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2009 WSOP Main Event Special Report: The Winnowing and the Ivey

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Day 7 of the Main Event of the 2009 World Series of Poker began with 64 hopefuls still in the running for the richest prize in poker. All eyes were on Phil Ivey, widely acclaimed as one of the game’s best -– if not the best — players who arrived for the day’s noon start in a strong third position, not far beyond overnight leader Darvin Moon. “Where’s Phil Ivey at, man,” asks one of the Amazon’s room security guards of another, barely an hour into play.

Ivey’s stellar poker resume lacks only a Main Event triumph before some would call it “complete”, though that Holy Grail’s symbolic importance surely exceeds its likelihood, even for the best of pros. In this modern poker era, with thousands of players entering the ME, it’s statistically improbable that any individual pro one could name will win the Main Event; the fields are simply too deep, the odds on any single player so very long.

And yet, each year, someone beats those odds. For Ivey, the 2009 WSOP will be remembered as a great series, regardless of his final placement here. He’s one of four players to have already won two or more bracelets at this year’s series, and a third triumph would match Jeffrey Lisandro’s triple-bracelet performance this summer, and make Ivey only the sixth player in WSOP to accomplish that feat in a single series.

Ivey’s made deep runs in the Main Event before, too. A key episode from what was perhaps the defining moment that ushered in poker’s modern era was when Chris Moneymaker laid a bad beat on Ivey late in the 2003 Main Event; a stunned and dejected Ivey went to the rail, while Moneymaker’s incredible parlay of fortune continued all the way to the title, which in turn ignited the famed “Moneymaker Effect.” Soon, marginally skilled poker masses picked up the game in the hopes that they, too, could pull off the miracle and walk away with millions.

Two years later, in 2005, Ivey ran deep again. But that was the year that Aaron Kanter ran roughshod over opponents on his way to the final table and a fourth-place finish. Kanter’s runner-runner knockout of reigning champ Greg Raymer – who was in the midst of his own unlikely repeat run – defined the pre-final table play. But only a short time before bouncing Raymer, Kanter’s knockout of Ivey sent perhaps that tourney’s most fearsome threat to the rail with another deep run, but also another disappointment.

Entering this year’s Day 7, it’s again Ivey’s show. The show itself is a part of the WSOP that more unlike anything the TV presentation can offer at a later date. The gargantuan Amazon Room is 30% controlled tension (marked by bursts of frenzy), ringed by 70% vacant space. Outside, the rest of the Rio Convention Center is in a teardown mode, the corporate booths that lined the hallways all but a memory. One or two straggler booths remain, while the Milwaukee’s Best girls hold a fire sale on their last boxes of t-shirts ($5 for t-shirt, drink cozy and souvenir WSOP poker chip).

The previous days had seen several poker-merchandise businesses and online sites giving the away the last of their overstock in a slightly different way, perching themselves at the Rio Convention Center’s main crossroads and handing out branded t-shirts and hats in the hopes the fans will wear the merchandise at the rail… and perhaps be in the background of some televised shots at a later date. A little bit of brand exposure goes a long way, reminding one of the years-long battle over that rooftop behind and above the left-field seats at baseball’s famed Wrigley Field. (This year, the famed rooftop offers advertising for the nearby Hammond Horseshoe casino… like the WSOP, a Harrah’s property.)

And still, it’s all backdrop. There’s poker to be played, two grueling days’ worth of players to be bounced before this year’s “November Nine” is determined. It won’t be Prahlad Friedman, who entered the day as a short stack and exited on one of the very first (if not the first) hands. Friedman’s 64th-place departure assured each of the other players a six-figure payday, life-changing money for a few, perhaps not for others, but a reminder to all that the stakes have become serious. Another early departure was Joe Sebok, who grimly battled with an extreme short stack for three days before bowing out.

The first two-hour level saw ten players trimmed from the pack, leaving 54 still in the hunt. Half that many, 27 players, will remain when the chips are bagged for the day. The surviving players caught an unexpected break over the weekend with back-to-back three-level/six-hour days, but the grueling nature of the Main Event is in the air today. It’ll be a long battle.

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