Ever since my ESPN Inside Deal hosting days, I have affectionately called the World Series of Poker main event the "Mac Daddy." The main event is the tournament all poker players dream of playing in one day, and for poker professionals, the "main" is the event we all look forward to every year. Once the WSOP schedule is announced, players from around the world mark their calendars for the trek to Las Vegas.
Although it has a lofty $10,000 price tag, the tournament still has incredible value, with thousands of amateurs registering for their chance at poker fame and fortune. This year, first place is worth $10 million. As 2004 champion Greg Raymer said in a recent column, "If I'm not in the main event, I'm either incapable because I'm too sick or I'm dead."
For me, the WSOP main event is not only a must-play annual poker tournament but also very personal, with myriad memories.
I have always felt a kinship to the WSOP, as many of its landmark dates are identical to mine. The WSOP was born in 1970, as was I, and the WSOP is celebrating its 10th anniversary at Rio, as I am beginning my 10th year at the WSOP.
I have always been a true fan of poker. I had played in a regular home game since the 1990's, well before the Moneymaker boom. As I became more proficient, some of my fondest memories were watching the old television coverage of the past WSOP main events with former actors and poker aficionados, Gabe Kaplan and Dick Van Patton, as hosts. Some of the final tables I vividly remember are the 1988 heads-up battle between Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel (before it was immortalized in the movie Rounders) and the 1989 final table in which a young, fresh-faced "kid" from Wisconsin, in his oxford button down shirt listening to his state of the art Walkman, captured his first bracelet. After denying "The Orient Express," Johnny Chan, his third title in a row, Phil Hellmuth thrust his arms in the air in triumph. Then there was the 1993 event in which John Bonetti discarded the modern ICM concept and allowed a severely short-stacked Glenn Cozen to sneak into second place behind eventual champion Jim Bechtel.
One of the most unique final tables was held in 1997 outside on Fremont street, where the legendary Stu Ungar captured his third WSOP main event with his iconic blue sunglasses perched on his sunken nose. And who can forget the iconic phrase uttered by Scotty Nguyen on the final hand of the 1998 WSOP heads-up battle, "You call this one, and it's all over, baby."
In 2000, a long-haired Chris "Jesus" Ferguson had his prayers answered and hit a three outer on the river, which made poker legend TJ Cloutier settle for second place for the second time in his career. I remember my complete disbelief in 2001 upon seeing Carlos Mortensen crack Hall of Famer Dewey Tomko's pocket aces with Kc-Qc to capture the most coveted bracelet in all of poker.
While watching these historic broadcasts, it was a pipe dream for me to ever play in such a huge tournament. To me, it was analogous to watching the NBA finals: appreciating the stellar play but never imagining playing on such a lofty stage.
Interestingly, it was the 2002 WSOP main event that sparked my interest in possibly making this farfetched dream into a reality. Before the ultimate amateur from Tennessee set the poker world ablaze the following year, an investment banker from New York named Robert Varkonyi navigated through a final table full of professionals to fulfill every poker player's dream. Because there were no hole cameras yet, hosts Gabe Kaplan and Lon McEachern sometimes asked one of the eliminated players to provide analysis. After his elimination in sixth place, Russell Rosenblum gave some commentary and surmised what the cards would be on one particular hand. When the hands were revealed, I was thoroughly amazed that he had predicted the two cards exactly. After this prediction, I realized I had a lot to learn about hold 'em and dedicated myself to the game. Years later, Rosenblum and I played a final table together, and I thanked him for indirectly starting my poker career.
Of course, the following year, Chris Moneymaker changed the face of poker forever. After watching the accountant from Tennessee fulfill the motto, "Anyone can win," I became infected by the poker tournament bug and desperately wanted to qualify for the 2004 WSOP main event. Given that $10,000 was not feasible for me to pay at the time, I feverishly tried to qualify online. Unfortunately, I wasn't successful, and I decided to devote another year of study, practice and time. I finally qualified for the 2005 WSOP one late night in early 2005.
The 2005 WSOP main event was the first WSOP event I ever played in. When I qualified, I never thought this one tournament would change my life forever. During the event, I played some of the best poker of my life and finished in 13th place, so agonizingly close to the final table. Although I was eliminated on a five-outer by Aaron Kanter, I am very proud of my accomplishment, as not many players have reached the penultimate day of the WSOP main event. The week-long journey through the 5,619-player field was beyond surreal.
However, the events that occurred after the tournament were what changed my life forever. After my deep run, I was asked by Rich Korbin of Pokerstars to write a blog about my experience. What was supposed to be a two- or three-page summary ended up being a 25-page, single-spaced cathartic experience that turned into a nine-part series online. My story was received well, and shortly after publication, my media career took off. First, I was asked by the Boston Herald to write a weekly poker column, which I did for seven years. Next, I began to fill this space on ESPN.com with writing about my journey on the poker circuit. Nine years later, I am a professional poker player who travels the circuit and is also fully immersed in the poker media through writing several poker columns, hosting my own radio show and doing poker commentary.
I fully realize that all of this media work would not be possible without playing poker, especially the WSOP main event. Having played the WSOP main event for the past nine years, I have witnessed many memorable and unforgettable moments:
Two-hour money bubbles (2005)
One-hand money bubble (2012)
A sold-out main event (2006)
Covering the November Nine (2008-2013)
And of course, horrendous bad beats and miraculous hands that propelled dozens of people into poker stardom.
There are many qualities to the WSOP main event that no other tournament in the world possesses.
The Day 1 bubble: So many players dream about playing in this event. Thus, the Amazon and Pavilion rooms explode with joy after players survive the first day. Many people call their families and friends to tell them the "good news."
The tightest money bubble in the world: There have been numerous stories of players folding monster hands, such as pocket kings and even aces, just to make it into the money of the WSOP main event.
The quickest eliminations: After the money bubble burst, dozens of short-stacked players are relived to make the money, and they begin shoving their chips immediately. During the first 15 minutes after the money bubble burst, hundreds of players are eliminated.
The crowd on Day 7: There is no other tournament in the world that has so many fans watching leading up to the final table. Hundreds -- if not thousands -- of family, friends and spectators fill the Amazon room to see which nine players will join one of the most elite fraternities in poker.
In the end, every player needs to respect the main event as he or she tries to avoid all the land mines day after day. I believe playing in the WSOP main event is a privilege, not a right, and I feel so fortunate to be one of the thousands of players able to participate. I'm predicting 6,625 this year, which would make the tournament the fifth largest in the history of the WSOP.
As I embark on my 10th Mac Daddy, I look forward to playing well and enjoying myself in the best event of the year ... and let's hope I can buck the odds and have another deep run -- ending July 15th as a member of the 2014 November Nine.