2008 World Series: Facing the champion on Centre Court
Let's say you're a young tennis professional and you're shaping up to make your debut at the Wimbledon Championship at the All England Club. On the eve of the tournament, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal treat themselves to a cheeky chocolate eclair for dessert at the champion's dinner, but -- terrible news! -- the cream is off and they both come down with a crippling dose of food poisoning. The top two seeds are ruled out of the tournament and the chances of you taking this one down receive a huge shot in the arm.
But let's just think about this for a moment. You're certainly not going to give the trophy or the prize money back when you're awarded it after two weeks of hard graft on the grass courts. But you're always going to be known as something of a lucky winner: you won the title in the year of "Eclairgate", as the press start dubbing it, doubly so when Novak Djokovic slips on another eclair that someone has left on the floor of the changing room and sprained an ankle, taking Andy Roddick down as he went. You win the tournament but never play anyone ranked higher than 100 in the world. Your name only appears in the history books in italicised text with an asterisk beside it.
OK, I concede that this is not quite a perfect analogy for anything to do with the World Series of Poker, but the field here is vast -- another 1,000-odd today -- and celebrity poker players are few and far between, even in these days of peak awareness of the top poker faces in the world. Theoretically, you can go all the way to the final table without ever crossing swords with a major "named" pro, and while they're more likely to have overdosed on energy drink and locked themselves quivering in their bathroom rather than eaten a dodgy eclair, their absence can't help but slightly devalue your triumph.
That, then, is one side of it. On the other hand, you could get drawn to play Roger Federer in the first round, a Federer fresh from nine weeks on a health farm, on the top of his game after living on nothing but mung-beans and spirituality to enter "the zone". This, surely, is what every young player really wants for their first match at Wimbledon: Centre Court, a pumped up champion, a chance to take down a huge scalp and be remembered forever as the greatest qualifier that ever lived.
Here's where the analogy does work, because today on one of two feature tables in the Amazon Room sit PokerStars qualifiers Erik Dempsey, Darus Suharto and Rune Djurhuus. Also on that table -- and inarguably the reason it is beneath the studio lights -- is Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu, who is as close to a Roger Federer character as you get in poker.
Negreanu is at the peak of his game and has already won a bracelet in this year's Series, taking down the $2,000 limit hold 'em event. He also cashed in the $50,000 HORSE and is at the top of all the betting markets for the main event.
Any qualifier will be rightly filled with dread at the sight of Negreanu at their opening table, but secretly they'll be wanting and confidently feeling that they have what it takes to take him out. Daniel will love that: he's among the most buoyant personalities at the table, and just wait until he finds out that Suharto is from his native Canada. Much conversation is sure to follow.
As for Dempsey, he's going to have a job keeping a bluff running with his boss once today's action is broadcast on ESPN.
Dempsey, an actuary from Hollywood, Florida, only qualified for the main event last Sunday, via the "steps" system on PokerStars. He asked for some last-minute vacation time from his boss, but didn't actually tell her where he was going. "I didn't tell anyone," he confessed. "I said I 'had some things to do.'"
I asked him when he was due back at work. "Ideally never," he quipped, aiming for the multi-million dollar pay-day from a good run here. And taking out a champion will be the first step on the way to a life of unemployment.
UPDATE: No sooner have we finished this post than news reaches that Daniel Negreanu is OUT! It was a set over set cooler against a silent assassin in the two seat. That means that Daniel's chips are up for grabs from all the PokerStars qualifiers on the table. And they can say they outlasted the best when they take this one down at the end of next week.