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As the World Series Turns: Heroes and Heartbreak on the Road to November

As the World Series Turns: Heroes and Heartbreak on the Road to November 0001

The Rio has closed its doors on the World Series of Poker until November. The tables are folded and back in storage, the florescent lamps are packed away, and the Poker Kitchen's grease has gone to clog arteries elsewhere. Thankfully, the Main Event left us with plenty of drama to savor in the coming months, and the story of Michael "the Grinder" Mizrachi and his band of brothers will carry us (and ESPN) all the way to November. There will be hundreds of articles on the Mizrachi phenomenon before we make it to November sweeps, but here are a few other vivid scenes from the intense final days of the Main Event.

Circus, Circus Is Down the Street: Main Events of the past have featured pros (who lost prop bets) wearing all kinds of ridiculous outfits from babies in diapers to toga-draped (literal) fan-boys. This year, the best we got was an unknown guy in a batman costume and Tom Dwan wearing a button with Peter Jetten's face on it. There even seemed to be less hype around the smattering of Hollywood celebrities who showed up. Of course, that could be because Hank Azaria was the only recognizable nonpoker celeb to make Day 3. The whole event seemed more sombre this year, more about the business at hand and less about the pomp and silliness. It's probably a good sign that poker is taking a step toward being seen as a legitimate skill game (at least for men), but it does make things a little drier for those of us who count on the Rio for 100 percent of our summer entertainment.

Strip Poker: One exception to the lack of celebrity sightings at the Main Event was the proliferation of porn stars and Playboy models. There seemed to be a transition from Hollywood to the valley this year, and it's not a change that looks positive for poker. The Year of the Woman somehow became the Year of the Spokesmodel at the Main Event, with several poker sites vying for attention by using their buy-in money on hot girls in tiny outfits with even less understanding of the game. Playmates Sarah Underwood and Shanna Moakler and adult actress Samantha Ryan were just a few of the sexy sponsored players who added dead money to the prize pool. Of course Underwood is eye-catching, but does she need to advertise Victory Poker by sitting at a table and check-folding away $10k? Why can't she just wear a patch on her completely see-through braless shirt and stand on the rail?

This year, women only comprised 3 percent of the Main Event field, down from 5 percent last year. And not a single one of those women made Day 7. Tough pros like Vanessa Selbst, Lauren Kling, and Maria Ho had big stacks early in the tournament, but they didn't have too many ladies keeping them company at the top of the counts. With 270 players left, only two were female. Breeze Zuckerman, the last woman standing, was eliminated in 121st place, causing many people to wonder about the dearth of women in the later stages of the biggest tournament of the year. But what do you expect when sites are looking to back hot chicks who don't know ROI from OPI? If you want women who are able to play with the boys, stop looking for them in Playboy.

Agents of Darkness: There was much talk on media row about the soul-sucking vampires who descended on the Rio during the Main Event and multiplied as the days went on and the field shrunk. Hoards of aggressive agents trying to squeeze in their pitches to the players on every break is always annoying, but it seemed to aggravate people a little more than usual this year, perhaps because there were so many or perhaps because they were so over-the-top in their sales pitches. Making a televised feature table is big business, and players need agents to negotiate the most lucrative patch deals for them (and of course, the agents get a healthy cut). But it's a little comical to watch a guy in a suit begging an ESPN cameraman to pass his card to a player inside the ropes. It's more on the sad side to see guys in the most high-stress environment of their lives trying to get their heads together on a break only to be chased on the way to the bathroom by three guys who want to talk deals.

The Name Game: When you get deep enough into the Main Event to see most of the tables disappear and the TV-camera to player ratio soar, you'll also be treated to some of Harrah's finest unintentional entertainment. They start announcing the name and hometown of each eliminated player. And since the WSOP is truly the World Series, many players' names are either pronunciation puzzles for us Americans or easy pickings for your favorite punny bloggers. A few of our nominees for best tongue twister are Michiel Sijpkens, Jakob Toestesen, Meenakshi Subramaniam, and Flavio Ferrarizumbini. The headline writers got extra chuckles out of David Assouline, Mads Wissing, and Fokke Beukers, whose departures caused much mourning on media row.

Heartbreak Hotel: The Rio isn't just where dreams are made; it's also where they're destroyed. And no one's pain was felt more clearly and shared more completely by the crowd and the media than the Sisyphean struggle of Matt "mcmatto" Affleck, a fan favorite heading into the evening stretches of playdown to the final table. In the 2009 Main Event, he ended Day 4 as the chip leader but found himself going from the top spot with 130 players left to out cold in 80th place. This year, Affleck also ended Day 4 among the chip leaders. Could he hold on to his stack this time? He seemed determined to do so, and it was hard not to pull for the affable kid with much to prove. He stayed strong all the way through Day 8 and was on his game, and in the top five, with 15 left. Then he picked up {a-Spades}{a-Clubs}. He got all 17 million chips in by the turn of a {10-Diamonds}{9-Clubs}{7-Hearts}{q-Diamonds} board to see he was quite ahead of Jonathan Duhamel's {j-Hearts}{j-Clubs}. But the cruel {8-Diamonds} on the river gave Duhamel a straight and sent Affleck back to a place he knew well — the rail — imagining what could have been. Affleck buried his face in his hat and shed a few tears in the most human response we've seen in awhile. And the whole room felt sick.

Read the whole, gut-wrenching hand here.

In for the Long Haul: The first seven days of the Main Event went unusually quickly. All of them were under five levels, a walk in the park for players, staff, and media used to 16-hour days during the WSOP prelims. Everyone expected that the short days would catch up to them, but it looked like the field might keep right on pace when they were down to the final ten by midnight. They redrew to the unofficial final table. The stands crowded with spectators and heavy on Mizrachi fans all had their eyes on Brandon Steven, who sat down at it with less than ten big blinds. But with a trip to the November Nine on the line, Steven wasn't about to let his shot go without a fight. A loooong fight. In the end, Steven succumbed to a tenth-place finish and a measly $635,011 payday, but not before battling for nearly six hours! Finally, at 5:40 in the morning, almost 17 hours after play began and 5 hours and 45 minutes after losing the 11th-place finisher, Steven lost a flip to end his run, securing a seat at the Main Event final table for nine other very excited, very rich, very exhausted guys.

As soon as they'd posed for photos and the last spectator had been shooed away from the feature-table stage, crews started breaking it down. By that afternoon, barely a trace of the Series was left, and the Rio Convention Center was back to being just another empty set. But what happened there over the last seven weeks will not be forgotten so easily. The legends that began and those that grew will simply move on to the next casino and the next big break. But the World Series show is far from over. Now it's time to develop the nine characters we'll be seeing a lot from in the next four months and to decide who among them has the makings of a star and the chops to carry the show.

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