It was back in January when former WSOP main event champion Joe Hachem gave a video interview to BLUFF.com in which he delivered his now infamous "poker is dying" rant. He was talking largely about the fact some of the more recreational players were leaving the game, and that some of the game's newest ambassadors weren't living up to what he believed were their responsibilities.
It seems that the poker world at large used the first week of the 2014 World Series of Poker to tell Hachem to take a hike. Normally the first few days of the Series feel like a soft start. Typically not much happens as players get back in the groove of grinding multiple events, and the WSOP brass usually spend the first few days running around trying to deal with unforeseen issues. Likewise, fans at home learn/remember that bracelets are being awarded and slowly begin tuning in to the coverage online. We thank you for that.
This year felt different. Holding a multi-discipline event with a $25,000 buy-in right off the hop sure helped. The $25,000 Mixed Max event guaranteed a star-studded field and a big-name winner. Vanessa Selbst is just that. Right now she might be one of the three or four biggest names in poker and by beating Jason Mo in the heads-up final to win her third career bracelet she launched the 2014 WSOP with a bang.
As she was wrapping up her win, the WSOP was bracing itself for the $1,500 buy-in Millionaire Maker. It's a bit of a gimmick event with first place guaranteed $1 million, but the field for this year's event just got kind of silly. With two starting flights (held on the same day) and a re-entry for those who busted out during the first flight, the field swelled to 7,977 players and made it the second-largest tournament in WSOP history behind the 2006 WSOP main event. Last year the same event -- being held for the first time -- drew 6,343 players, meaning the event grew 26 percent year over year. That type of spike has WSOP organizers already excited about what it could mean for the main event.
"Our customers really like money. So, a seven-figure payday for a relatively modest wager is tough to ignore. The eight-figure guarantee [$10 million] for the main event has people buzzing," said WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart. "It's going to be a great summer and I think we have created two strong bookends that drive a lot of interest in the city and the game."
The Millionaire Maker atmosphere, particularly on that first day, was something to be felt. The hallways of the Rio convention center were packed, wall-to-wall with poker players of all types; pros, amateurs, home game heroes. Players were excited, anxious and every player waiting in those registration lines had dreams in his or her head about walking away with a million-dollar score. In many ways it felt like Black Friday had never happened.
That number must have blown away any projections that WSOP bigwigs had made. The line to register for the event was long throughout the day and at one point, every available table was in use. The 2014 schedule includes a lot more value opportunities for the recreational player and they must have been expecting some of the players to spread out over those other events.
One of those events, a $1,000 pot-limit Omaha event, broke another WSOP record. With a field of 1,128, it was the single largest non-hold 'em event in WSOP history. As that event played down to a winner there was a very familiar face making a charge. Greg Merson, 2012 WSOP main event champ, eventually finished 14th. He's already played seven events this year -- more than he played in 2012 when he won WSOP Player of the Year.
Merson's increased schedule comes just a few months after a heart-to-heart chat with Phil Hellmuth about what it means to have a poker legacy. Hellmuth told Merson that winning bracelets while you're young establishes your place in poker history and allows you to have an easier future. Merson took it to heart and seems intent on proving Hachem wrong.
Hellmuth was also at the heart of the culmination of the amazing first week on Sunday evening. The $1,500 Razz event was down to just two players, Ted Forrest and 13-time WSOP bracelet winner Hellmuth. WSOP.com, which streams every final table, usually features the hold 'em or Omaha events with commentary, but the presence of Hellmuth changed that standard. Even with the $1,500 no-limit hold 'em shootout playing down to a winner on the same day, the folks at WSOP.com knew the people would rather watch Hellmuth chase No. 14 than anything else.
According to the WSOP's Jess Welman, the viewer turnout for this event was "comparable with Phil Ivey in 2012." That's strong, and Ivey wasn't playing razz.
The heads-up battle took nearly six hours and for the entirety of it the ESPN main stage was packed, with a rail four deep. For the most part the fans were behind Hellmuth, but Forrest, a five-time bracelet winner himself, also had support.
The two played back and forth, trading the chip lead multiple times until finally Forrest prevailed. Before being presented with his bracelet Forrest took the microphone and took time to praise Hellmuth, calling him the hardest final opponent he'd ever beaten. Hellmuth admitted the next day that he was feeling like he was in a zone again, similar to 2011 when he finished runner-up in three high-profile events.
Congrats to my old friend Ted Forrest on winning #WSOPRazz tourn. If I had to lose to someone, I'm glad it was Teddy....2nd place for me
- phil_hellmuth (@phil_hellmuth) June 2, 2014
With six weeks still to go, the 2014 WSOP is already shaping up to be one of the most memorable in recent years. If poker is dying, then this first week has been one heck of a wake.