Then and now at the WSOP final table
In a matter of less than 48 hours, the PokerStars Blog team will be on the ground to cover its sixth WSOP final table. Our notebooks are new, our pens full of ink, our laptops top of the line. All we lack is the patience to climb up into the Penn and Teller press box and begin our reports.
A little more than six years ago, this job was different. It was 113 degrees in Las Vegas, hot enough to reduce hope to ash. We'd spent our days shivering inside the expanses of the Rio Convention Center. And then, when the game reached its most important stage, we left. When it came time to play the final table, we hopped in a cab to sit bedside at poker history's hospice.
Binion's Horseshoe, home to all of the WSOP's final tables, was about to see its last. Benny's Bullpen was a sweatbox, teeming with fans and players, and no place for the few reporters who could make it in the door.
The poker media assemblage, such as it was at the time, was in its infancy and didn't require the giant skyboxes of today. The few of us remaining to cover the final table were shoved in a corner, elbow-to-elbow at a couple of folding tables. The Wi-Fi was intermittent if we were lucky enough to find it at all. The only clear access to our hole was through a labyrinth of kitchen galleys and back stairwells. We had to cheat our way around some velvet ropes to even get this good a view for a photo.
Before the night was over, a few members of the media started carting armloads of beer through the back entry. It became one last toast to the end of an era. From that moment forward, WSOP final tables would be different. No more Freemont Street. No more Binion's.
It was there that we sat up until sunrise watching Joe Hachem win his WSOP Main Event bracelet. Everyone knows how it happened by now. It was arguably the birthplace of the poker entourage, the group poker fan cheer (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!), and everything about the final table as we know it today.
Back then, we called ourselves Team Blog. We looked a lot younger. The photo below features, from left to right, Howard Swains, Mad Harper, Brad Willis, and James Hartigan. It will be Swains and me at the laptops for this final table. Harper helped us out through the whole Main Event, but has responsibilities elsewhere in November. Hartigan is big-timing us and will be the play-by-play man on the live coverage of the 2010 final.
It would be impossible to look back on 2005 without some amount of poignant nostalgia, but that's all it can be really. Unless the unthinkable happens and poker falls off the world's interest list, there is no way the WSOP could ever take place in such an intimate (or uncomfortable) setting again. We were just happy to have seen that era of poker in its final moments.
Since then, we've seen the final table theatrics become the type of thing you'd expect to see in New Vegas. Now, hundreds of people line up at the door of an honest-to-goodness Vegas theater. Media credentials are limited in number and afford precious access to a view of the final table. And that final table? It's on a real stage!
Looking back at last year's crowd scene, we couldn't help but notice the eventual champion's poker fan entourage. It was the type of thing we'd grown used to by that point, but something that we saw really take hold during Hachem's win in 2005. Now there are folks who believe if you don't have something that looks like this, you're probably not trying hard enough.
This year, every seat of the theater will be full, the lobby bar working overtime, and the Starbucks outside staying open four hours later than normal. Security guards will be monsters, tickets will be at a premium, and when it's all said and done, we'll have a new WSOP champion.
As always, we will be there to cover the final table from beginning to end. Our primary focus will be on the men in first and last place. Jonathan Duhamel sits atop the pack. Jason Senti is hanging on at the bottom. Both have the PokerStars flag hoisted high.
Each year, we come away from the final table with a different take on what's happened. In 2005, we left Binions. In 2006, we saw the record-holding biggest field and prize pool. In 2007, we witnessed the last final table that played out in the same month the tournament began. The year 2008 brought the first November Nine. Last year gave us the youngest-ever world champion.
This year? We don't know, but we'll tell you one week from today.