2005 World Series memories

wsop2009_thn.gifI was somewhere on the Oregon coast and in bed with my wife. It was a fifth anniversary vacation up the Pacific coast and, I'll be honest, at that particular moment, the last thing on my mind was the World Series of Poker.

"I think you should come back to Vegas."

That's what my then boss Dan Goldman was saying at the very moment I was thinking about whether a Pacific squall was going to keep my wife and me inside for the day and if that was really a bad thing at all.

Back to Vegas, Dan said, because I'd just left a couple of days before. In fact, on my actual five-year anniversary--five years to the minute after I'd said "I do"--I'd been playing in a World Series event. The wife was more understanding about the whole situation than, I think, even she realized.

Amazing thing about that year and that event. It came just a year after Greg Raymer had won $5 million. That $1,500 NLHE event was the first open event of the year and drew more than 2,300 people. The alternates line snaked around the perimeter of the Amazon Ballroom. The event drew so many people, my table (Table 2, Seat 1) had to use a Starbucks coffee lid as a button for an hour or so at the start of play. More impressive, the top five finishers in that event (Allen Cunningham, Scott Fischman, Dave Ulliott, Can Kim Hua, and Liz Lieu) were all known players.

Back to Vegas? The Main Event didn't start for weeks. The big media wouldn't show up until the cards went in the air on the big one. And I'm in bed with my wife!

I was back in Vegas a few days later and when I walked back into the Amazon Room, I understood. What was happening was so much bigger than anything that had happened before at the World Series. The WSOP was setting new records every day. It was clear that, whatever the cause, the annual gamblers reunion was never going to be the same again.

The idea of a media horde had yet to realize itself at the Rio. We few people who covered the preliminary events could do just about anything we wanted. To start, we set up in the smallest possible room at the end of the longest possible hallway. Before long, we realized we could just take our computers anywhere we wanted. It was an age before exclusive media rights and rules about posting once per hour. More often than not, we would pull a table into the middle of the action and set up a coverage station wherever we needed. It's how we watched just about everything happen, including Johnny Chan winning his then-record tenth bracelet.

That year, we saw Noah Boeken--not yet a member of Team PokerStars Pro--make the final table of a limit hold'em event. It was one of those moments that doesn't stand out in history as much as it stands out in our memories. Back then, Boeken was just a young guy known better as "Exclusive." What's more, he didn't know he should even want to be a member of Team PokerStars Pro. In fact, nobody really knew what the Team was at that point.

That same week, we announced on the blog that well-known writer and actor Wil Wheaton had joined Team PokerStars. At that point, more people knew Wil than had ever heard about the Team. That would all change a few days later when PokerStars announced it was forming an elite team of poker enthusiasts and poker pros. Today, that team has grown to more than 30 members and is recognized as one of the most elite stables of poker players in the world.


***

John Gale was just becoming famous. At one time unknown, it had only been a few months since Gale had taken down the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. At the time, the PCA was a World Poker Tour event and Gale's episode had aired just a few weeks before. This was at a time when winning one of these events guaranteed a man instant celebrity in the poker world.

In 2005, we were nearly certain Gale was going to win his first World Series bracelet. He got heads up, but in the end finished runner-up to Brian Wilson.

Toward the end of that report, I wrote the following.

In a conversation just now, a fellow player asked, "How is it that someone can win more than $200,000 and still want to cry? Why do we play this game?"

Some people would say, "Well, certainly, for the money."

But, at this level of play, the money, while not insignificant, does not mean the most. It's something else. Glory, maybe? Not even really that. It's something that is without a ready definition. It's something intangible and somewhat scary.

Why do we play this game?

I offered the only answer I could: "Because we're masochists."

John Gale is getting ready to walk out of the tournament area now and I feel compelled to let his exit tonight to be the end of today's report. Today, one of the true gentlemen of the game played his heart out. He knows it, too.

It's just sad that when someone plays their heart out, sometimes they have to leave it behind when they walk out the door.

Seconds after that happened, I closed my laptop and walked down the long and tortuous hallway with John Gale at my side. My boss Dan and his wife Sharon led us to the Tilted Kilt. The bar was closing, one final bad beat to end the day. Dan took the bartender aside. I never saw how much money got passed from hand to hand, but I know that our table soon had enough drinks for eight people and Gale got to spend as long as he wanted putting the second place finish behind him.

Gale drank orange juice. We did not.

The Tilted Kilt is gone now. Thankfully, Gale lasted longer than the bar. He went on in his first World Series bracelet the next year.

***

Of all the memories that year, one jumps immediately to the fore.

That was Greg Raymer at the end of Day 4. With 185 people remaining, Raymer was the chip leader. (This happened just a couple of weeks after Raymer made the final table of a massive $1,500 NLHE event.)

It seemed an almost impossible concept. Just one year before, Raymer had defeated the then-biggest field in WSOP history. After four days of play, he was poised to do it again.

Raymer survived Day 5 and traveled with the final 27 players to Binion's. It was the last time the World Series would ever be held in Benny's Bullpen and Raymer was back there to try to make history of his own.

Instead, in what has become one of the more famous beats in recent history, Raymer's kings suffered a runner-runner heart flush beat against Aaron Kanter and FossilMan was eliminated a few hands later.

Then I wrote:

Although play continues here, the room is in a state of sick silence. While I will readily admit being a Raymer fan and supporter, I'm not being biased when I write that a majority of this room was behind Greg and hoping, like the rest of us, that the world champion would make a repeat appearance at the final table. The heart that fell on the river to crack Raymer's kings sucked the energy right out of the room. Barely a half hour removed from the hand that essentially ended Raymer's chance at a second WSOP bracelet, the world champion said he wouldn't have played the hand any differently. There was no reason to. He said, "Even after the raise, I was almost 100% certain I had the best hand." And he did. He was more than an 80% favorite. It was not to be. And frankly, it seems Raymer is handling this better than the rest of us. In his exit interview with ESPN, Raymer said, "I try not to think of poker in terms of results. I think in terms of decisions and I made good decisions today." Congrats, Greg, on your performance and making us all very, very proud.

***

It wasn't all sad news, though. That same year, PokerStars qualifiers Brad Kondracki and Daniel Bergsdorf made it to the final table and both cashed for more than a million bucks apiece. Even more notable, longtime PokerStars player--and now member of Team PokerStars Pro--Joe Hachem won the whole thing.

Though the poker world will all remember those guys for their final table performances, the story of the 13th place finisher will always be one of my favorites.

Bernard Lee made it into the 2005 WSOP on nothing but Frequent Player Points. As the days wound from one to the next, Lee started getting some attention for kissing pictures of his family.

Any cash at all would've been great for Lee. Instead of just making it into the money, Lee made it down to the final 27 players who went to the Horseshoe. More than that, he made it all the way to 13th place and won $400,000.

Since then, Lee has gone on to play professionally, write a book, and host his own radio program.

That's a damned good ROI, no matter what year it was.

***

The year 2005 was a great beginning for us. Just a couple of months after we started the PokerStars Blog, we had hundreds of thousands of visits. It meant our little experiment in blogging had worked.

A lot has changed since that first year. The freedom and ease of the WSOP circa 2005 is a happy memory. Now, covering the World Series is like covering the Super Bowl--as it should be. It's more crowded, and, as such, there are more rules.

Still, we go back every year. PokerStars has become an institution at the WSOP. The PokerStars Blog will be there as long as that institution remains.

And we expect that to be for a very long time.

For a complete look back at our 2005 coverage, see the 2005 World Series coverage index.

This summer will mark the fifth consecutive year the PokerStars Blog has covered the World Series from the Rio. This week, we're looking back at our time in the Amazon Ballroom.

Brad Willis
@BradWillis in World Series of Poker