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Best of Vin Narayanan

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Vin's top-10 WSOP Main Event (mostly) observations

25 July 2011

The World Series of Poker Main Event has become an annual pilgrimage for poker players. Every year, it draws thousands of players -- amateurs and pros alike -- willing to plunk down $10,000 of their own money (or a combination of their money and other people's money) for the shot to win close to $9 million and a place in poker history.

But each annual journey has its own distinct flavor. And this year was no different. Here are my top-10 observations from this year's Main Event.

10. TV tables are not "fan friendly"
The World Series of Poker and ESPN switched production companies for this year's televised coverage of the Main Event. The old televised stage used by 441 Productions featured old bleachers/risers around the featured TV table, a giant jumbotron over the table and a raised platform where fans could watch both the featured table and the secondary TV table. Fans were pretty close to the action, with about 10 feet separating the front row and poker table. And the board was easy to read on the giant jumbotron.

The new featured TV table from Poker PROductions looked more like a poker arena. In the middle of the arena -- a good distance away from the actual seats -- was the featured TV table. The arena had comfortable chairs and good sight lines. The extra space between the stands and the table gave television crews and cameras plenty of room to work. But it made it hard to watch the game if you were sitting in the arena.

The jumbotron was replaced by a series of smaller, flat-panel monitors, making it more difficult to see the cards being dealt on the flop, turn and river. In order for players to interact with their fans, they had to make the conscious effort to walk over to their rail. And unless they were prompted by cameramen, applause was almost nonexistent.

In essence, a gorgeous televised set had been created. I'm sure the poker will look great on television. But "live," it lacked intimacy. And it made watching poker really boring.

9. Depth among women improved
Times are changing for women in the Main Event. A few years ago, the only women who could be expected to make a deep run at the Main Event were Annie Duke, Cyndy Violette, Jen Harman and Kathy Liebert. That was the list. Now, it's expected that a woman will make a fairly deep run. And it's expected that the woman who makes the deep run won't be a household name. The fact that this is happening regularly speaks to the depth of the women's game. There are more and more women out there capable of making a deep run. This year's last woman standing, Erika Moutinho, outlasted her online poker pro boyfriend David "Doc" Sands and finished 29th. And for a while, it looked like 76th-place finisher Claudia Crawford was positioning herself for a final-table run.

8. Phil Hellmuth is really good
It's sometimes very easy to forget just how good Phil Hellmuth is. In this year's Casino City WSOP fantasy draft, Aaron Todd and Dan Igo didn't even have him on their draft boards. When discussions about the best poker players in the world spring up, Hellmuth is often dismissed as a Hold'em specialist. Yet this summer he finished second in three non-Hold'em events -- the $50,000 Poker Player's Championship, the $10,000 Seven Card Stud High-Low Championship and the $10,000 2-7 Draw Lowball Championship. And after he forgot which Day 2 he was playing in at the Main Event, he managed to rescue a stack that had been blinded off to fewer than 7,000 in chips and fight his way to the money bubble. It takes an incredible amount of skill to accomplish what Hellmuth did this summer, and it's time people started giving him credit for it.

7. Bad summer for Team Full Tilt
Right now, Team Full Tilt is wishing 2011 was just a nightmare. On April 15, Full Tilt CEO Raymond Bitar was indicted by the Department of Justice on money laundering and wire fraud charges related to the operations of Full Tilt Poker. The DOJ also froze Full Tilt bank accounts, and the company withdrew from the U.S. market. But Full Tilt hasn't returned money owed American players and the online poker room was getting killed by players at the WSOP for failing to return player funds. And as if getting killed for not refunding money weren't punishment enough, Team Full Tilt pros struggled on the felt. Howard Lederer elected not to play any WSOP events. Phil Ivey skipped the tournament as well, as did Chris Ferguson. Erick Lindgren, who won $196,174 for finishing 43rd in the Main Event (and close to $27,000 in two other events), wasn't sure if he finished even for the Series. Erik Seidel cashed five times for around $66,000. Andy Bloch cashed once for $5,561. Mike Matusow cashed three times for about $31,000. And this was just the tip of the iceberg for Team Full Tilt. The only bright spot came from John Juanda, who beat Phil Hellmuth to win the $10,000 2-7 Draw Lowball Championship.

6. The WSOP is in good shape
After the Black Friday online poker indictments, there were several doom and gloom predictions of Main Event field sizes dipping to below 5,000. The assumption was that if the WSOP "feeder system" were broken, there would be no way for many players to access the tournament. The doom and gloom predictions were wrong. The WSOP Main Event drew 6,865 players -- just a few hundred short of last year's 7,319 players. The Main Even't strong show speaks to both the tournament's resilience and the new generation of poker professionals online poker has created.

5. Good summer for "live" poker on TV
While the new TV tables have reduced the atmosphere in the Amazon Room at the Rio, they have helped in delivering impressive "almost live" coverage of the Main Event. In a new twist to Main Event coverage, Poker PROductions has produced well-received, plausibly live coverage, complete with top poker players serving as color analysts. The action from the felt was on a five-minute delay on ESPN3 (essentially live streaming over the Internet) with no hole cards being shown. And it was on a 30-minute delay on ESPN and ESPN2 with hole cards being shown after the flop. Players and hard-core poker fans really enjoyed the coverage. According to ESPN, ratings were up "double digits" compared to the same time periods in 2010. The biggest ratings gains came in the 1-5 a.m. time slots on ESPN2, which saw a 136% increase. In prime time, ESPN2 saw "a 0.4 rating, 401,000 households and 504,000 viewers." ESPN's lone prime-time broadcast had a "0.5 rating, 543,000 households and 646,000 viewers." The late-night time slots had "a 0.3 household coverage rating over six telecasts."

If you're looking for another point of comparison, try the Women's World Cup. This year's final between the U.S. and Japan drew a 7.4 rating (that's 8.58 million households and 13.458 million people).

Makes you wonder what they were showing in those time slots last year, doesn't it?

4. Aggressive play here to stay
Players at the Main Event begin the tournament with 30,000 in chips -- which is three times the buy-in. The tournament's structure is set up to give poker pros room to play. That's why it is odd to see people flying out of the tournament at rates as high as 2.5 players per minute some days. In fact, the first elimination in this year's event came minutes into Day 1A action, when somebody's pocket kings couldn't crack another player's pocket aces. Does nobody see a flop anymore? Three-betting, four-betting and five-betting have been the norm at this year's Main Event. I just don't get it. In a tournament designed to give players room to work, everyone is in a hurry to get into a coin flip. If tournament officials had kept playing five levels a day (instead of switching to four) after the Day 1s had ended, the November Nine might have been decided a few days earlier. These chips don't seem to have any value for a lot of these players, and that just seems odd.

3. It's a young man's game
Peter Eastgate was 22 when he won the Main Event in 2008. Joe Cada was an even younger 21 when he won in 2009. Jonathan Duhamel was 23 when won in 2010. And this year's November Nine (like last year's) features just two players over the age of 26. For decades, poker was a game where grizzled veterans dominated younger players. Now it's the young players who are on top.

2. The Europeans are coming
Five players from this year's final table, including chip leaders Martin Staszko and Eoghan O'Dea, are from Europe. Europeans claimed 12 bracelets at this year's WSOP, including four by French players. The Netherlands recorded 65 cashes, no bracelet winners, and still earned $1.188 million. Italian players had 84 cashes, no bracelets and earned $1.741 million. And guess what? The Europeans get to continue playing in a licensed and regulated online poker environment, while American players are waiting for legislation to pass. The Europeans are coming.

1. Poker momentum is real
Momentum is something usually attributed to other games and sports. Teams go on winning streaks. Players gain momentum by hitting a few shots in a row, and suddenly, they're unstoppable. Given the field sizes and the variance of poker, it seems unlikely that momentum would play that big a roll. But the last three years have proven otherwise. In 2009, Phil Ivey parlayed a strong summer of WSOP play (two firsts, an eighth, an 18th and a 44th) into a seventh-place finish at the Main Event. Last year, Michael Mizrachi finished fifth in the Main Event after winning the $50k Player's Championship and finishing sixth, eighth and 26th in three other events.

This year, it was Ben Lamb riding a massive wave of momentum into the Main Event. Lamb won the $10,000 Pot-Limit Omaha championship, finished second in the $3,000 Pot-Limit Omaha event, finished eighth in the $50k Poker Player's Championship, finished fifth in the $1,500 PLO8 event, finished 11th in the $1,500 Limit Hold'em event and finished 12th in the $10,000 Six-Handed No-Limit Hold'em championship. If Lamb wins the Main Event, this could be the greatest single Series by one player.

The last three years are proof that poker momentum is real. Of course, Erik Seidel was the hottest player on the planet entering the WSOP and he only cashed five times for about $65,000. So perhaps it's not poker momentum that's key, but WSOP momentum.
Vin's top-10 WSOP Main Event (mostly) observations is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.