This week marks the beginning of the fifth season of the World Poker Tour with the playing of the $10,000 event at the Mirage Poker Showdown. It was about a year ago that Gavin Smith broke through with his first big win at last years Mirage Poker Showdown, and started his year that would see him end up as WPT player of the year for season four.
Interestingly enough, the show hasn't changed a whole lot in the five seasons it has been on the air. Of course, there was the notable loss of Shana Hiatt as the hostess, which left many a poker fan crying in his soup. Other than the loss of Hiatt, much of the show's look and feel have remained largely the same. You always get a sense when watching that Mike Sexton really is as excited about what is going on in front of him as he seems. Those that have spent time around Mike know he does have a deep passion for poker. It really seems Mike's passion for the game hasn't changed, despite riding the WPT and his affiliation with Party Poker to fame and fortune.
What has changed is the poker world. The first final table of the WPT was played on June 1, 2002, and was won by Gus Hansen. The win was not only the beginning of the rise of the WPT, it was also the beginning of poker players as celebrities, as Hansen made a name for himself with two season one WPT wins. The formula was born, as the TV table was a who's who of poker: Scotty Nguyen, Freddy Deeb, John 'World' Hennigan, John Juanda, Chris Bigler, and Hansen.
The rise of internet poker has had a real impact on the make up of WPT final tables. The WPT would salivate today at the thought of a final table made up of the six players that comprised the very first WPT final table. With online satellites, and online 'pros' by the hundreds with a lot more money in their pockets to come to these events, the fields have grown to the point where a star studded final table is not only not a given, it's a long shot.
A grand total of 146 players entered the first WPT event, each of them putting up the $10,000 buy in. By contrast, a $10,000 WPT event from season four - the LA Poker Classic - saw 692 entrants. While the action was interesting, the casual TV poker fan had maybe only heard of one of the final table participants – eventual winner Alan Goehring.
The schedule of events has changed over the years – long forgotten by most is the Gold Rush event from season one - held at San Francisco area casino Lucky Chances, and won by Paul Darden. The WPT has tweaked the schedule for season five, eliminating a couple of the stalwart events. Gone are the Party Poker Million, and the Ultimate Bet Aruba Classic. A real test for the brand might be the newly added Mandalay Bay Poker Championship, which starts in a couple weeks.
What a ride the WPT, and the poker world has been on the past few years. It will be interesting to see where the poker world and the WPT are at when its time for season ten.
Ed Note: WPT host Mike Sexton proudly endorses Party Poker ...Can the Ambassador of Poker be wrong?