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Top-10 WSOP Main Event champions of the decade28 December 2009
It was a remarkable decade for the game of poker and, more specifically, the World Series of Poker.
To put it into perspective just how far the game's grandest tournament has come in 10 short years, log onto YouTube and watch the highlights of a young Chris Ferguson winning the 2000 Main Event over T.J. Cloutier by catching a miracle nine on the river. Then take a peek at a clip from just last month when Joe Cada took down the 2009 Main Event.
The stage is bigger, ratings are up and prize money and the amount of players in the field have erupted. In short, poker has gone from a game played in dark corners of a casino to being a primetime TV event garnering ratings on ESPN similar to Major League Baseball and the NBA.
Much of the success of the game is due to the 10 men who captured the Main Event title. Some of these players had more of an impact on the game than others. Some used their Main Event bracelet to go on to enjoy prosperous careers. Others have yet to come close to any kind of similar success.
With the decade coming to end later this week, we decided to rank the Main Event champs from the last 10 years. As a measuring stick we used three criteria and weighted them -- from most important to least important -- in this order:
Here's what we came up with. Whether you agree or disagree, we'd love to hear from you. Send your comments along to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy New Year!
10. Robert Varkonyi – 2002
The New York native hasn't had a ton of success since his landmark victory, securing just one other Main Event cash, although he did come into this past summer's inaugural Champions Invitational with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and managed to finish second to Tom McEvoy.
Through no fault of his own, Varkonyi's Main Event victory – which earned him a record at the time of $2 million -- really didn't provide much for the game of poker and since then he's basically been a non-factor. For that, he lands at No. 10 of our list.
9. Jerry Yang – 2007
With all of that said, however, Yang never fully embraced his role as "poker ambassador." He didn't play in many tournaments following his win and he was never really media-savvy, despite his engaging personality. And the fact that he hasn't cashed at the WSOP since the big win in 2007 hasn't exactly helped him earn much respect as a player from his peers.
8. Juan Carlos Mortensen – 2001
Mortensen is considered the last true "old school professional" to win the Main Event. Although both Peter Eastgate and Joe Cada were playing professionally when they won the Main Event, both got their start in the game online. Mortensen, who has more than $8 million in worldwide winnings, won the big one against a formidable final table that included the likes of Hellmuth, Mike Matusow and Dewey Tomko, who was the runner-up. He has a pair of WSOP bracelets to his name, as well as 18 cashes overall (four in 2009) and he has also had success on the World Poker Tour with two titles and 12 cashes.
Unfortunately for Mortensen, he simply isn't well known to the casual poker fan because he's not an overwhelming TV presence. But make no mistake about it, he is a feared player and will likely continue to contend on the big stage for the next decade.
7. Jamie Gold -- 2006
If this were a list based solely on what the player's win meant to poker, Gold would have ranked much higher. He battled through what is still the largest field in Main Event history (8,772) and he won the biggest first-place prize in history ($12 million). Both of those staggering numbers, as well as Gold's brazen and sometimes unethical performance for the ESPN TV cameras, brought the WSOP some mainstream media attention. Gold became the type of player that fans love to hate. He was arrogant and obnoxious and the camera loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, it turned out that this was no act. Gold's controversial nature quickly generated some controversy. Within weeks of his Main Event victory, Gold was sued for half of his winnings by Bruce Crispin Leyser, who claimed he was promised half of whatever Gold won at the Main Event as part of an informal arrangement.
So while Gold's win helped poker gain some attention and much-needed positive exposure, the ensuing lawsuit certainly put a stain on that good will, thus dropping him in our rankings.
6. Joe Hachem – 2005
When he beat out a field of 5,619 to win the Main Event, Hachem became the first Australian champion, which certainly helped the game Down Under (Does the chant, "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" ring a bell?). And since that time he has become a magnet for poker on TV and is one of the most recognizable players in the game
5. Joe Cada – 2009
Less than two months after his monumental victory, Cada has proven that he is more than capable of carrying the Main Event champion torch. He has come across as a genuinely nice kid with a Hollywood smile during his numerous interviews with the likes of David Letterman, CNBC and Fox News. He says all the right things and makes a good impression for the sport of poker. His victory was impactful because it came at one of the most highly publicized final tables in history, thanks to a Mr. Phil Ivey being there and the fact that this was the second edition of the November Nine.
As for his potential going forward as a player, don't allow the "suck outs" you saw him benefit from on ESPN fool you. Cada is highly skilled and is committed to his game. You don't get three cashes – including a Main Event victory – at your very first WSOP just by luck. Count on Cada being around for a very long time.
4. Peter Eastgate – 2008
Eastgate's record, of course, was broken by Joe Cada one year later, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Eastgate was able to break a record that stood for nearly two decades. Not only did Eastgate win the Main Event and break Hellmuth's record, but also the manner in which he won the title during the final table was especially impressive. He came into the final table with the fourth-best stack, but was clearly the best player at the table during the first session before taking a commanding chip lead into his heads-up battle with Ivan Demidov.
Many members of the media have taken issue with Eastgate's performance as the "poker ambassador" after he won the Main Event title, but I find it difficult to come down too hard on him for his lack of media presence. How can you fault a guy for not speaking English well? That's the reason why Eastgate wasn't attractive to the mainstream media in the U.S. When speaking with him one-on-one, Eastgate is actually very personable. He just isn't the type of person who likes the media spotlight.
As for his talent as a poker player, there's no question that Eastgate is well respected by his peers. He made a great run at this year's Main Event as the defending champ, before finishing 78th and nobody will be surprised if he goes on to win multiple bracelets in the next decade.
3. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson – 2000
When Ferguson won the Main Event in 2000, the game was still a relative unknown in the mainstream media. He beat a field of just 521 players and won "only" $1.5 million. But Ferguson has thrived as the game has grown and has proven he contend even in big fields of players. He's been dominant at the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship with two runner-ups and a victory and his 59 cashes and five bracelets at the WSOP are further evidence of his success. Ferguson is also part of the group that started Full Tilt Poker.
The fans love him – and for good reason. With his cowboy hat, long, black, leather jacket and trademark beard, you can see "Jesus" coming from a mile away. I love watching him make the walk down the hallway of the Rio during the WSOP. He gets stopped for an autograph or picture nearly every 10 strides, and he always politely stops and honors the request with a smile.
2. Greg Raymer – 2004
Not only is Raymer an ultimate professional and an all-around good guy, but his win was very important for poker because it came one year after the "Moneymaker Effect" came into play. The field for the Main Event mushroomed from 839 players to 2,576 in just one year and the whole world was watching. The game was very fortunate that Raymer -- with the combination of class and skill -- prevailed. Since that win, Fossilman has continued to make his mark on the game.
He's had success at the table, earning 11 more WSOP cashes, including a remarkable 25th-place finish as the defending champ. He's also become one of the more popular and recognizable faces in the game and has handled everything that has come with that package admirably.
1. Chris Moneymaker – 2003
Think about it. Where would poker be today without the unfathomable story of an amateur player named Moneymaker winning an online satellite tournament for $39 and then going on to bluff a pro's pro named Sammy Farha for the Main Event title? It's stuff that the best writers in Hollywood would have had a difficult time coming up with, but it was all a true story and the entire sport benefited handsomely. It is the reason why millions of people across the world started to play poker and it gave the concept of online poker some legitimacy.
Truth be told, if Sammy Farha calls Moneymaker's bluff with his pair of nines (a play that our friend Norman Chad called "the bluff of the century") and if Moneymaker doesn't make the call on Farha's all-in call with two pair, I'm probably not even writing this list. He had that much of an impact and when and if the biggest moments of the century are compiled for the game of poker, there's no doubting that Moneymaker's victory will rank at or near the very top.
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