The phrase “shuffle up and deal” never means quite so much in the world of poker as when it is uttered at the start of the World Series of Poker’s Main Event.
A year ago, it was robbed of much of its power by circumstance. But this week’s return to an all-live Main Event brought the pomp and potency of it rocketing back.
Main Event Mania
The exact phrasing for the event is the “$10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Main Event World Championship.” But calling it the Main Event is enough to immediately let the poker world know what you’re referencing.
This is the granddaddy of all poker tournaments that hasn’t lost any of its luster after more than a half-century of existence.
Their attempts to make everybody happy just seemed to make a high percentage of people upset.
2020 Main Event Confusion
For those who don’t recall, the entire 2020 World Series of Poker event was indefinitely postponed when casinos started to shut down in the spring. An online-only event was held in late summer. That included a Main Event, which WSOP officials at the time suggested would be the equivalent of live Main Events in the record books.
But when health and safety protocols were eased up a bit at the end of the year, the WSOP hustled and put together a pair of Main Events, one in the US and one international. They included online early-round play leading to live final tables and an overall winner in Damian Salas. He was crowned at the beginning of 2021 when play finally wrapped up.
At the time, the winner of the summer’s online Main Event, Stoyan Madanzhiev complained that the new event seemed to invalidate his title. That led to an online brouhaha about the competing Main Events. The whole affair soured the Main Event’s standing to a degree.
The WSOP organizers played it safe in 2021 and pushed the date back to the fall in the hopes that the health and safety issues that bedeviled the previous year would have eased. They also installed their own precautions in an effort to nip any problems in the bud.
That all lead to Thursday and the return of live Main Event play at the Rio in Las Vegas. Of course, the overall World Series of Poker has already been going on for a few weeks. The relatively smooth start to it all gave hope that the Main Event would be a ringing success as well.
How successful it will eventually be, remains an open question. We’ll know more once we know how many entered and ponied up the $10,000 buy-in to compete. But just in terms of general buzz, things are definitely looking up for the biggest part of the biggest event in the world of poker.
Doyle’s Grand Return
Doyle Brunson, the veteran who might be the most respected of all the poker veterans in the game, talked earlier this year about playing the World Series of Poker once again with the return to live play. That immediately lit up the poker world, as it was a sign that this year’s event was indeed going to draw the biggest names in the game.
Seeming like he was enjoying every minute of it, Brunson looked every bit the crafty veteran with moves that outpaced his younger foes. At the end of the session, his chip total doubled (and then some) from where it began. He ended the day sitting 41st overall.
Where Doyle Stands
That wasn’t anything to sneeze at, especially considering that there were 522 players who started out that particular flight. Of those, 176 players were eliminated. The chip leader after play on Day 1A was Mustapha Kanit, who ended with $363,500 (Brunson had 151,000 for some perspective.)
As an example of how dangerous it was out there on the first day, Argentina’s Damian Salas, the winner of the 2020 hybrid Main Event, was knocked out. Yet there was Brunson in the top quarter or so of everybody still out there. This was no mere ceremonial appearance in any way.
We’ll see if Brunson has a little more magic up his sleeve as he looks for potentially his 11th bracelet and his third Main Event title (he famously won back to back in 1976 and 1977). Even if he does nothing else, however, his presence has given this year’s Main Event a real jolt of old-school credibility.
It seems like this World Series of Poker has been dominated by Phil Hellmuth, in one way or another. On the good side, there’s the fact that Hellmuth has been dominant with his play. Five final tables and a bracelet win have been the positives, with a lot of the success coming in variants outside the range of Texas Hold’em.
On the other side of the coin, Hellmuth also made news for a poorly-received rant after he lost a key hand. This is the side of Phil that too often overshadows the play. In a year where we should be really just celebrating his skills, we also had to do some tsk-tsk-ing of his behavior.
Needless to say, his argument was in backing of his own position in that race.
Since 2004, there has been a Player of the Year Award in effect for the overall World Series of Poker. It is meant to praise the player who cumulatively does the best in the WSOP series of tournaments. And for all of Hellmuth’s achievements at the event, he has never captured POY honors.
Not that he hasn’t been close. Hellmuth finished second in 2006, 2011, and 2012, with the last of those near-misses a real heartbreaker. In that year, Hellmuth was out in front and could only lose if Greg Merson won the Main Event, which he did.
If you look at Hellmuth’s performance to this point in the WSOP in 2021, he certainly seems like the best overall performer with his aforementioned five final tables and a win. But that wasn’t the case if you looked at the POY standings, and Hellmuth wasn’t too thrilled about it.
As of this Friday, Hellmuth sat fourth. Jake Schwartz, who had also made five final tables, was the leader. Meanwhile, Anthony Zinno, a two-time bracelet winner already in the series, was third (with Kevin Gerhart sitting second.)
Hellmuth’s issue is that the point system is based on overall cashes, even if those cashes come far down the leaderboard. He believes that the system should instead be based on those performances that are more impactful, meaning final tables and wins.
He did this via a Twitter post which compared the performances of he and Schwartz at final tables to those of Shaun Deeb, who was high in the standings despite only a pair of final tables (and one win.) This might not have been the most artful way to bring this up, as it led to a clapback by Deeb.
Deeb’s point is that the better players should be rewarded for going out and competing in a lot of different events. As someone who has already won the Player of the Year at the WSOP once before (back in 2018), Deeb is certainly uniquely qualified to comment.
On the one hand, Deeb’s point makes some sense, as the ability to grind through a lot of events with consistently solid performances deserves recognition. The non-stop nature of the events of the World Series of Poker means that a lot of mental toughness and stamina is required.
In Defense of the Poker Brat
But on the other hand, Hellmuth is right in that a final table is something that people remember. A win is obviously even more memorable than that. Cash is nice, and it’s important for players in terms of making a living, but it doesn’t tip the needle much when it comes to the big picture of those observing the tourney.
In this case, we’re on Phil’s side in this argument. With the exception of maybe Zinno and his two wins, there is no way that anybody else in here has much of a case that they’ve made as much of an impact as the Brat in this year’s WSOP.
Maybe the WSOP Player of the Year scoring system should be adjusted in the future to a system that gives more weight to those who end up near the top of the events the most. There is no perfect system that will please everybody. But there should be an effort to better reflect how the performances are judged.
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