The 142 players who survived through Day 5 of the 2011 World Series of Poker main event have and hope to continue weathering the storm. These are no longer ordinary poker players. These are guys who have sat at the table for more than 40 hours of tournament time and managed to only add to their stacks. If only through that experience, they each merit the consideration of sitting on a different plateau in our collective esteem.
When you get to this point in the tournament, the determination of a champion depends on different criteria. Is there a skill level difference between Allen Cunningham and a home-game warrior? Yes, but it's not so drastic that it should be expected to play out accordingly. Skill is a long-term quality. The main event is now officially a short-term proposition.
Now, it's about fortitude, both physical and mental. A player needs to stay comfortable, alert, aware, observant, in the game, and most importantly, immune to the pressure of the situation as the stakes continue to rise. Brian Devonshire, presently sitting ninth in chips with 3.29 million, may well be the best-equipped player left to make a big run based on those qualities.
Devonshire is one of poker's best-liked denizens. An intensely energetic guy who can constantly be found with a wide, mischievous smile on his weathered face, Devonshire's lust for life is infectious.
"Devo's the kind of person who, when you meet him, you think, 'This guy can't be real,'" said his close friend and WSOP bracelet-holder Eric Baldwin. "He's that much of a character. You get to know him and realize he's more real than the other people out there. He's truly one of a kind and about as much of a character as you can be. When he eventually hits the grave, he'll have 10 times as many stories as the average person."
Part of what Baldwin's talking about is Devonshire's admiration of libation. "I don't like that that's my reputation so much, but I'm good at drinking beer," Devonshire admitted with a laugh. "It cost Phil Hellmuth a lot of money at Brandon Cantu's wedding because he and others bet I couldn't drink 111 ounces beer in 100 minutes. I don't remember anything from when there was a third of a beer left until the next morning. I woke up thinking I'd lost."
Despite the good-times reputation, though, Devonshire is as mentally tough as it gets, which is why some are calling him a favorite to reach the November Nine.
"I think he's definitely got the head for [the main event], which is the most important part of this thing," said David Baker, who fell on the tournament's penultimate day in 2010. "It's not about who plays the best, it's who can keep their composure the longest. It's a test of will. I don't think he'll get overcome by the moment. He's been on the radio, done the podcasts he's used to people watching him, so I don't think the enormity of the situation will overtake him. That's where most people fall short."
When Devonshire hasn't been playing poker in his adult life, he's been scaling, climbing, swimming and traversing the toughest terrains he can find. As a guide on the Kings and Arkansas rivers, among others, he's saved people from drowning on many occasions, and his travels have pitted his wits against the dangers the world provides outside settled lands. All of that goes a portion of the way toward explaining why he's a tougher man than your average player.
"I've watched a lot of meltdowns," Devonshire said. "I think the pressure will crack a lot of people. That's an advantage I have. I've played with pressure in cards and baseball and saved lives on the rapids. You can't panic in those situations, because it's not helpful. I think it's pretty important to trust your instincts, too. Most people know the answers to the questions life asks, then second-guess themselves and get themselves into trouble. I think trusting yourself is a more peaceful way to live life."
It's a peaceful life philosophy from a toughened man. Devonshire has been exposed to professional poker's perils for more than a decade despite being just 27 years old. He's lived in Vegas since the 2006 WSOP, played the big cash games, played online and played tournaments. But that doesn't make you tough.
"I played baseball competitively growing up and was really good," Devonshire recalled. "The Indians scouted me when I was 14, playing in American Legion ball with 18-year-olds. Things were pretty carefree, but then I just had a lot of these situations that teach you about life. My catcher was shot and killed in a drive-by [shooting] and that woke me up to the reality that life can be nasty sometimes. I learned that lesson and then my dad committed suicide when I was 17, so I was a big mess in high school. One of my best friends was paralyzed neck-down in an accident. I guess I learned the hard way you can only take life one day at a time. You can't take the moments for granted. You have to appreciate what's going on right now."
That's why he has a passage from the Bible's James 4:14 tattooed on his leg. It says:
"What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes."
Adopting that attitude toward life, surviving the extreme emotional traumas of an extraordinary life -- those are the things that make Devonshire tough. Suddenly, the pressures inherent in trying to win a little extra coin in a poker tournament seem a little trivial, don't they?
Devonshire has moved beyond those traumas. Now engaged, supported and living happily in Vegas, he's found his peace and comfort in what he does with his career and his life. With that kind of tranquility, he won't be shaken here. He'll be ready to take advantage when others are.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.