From celebrities to top-flight poker players, the World Series of Poker Main Event has traditionally been filled with weird characters, and the 2009 Main Event was no different. Some were dressed in weird costumes, while others were just weird. But the ten characters on this list don't fall into the weird category. They were just plain interesting. And they were what made this year's Main Event so much fun.
10. Phil Hellmuth
Unlike last year, Phil Hellmuth didn't make a deep run in this year's Main Event. He finished in 436th place and won $25,027. But he was still one of the most interesting people in the tournament. His entrance alone made watching the Main Event worthwhile. Dressed as Julius Caesar, complete with a wreath on his head, Hellmuth walked down a "promenade" lined with women wearing revealing UltimateBet tunics. A bugler and drummer heralded his arrival. And fans completely mobbed him. In fact, fans mobbed Hellmuth throughout the tournament, and he was absolutely gracious with every one of them. He signed autographs. He posed for pictures. He signed books. He pretty much did everything he could to please the fans. It really was a sight to see. And in the tournament itself, it looked like Hellmuth was poised to make a run. He was picking up chips and picking on players at a rapid pace. But the rush faded and he busted out of the Main Event. Even though he didn't win, it was fun while it lasted.
9. Jason Alexander
When comedians Ray Romano, Brad Garrett and Jason Alexander first started playing in the Main Event a couple of years ago, it looked like they were at the Rio to just have a fun time playing with the "big boys." They mugged for the cameras, cracked jokes, bought massages for the table and generally tried to keep things fun and light. This year, things changed dramatically. These three have become poker players. They take the game seriously, and they've become pretty good. They keep their iPod headphones plugged, their heads down, and grind away trying to pick up chips. Sure, they're still funny at the table. But it's because they're naturally funny people, not because they're going out of their way to entertain the table. And this year, Jason Alexander was the best of the three. He was among the chip leaders for part of the tournament, and it really looked for awhile like he was a going to cash. Alexander ended up falling short of the money bubble. But he didn't go out in a Costanza flameout. He pushed his money into the middle of the table with pocket jacks, and his opponent had to spike his third six on the river to beat him.
8. Norm Chad
ESPN's poker announcer is funny. He's funny on the air. And he's funny just walking around. A poker player asked me to take a picture of him standing with Norm Chad. The camera was tiny, and sufficiently different enough from Nikon that I asked which button I needed to press to take the picture. And Chad didn't miss an opportunity to zing me for it. "He only knows how to use real cameras," Chad said with a chuckle. And I have to admit, I was feeling inordinately pleased that Chad made fun of me. But as quick as Chad's wit was, I found myself more impressed by his work ethic. Chad doesn't just sit around watching ESPN footage of the tournament. He's always walking the tournament floor, looking for angles, stories and information. He's gracious with players and fans alike. But he's serious about his craft. He works hard at it. And it shows in the final product.
7. Lou Diamond Phillips
It's been quite the summer for Lou Diamond Phillips. First, he won "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" by outlasting wrestler Torrie Wilson and former NBA star John Salley (I'm being charitable here) on the summer reality show. Then he outlasted Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke, Johnny Chan, Doyle Brunson and Mike Matusow (among others) to finish in 186th and win $36,626. He could have lasted longer, but he decided to push all-in at the end of a long Day 5 was eliminated on the last hand of the day. Not bad for your first appearance in the Main Event. Here's hoping LDP returns to the Main Event next year.
Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier dyed his hair platinum blond for the Main Event. But it didn't take away any of his aggression. He played pots aggressively, firing bet, bet after bet after bet until he won the pot. When he and Phil Ivey were seated at the same table for about 20 minutes, crowds surged around them, hoping to see chips fly around the table, and they weren't disappointed. The players took turns winning sizable pots and for quite some time it looked like Elky and Ivey were both final-table bound. Grospellier ended finishing in 122nd. But he played a crowd-pleasing (and hopefully TV-friendly) style of poker that made him a fan favorite.
5. Leo Margets
Like Tiffany Michelle last year, Leo Margets was the last woman standing at the Main Event. Unlike Michelle, Margets was a source of joy, not controversy. After pushing all in for her final 868,000 in chips, Margets received a caller. Margets flipped over her cards and showed the ace and king of clubs. Her opponent had the ace-queen offsuit. Three clubs hit on the board to give Margets the pot, and her reaction couldn't have been scripted better by a TV producers. First, she stared at the board open-mouthed. Then she jumped up and down for joy. Then she ran to the rail and unleashed a torrent of happy words in Spanish to her friends on the rail. In fact, she spoke so quickly the only word I was able to translate was "running." Then she went back to her seat and looked like she was about to cry. She didn't, but she came close. I can just picture Chad in the ESPN telecast right now saying "there's no crying in poker."
4. Money Bubble
The bubble isn't a person. But it was by far the best moment at the Main Event. With friends, family and fans looking on, 649 players played hand-for-hand, with each player hoping they wouldn't be the next one eliminated. The World Series of Poker was only paying 648 places this year, and no one wanted to be the last person eliminated before the money kicked in. After every hand, players stood up, craning their necks to see if someone was all in at another table. Every time an all-in bet was announced, family members desperately hoped their loved one wasn't at risk for elimination. Finally, Kia Hamadani busted out in 649th place, and players and fans alike burst into applause, cheering their newfound money.
3. Billy Kopp
Billy Kopp wasn't just poised to make the final table this year. He looked like he could win it. He was playing strong poker, and had accumulated around 20 million chips. Then he did the unthinkable. Holding a baby flush, he pushed all in against Darvin Moon -- a poker neophyte from Maryland who had only been playing monster hands. Moon called with a king-high flush and Kopp was gone. In 10 seconds, Kopp had gone from presumptive favorite to win the Main Event to out of the tournament. The only thing faster than Kopp's elimination was his exit from the Rio. Kopp looked like Usain Bolt as he left the tournament floor. And who could blame him? He was in position to win the Main Event. And he lost it all on a major-league bluff. Wow.
2. Darvin Moon
Moon, who works in the logging industry in eastern Maryland, has only been playing poker for three years. By his own admission, he was only playing big hands this Main Event -- aces, kings, trips, etc. And yet, player after players kept shipping chips to him after failing to bluff him out of a pot. Of course, if you only play premium hands and hit all of your flops, you're not going to be bluffed. But his opponents never seemed to figure it out. They thought they could steal from the Maryland rube, and he busted most of them out of the tournament.
1. Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey is the Wild Bill Hickok of the poker world -- an aggressive gunslinger who takes no prisoners. Ivey doesn't hesitate to raise or re-raise from any position. And he usually wins a ton of pots doing so. Ivey also showed the ability to grind his way through the Main Event this year as well. And that balance between gunslinger and grinder has him at the final table with a chance to win the Main Event. Ivey is easily the most dominant poker player of his era. And a Main Event crown could solidify his position among the game's greats.