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A Story Waiting for an Ending

Nine Players Emerge From the Main Event of the 2008 World Series of Poker to Earn the Right to Play for the World Championship … in November

by Ryan Lucchesi |  Published: Sep 11, 2008

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The main event of the World Series of Poker has changed a lot since the players voted Johnny Moss the first world champion at Binion's Horseshoe Casino in 1970. The first modification took place the very next year, in 1971, when the tournament was made a freezeout competition for the first time. Over the years, the tournament has changed in numerous and unforeseen ways. The number of days in the main event has increased, as has the number of payouts. The preliminary events have changed, as well, evolving from a cash game on the side to a handful of events, and growing to 52 open buy-in events and a ladies and a seniors no-limit hold'em championship in 2008. Even the location of the event has changed. Binion's Horseshoe was purchased for just under $40 million by Harrah's in early 2004, and at that time, the gaming conglomerate also took over running the WSOP.



As the size of the tournament grew exponentially during the first decade of the 21st century, it eventually outgrew the place where it was born. The last main-event final table that was contested at Binion's took place in 2005. The main event in 2008 will make a jump even more significant than location; it will make a leap through time. WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and his staff announced before the beginning of the 2008 WSOP that the final table of the main event would not take place until Nov. 9, when the final nine will play down to the final two, who will then return to play heads up for the world championship on Nov. 10. It is the largest shake-up in WSOP history. It is also why this is a story waiting for an ending.



Days 1A-1D: Here We Grow Again



The first day of the $10,000 no-limit hold'em world championship has become a day unlike any other. The over-the-top excitement generated by the largest cash prize in the world of professional sports is kicked off with a tantamount level of pageantry and flair every year. This year did not disappoint, as Wayne Newton charged into the Amazon Room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino flanked by a dozen showgirls from the Bally's show Jubilee. All eyes in the room were on Newton as he welcomed everyone to the event, and then the University of Nevada Las Vegas marching band stormed into the room to play a rendition of Viva Las Vegas, after which Newton announced the most famous words in the world of poker: "Shuffle up and deal!" The main event was under way, and it once again had begun in a way that reinforced why it is the main event, the tournament that declares the world champion of poker for a year.



Due to the size of the main event, multiple starting days are a must. Just 1,297 players took their seats on the first day of play on July 3, and even fewer players entered the next day on the Fourth of July (1,158). The last two flights saw a large increase in the number of participants, as 1,928 entered on day 1C, and day 1D drew more players than both day 1A and 1B combined (2,461). All in all, 6,844 players entered, making the 2008 main event the second-largest live poker tournament of all time; this number represented a 7 percent increase over last year's 6,358 players.



Despite the fact that online poker rooms are still unable to directly buy players into any events at Harrah's, including the main event, poker's international explosion has continued to buoy attendance numbers. Players from 118 different countries entered the main event in 2008, which was a large increase over the 87 countries represented in 2007. The second-largest live poker tournament of all time also boasted the second-largest prize pool of all time – $64,333,600, with $9,119,338 of that going to the winner.



Days 2A and 2B: Surviving the Game



At the start of the two flights of second-day action, the players found themselves five levels and 10 hours into a poker odyssey, and before they all could join together under the same roof, some eliminations needed to take place. Five more levels of poker did the trick, as only 1,308 players remained from both the day 2A field (1,251) and day 2B field (2,378). It should be noted that the day 2B field was the largest tournament continuation day in history, as the physical boundaries of the Rio were tested. Poker tables were located in the Amazon, Brasilia, and Tropical rooms in the Rio Pavilion, and a few tables on the main casino floor were used to accommodate these players. Six days of actual time and two days of poker tournament time had transpired, but there was still a long way to go. One player who was absent from those final 1,308 was 2007 World Champion Jerry Yang. He survived to the start of day 2B, but did not make it to the end.



Days 3-6: The Money Bubble, "The Mouth," and "The Poker Brat"



Brian Schaedlich was the king of the mountain when day 3 began, towering over the field with 801,000 in chips, when his closest competitor held just 531,000 (Peter Biebel). Schaedlich had a rough day 3, and he proved once again that it is not always best to lead at the start of a day of the main event (a lesson that was reinforced during subsequent days). Two players in particular jumped out to a large lead on day 3, becoming the first millionaires in the tournament. Jeremy Joseph was out in front with 1,458,000, while Jeremiah Smith was next with 1,079,500. Smith turned heads when his table broke on day 3, as he had to use a cocktail tray to transport his massive chip stack from one side of the tournament area to the other.



Late on day 3, play switched over to hand-for-hand nine spots away from the money bubble, to ensure that players would not stall to make the first payout of $21,320. Bubble play took one hour and 15 minutes to complete, and in the end, Steve Chung from Hong Kong was the last player to bust out without receiving any prize money. He was awarded a $10,000 seat in the 2009 main event by Milwaukee's Best Light to ease the pain. After the slow bubble play ended at 11:30 p.m., fast play quickly sliced the 666-player field down to 474 players before things came to a close for the evening. Only two of the players who remained at the end of day 3 could call themselves former world champions: Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan, who were shooting for their 12th and 11th bracelets, respectively. Hellmuth also was looking to become the first two-time world champion since Chan accomplished the feat in 1988, after winning his first in 1987. Hellmuth won his first world championship in 1989, when he defeated Chan heads up and disrupted a feat that Chan once again had a shot at achieving. Chan was gunning for his third world championship, which would have placed him in a very exclusive club with Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar as the third three-time winner of the main event.



Chan's title quest derailed on day 4 of the tournament, while Hellmuth's prospects continued, as he ended the day with 581,000. Joseph held on to his chip lead with 2,187,000, becoming the first player to hold 2 million in chips during the day. Smith saw his fortunes stall at around 1 million, and he ended the day with a little less than he started with, 955,000. Schaedlich was eliminated during day 4 in 456th place, and took home $27,020. Another player who remained at the end of day 4 was Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, and although he wasn't making a ton of noise with his position on the leader board at this point, his mere presence was making noise. For The Mouth, it was another deep run in the main event, which brought back memories of his ill-fated appearance at the 2005 final table, where he finished in ninth place.



Day 5 began with 189 players, and that number shrank so quickly that play was stopped early, when just 79 players remained. Another early golden child fell on day 5, as Smith busted out in 146th place, earning $41,186. Joseph continued to increase his stack to 3,100,000, but despite this growth, eight players had jumped in front of him – most notably, Mark Ketteringham with 5,800,000. Tiffany Michelle, the last woman left in the field, also had passed Joseph, and was sitting in fourth place with 3,438,000. Hellmuth and Matusow also remained, as did former WSOP bracelet winner and WPT champion Brandon Cantu. They were joined by Thomas "Thunder" Keller, Adam Levy, Matt Matros, David "Chino" Rheem, Victor Ramdin, Peter Neff, Phi Nguyen, Kido Pham, and David Benefield as the familiar faces left in the field of 79 players.



Hellmuth began day 6 with 721,000 at the ESPN featured table, but by about the middle of the day, that stack had dwindled down and he was knocked out of the tournament in 45th place, taking home $154,400 in prize money. All eyes in the tournament then fell upon Matusow, who was sailing smoothly until a series of bad beats and coolers led to his exit. On his final hand, he held trip aces with A-J in the hole, but his opponent, Paul Snead, held A-9 and spiked a 9 on the turn to fill up and eliminate Matusow in 30th place ($193,000).



Everyone's attention then jumped to the most recognized player remaining, Cantu, and people couldn't help but watch his play as his chip stack fluctuated, violently at times. He became the first player to climb above the 10 million mark in the event, but he fell back to earth when he attempted an all-in bluff against Craig Marquis that was called down. This took Cantu down to 4 million, while Marquis was catapulted to 12 million. Marquis ended day 6 with 11,460,000, just ahead of Michelle (9,755,000), and just behind the new chip leader, Dennis Phillips (11,910,000).



Day 7: Becoming the "November Nine"



When the final day of the summer at the WSOP began, just 27 players remained at three tables. With Cantu's fall, the eyes of the railbirds shifted once again, this time to Michelle. As the last woman standing, she was making a serious run at poker history, but a final-table appearance wasn't in her cards. She suffered the largest setback of any player during the day, and busted out in 17th place ($334,534) after starting day 7 with the third-largest chip stack. She still set a record with her 17th-place finish; the prize money she received was the most ever awarded to a woman in WSOP main-event history. It was the best finish by a woman since Annie Duke finished in 10th place in the main event in 2000, which was preceded by a 10th-place finish by Susie Isaacs in 1998. Barbara Enright remains the only woman to make the final table of the main event, when she finished in fifth place in 1995.



Cantu lived up to his billing as one of the most hyperaggressive young players in the game, and he also made some predictions come true with his performance on day 7. Many had predicted that he would either hold the chip lead by the end of day 7 or be among the first to get eliminated during the day with his boom-or-bust strategy. He fulfilled the latter, busting out in 20th place to take home $257,334. His absence in the field blew things wide open, as the remaining players vied for the nine most coveted spots in the history of poker – at the final table in November.



Rheem created the largest stir during this final period, as he took a tumultuous ride up and down the leader board. He was one card away from elimination when a king on the river paired one in his hand earlier in the day. He then climbed the leader board and then took a huge hit to take his stack down to 8 million, but he eventually survived the day with a number of professionals on hand to sweat his progress. The most frenzied moment for Rheem and his supporters came when he hit the 4 on the river to make a wheel and eliminate Joe Bishop in 11th place, who had been ahead with aces up until the final card fell.



The television-table bubble proved to be one of the toughest ever to pop. It took more than three hours to reach the November Nine, and that was in large part thanks to one hand that changed the fortunes of two players. Peter Eastgate raised before the flop to 750,000. Dean Hamrick reraised to 2.1 million, and the action was folded to Craig Marquis, who moved all in. Eastgate threw his hand in the muck, but Hamrick made a quick call, having his opponent covered. Marquis turned over the A Q, while Hamrick revealed the Q Q. It looked like things would come to a close, but the board had other ideas, as it ran out J 7 3 4 5. Marquis had doubled up to 12 million to survive with a flush, and Hamrick was knocked down to 6 million.



Hamrick survived with that amount for the next hour and a half, at which time he found himself in a similar situation, but this time the roles were reversed. Hamrick moved all in preflop, and Marquis called him down. This time it was Marquis who held the pocket queens, while Hamrick held A-J. Once again, though, the board favored Marquis with the K 10 3 10 K. Hamrick was eliminated one spot short of the final table in 10th place and was awarded $591,869. The November Nine were now set. All nine players were awarded ninth-place prize money ($900,670), while the rest of the prize pool (approximately $24 million) will be placed by Harrah's Entertainment in an interest-bearing account until November. The tournament clock in the Rio was frozen in time with 21 minutes and 33 seconds remaining in level 33 as the players bagged and tagged their chips amidst a circus atmosphere, and the clock will remain frozen for almost four months.



The story is not over, as all eyes look ahead to Nov. 9, when these final nine players will meet to play for the title of world champion.



Here are the November Nine (with seat assignments, chip counts, occupations, and hometowns):