It's like surveying the landscape before the battle.
The World Series of Poker is upon us. The first event begins Friday at noon PT: The $10,000 pot-limit hold 'em world championship will sound the trumpet in style. Over the next six-plus weeks, 54 events will play out -- along with an incomplete 55th, the main event that will top them all and leave us wanting (and eventually getting) more. The WSOP is the gathering that poker players wait for all year. It's the family reunion; it's where legends are made; it's where the glory -- in the form of one little gold bracelet that in many eyes separates the men from the boys and in all eyes separates champions from the rest -- lasts forever.
A thousand stories will emerge by the end of the WSOP, and part of the beauty is that in a game in which anyone can win, there's no way to know who will emerge triumphant. No one knows which stories will become part of poker lore. Who could have predicted that a man named Moneymaker would play David to poker's Goliaths and emerge victorious in a 2003 WSOP that introduced Texas hold 'em to the world? Who could have predicted that a Laotian refugee named Jerry Yang -- who'd been playing poker for less than two years--would win more than $8 million a year ago? Nostradamus himself wouldn't have had a clue.
Some players are more likely to win than others; some stories are more likely to emerge. The eve of poker's homecoming is the time we take stock of those stories, so we might be better prepared to explain them when they play out. What follows is a summary of the stories we know we'll be tracking as we venture forth with the crowning of 55 champions -- just as thousands of players, having lost their tournament lives, are left to wonder what might have been.
The final table
The story that transcends all others at this year's WSOP is the one concerning changes to the final table of the $10,000 world championship. Instead of the final nine playing the day after their roster is decided (as has been done every year since the creation of tournament play in 1971), their date with destiny will be delayed for almost four months. This will allow viewers to watch the main event protected from prior knowledge of the winner's identity. The belief among the WSOP brass is that this outcome uncertainty -- viewers won't have months-in-advance knowledge of the results -- will lead to poker's return to ratings glory.
Yet questions abound to which no one has the answers. Just how much will the break affect the final table results? Can an amateur truly be transformed into a professional-caliber player in less than 120 days? Who will be the lucky few who are inevitably hired as coaches for the final table finishers? Will these nine players, buoyed by the hype machine, become the most famous poker players in the world? Will the extra time contribute to the potential problem of collusion?
The only truly educated answer is, "I don't know." It's always a risky proposition to toy with one man's perfection, and 6,358 people, suggesting they were fond of the status quo, put up $10,000 to play a year ago. Still, this decision to delay wasn't made lightly, and if tournament poker is ever to be accepted along the likes of tennis and golf as a serious sport, steps must be taken to appease and interest the general public. We'll find out if those steps are worth it in the coming months.
Four in a row?
A year ago, Allen Cunningham became the first player since Erik Seidel (1992-94) to win bracelets in three consecutive WSOPs. Of course, comparing the two streaks is like comparing apples to really, really large apples. Seidel's triumphs came in fields of 168, 94 and 105. Cunningham's came against 2,305, 752 and 398 players, respectively.
Aside from Cunningham and Seidel, the only players to have put together three-year runs are legends Johnny Moss (1974-76) and Doyle Brunson (1976-79), along with the mostly forgotten Bones Berland (1977-79). If Cunningham manages to extend his run this time around, he'll join Brunson as the only players to win poker's most cherished prize four years running.
Cunningham has managed a first- or second-place finish at the WSOP in every year in the 2000s, with the exception of 2004, tying him with Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Jesus Ferguson and Phil Ivey for most bracelets won since 2000. He's also won a total of $10,110,884 in tournament play, leaving him third all-time behind Jamie Gold and Joe Hachem, the winners of the two largest tournaments of all time. Regardless of whether Cunningham can take down a bracelet this year, we're talking about one of the true greats of the game.
The all-time race
OK, it's not what it was a year ago. In 2007, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan each entered the WSOP with 10 bracelets apiece, and all of the talk centered on who would break the tie. Hellmuth was a man possessed and earned his 11th by triumphing over a field of more than 2,600 players.
The question now is whether Phil will be a little too content sitting alone atop the poker mountain. If he gets caught up in the hype and loses his focus, it could leave the door open for Chan or Brunson to move back into a tie for first. One thing you can count on: If Hellmuth, Brunson or Chan wins a bracelet, you'll be reading about it on the front page of ESPN.com.
Meanwhile, Erik Seidel lurks. Best known for his second-place finish to Chan in the 1988 main event, Seidel quietly won his eighth bracelet a year ago, moving him into a fourth-place tie with the legendary Johnny Moss. Another win this year puts him very much in the hunt, and he's far younger than either Chan or Brunson.
A year ago, Jerry Yang came out of nowhere to shock the world. A quiet, diminutive man, Yang played a ferocious game and went from the small stack at the start of the final table to the chip leader in less than 30 hands and never relinquished the lead. He's barely been heard from since his win.
As with every year, all eyes will fix on the returning champion whenever he enters a room, but this year those eyes will be backed by more questions than answers. Yang's only played in three major tournaments since his win, and he's yet to score another in-the-money finish. Was Jerry Yang a fluke? Or, has the first world champion to go without a major sponsorship deal since the poker boom began merely not had the opportunity to show his true colors? For many observers, the questions will be answered at the 2008 WSOP.
You may not know his name yet, but if you follow poker at all, you're going to get to know Tom "Durrr" Dwan very, very well. At 21, Dwan is finally eligible to play in his first WSOP, but the stage isn't going to intimidate him.
Dwan has been playing the highest-stakes games available online for a while now, taking on all comers and routinely seeing $500,000 cash-game swings in a night, usually for the better. This past year, he made his foray into live poker on American soil, scoring a fourth-place finish at the WPT's World Poker Finals in November and a ninth-place finish in the $25,000 WPT World Championship at Bellagio.
Even more than his tournament results, it's his can't-lose confidence that makes Dwan so dangerous. When Phil Hellmuth berated him in front of millions on NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship, Dwan turned it around on the Poker Brat, first mocking Phil's complaints, then offering to play Hellmuth any time for any amount. Hellmuth said with the cameras rolling that he'd be happy to play (Dwan suggested a series of thirty $100,000 heads-up matches), but when push came to shove, the eleven-time bracelet winner backed down from the fight. There has never been a rookie with more hype heading into the Series. He's embracing it, with plans to play in 22 events.
A professional champion?
When Chris Moneymaker won the world championship in 2003, the world said, "Anyone can win," and it lead to poker's explosion. The poker world has been looking for an established player to take the title in the quest for mainstream legitimacy ever since.
There's no questioning that some recent champions have been legitimate professionals. Greg "Fossilman" Raymer almost pulled off a duplicate run the year after his 2004 title, until a late charge was shut down by an untimely river card. 2005 champion Joe Hachem scored a final-table appearance in the 2006 WSOP and then triumphed over one of the toughest hold 'em fields of all time at the WPT's 2006 Bellagio Five Diamond Classic. Still, neither man was internationally known prior to their wins.
Having an established player emerge would go a long way towards quieting those who erroneously suggest poker success is owed more to luck than skill. For a game -- and an industry -- that has seen its biggest moment come and go, the authenticity that statement would offer would go a long way towards solidifying the long-term health of the game.
Regardless of how these stories play out, more money and booze and food and parties and music and good times and bad will be had in the next six weeks than some industries see over their lifetimes. Unlike in battle, when we fall here, we can stand back up and rejoin the party. Welcome to the party.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.