Editor's note: The WSOP main event final table will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Monday at 8 p.m. ET. It will conclude on ESPN on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
For the purposes of public consumption, competition is a story. It comes with protagonists and antagonists, a beginning, middle and end, a plot, themes, a crisis and a climax. With a competition like the World Series of Poker, where 6,598 poker players plunk down $10,000 apiece in search of fame and fortune, the elements are there. Usually, the stories leading up to the final table write themselves.
In 2003, we saw Chris Moneymaker live up to the moniker. In 2006, with a little help from Norman Chad, Allen Cunningham became a household name. In 2008, the November Nine format, where the final table was delayed a few months, defined all. In 2009, the talk was dominated by the unlikeliest pair of all, backwoods chip leader Darvin Moon and icy-cold Phil Ivey. For the media (if not the authors, certainly the distributors), those storylines were easy to grab on to. Those stories wrote themselves.
2012 has been arguably different. This year, the story is that there has been no standout. No Cunningham or Ivey or Michael Mizrachi. There are no familiar names, and for an industry that thrives when the stars show up, nothing familiar led to a promotional struggle. The search for something to take their place was a game of weights and balances. Some have been universally set upon, but the reality is that the biggest story is still very much intact, because Cunningham? Ivey? Mizrachi? …
None of those guys won.
The focus leading up is always on what could be, but at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (live on ESPN2/WatchESPN), the real story will begin to unfold. Then at 9 p.m. on Tuesday (live on ESPN/WatchESPN), we'll finally see the climax and conclusion. The reason you'll watch isn't because of the $8,527,982 first-place prize (though that's obviously not too shabby) or because the prize pool is the biggest in professional sports. They're good reasons, sure, but the reason you'll watch is the same reason as you'll watch the Super Bowl or the World Series or Wimbledon: Because all good stories have an ending.
One of the nine men left standing in the World Series of Poker main event will emerge as world champion. When he does, we'll have our protagonist, and the story will have run its course. In addition to the newfound digits in his bank account, he'll have fame, adoration and a changed life. For that potential to linger? For the dream to be this close? It's the highest drama in the world. For one of them, it will end with immortality.
Your nine potential world champions are:
Seat 1 - Russell Thomas, 24, Hartford, Conn. (chip count: 24,800,000): A former roommate of chip leader Jesse Sylvia, Thomas wasn't supposed to be here. Upon finishing school, with poker success in tow, he opted for a life in the actuarial industry rather than that of a poker grinder. Even when poker did resurface, cash games were his focus. Despite his best efforts, the main event has changed everything. Regardless of how he'll do, he appears poised to finally embrace poker as his living.
Seat 2 - Jacob Balsinger, 21, Tempe, Ariz. (13,115,000): Balsinger's stack took a tumble in the final hours of play leading up to the final table in July, but we can't ignore that he's the youngest man in the field. The past three world champions were 22, 23 and 22, respectively, suggesting the main event might be a young man's game. A victory would make Balsinger the youngest to win the event.
Seat 3 - Jeremy Ausmus, 32, Las Vegas (9,805,000): The small stack probably leaves Ausmus on the outside looking in, but his final-table appearance caps a remarkable 2012 WSOP performance for the pro. The main event was his ninth cash of the summer. While he is starting at the bottom, the stacks are rather deep, at least for the first few hours.
Seat 4 - Steven Gee, 57, Sacramento, Calif. (16,860,000): The oldest remaining player in the field is also one of two bracelet owners still standing. Primarily a cash-game player, Gee won a 3,000-player hold 'em event at the 2010 WSOP. He's been playing poker for longer than most of his opponents have been alive.
Seat 5 - Greg Merson, 24, Laurel, Md. (28,725,000): By virtue of being third in chips and on a monster roll, Merson is considered one of the favorites. A win in the main event would also give Merson 2012 WSOP player of the year honors, capping a series that included a bracelet win and another final table before the main event even started. Merson, an online cash-game pro who has accumulated an amazing 7 million hands played, has been refreshingly candid about his battle with drug addiction and has pledged to use any attention found through this final table to help others fight the affliction.
Seat 6 - Jesse Sylvia, 26, Las Vegas (43,875,000): Interestingly, Sylvia credits part of his success here to Black Friday, the popular name for the Department of Justice's seizing of major online poker operators. With lessened availability of online play, Sylvia was forced to hone his live skills, and his result here suggests it worked. Sylvia has a massive chip lead and therefore has to be considered the favorite going in. With many considering Merson the real danger to Sylvia, the seating arrangement has to help.
Seat 7 - Robert Salaburu, 27, San Antonio (15,155,000): The wild card. Salaburu has a devil-may-care attitude and a mouth to augment it. He's made it clear that he doesn't fear the situation at hand. A swingy player throughout his career, Salaburu is going to make a play or two that will raise some eyebrows, and he'll do so while seated right behind two of the chip leaders.
Seat 8 - Andras Koroknai, 30, Debrecen, Hungary (29,375,000): The lone non-American left in the field, Koroknai will look to extend the streak of non-American champions since 2009. Koroknai, who with Merson is the only player at the table with a past seven-figure score (a win at the 2010 WPT LA Poker Classic), doesn't figure to be intimidated by the lights and comes in second in chips with the Merson-Sylvia-Salaburu trio seated directly in front of him. For the man who is best known for knocking women out of this event in 11th and 10th places, there's a real chance to add a newer, bigger bullet to his résumé.
Seat 9 - Michael Esposito, 44, Seaford, N.Y. (16,260,000): The only nonprofessional player at the final table, Esposito is a commodities trader and father who has been playing in tournaments for more than a decade, most notably in Atlantic City. A victory would make him the first amateur champion since Jerry Yang in 2007.
Each of these nine men has already won more than $750,000, and each has the potential to drive that total north of $8.5 million before the week is done. More than that, though, each has a chance to make his mark. Whether Balsinger is the youngest, Merson conquers his demons, Koroknai topples eight Americans or Sylvia cruises to victory, one of their names will become intrinsically linked with the poker tradition. In a poker world whose opportunities for fame and historic indentation are becoming fewer and farther between, this is the rare chance to become a part of a story that will go on for centuries to come.