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More than a player

The lot of the sportswriter is a romantic and sad one. Here's a group in which their lives are dedicated to the games that hold their hearts, as they pour their creative sweat and the fibers of their beings into the modern battlefield with the knowledge that they'll never have what it takes to take the field. George Plimpton, author of "Paper Lion," tried to strap on the football pads in 1973 and compete with the younger, stronger men of the NFL. He learned his lessons hard.

For those in the camp who say poker is not a sport, who are constantly vigilant in their search for proof, here it is: In poker, members of the media can play and win. No, it's not because of the luck element. It's because in the realm of mental sport, through the constant exposure to the best players in the world via tournament coverage, something is bound to rub off. Now, Jeremiah Smith is living the dream that Plimpton attempted.

"I would say my media experience contributed about 75 percent of the knowledge that's helped me through the various stages of the tournament thus far," said Smith, a pastor-turned-writer-turned-poker-player. "For two years, I was watching every stage and writing down hands. I'd play along with the players. Now, having watched the best, I can just sit there and ask myself, 'What would Allen Cunningham do in this spot?'"

Smith's education has come through exposure. After serving as a pastor for seven years, he decided to follow his instincts and seek employment in the poker world. He took an internship with CardPlayer Magazine for the 2006 World Series of Poker.

"The best thing that ever happened to me is they didn't hire me," he remembers now. His departure from CardPlayer led to event coverage work for Pokerwire.com, a FullTiltPoker event coverage offshoot.

"At that time, I was still in awe of the poker world," Smith said. "There was still this gloss about it. All of that came crashing down pretty quick. I was kind of playing for a living without realizing it while waiting for the right job to come along. I went broke playing above my roll. That was really hard, and I became a person I'm not very proud of during that time.

"It led to a lot of conflict with my wife and family during that time that was totally my fault. Fortunately, I have an amazing wife, Melissa. We've been married for 8½ years. She's an amazing woman and our relationship is 10 times what it was before we moved to Vegas."

"A year ago, this would have been dream fulfillment," Smith continued. "But in the last six months my goals have been reshaped to something more like what they were before I got into the poker world. Just realizing that money and a bracelet are great, but I see so many people with those things who end up either broke or miserable six months later because they're unable to enjoy the journey or balance their lives afterwards. I've seen just really sad things happen in so many of those people's lives."

The examples of others have given Jeremiah's life direction.

"About six months ago, I started working on a new project with a bunch of FullTilt pros," he said. "Educational stuff. I've done a lot of writing, a lot of interviewing. Basically, I've been soaking up information with Allen Cunningham, Greg Mueller, Howard Lederer, Andy Bloch … literally spending hours and hours with these people, asking questions. It's been a lot of fun this summer because they're all rooting for me. That's been a neat experience to have them cheering for me, offering advice."

The pros are uniform in their praise.

"Jeremiah is a great guy," says Mueller, one player fortunate enough to have a percentage of Smith in the main event. "He's honest, funny, a cool guy. Me and my partner Kyle, we like horses [poker slang for players who will sell a piece of their winnings for a portion of their buy-in] and have always done small business with Jeremiah. To take a horse, we have to like a guy, trust him and think he can play. Jeremiah was a natural choice for us."

"We talk about walking the path with the lord," said Kirk Morrison. "He is magnetic in the quietest way. He'll be a lighthouse for that sometimes-dark world of poker. Just a great human being. Someone I look up to and whose brain I pick on perspective of life. I reckon he has the perfect makeup to win this whole thing."

In these, the final days of Jerry Yang's reign, Smith's spirituality makes for an easy comparison, but he takes a different approach to God and poker.

"It was really a trip last summer, watching Jerry Yang at the final table," Smith said. "I share a similar faith to Jerry's, but I'm a little different in my approach. I'm not so sure God cares what the river card is so much as God is interested in the person I am and the person I'm becoming. That's helped me a lot."

One would think that spirituality would conflict with poker, but Jeremiah is philosophical about the contrasts.

"Poker brings up so many questions about gambling and faith, which I've talked about with so many people," he reflected. "I view it as a form of competition, a battle of wits where there's a ton of skill involved. Yes, luck is a factor on the short term, but as a Christian who believes in God, if I take the long-haul approach and run my life in a way that's not letting poker control my life, I think it's OK. It's enjoyable and really rewarding."

The journey has been a rewarding one for the poker media also. Court Harrington started in the coverage game at the same time as Smith did, and their games have grown simultaneously. "He's a great guy," Harrington says. "He's one of those guys who will do anything for you. Sometimes in poker, you wonder what people's ulterior motives are, but he's just a genuinely nice guy. Everybody likes him and seems to be pulling for him. This absolutely gives me inspiration: Seeing that Jeremiah can do it, why couldn't someone else?"

The hard reality facing poker editors is that there's no reason their writers can't be successful at the game. Smith is showing us that prolonged thought regarding the game translates to success at the table. It's a transition from which he's now reaping the benefits.

"I don't know if I'm carrying the hopes of the media, but it's been so rewarding seeing the support I got from everybody. It says, 'You were more than just a reporter, you were a friend.' That's a fulfilling feeling no matter what happens for me."

It's as if the words are channeled from Plimpton, except for one thing: Plimpton couldn't win.

Gary Wise will cover the WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.