We never know what stories will emerge at the dawn of the World Series of Poker. We didn't know Peter Eastgate or Joe Cada would become the youngest world champions ever. We didn't know that Frank Kassela would emerge as a superstar in winning WSOP Player of the Year in 2010. We didn't know Chris Moneymaker would inspire a cultural phenomenon. What we do know is how to watch for those stories as they emerge, and where the greatest potential emergences lay.
Enough preamble. We know the summer will offer up a variety of unexpected turns and twists, but looking at the big picture with a clean slate, here's what we'll be focusing on throughout the 43rd installment of the WSOP.
The Big One for One Drop
With the escalation in tournament buy-ins over the last two years, a $1,000,000 buy-in event was inevitable. Given that fact, few saw it coming as soon as 2012, especially at the WSOP. The inspiration was Cirque de Soleil owner Guy Laliberte's passion for One Drop, a charity that aims to provide clean water to the world's population. With a portion of the purse going to that noble cause ($111,111 per entry), professionals and wealthy businessmen (recruited directly by Laliberte) have been filling the sign-up sheet, with 30 spots presently committed to and more applications being processed.
Questions abound regarding who exactly will play and whether the tournament will fill its maximum 48 slots, but with the stakes involved, the live televised final table (ESPN, July 3) is sure to feature one of the most exciting bubbles of modern times. There are also the twin curiosities of whether the pros will be able to keep their heads when playing with more to lose on the line than has ever been approached in tournament play, and how hard the businessmen will push them with that agenda in mind.
One last fun thought. $25,000 satellites will be held in which every 40 entrants will create one seat in the tournament. Any extra prize money will be awarded to a single player, which means if the satellite gets, say, 75 players, one seat will be awarded with second place getting $750,000. In that scenario, three-man play will easily represent the biggest satellite bubble of all time.
Every year, there seems to be something. In 2011, it was Black Friday. In 2009, it was the recession. Doom-speakers and naysayers constantly seek to prognosticate the WSOP's downfall, and this time around, it's the European crisis that's causing the sky to fall.
"We have some concerns with the European crises," admitted Seth Palansky, Caesar's VP of Corporate Communications. "A lot of our growth [in recent years] has been a result of international expansion and their dollar won't go as far. We'll keep an eye on that and how much effect it has on our participation."
Here's the thing. though. In '09, the main event still got 6,494 runners, and in 2011, it was 6,865. It seems like the hit from the crises would be small by comparison and regardless, the WSOP seems to always roll on.
Is Ivey back?
The title of this segment has a double meaning. First, there's the question of whether poker's most enigmatic anti-hero will play at all after last year's disappearing act. Then, if he does play, we'll watch to see whether he's the same force as he was prior to Black Friday. Ivey's quickly dropped lawsuit from a year ago left a bad taste in a lot of mouths, and his choice to not attend WSOP struck some (read: me) as a way to avoid the public's questions about the seeming collapse of Full Tilt Poker. For Ivey to thrive, he'll have to survive a lot more confrontation than he did a year ago.
Who is No. 1?
While Ivey was the consensus No. 1 player in the world a year ago, he still hasn't climbed back to the top of ESPN's The Nuts. That lofty post is held by Jason Mercier, with the likes of Erik Seidel, Eugene Katchalov and Bertrand Grospellier having challenged for the top spot over the last 18 months. This WSOP may finally give us a clearer understanding of who the best poker player in the world is right now.
The death of the sponsored American pro
A year ago, American pros were still in a state of shock, reeling from the immediate effects of Black Friday. Now, with FTP in purgatory and PokerStars left without the benefits that catering to an American audience once provided, there's little sponsorship market for the second tier of recognizable American pros. The guess here is that we'll see a decrease in the number of players entering 20-plus events. The WSOP's decision to decrease the buy-ins on championship events to $5,000 may be reflective of this reality.
You probably know it's growing increasingly unlikely we'll ever see Howard Lederer or Chris Ferguson at the WSOP again, but what about their fellow FTP poster children? While most of their FTP endorsers played in 2011 and presumably will again in 2012, the questions are amplified for the likes of Erick Lindgren, whose alleged massive debts to other players may keep him away from the action.
Joe Hachem, the most successful post-Moneymaker-era world champion, barely won a dollar in the first 10 months of his reign, so the jury is still out on young German Pius Heinz. In addition to pressure of constant media attention and questions about the validity of his play, the young champion will need to adjust to one constant reality: Everyone wants to knock out the world champion. We'll be watching to see if he can stay one step ahead of the metagame.
We've watched Annette Obrestad, Tom Dwan and Daniel Cates take their initial steps on to the WSOP stage after years of online success and now, it's Viktor Blom's turn. The mad Swede's online exploits are the thing of legend, taking on the likes of Phil Ivey, Dwan and Patrik Antonius in simultaneous, multi-table heads-up matches for millions. Blom made his first major dent in the live poker circuit this year when he won the super high roller event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for a cool $1,254,400. Now, he and 2010 PCA champion Harrison Gimbel are the stars of the 2012 WSOP rookie class.
Where most world champions seems to fade back into the woodwork, 2010 champion Jonathan Duhamel has been playing at a different level in 2012, with four six-figure scores thus far. Duhamel is one of the few pros who has committed to The Big One for One Drop and has maintained a remarkable focus on his career despite the wealth he's already accrued, and he seems to thrive on big stages.
Searching for their first
While the Bloms of the world are obviously still hunting for their first bracelets, we tend to focus in such discussions on players who have been around a little longer. Chris Moorman, Sam Trickett and Shawn Buchannan each hold a spot on ESPN's The Nuts rankings as of this writing, but none own a bracelet. Dwan, Antonius and Andy Bloch bear similarly naked wrists. This will remain a weight on their respective shoulders until remedied.
In its ongoing quest to improve the WSOP product, The WSOP team is finally happy with the layout of the event.
"This is the first year we have the dream layout we always wanted for this event," explained Palansky. "We have 480 poker tables at our disposal. Daily deepstack tournaments, cash games, satellites and bracelet events that can live harmoniously we should never delay or sell out an event, never shut down tables to feed other events. What we've learned at WSOP is it's not just about bracelet events. It's a poker festival that lasts for seven weeks. I think you'll see that, more than ever, people will be happy to stay at Rio, getting their poker fix without leaving the place. Busting out doesn't mean you have to leave…you can quickly find something else to do."
In addition to the improved layout, the WSOP will be trying to enhance the fan experience for those following at home. While they're still working out the kinks, WSOP will be introducing the ChipTic system, which will track the table and chip totals of every player in a given tournament, allowing friends and family to keep an eye on the progress of the least recognizable names in any field at wsop.com. It's an innovation poker fans have been wanting for years.
So there you have it. The 2012 WSOP as we see it in a nutshell until the first hand of play creates an entirely new story we couldn't account for. Hey, if it was predictable, we wouldn't be watching, right? For the next seven weeks, the stories -- and fates of thousands -- will continue to shift on the turn of many, many cards. That's what makes it so much fun.