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Top-10 first impressions of the WSOP Main Event final table

10 November 2009

LAS VEGAS – Your faithful Casino City correspondents -- myself and Managing Editor Vin Narayanan -- spent more than 20 hours of our lives over the last three days watching and covering the historic 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event final table unfold, live and in person, at the Rio in Las Vegas. ESPN will take those hours of poker and turn them into what should be a wildly entertaining program that will air Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST. But it will be impossible for the network to capture the entire experience.

So, for your benefit, here are some first impressions of what transpired, from Saturday at 1 p.m. through 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Vin and I will provide some more detailed and well-researched analysis in the coming days, but for now here's a look at how it all went down at the Penn & Teller Theater from the bleary eyes of a couple of guys who were there for the whole thing.

10. The crowd came prepared
The one aspect that stunned a lot of people about last year's final table was the amount of people who showed up for the event to watch it live inside the Penn & Teller Theater. This year, the crowd was even more electric because each player's fans not only had different attire and different chants, but all of them were into it from the very beginning.

Joe Cada's crew was the most visible with their bright yellow long-sleeve T-shirts. The Steve Begleiter, Kevin Schaffel and Darvin Moon fans also had custom-made garb for the event while Antoine Saout's cheering section brought a European flair to the proceedings with a French flag and the kind of chants normally reserved for a soccer game. And while Phil Ivey didn't have an actual cheering section, he did have the utmost respect of the entire crowd, which cheered his every move.

For the second straight year, the Penn & Teller Theater was charged up and electric. That's an amazing statement to make for a poker tournament.

WSOP

The energetic crowds inside the Penn & Teller Theater once again made for an exciting WSOP final table. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

9. Phil Ivey is truly The King with poker fans
If Phil Hellmuth is the poker player that everyone loves to hate, Phil Ivey is the player everyone loves to love. It seemed that any fan inside the Penn & Teller Theater who wasn't a friend or relative of one of the other players at the table was rooting for Ivey. He was the only player to get a standing ovation from the ENTIRE crowd both when he was introduced and when he exited. Even most of the big-name pros were openly rooting for him. By contrast, when Phil Hellmuth was introduced along with all of the other current Poker Hall of Famers, the Poker Brat was loudly booed by the fans.

Of course, Ivey may have lost some supporters in the media when he slipped out the back door after being eliminated without speaking the press, who were collectively left at the altar with notebooks and microphones in hand. But, no doubt, Ivey is still the most popular and most respected player to poker fans worldwide.

8. ESPN has plenty of material to work with
When we talked to ESPN Senior Producer Jamie Horowitz last week, he told us that the if need be the final table telecast would extend over the normal two hours and push SportsCenter back. It appears that this decision was a great one because there were some incredible hands played during the 17-hour poker marathon that it took for us to get from nine players to two. And being able to watch those hands on TV with the benefit of seeing the hole cards will make them that much more dramatic.

Most are expecting huge ratings for Tuesday night's telecast and I hope for ESPN that is the case, because those fans are in for a treat. I can't wait to see it, and I already saw it happen live.

7. The chip lead fluctuated like crazy
Looking at how dramatically the chips were spread out at the beginning of play on Saturday, you never would have guessed that the chip lead would have been so precarious. But amazingly five different players held the lead at one point or another.

Darvin Moon, of course, began the day with 30 percent of the chips in play. He said during the entire break that if the other players wanted his chips they were going to have to come and get them, which made everyone think that he would play extremely tight and sit on his lead. But he got involved a lot more than anyone thought he would in the first few hours and made some misreads. Before long Eric Buchman, the seasoned pro who came into the day second in chips, took the lead.

Buchman controlled the lead for a while, but then former Wall Street executive Steve Begleiter got hot and grinded his way to the top. Meanwhile, Antoine Saout was playing brilliantly. He was the most consistent player at the table and for most of the last few hours he was the chipleader. That is until Joe Cada started to run hot. Make that blistering hot. He took the chip lead for the very first time when his pocket deuces cracked Saout's Queens with a 7-2-9 flop. The pot was worth more than 39 million and put Cada on top and crippled Saout. Less than an hour later, Saout was gone and we had our final two players. What a roller coaster. In the end, Moon left the theater with about the same amount of chips he started with. Cada ended up scooping up everyone else's.

6. Antoine Saout was the best player
Not many people gave the Frenchman a chance to contend at the final table – except for Vin. Saout came in with the second-shortest stack and despite the fact that he made the WSOP Europe final table in September, he was got very little fanfare in the months leading up to the November Nine. But, trust me on this, he played better than anyone else did, right from the very first hand. And if it wasn't for a couple of unfathomable bad beats in the final hour of the 15-hour session Saturday night/Sunday morning, he would have been the chip leader going into heads up and most likely would be the Main Event champion right now.

5. Yes, Cada was "lucky," but…
Much of the talk during the day off before the heads-up match Monday night was about how "lucky" Joe Cada was and with good reason. The 21-year-old may have used up all the good fortune he has left in his career as he battled back from the short stack to chip leader. He had his tournament life at risk at least seven times and was the underdog in five of those situations, yet he won the pot every time.

But to say that the only reason Cada was back on Monday night for heads-up play was "luck" would be doing a disservice to what he actually accomplished. And I pray the ESPN coverage on Tuesday night doesn't make it appear that all he was doing all night was catching miracle cards. To be sitting on the grandest stage in poker and to go from a short stack of 2 million chips, all the way to the chip leader with 158 million chips is incomprehensible. It took a lot more than just luck. It took patience. It took guts. It took determination. And it took skill. So please don't be a fool like Phil Hellmuth and announce Cada as the luckiest Main Event champ ever. Cada further proved his poker chops on Monday night when, after giving up a huge chip lead, he grinded his way back to become Main Event champion. As usual, luck was involved, but it isn't the only reason Cada is on top of the poker world right now.

4. Jeff Shulman was the biggest 'non-factor'
It's ironic that the only player who officially announced he was hiring a coach – and that coach happened to be the most outspoken man in poker – was the quietest at the table all night/morning on Saturday/Sunday. When Jeff Shulman hired Phil Hellmuth as his coach during the break, the Poker Brat was quoted as saying that he spent a lot of time in training sessions with Shulman and that his new pupil would use a new strategy in the first few hours that would surprise some people. That move never came and while Shulman managed to finish fifth and pick up $1.9 million, he was really a non-factor. He was involved in very few memorable hands. This is not a knock against Shulman. It's just that it seemed he was just kind of hanging around all night and eventually he bowed out quietly.

3. Moon kept proving the critics wrong
Despite the fact that he held 30 percent of the chips when play ended back in July, Darvin Moon wasn't even the betting favorite to win the November Nine. Most people chalked up his success to pure luck and Moon didn't do much to deflect that talk by continually saying that he was not a very good poker player, but just was able to catch a lot of cards.

Then, even after he made it to heads-up, nobody was giving him a fighting chance, citing the huge disadvantage he had to Cada in both chips and heads-up experience. Nearly everyone on media row was anticipated an early night with Cada steamrolling Moon.

But Moon proved everyone wrong – again. For a guy who claimed he had only played heads-up three times in the last two years, Moon did better than anyone expected and actually looked like he was going to pull off the upset at one point. In the end, he didn't, but hopefully he silenced some of his critics who all along refused to give him credit.

2. Cada bounced back from early KO punch
Boxing analogies are easy to make once the Main Event got to the heads-up stage, so here's another one. Like a favorite in a heavyweight fight that takes one on the chin in the early rounds, Cada appeared stunned by Moon's play early Monday night. I'm not saying that Cada was overconfident, but it seemed like he was taken aback by Moon and once the roles were reversed and Cada was trailing in chips, he was on the ropes for sure. It will be interesting to see via ESPN what kind of cards he was getting. Maybe he simply went card dead. But he recovered in a big way with a couple of KO punches of his own. And once he got his swagger back – and the chip lead – there was no turning back. It was an impressive turnaround, for sure.

1. November Nine naysayers should be quieted
Two years ago, WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and his staff made the controversial decision to change the entire dynamic of the biggest poker tournament in the world by inserting an unheard of 117-day break in between the time the final table was decided in the summer and then played in November. It was a gutsy move, because Pollack had to know that all of the "poker purists" out there would be up in arms about the unorthodox move, but it was done because they thought it would be best for the game. Now after two years of the new format it would be difficult for anyone to argue with its success.

By adding in the four-month pause, the Main Event final table has become an unmitigated success. In addition to last year's impressive ratings for the final table telecast – ratings that will more than likely be even better this year – all Pollack has to do to prove his point is have someone look at the crowds that have packed the Penn & Teller Theater the last two years. Thousands upon thousands of fans have waited in line for hours and hours to get into the theater. And once they got inside they made the atmosphere electric.

Has the delay changed the dynamic of the actual poker being played? For sure. But it's difficult to argue with the attention the final table now receives. Poker purists better get used to the delay. It's here to stay.

Top-10 first impressions of the WSOP Main Event final table is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT