2008 World Series: Stepping up to the big time

Much has been made in the media during this World Series about the relative success of top-name professional players in the preliminary events, especially at the expense of the plucky amateurs who often prevail. It's the "Year of the Pro", according to most news outlets, and Team PokerStars Pros Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu -- bracelet winners both -- would hardly disagree.

The main event, though, has a habit of throwing up a surprise champion, often groomed around the online tables of PokerStars. Team PokerStars Pros Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem are your go-to guys for details of taking that route to international recognition and will happily sit down in the Champions Lounge at the Rio to recall their charge to the World Title.

It's these stories that fuels the fire burning in every PokerStars qualifier, and there seem to be a whole lot of mini-furnaces in the day 1B field today. We're accustomed to seeing the familiar PokerStars logo stitched, stuck, painted, pinned, dyed or tattooed on numerous players in every tournament room, but there just seem to be even more than usual today.

In the blue section, on table 12 seat 9, sits Cero Zuccarello, from Madison, Wisconsin, whose wife Erin e-mailed us this morning to tell us to keep an eye on his progress. "He's awesome, that's all you need to know!" Erin wrote, adding that their 4-year-old son Dario, and the whole family, is rooting for him.


I checked in with Zuccarello into the second level, and he was sitting pretty with 23,000, a figure that might have been a whole lot less. "I lost a pot with queens against aces," he said. "But bounced right back." Keep bouncing, Cero; they're watching in Wisconsin.

I caught up with Stephen Molloy, from Philadelphia, before play began just after noon. He cast something of a lonely figure as the first player to take his seat on table eight, but had actually been among the very earliest arrivals to the Amazon Room, when he turned up about a week and a half ago. "I was here for my brother-in-law's 40th birthday party and I came down here to take a look," Molloy said. "I thought it's just like any other card room, so felt comfortable."

Stephen Molloy

At that point, Molloy was up to step six on the qualification ladder to the main event. He was a man in form, having won one daily tournament in the Mandalay Bay and placing third in another during the birthday trip. He went back and played that last "step seven" sit and go at PokerStars, and locked up the seat to guarantee a return trip to Las Vegas. And as for his chances? "Nine guys," he said. "I gotta beat nine guys." That's right: one step at a time.

Johnny Caruso, a PokerStars qualifier from Toronto, also took a step up into the main event. He played some heads up on PokerStars, turned $150 into $800, and decided to try his hand at a step four satellite for the World Series. A few hours later and he was on his way to Vegas, having successfully bulldozed his way through steps four, five and six in one hit.

Johnny Caruso

When it came to that final step, there was simply no stopping the 22-year-old construction worker. “I just had to win that one," he said. "It was midnight. I had to go to work the next morning at 6am and I was absolutely determined to get through. In fact, I ended up personally busting eight out of the nine others at the table.”

Caruso has been playing poker for around five years but it was only when he tore a knee ligament playing hockey that he started playing a lot online. “I played all the time and I didn’t make a bad living out of it," he said. "I had to do well actually, because I still had bills to pay – but I have to admit I do make more money from normal work. I’m not quite ready to turn pro yet.”

This is Johnny’s first time at the World Series and first time in Vegas. On the shuttle bus over to the Rio, he was quiet and admitted he was nervous, but cheered up when his girlfriend Laura, a Latin dance teacher, turned up to support him. Did he ever think of just taking the money when he qualified? “No way. $12,500 was never going to change my life – and I really wanted to play this. It’s great.”

Meanwhile, our video blog team caught up with PokerStars qualifier Vincent Gabel, from Belgium. Gabel runs a poker forum in his native land, and one of the regular posters won a bracelet at the Series. Vincent assesses his chances of repeating that success in the main event.

Watch WSOP 08: Vincent Gabel Online Qualifier on PokerStars.tv

Remember, watch the clip to the end to find out the password to the PokerStars.tv daily freeroll tournament. And drop in on PokerStars.tv for all the vide blogs and an archive of previous coverage.

Also, keep your e-mails coming. We can be reached at blog@pokerstars.com and can pass on messages to any PokerStars qualifiers you may know in today's field.

Finally, in late breaking news, Team PokerStars Pro William Thorson has made a late push in the minutes before the dinner break. He flopped a set of jacks to Olga Varkonyi's queens. He now sits on 48,000 and is headed for dinner.