets for Jeff Madsen or Bill Chen last year. I sure didn't think Andy Bloch would make the final two of the HORSE event; or that seven players would launch a lawsuit against the WPT; or that Jamie Gold would be our main event champion. I did know, though, that the HORSE event would be huge, that new attendance records would be set across the board and that Phillip J. Hellmuth Jr. would be at our attentive forefront, trying to reclaim his spot atop the lifetime bracelet standings.

I know a few things going into this year, too:

The race to 11 is the biggest story going into the Series: Hellmuth is back on top, tied with Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson with 10 WSOP bracelets each. Johnny Moss, who passed away 12 years ago, is the only other player with as many as eight. Hellmuth won a $1,000 no-limit hold 'em event with re-buys last year to pull back to even after the others both won their 10th bracelets in 2005. Phil served strangers Dom Perignon all night after his victory a year ago, so imagine what he'd do if he were the first to 11.

Funny thing is, they're all cheering for one another. While I was researching an article on the race, Phil told me he'd rather see both Chan and Brunson win bracelets than none of the three. I believe the sentiment. There was an intangible something in his voice that struck home when he said it. These guys share something big, and through that a genuine affection for one another. Of course, if two of them end up heads-up with No. 11 on the line, there could be a few missing body parts when all is said and done.

The world is watching Gold: Last year, Gold ran over the competition in taking home the biggest payday in poker history. After that, things didn't quite go as well as he'd hoped. He was a accused of falsifying his resume, was taken to court for approximately half of his winnings, lost his sponsorship deal in the wake of Senator Bill Frist's Safe Port Act, had a number of miserable showings in televised events and failed to cash in a single major tournament during his reign. Worst of all, he lost his father three months after the Series, but people en masse aren't usually overly sympathetic to the personal crises of the rich and famous.

Gold has a lot to prove this time around. After winning it all in 2004, Greg Raymer validated himself with a strong 2005 main event showing. Joe Hachem backed up his 2005 victory with multiple final table appearances a year ago. Now, it's Jamie's turn to prove he belongs. Without at least one final table, he'll be relegated in the hearts and minds of the poker public to Robert Varkonyi status. That's a place that a media-conscious champion doesn't want to be.

HORSE is for real: It's the single greatest innovation seen at the Series since the implementation of the lipstick cam. Last year, in its initial run, the $50,000 HORSE event produced the greatest final table in organized tournament history. It's already being looked upon as "the players' world championship" in light of the crapshoot feel of the main event.

The final table, which a year ago was no-limit Texas hold 'em due to television concerns, will stay true to the game this time around. No more format changes for TV. Everything else, from the superstar field to the $50,000 buy-in, stays the same. Last year, the final table didn't have a weak link and included the best players from three generations. The event was so satisfying that when Chip Reese was crowned, he was immediately dubbed "the best poker player in the world" by every poker publication in existence. As good as it was, it should be even better this time around.

We may be facing a decline: Only once in poker history, in 1992, has the main event seen a decline in registration. That year, attendance dropped by 14 players thanks in part to the recession leaving more pockets than usual barren come World Series time. In the wake of the Safe Port Act (seeing a trend here?), predictions of doom descended. Four months ago, I put my guess on main event attendance at 7,500. I'm pretty sure Harrah's would be satisfied with that number, but their plans accommodate the potential for an increase in numbers. Watch the attendance in the first few preliminaries. If it's down from last year, it could be a harbinger of things to come.

One Jeff Madsen can't be enough: A year ago, Jeff Madsen was an unknown 21-year-old (as of June 7) when he made his way to the Series, only to see his life change before his eyes with four final table showings. He parlayed them into two bracelets, $1.4 million, an instant spot in the invite-only National Heads-Up Championship and a lifestyle that befits the uber-famous. Who's next? You won't find him here.

Part of Madsen's charm was the unpredictability of it all. He wasn't some online star waiting to turn 21, just a random kid with talent to spare. His roll was small enough that he had to take out a loan from his parents to afford that first final table's entry fee. If there's another Jeff Madsen out there, we won't know who he is yet.

That said, there's a new generation of 21-year-olds waiting in the wings. The initiated poker follower will recognize names like Justin Bonomo, Ryan Daut, John Racener, Isaac Haxton, David Redlin and Tim West for their respective successes in major tournaments this year. If you don't know these names now, you will soon.

We'll be keeping track of these and all of the other kiddies over the next seven weeks. It'll be great to watch Jamie, Chip, Andy, Phil, Madsen and the rest of the names doing what we expect them to do. It'll be better to watch who becomes the story. You'll know when it happens.

As great a ride as the WSOP is, I've gotten used to it. For me, riding it with ESPN.com is what's going to make it spectacular. Thanks for giving me the shot, guys. Nice to be working with you, Mr. Gammons.

Gary Wise is a contributing writer for the ESPN Poker Club and is the feature poker columnist for Bluff magazine.