WSOP main event brings hope

For the poker world, Saturday is the biggest day of the year. Pilgrimages to Las Vegas have already been completed, warm-up teaser tournaments played, the last sumptuous meals eaten, friends already engaged. Those rituals provide enjoyment and a sense of comfort in new surroundings, but now the long, hard and undeniably awesome task is at hand.

It's time for the main event of the World Series of Poker, the game's world championship. Some 6,000 to 8,000 players will each put up $10,000, hoping to play for seven full days before the October-bound final table is established. The winner will depart with at least $8 million, the world championship title, the bracelet, the endorsements, the fame, the admiration of their peers and the fulfillment of their dreams. It's a glorious endgame that each entrant has envisioned reaching, which is why, in what has been an excruciating period for the industry, the WSOP represents hope above all else.

A year ago, the pain was still too fresh to revel in that concept. For 15 months, the poker world has been enshrouded by a well-justified blanket of cynicism. Since the events of Black Friday (April 15, 2011), in which the Department of Justice made online play in the United States next to impossible, professional players have been deprived of their main source of income. They've been faced with difficult questions about where their lives will go after dedicating years to a seemingly no-longer-viable profession. Money that's rightfully theirs -- in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars -- still sits in online limbo on the inoperative Full Tilt Poker. This is a game that has long been called "a hard way to make an easy living." That moniker has never been more accurate.

For all that has happened to his community, from frozen funds to lost sponsorships to folded TV shows to lost jobs and subsidiary businesses, the main event is the tie that binds, the uplifting force. It is the single, purest thing that the industry has to offer.

"Poker is in a holding pattern at the moment," said Daniel Negreanu, one of the game's most popular stars. "We're in this weird dark age, where we're in between periods of online poker in the U.S. Because of that, we need some positive effects. We've lost shows on TV, but we still have the main event. It's the flagship event. It holds us together."

This week, the mood shifted. Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque de Soleil and clown prince to the world, saw his vision for a $1 million buy-in charity event and the surrounding poker community come to life. Cynicism was replaced by optimism as the best and brightest that professional and amateur play had to offer came together and pushed poker's limits in a celebration of the game. The sheer power of the $18.3 million won by Antonio Esfandiari widened our collective eyes. It was the first wave of positivity this industry has seen in over a year, and it's time for the main event and its competitors to ride it.

"We're here to provide the biggest platform in the game," said Ty Stewart, executive director of the WSOP. "The chance to realize whatever you're after: fame, fortune or just a story to tell. It's a bit like being in the room with someone who holds a winning Powerball ticket. You get to see that realization on their face that their life has changed forever."

As much as the Big One for One Drop was a big deal, it's not the main event. "The main event is way bigger than One Drop," Negreanu insisted. "Sure, One Drop was for more [first prize] money, but I don't think it would ever overtake the main event for popularity or interest. One Drop had a capped field … it wasn't an everyman tournament. That's why the main event is unique."

One Drop saw professionals and billionaires playing for the love of the game. It was glorious, yes, but it was also exclusive. Even the satellites cost $25,000 just to play. The main event's recent champions read like a rogues' gallery of everymen. Yes, professional players have won, but so have a social worker, a television producer and, most notably, an accountant. For all of the Big One's pomp and grandeur, it was the smaller tournament.

The main event features more players, a larger prize pool and far more TV exposure, and it is the one tournament every player in the community has longed for. Yes, the One Drop first prize was bigger, but so too was the risk, and while winning it was a dream, it was only a recent one. In the 42 years since Benny Binion founded the WSOP, the main event (and the world championship that comes with it) has been the living embodiment of every poker player's fantasy. It is the one true goal. The Big One was a celebration, but it wasn't the zenith.

"The main event is a measuring stick of where the poker world is, " said WPT tournament director Matt Savage. "I think it will show once again that this industry isn't dying … it's as strong as ever. It's one tournament that's structured differently and better than the rest, so players get more chips and more play. It's more skillful. It is just so important to the industry. More important than any other event of the year, which is tough for me to say, since I'm with the World Poker Tour."

One Drop wasn't the only source of hope. At the 2012 WSOP, we've seen a 4,620-player turnout in Event 59 ($1,000 no-limit hold 'em), we've seen a record set for the largest single-day start tournament (Seniors Event) and we've seen 14 events with more than 2,000 players. We've seen history made, with Phil Hellmuth winning his 12th bracelet, Phil Ivey making five final tables and Michael Mizrachi winning his second Poker Players Championship in three years. We've seen Andy Bloch end his bracelet drought, Andy Frankenberger shock the critics and Antonio Esfandiari win the biggest single prize in poker history. For these players and so many more, 2012 has already shown us glimpses of the potential poker offers -- and that's only the buildup.

The Big One showed us something about determination, about endeavor, about focus. It showed us that one man with a dream and a plan can move mountains. It showed us that the World Series of Poker is where all that can happen. What One Drop really did was cast aside some of the negativity put in place by Black Friday. It reminded us poker is fun again. It's a feeling the game has been missing for far too long. Now, the main event will drive that point home. Every one of its players enters with hope. After all, he or she may just be the next world champion.