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Gone Till November

Never heard of most of the WSOP Main Event final tablists set to do battle in November? Well neither had GOM. That’s just how off the radar some of these guys are. But then isn’t that what the Main Event is all about? David Thomas set out to shed some light on the November Nine.

This is the first year that Harrah’s Entertainment, owners of the World Series of Poker franchise, has tried something as boldly commercial as delaying the final table of its Main Event for four months—from July until November. Maybe it will drum up new levels of interest in poker. Or maybe by November people will have almost forgotten about the WSOP with its European cousin having come and gone by then too.

Whatever happens, Harrah’s must be thinking they picked a good year to launch the new approach. Glance down at the names of the nine gentlemen who lasted until the final table—and inevitably now christened the ‘November Nine’—and it’s not exactly a Who’s Who of poker. The final table is devoid of the Phil Hellmuths, the Daniel Negreanus and the Phil Iveys—the poster boys of poker—and instead we have nine new faces to get to know.

But these guys deserve their four months of fame after outlasting 6,844 runners this year, including all those famous names like Hellmuth, Negreanu, Chris Ferguson, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Tony Guoga and the like. They’ve all been snapped up for endorsement deals with the big poker companies already—so prepare for a branding assault. Prepare also to find out a lot more about this eclectic band of hopefuls between now and final table time. The poker community will doubtless build these guys up ahead of the big day; forums will be chock full of debate on who is going to win and, actually, who the hell these guys are.

And so we present our guide to the November Nine. We promise we won’t mention who they are sponsored by—you’ll get enough of that everywhere else for the next four months. Learn the names, study their games and get to know them a little before the first hand at the final table is dealt. Don’t think of it as a bunch of randoms competing for a fat load of dollars, but rather nine guys like you and me who happened to get their poker game together in the right place at exactly the right time. No doubt we’ll all be rooting for our particular favourite once they finally get down to business on November 9.

Dennis Phillips (26,295,000 chips)
The wily-looking, bearded figure of Dennis Phillips hails from St Louis, Missouri, where he works as a truck salesman. The 53 year old spent the whole Main Event thus far proudly sporting his St Louis Cardinals baseball cap and is deeply proud of his roots. He’s a regular at his local Harrahs casino and plays live poker there whenever he possibly can. His only previous win at a major poker tournament was $2,386 at a 2007 WSOP Circuit Event in Tunica—where he placed ninth. It cost him just $200 to get into the Main Event as he got in through qualifiers. “I’m ecstatic. What more could you ask for?” he said at the close of play. “I am so hyper and ready to go. I’ve been on a roll here lately. I would love to continue it,” he said of the 117-day pause. “But I understand it… I don’t have any problem with it.”

The baseball cap became synonymous with Phillips as the Main Event progressed. He refused to bow to a sponsorship offer to wear a sponsor’s logo on a backwards baseball cap, preferring to stick with his trusty original, emblazoned with the autographs of various poker pros. He certainly stood out from the typical poker player uniform of hoods and dark glasses. “I just can’t handle that,” he said. “I sit down at a table with somebody that’s got the hoodie on and the shades, and they’re looking solemn. This is a game. Let’s have some fun.”

Between now and November, fun-loving Phillips plans to get back to the day job, but also “play a lot of poker”, which makes perfect sense to us. But he doesn’t think he’ll be getting himself a coach in readiness for the final. “I haven’t had one yet. I’m pretty confident in my own abilities,” he said. He’ll start the final table as chip leader—a nice position to be in with $9 million up for grabs. (4/1, Blue Square)

Ivan Demidov (24,400,000 chips)
They say Moscow is the up-and-coming place for poker at the moment, and 27-year-old Ivan Demidov is proof if it were needed that there are some promising players coming out of Russia these days. “We’re having a good year,” he said of himself and his countrymen. A tournament and cash game player, Demidov has already placed 11th in the $1,000 rebuy event this year. He considers himself an online ‘semi-pro’, and needed the assistance of a friend and backer to raise the $10,000 buy-in for the Main Event. This was the Muscovite’s first major tournament and so he’s already delighted with the pay-day—but he obviously hopes to take the big bounty back to Russia with him. His degree in maths could come in handy when faced with those tough decisions come the winter. And given he’s only narrowly behind the chip leader, he’ll hope to make a big impression on the television audience—not to mention the other players at the table. Softly spoken and shy, Demidov has likened his appearance at the final table to being like “winning the lottery”. But he’s done it, and now has an excellent opportunity to surpass Alex Kravchenko’s fourth place finish in 2007 and become the highest Russian finisher in Main Event history. (4/1, Bet365)

Scott Montgomery (19,690,000 chips)
Third in the chip stakes is Scott Montgomery, who rose up from 16th place during the last day’s play after some impressive moves. It’s been a fine WSOP and indeed a healthy 2008 for the Canadian who hails from Perth, Ontario.

He finished fifth in the 2008 LA Poker Classic, amassing a cool $300,000 for his troubles. And at this year’s Bellagio Cup IV he pocketed $36,025. At this year’s WSOP, he’s won almost $40,000 combined in Events #2 and #7 respectively following 29th- and 17th—place finishes. And in Event #25, the World Championship Heads Up No-Limit Hold ‘em he finished 16th for another cash out in excess of $36,000. Though these achievements are of course now somewhat dwarfed by his Main Event success.

It’s certainly been a hell of a year for Scott though, and he goes into the final table as the man in form—at least in a WSOP sense. The trouble is, can we count mid-2008 form for anything once the November Nine sit down to the final table? You wouldn’t judge a boxer on the guy he fought five fights ago. Any of the nine could have played themselves into an even bigger purple patch by the time winter arrives.

That said, we still like the sound of the 9/2 the bookies are offering on Scott, despite his seven million chip deficit to Dennis Phillips. His plan on how to keep himself busy until November? “Just keep playing poker,” he said. Sounds sensible. (9/2, Paddy Power)

Peter Eastgate (18,375,000 chips)

Twenty-two-year-old Dane Peter Eastgate would be the youngest ever winner of the Main Event should he emerge victorious at the final table. Phil Hellmuth, who was 24 when he beat Johnny Chan to the title in 1989, currently holds the record. That would be some achievement for a man who only took up poker three years ago and only started making money out of poker after he’d played for over a year.

Primarily an online player, he is highly regarded in his native Denmark, where he is something of a specialist in short-handed and heads-up high-limit cash games with blinds of $200/$400. He’s that well thought of by his countrymen that when fellow Danish pro Jacob Rasmussen was asked if Peter was the next Gus Hansen, his reply was significant: “Not really,” he said. “It’s more like Gus Hansen is the first Peter Eastgate.”

He’s shown promise in the offline game lately too—and not only in Vegas—finishing ninth in the 2007 Irish Open for $46,714 and in the money at the EPT Scandinavian Open for $16,610. Whatever happens at the final table, he’s assured of his place in Denmark’s all-time top 10 money list. (11/2, Blue Square)

Ylon Schwartz (12,525,000 chips)
Native New Yorker Ylon Schwartz played a tightly conservative and cautious game to make it to the final table. Born in Manhattan, and now living in Brooklyn, Schwartz said this of his strategy: “Pretty much just picking up small pots. I think I had one huge pot and basically just waited for people to make mistakes. And you know, at the World Series you’ve got a lot of novices, so they’re bound to overvalue what they have. That happened a lot for me, so I was able to exploit that.”

Schwartz is a high-level chess player and poker pro with 11 previous WSOP cashes dating back to 2005. He spends his time playing in the ultra-competitive chess games in New York’s Washington Square Park, playing poker at the Golden Nugget or dominating tournaments in East Coast casinos like Foxwoods and those in Atlantic City. He plays online at PokerStars under the nickname ‘TenthPlanet’. (9/1 Bet365)

Darus Suharto (12,520,000 chips)
A Toronto accountant originally from Indonesia, Darus Suharto is an unassuming and modest final-table presence. He claims to love his job so much that he wouldn’t quit even if he won the $9 million. Most of his poker-playing experience has come online, and he is another who qualified through PokerStars—in his case for just $80.

Despite a modest cash at the 2006 WSOP, Suharto seemed overwhelmed by his Main Event success. “I didn’t expect to last this long,” he said. “Everything is just extraordinary now. I’m not used to all this tension. I’m pretty reserved so I don’t think I’m prepared for it. I play tight and aggressive. If I think I have a hand, I’ll go for it. And if I think I have the best hand, I’ll put my chips in. If it holds up, good. If it doesn’t, so be it.”

Suharto was hugely grateful for the support he received throughout his Main Event adventure en route to the final table. “My family in Toronto and Indonesia have kept calling me and emailing me, and some of my friends even came down to Vegas just to cheer for me.” (9/1, Blue Square)

David ‘Chino’ Rheem (10,230,000 chips)
Like a number of his final table cohorts, it had been a good WSOP for David ‘Chino’ Rheem before the Main Event even got started. He came fifth in the $5k No-Limit event in June for $93,624. Seen as quite an up-and-coming player in the poker world, the 28-year-old Californian has cashed five times at the World Series in the past three years, including a bumper $327,981 in the 2006 $1,000 NLHE event. Rheem was among the chip leaders each day of the Main Event and bounced back toward the end having narrowly avoided a cruel elimination. He was supported from the rail by a number of top pros.

“I’m just going to take it day by day,” he said of the 117-day wait for final table action to begin. “Hopefully I’ll handle it as maturely as possible. The idea of walking away with $9 million is just insane. You can’t explain that feeling unless it happens.” (10/1, Paddy Power)

Craig Marquis (10,210,000 chips)
A low ranking professional player, Craig Marquis from Arlington, Texas, has also cashed at the WSOP already, both in the No Limit Hold ‘Em Shootout this year, and in the $1,500 No Limit Hold ‘Em and the Pot Limit Hold ‘Em World Championship last year.

At just 23, he’s the second youngest at the final table. Predominantly an internet player, he only started playing poker at the beginning of 2007. He cites top online players as Phil ‘Jman’ Galfond, Tom ‘Durrr’ Dwan and David ‘Raptor’ Benefield as the players he respects the most. (12/1, Bet365)

Kelly Kim (2,620,000 chips)
Aged 31 and hailing from Whittier, California, Kelly is very much the short stack with just 2.62 million chips remaining. Expect to see him pushing all-in with any sort of hand early on when play gets underway in November. But he won’t be seeking a poker coach in the intervening time, knowing that he’s going to need a lot of luck to walk away with big money. “If I were to coach someone myself, I’d say find the style that you’re most comfortable with and stick to it,” he said. “That’s the beauty of poker.” A glance down at his stack saw him add, “I don’t have many chips. My fate is more based on cards.” (50/1, Paddy Power)
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