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2005 World Series of Poker

by Jesse May |  Published: Sep 01, 2005

The sun shines down brightly and the pavement crackles, and deep inside a convention center toward the back of a Las Vegas airline highway, a bunch of poker players compete for the title of champion of the world. And where that person will hail from is a completely unknown prospect.

As I write this, it's halfway through the World Series of Poker and no European has won a 2005 WSOP bracelet as of yet. But in the words of former world and European champion Dan Harrington, a man who should know, "I would call it parity now." And that's the way it looks to me. Even if the names on the 2005 jewelry don't yet reflect it, there are indications that the standard of play between the Europeans and the Americans is presently even-Steven. For me, it's all in the swagger of the walk. If you just could have seen "Burnley" John Falconer in the Rio the other day, that long, thin rail of a man from Blackpool, with his drawn smile and glowing cheroot. And it was the feather step in his walk that gave him away as he bopped around, cool as the breeze. "I'm here to prove I can play with the Yanks," he said, and there was no doubt at all that he could.

It wasn't always like this. I'm thinking back over the last few years, when for a while at the World Series it was beginning to look like the game of tournament poker had passed Europe by. The late 1990s may have been an apex for Europe, when the ram and jam preflop survivalist style of the Irish garnered fear and respect from American eyes. But the onslaught of large-field tournament poker caught Europe completely unprepared. The game changed and the Europeans didn't - until now.

Oh, there were exceptions. There were men like Marcel Luske and Julian Gardiner, chip accumulators to the extreme, guys like Ram Vaswani and Devilfish Ulliott, who have never been afraid to play a flop, and superstars like Gus Hansen, who played so much like the Americans that only the accent could distinguish. The game of tournament hold'em has gone from preflop to post-flop, and it's fairly revolutionary. It's the difference between surviving in a tough tournament against 200 runners and crushing a tournament swelled with 1,200 strong. It's not enough to survive anymore, not enough to hang in there like the famous Mickey Finn, or survive on a short stack like the indomitable Mel Judah. And the stuff I'm seeing in Las Vegas during the first few weeks of the World Series of Poker is heartwarming, because parity has been reached, and there's a new crop of Europeans who are playing the new game with the best of them.

Perusing the 2005 World Series of Poker schedule on a sheet of A4 paper in my office before I came, the schedule looked a tad long. Living it has been a different story. I now wish I had printed the schedule on a roll of paper towels, on six feet of parchment, or in yellow neon street graffiti down the entire Wall of China. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and every day that I walk into the Rio, I'm surrounded by more and more faces tortured like Paula Radcliffe during her stagger down a midday Athens balustrade. It's bad enough if you're an American, where home is a four-hour drive or a three-hour flight. But what if your home is 11 hours by plane plus three more spent standing in line? Can you really justify going home for two weeks in the middle, and then returning at the end for the $10,000 kicker? Probably not, and it's been a tough decision for some, minds changing day by day. I'll go home; no, I'll stay; I'll stay; no, I'll go home. It sure ain't easy.

The best plan by far might be the fresh faces yet to arrive, the ones anxiously pacing the Internet from across the pond but taking long walks at night and still sampling Mom's cooking. On the whole, it might be better to give yourself a great shot at 10 big events toward the end, rather than slowly dig a hole for 40 days and 40 nights. The European team is dribbling in in drips and drabs, and by the time the last four events roll around, the team will be as strong as can be. I'm still looking for a slew of European bracelets at the 2005 World Series of Poker, and I'll be looking at the faces yet to arrive. Parity has been reached, but there's no denying that the game is still being played on a visiting ground.