Gold StandardAs we approached the gate at McCarran Airport, I looked out the window and saw the Las Vegas Strip in its daytime glory, the rich red landscape beyond, and a $100 bill blowing across the tarmac. It was the first indication that something beyond anyone’s imagination was happening, even for this town. And with total prize money at over $82 million, and $12 million going to the winner, it became clear: the 37th annual World Series of Poker No-Limit Hold’em Main Event was in full swing.
Each year, the WSOP seems to aggressively outdo itself in terms of entrants, prize money and popularity. No one thought it was conceivable that 8,773 people from 56 countries would enter the Main Event this year compared to last year’s 5,619 from 45 countries. And way back in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker won it, there was a mere 839 players. You don’t need to chart it out to see that this event lives up to its no limit name.
As the field whittled down at an astonishing rate, organizers had to scramble to somehow put the brakes on the event so it didn’t culminate early. And in a move unseen in WSOP history, the day before the final table, August 9, was declared a day off. It was a welcome respite for the remaining nine players who made it to the center stage.
“The pool is full of young players who play online,” said Gary Thompson, director of sport and entertainment for the WSOP and Harrah’s about the rapid rate of elimination. “They’re brazen and used to playing fast. It’s a fearlessness never seen before.” Call it Moneymaker’s Mark: his win in 2003 broke the doors open for the everyman tournament, and is the reason for the incredible spike in entrants from the internet demographic. “It’s the year of the young guns,” continued Thompson. “They don’t see it as money, just credits.” And if there was a theme to this 37th annual World Series of Poker, it was speed.
In the Thick of it
Out of the three last Main Event winners, 2005 winner Joe Hachem stuck it out longest but had to settle for 238th place. The ladies of poker also preformed admirably as Kathy Liebert came in 275th, Annie duke in 88th and the last women in the event, Sabyl Cohen, came in 56th place. And with the steady elimination, the incessant trickle of chips being tossed, toyed or tinkered with lessened as players were summarily shown the exit of the expansive Amazon Room in the Rio Pavilion. The random display of good-luck amulets—apples, crystals, lighters, statuettes like Monopoly figurines—became less of a sideshow as well. But dealers shuffling shifts—as well as cards—still brought their own seat cushions and masseurs went around from table to table, player to player, kneading aching backs and necks. Bananas, energy bars, sachets of vitamin C powder and copious cans of Red Bull clearly indicated that this was an extreme endurance race.
Apart from a party atmosphere though, it’s a fairly sterilized environment with precise climate control leaving the big-brand spokesgirls to shiver in cut-off shorts and halter-tops. And the diminished lighting around the event is enough to see by, but with a majority of the players in shades, you’d think the Las Vegas sun was blazing in here.
The Business End
More stretching, face-rubbing and audible sighing came from the players when the blinds went up to $20,000 and $40,000 in day 6. The stakes were getting higher (or thicker, maybe juicier, seeing as we’re in Las Vegas) and the emotion understandably more draining, but Jamie Gold was flopping like a freshly gaffed yellowfin. “I just wanted an 8,” said the television producer from California after getting the straight to dispatch internet poker dominator Prahlad Friedman. “It helps to make a lot of hands,” replied 1989 WSOP main event winner Phil Hellmuth from the sidelines.
Friedman collected $494,797 while Gold, reigning chip boss since day 4, continued his assault and fortified his place at the final table by knocking out six of the next 11 players. One of whom was hedge fund manager David Einhorn, who came in 18th place. As a massive gesture of goodwill, he donated all his $659,730 winnings to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research, where Einhorn sits as a board member.
Beyond Their Years
With few exceptions looking around the last couple tables, it looks like a gathering of fraternity brothers. Take Leif Force, the hirsute ultimate Frisbee freak from Tallahassee, Fl., playing in boardshorts and a knitted anklet. Or the swarthy young Swede and online pro Erik Friberg; or lithe Douglas Kim from New York; or low-key Paul Wasicka, none of whom are over 25. This is the new young face of poker. The immediate chip leaders at this stage, however, were a bit longer in the tooth and considerably taller in the stack.
When the third table was dismantled, 29-year-old second-place chip leader Allen Cunningham from Las Vegas, NV., pulled up a seat next to Gold, 36. With the elimination of another twenty-something, William Thorsson, the remaining 12 all became millionaires. And when Force couldn’t force a heart or ace against Friberg’s all-in with Ah-7h after the Qh-8c-5h flop, he landed in 11th place. When 10 remained, they consolidated and went elbow to elbow at the table on center stage.
In the small hours of the anomalous off day, Fred Goldberg, 30, went out in a blaze of glory after two big hands slapped him silly. First, he called an all-in pre-flop raise by the 29-year-old PhD from Florida, Michael Binger. Goldberg’s pocket 10s were best until Binger, holding the Ah Qs, paired his ace on the turn.
An hour later and with half his stack, Goldberg moved all in from the cut-off for $2,800,000. Richard Lee, the 55-year-old elder statesman from Texas, called and it was all a matter of formality as he flipped over pocket kings to smother Goldberg’s Qh 3s. For his efforts the part-time pro earned $1,154,527 for a 10th-place finish. Call it pride, impatience or stubbornness, but Goldberg was determined not to go to the final table as the short stack. As a result, the official final table was set.
Lee faced elimination on an all-in earlier in day 7 but was able to double up, and the lifeline earned him a final table seat and, skipping ahead to the final day, became second chip leader behind Gold until just before the dinner bell rang. Lee, with $19 million in chips, went all in and got busted by Gold. Something that surely made him lose his appetite.
What Gold had for dinner is uncertain, but during play he was always within arm’s reach of bottles of water and a massive bowl of blueberries. “I love them,” he said. They’re brain food.” And considering how he was playing, they proved to be the fruit of his labor.
Worth its Wait
Gold, brought in on the celebrity Bodog team, has only been playing for a few years but has shown remarkable talent, spurred on by his part-time coach, 10-time WSOP bracelet holder Johnny Chan. “I play a little online but I do much better face to face,” he said. “My skill is reading people.” Having admitted he played only one bad hand all tournament, Gold was on a serious tear that left people shaking their heads. It got to the point where he was winning enough big pots to provoke shouts of “Thief!” from the audience. Talk of his indescribable, immeasurable and envious luck rapidly gained momentum as he went to the final table the chip leader with $26 million.
Hachem got things started on the final day with “Shuffle up and deal” and at the same time, handed the title over to one of the last nine. Continuing with this year’s theme, the last nine started dropping off fast.
First hand went to Gold, but before people properly settled in their seats, Dan Nassif, 33-year-old account executive from St. Louis, Missouri was eliminated on the fifth hand and walked with $1,566,858.
The ebullient Swedish cheering section was then snuffed out when 23-year-old online poker pro Friberg, the last international player, bowed out. So an American now was a guaranteed winner.
With the blinds now at $100,000-$200,000 and a $30,000 ante, Doug Lee, the online wunderkind and youngest at the final table at 22, crashed to yet another barrage from Gold. “Playing on the internet is a huge advantage because you can play a lot more hands—about 20,000 a week,” he said about his successful run here. “But at tournaments this long, you have to work with the fatigue.”
Although short stacked throughout the final table, Rhett Butler, a Main Event sleeper threat, dug in and held ground for as long as possible before going to the rail in 5th place.
Cunningham exudes a congenial disposition but can’t be taken lightly considering the roll he was on at the end of day 7, going from $2.65 million to $17.7 million. On the last day, Gold started showing cracks from Cunningham’s tenacity and a raucous cheering section chanting, “Allen, Allen, Allen. Oi, oi, oi!” reminiscent of the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” cheers that spurred Hachem to his win. Off to the side, the amiable Aussie sat next to 2000 WSOP Main Event winner Chris Ferguson and watched the drama unfold. “It’s all your fault,” said Ferguson as the chants got louder.
But no matter how rambunctious the crowd got in its distinct cheering sections, the players remained stoic. And Gold went into the dinner break yawning, and with a 9 o’clock shadow on his jaw.
The Home Stretch
Binger teetered on the edge of elimination a couple times after midnight but managed to double up his lease on tournament life both times. After all, the $12 million winner’s prize was piled up like rubble on a table a few feet away. The overpowering smell of $12 million in cash, really an obscene amount of money to see all at once, has a way to keep a player focused.
As the early morning wore on, Cunningham, the last poker pro, was eliminated, leaving the final trio: Gold with $64 million, Binger with $12.6 million and Wasicka with $13 million. But within a few minutes, Gold got another strait and out went Binger. So it was Wasicka and Gold to face off. But the chip imbalance made it a foregone conclusion as Gold had all but $11 million of the $89 million in chips. But those supporting Wasicka still tried to out cheer the Gold camp.
Fortified with a fresh bowl of blueberries, Gold started wolfing them down with a spoon as history was made: Gold raised to $1,700,000 and, standing up, leaning over the table with a sense of urgency, he taunted Wasicka to make the call. The flop came Qc 8h 5h. Wasicka bet $1,500,000 and Gold moved all in. Wasicka called and showed 10h 10s. However, Gold turned over Qs 9c for a pair of queens. The turn was the Ad and the river 4c. Wasicka earned 2nd place and $6,102,499 while Gold didn’t quite know what to do after using his gregarious personality to influence and derail opponents with such intensity.
Quite simply, Gold dominated this year’s Main Event. “I was in the zone,” he said. “I played perfect poker.”
He had the uproarious support from friends, family and, of course, the illustrious Chan. Conspicuously absent, however, was Gold’s father. Dr. Robert Gold has Lou Gehrig’s disease, which renders him immobile so he was unable to see first hand Jamie’s relief and elation after the final hand was revealed. According to Jamie, money he won will go toward making his father’s life as comfortable as possible. “He’s not well and unable to travel,” Gold said. “This is all for him.”
Every year, the winner’s prize of this biggest poker event in history threatens to double. And the Rio has to consider where to fit all the entrants for next year. But can we realistically predict 16,000 entrants each paying a $10,000 buy-in and over $20 million to the 2007 winner? If history is any guide, then we have to accept the fact that anything, especially in Las Vegas, can happen. And it most assuredly will.
By Carl Friedmann