Tuesday night on ESPN, you'll see action from Day 4 of the World Series of Poker main event, the biggest tournament of the year in size, scope, money, fame and assorted other measures. You'll see Phil Hellmuth featured as only Phil Hellmuth can be as he makes his run at a second world championship (his first came in 1989). For Hellmuth and the rest of the poker world, as much as the tournament is the end-all-be-all, it also marks the end of a much longer marathon.
The 2011 WSOP began Tuesday, May 31, and ended in the wee hours of July 20. The 50 days in between featured a total of 75,672 player entries competing for $191,999,010 over 58 events, and Hellmuth finished second in three of them. Hellmuth's fame has been built on WSOP success, and the last three years haven't lived up to his lofty standards. So while he didn't get one of those bracelets he's always talking about, he managed to earn back the respect of a community that was starting to question whether his days as a superstar were behind him. He also managed to put himself back in the spotlight at a time in which his sponsorship affiliations are very much up in the air, and as such, he has positioned himself far better for future negotiations.
Hellmuth has always been about finishing first being the only victory, but there's little doubt when looking back at the 2011 WSOP that he was one of this year's biggest winners. Today, as we prepare to delve deeper into the main event on TV, we look at some of the others who fared well and not-so-well this summer.
The World Series of Poker -- Prognostications for the main event called for as low as 2,500 attendees in the days and weeks following Black Friday. As the tournament neared, few would take the over on 6,000 players and many were taking the under on 5,000. That 6,865 paid the $10,000 entry fee serves the world notice of the resilience of both the World Series of Poker main event and the game of poker. It doesn't matter if it's Black Friday, worldwide recession or the next big thing -- people will play.
The fans -- Hard-core fans have been clamoring for live WSOP coverage for years. This year, they got it in spades. A revamped series of ESPN3 broadcasts were the icing on the cake, with 30-minute delayed broadcasts on ESPN2 and ESPN offering the world a chance to see a far more accurate representation of life at the scene. With the live broadcasts not preempting the more traditional, prerecorded episodes that air each Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, fans now have their choice of how they'd like to watch their poker. It's a turning point in how the world will see the game going forward.
Ben Lamb -- Lamb has been a solid pro and a member of the Vegas poker community for years, but 2011 will be remembered for his emergence as a star of the game. Lamb cashed five times in 2011, including a $814,436 bracelet win in the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha championship, a second-place finish, an eighth-place finish in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship and a spot at the table as a member of the November Nine. That memorable stint left Lamb in the lead for WSOP Player of the Year honors with WSOP Europe pending.
Brian Rast -- Rast was cruising through life 18 months ago, playing just well enough to thrive. Since then, Rast has undergone a transformation of priorities, attention and focus on his game and it showed in 2011, when he was the only player to take home two WSOP bracelets during the summer. Rast won $227,232 in taking down the $1,500 pot-limit hold 'em event in early June, which proved a precursor to the big score, a $1,720,328 victory in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship that culminated with a win over Hellmuth in heads-up competition.
Honorable Mention -- Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, Jason Mercier, John Juanda and Jake Cody were amongst the high-profile professionals who won bracelets. That those wins add to their career stats is nice; that they add to their marketability is profitable. Honorable mention also to the entire November Nine, especially Martin Staszko, who used the prelims for his live tournament education, made it through the money bubble with 12,000 in chips then decimated the 10-man final table with fearless play to enter the November Nine as the chip leader.
James Bord and John Juanda -- At the onset of the WSOP, tensions were high as the world watched and waited for Black Friday fallout to come. In the midst of this, England's Bord started an altercation with Juanda on the tournament floor that had tongues wagging. Juanda, one of Full Tilt Poker's poster boys, was sporting the site's badge, and some mused on whether Bord's aggression was founded in frustration over the site's inability to repay its customers. While that was ultimately rumored to not be the case, it was the way the two started the WSOP that didn't reflect well on either one.
PokerStars U.S. Pros -- Televised poker took a monumental evolutionary step this year, and PokerStars' pros were in prime position to take advantage were it not for a company policy to not allow their participation. "Very early in the concept, [the producers] contacted me," David Williams explained. "They told Poker Royalty and asked if I wanted to do commentary and pitched me a segment for the shows on Tuesdays, but PokerStars, because of my exclusive deal, have me exclusive for being their commentator. Unfortunately, because of that, I wasn't able to do the ESPN broadcasts". If you're wondering why potential commentators such as Williams and Daniel Negreanu weren't a part of the proceedings, you have your answer.
Players seeking deals/poker agents -- Speaking of Poker Royalty, it sits on top of a rapidly shrinking mountain. According to founder Brian Balsbaugh, sponsorship money decreased by some 90 percent this year, thanks in part to the U.S. departures of PokerStars and FTP and in part to stricter logo policies from the WSOP. As a result, where the agents often outnumbered the media a year ago, this time around their presence was practically unfelt.
Phil Ivey -- While many applauded Ivey's decision to not play in the WSOP until FTP's customers were repaid, his decision ultimately deprived him of the event and vice versa. Gone were the always-fun storylines of Ivey's chase for the all-time bracelet lead and his astronomical prop bets. Instead, he chose the start of the World Series to file an ultimately frivolous lawsuit in a move similar to Alex Rodriguez' declaration of free agency during baseball's rendition just a few years ago. Ivey's move only served to contribute to the fear and chaos the poker world knew was awaiting it during a time of year in which the game should be the focus.
FTP/Howard Lederer/Chris Ferguson -- Uncertainty for FTP lingered (and lingers) while two of its most-visible spokesmen opted not to play. You could hardly blame them as the reception they received probably wouldn't have been the warmest. It would have been tough to play poker under conditions of what many would assume would be continual harassment.
The 2011 WSOP will be remembered for the effects Black Friday had and the effects it didn't. Fortunately, Like I said in the Ivey blurb above, beyond the law and politics, there was still plenty of poker to be played. Be sure to see Hellmuth and the rest play through their Day 4 WSOP adventures Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN.