When you look at the names who were elected into the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions this year, it really makes you wonder if there's any point to trying anymore. I'm not talking about winning -- that comes with it's own benefits. What I'm talking about is trying to break through the poker celebrity barrier to come out on the other side.
Sammy Farha, T.J. Cloutier men like these have earned their stripes, but they've seen better days. Their best memories are more than a half-decade old now, and while they played, young would-be stars of the game like Jason Mercier, Eric Baldwin and Daniel Alaei watched from the sidelines without so much as getting within arm's reach of the table. It's enough to make a young player give up on the dream of fame before it even takes shape.
Tom Dwan has started to change all that. Unlike the other online gods before him, Dwan captured the attention of the poker community and the wonderment of those who saw his unbridled aggression work time and again on television. He's gotten his own commercials. He's ascended to the rank of superstar.
In doing so, Dwan has shown that it's possible, but you know what? He can't be the new kid forever. With poker education increasing exponentially and young kids coming up who have seen poker played seriously on television since before puberty, there were bound to be challenges to his poker throne. Queue the Durrrr Challenge.
See, the problem most would-be poker stars face isn't about skill or success, but exposure. Dwan's 50,000-hand challenge offers that kind of exposure. It's the kind of action that makes even the most statuesque heads turn. With Patrik Antonius more or less dispatched, Dwan was looking for a new opponent, and he may have gotten more than he bargained for.
Say hello to Daniel "jungleman12" Cates. He just may be poker's newest superstar.
Cates' rise has been astounding. Starting with a strong success rate in game play, he found his beginnings in high school lunch-hour $5 sit-and-gos, using torn-up pieces of paper as chips. When he wanted more, he found his way online and promptly lost $3,000 at micro stakes before it finally started to click. In less than a year, he made his way to midlevel sit-and-gos when he discovered easy success in heads-up play. From there's he's ascended through higher stakes like a warm knife through butter. Staying at one level for a month felt like a long time.
Cates' reputation took hold when he started playing the highest stakes. When he beat Dwan for some $800,000 in heads-up play, Dwan mentioned he was looking for his next Challenge opponent. Considering the results, Cates was more than a little surprised at the offer.
"It was a little insulting," Cates recalled. "It suggested that my beating him was all variance. I was a little thrown aback because the results I've had against him have really strongly implied I had an edge against him, even though I'd run hot in the past. From the sample size, it's so unlikely he has an edge. It must imply a lot of confidence on his part. I wouldn't say his finding a hole in my game was a big concern. I was worried that maybe he had an unknown reason to think he had a good chance to win. I thought maybe he was hustling me or something. I don't think that's the case now. It's a pretty sick hustle if he is."
Sick isn't the word for it, because through less than 7,000 hands, Cates is up approximately $692,000. It's a staggering success that even he couldn't have anticipated, and obviously variance is playing its part, but the buzz among many is that Dwan's being this far behind this early bodes very badly for him.
"I have a lot of money on jungleman in this matchup," acknowledges Justin Bonomo, who has played some 20,000 heads-up hands against the young star. "I'm sure as the hands go by, both players are going to be making adjustments, but jungleman's game is so strong I don't think Durrrr will pick up enough to give him a definite edge. Tom is one of the best poker players in the world, but he's playing against one of the best no-limit hold 'em heads-up specialists in the world. Generally in poker, the specialist will beat the well-rounded player in the specialist's best game."
Cates, just 20 years old, is a reflection of a newer, more analytical generation of poker players. "Jungleman is definitely a math guy," Bonomo said. "His fundamentals are very strong. If Durrrr is looking for a specific weakness in his game, he's going to have trouble finding it."
"Not many people have played many hands with jungleman and come out ahead of him," said Isaac Haxton, another Cates admirer/opponent. "I think jungleman has a more balanced and adaptive approach to the game."
"I have probably played a thousand hands with him," online star Phil "OMGClayAiken" Galfond explained. "Not a ton, but he's very, very tough. Very well balanced overall. With most good players, I can spot some patterns, but he seems to have a really solid foundation and there's very little I can pick up and take advantage of. I'd be really surprised if he wasn't amongst the top five heads-up no-limit hold 'em players in the world."
Bonomo and Haxton echo that last sentiment.
With the attention his early thrashing of Dwan has received, Cates is starting to see a chance in the ways he receives attention. "I think I'd like to play poker for life," he said. "I love to play. It's better than work and it's more profitable. I'm starting to look at sponsorships and investments. Fame just gives me the potential to get started down those roads. It makes me a known entity and that helps with credibility."
Of course, all that will come with continued success in the spotlight. For now, with Dwan healing his wounds and both players planning on attending the World Series of Poker Europe, the Challenge is on hiatus. Once that event is over, though, Cates will be ready to go and likes his chances. "At this point, I'd say the chances [of winning] are easily over 50 percent, but I won't say more than that. I think I'm a favorite, I just can't say how much, though. Hopefully, after London, we'll get lots of action."
With this kind of success at only 20, the action is coming. If he maintains it, he'll be among poker's new breed of stars.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @GaryWise1.