It's easy to forget what poker is about in the new age. Fame, glory, championships and bracelets. Each has its merits and brings with it rewards, but in the end, this is a game founded on the most American concept in the world: fortune. It's a reality that Eric Buchman isn't ready to let go of as easily as some of his fellow finalists in this year's World Series of Poker main event.
"The title is huge," the 30-year-old second chip leader said. "Second place is only the first loser. You have to win to be called world champion. That's really important to me, but if it came down to the money or the title, I'd take the money any day of the week. I'm no multimillionaire. I can't laugh at $8,000,000. I play for the money. I'm a professional poker player. If I don't win money, I don't eat.
"I need the money to live," he continued. "Once I make the money, the bracelets will be more important. It's easy for a guy who's got millions to say, 'I don't care about the money,' but for your everyday guy, they're playing for the money. Anybody who doesn't say that is probably lying. Any kid who hasn't made it and isn't rich who says that is lying. That's why you play! Prestige won't buy you a house or put your kids through college. Back in 2002, prestige didn't mean anything. I don't think [Phil] Hellmuth was making millions on endorsements back then."
It's a tough but fair sentiment from a tough but fair guy. Buchman plays poker. His youthful appearance and age might suggest he's part of the wave of online pros to hit the game in the past few years, but really, he's as old-school a 30-year-old as you're going to find in the game. His seemingly mercenary approach to poker and attitudes suited generations that came before him.
"Notoriety is nice," Buchman said. "I mean, I'm not one to brag about being good at poker like a lot of guys. I see a lot of guys with big egos talking about how great they are. What does that all mean? The media might be impressed, but the media doesn't mean anything. Anyone can say it. Prove it! Show me you're the best. Phil Ivey doesn't go around saying it. His results show it. I never understood all these people talking up how great they are. Having a name doesn't mean anything. I've played for a long time on my own money, making a living year after year. I'm not getting attention, but I'm doing it. The good players out there know who I am.
"I guess I am old-school," he said. "The guys like [Daniel] Negreanu and Ivey are a little bit older than I am. They played a little before I did. I also got a degree. I didn't drop out to go play poker because I wanted my degree. I guess I do consider myself an old-school guy. I was playing before 'Rounders,' before [Chris] Moneymaker."
When "Rounders" opened in theaters, Buchman was 19 years old and already a veteran of New York City's famous card rooms.
"I just liked to gamble," he said. "I'd go with my brother or friends, and we were in a casino in Atlantic City [N.J.] and walked into a poker room. I didn't know there was any such thing. I sat down and started playing the game. From there, I started playing in the New York clubs when I was on summer break."
It was "Rounders," the story of a similarly aged New York card player that provided the stimulation for Buchman's eventual career choice.
"'Rounders' was an inspirational movie to me," Buchman said. "I was playing in the clubs when it came out. I didn't know guys were making a living to that extent. When it came out, it was like, 'Wow, it would be a dream to play the main event and win it.' I didn't think people were making a living. I thought they just played for entertainment. Then I saw 'Rounders,' and it showed me I could make a living. It showed me I could make a lot of money."
Suddenly, his career choice started to take shape.
The Breakdown: Eric Buchman
Second in chips, Eric Buchman has the experience Darvin Moon does not, but can he keep his focus and play for the win instead of just the money?
Current position: Second
Chip count: $34.8 million
Tournament winnings: $ 2,222,224
WSOP final tables: 2
WSOP cashes: 10
"When I got to be a senior in college, I'd take trips to the Connecticut casinos," Buchman said. "I was doing pretty good. I would only go like once a week, and I started winning consistently. By the time I graduated, I'd built a small bankroll, and I kept playing and doing well. Then, I hit a Caribbean Stud jackpot for $222,000. That gave me more to play with. I'd been playing $20/$40 and $40/$80 limit hold 'em before that. Afterward, I was playing $50/$100, $75/$150, whatever I thought were the good games. After I hit the jackpot, I was more comfortable playing higher up."
Buchman's limits have escalated ever since, and he became a tournament regular in 2002, scoring his first $10,000 buy-in cash a year later. Since then, there haven't been a lot of smaller buy-ins between the big tourneys.
"If I had known poker would blow up in 2002-'03, I would have been playing a lot more tournaments," he said. "I'd have tried to get my name out there. I didn't play all of them, but I tried to get out there. I went to Mississippi one year with my bro. We started playing prelims, but a week in, I was so sick of it, I got on a plane and went home before the big tournament. I realized it was just better for me to stick to the main event. You don't get sponsorship for the prelims. I played most of the East Coast tournaments. I wasn't looking at sponsorship. I was looking at tournament value in terms of how much I could win. The sponsorship made the value a lot better than I gave it credit for."
Finally, after years of grinding, the sponsors have caught up to Buchman. After the main event hiatus began, he signed with PokerStars, noting, "They're honest and reliable and secure. If my being with them makes me look the same, then great. I've been playing with my own money since the very beginning. I never needed a backer. A sponsor is a great thing, though. That's one of the dreams. It's not an easy thing to get into. It's a big thing."
A small ruckus erupted when a message board post suggested Buchman had not been dealt with fairly by Full Tilt Poker, whose badge he wore through the July potion of the main event, but he's quick to assure that any perceived issues were exaggerated. While not wanting to expand on much ado about nothing, Buchman said, "I'm in the process of sorting everything out. Everything with FTP will be worked out fine."
Now that the business side of the business is out of the way, there's only the main event itself for Buchman to concern himself with. Despite his professional record and the second largest stack heading into the final table, he seems to be a forgotten man.
"The media focus is always going to be on the chip leader, so I don't think I'm being overlooked," Buchman said. "I don't really mind. Let everyone focus on Darvin Moon. Last year, everyone followed Dennis Phillips, and a lot of them still think he won the thing. He did a million interviews, had all the attention some people think he won."
Is Moon the favorite then?
"I'm not an egotistical guy, but I think I can safely say I'm a better player than Darvin because I have more experience than him and he's new to the game," Buchman said. "He could still get a lot better, but at this point, because I have more experience, I'm better. He has a lot of chips, though; that means a lot, too. I'd say we're about even favorites going in."
Regardless of how that assessment holds up, life is feeling a little easier these days for guy who has found a hard way to make an easy living for the past eight years.
"[The final table] has made me more comfortable," Buchman said of his llifestyle. "There's less pressure to make money, to play poker all the time, to grind out a living. I've barely played between the main event and now. All the pressure right now is on this tournament, so I'm really just focusing on that. When it's over, I'll start playing again. I just want to clear my head, be mentally prepared for this tournament. Nothing else matters."
With that kind of focus, it's no wonder so many experts have weighed in with Buchman as their pick to take the title. In the end, though, one gets the feeling he won't be changed should he win this thing. The rest of the table had better keep their eyes on the ball since there's more than $8,000,000 out there waiting for someone to win and Buchman is not about to forget about the money.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.