Fourteen out of 18 former world champions advanced to Day 2. Out of respect for the champs, the media monitors the progress of all of them in the Main Event from start to finish. Even Jerry Yang. Besides, if any of them actually go deep enough, the story writes itself with headlines like “Former Champ Seeks Another Title” or something to that effect. If it’s an old-school champion, say Bobby Baldwin for instance, who last won the title before many of the hot shit internet players were even born, a deep run in the Main Event is an opportunity to bookend his historic career with another championship, but in a completely different era.
The modern champions who ushered in the poker boom are closely monitored by folks at home because they have become household names. As poker fans, we conjure up images of their winner’s photo whenever we hear their names whispered.
The first-ever Main Event final table I ever recall watching on ESPN was back in 2002 when Phil Hellmuth was super pissed that Robert Varokonyi knocked him out, so he promised he’d shave his head (all proceeds going to charity). Gabe Kaplan was the color commentator back then and hole card cameras had yet to be infused with the spotty coverage. We all know that Varkonyi beat Julian Garder heads-up for the title to win $2 million. Despite the victory, Varkonyi did not receive the accolades of previous champions (and champions to follow) and most of the Vegas-based poker elite thought his victory was a joke. Within moments of his win, Varkonyi was already on the defensive as the Rodney Dangerfield of poker because he couldn’t get any respect.
Varkonyi didn’t have the greasy wheels of the massive poker media machine (fronted by the online poker industry) behind him because the media was still relatively small back then, slightly more unbiased, but with much more journalistic integrity. When Chris Moneymaker won the next year and subsequently ignited the boom, along came a plethora of poker media outlets which were propped up by the online poker industry. Alas, the industry became a bunch of shills and puppets all focused on the same ultimate goal — to get more people to play online poker. As a result, bashing the skill of the champions is seriously diminished and reserved for only salty pros and trolls on forums. That’s just the way it is. I didn’t write the rules, but the writing was on the wall by the time I arrived at my first WSOP in 2005.
The philosophy was rather simple — the bigger fish they see, the more people watching at home on ESPN would want to play poker. Alas, the adage fits — don’t tap the glass.
For more of Day 2A at the World Series of Poker’s Main Event, follow Paul McGuire at Tao of Poker.