After several years in which the WSOP was filled with no-name victories and flaws, this year has been different. This time around, the focus has been squarely on the pros as a result of improved structures and perhaps the inevitable adjustments of the old guard to the new guard's uber-aggression.
It seems as if on each day, new stories emerge with familiar faces accompanying them. You've already read about Nenad Medic, David Singer, Erick Lindgren, Mike Matusow and Daniel Negreanu. Today and tomorrow, we'll get caught up on some of the other big stories going on here in Vegas. Today, we'll talk about big-name pros and big-time wins.
When televised poker first became vogue, Barry Greenstein was seldom found in the tournament arena. One of the mainstays in "The Big Game," Greenstein had a cash-game success that was so pronounced, he was donating all of his tournament winnings to charity. Though things have changed for Greenstein, he served notice this week that he's still one of the best players in the world.
After being deprived a rightful victory in the Matusow-won Event No. 18, "The Bear" rebounded to score a dominant victory in Event No. 26 ($1,500 razz). He toppled a final table that momentarily featured legendary gambler Archie Karas, then he repeatedly forced second-place finisher Chris Klodnicki all-in before finally finishing the New Jersey native. Greenstein didn't get much of a chance to enjoy the win, as he hurried over to Event No. 30 ($10,000 limit hold 'em), where his stack was being blinded off thanks to the surprisingly long heads-up portion of his win.
For years, Kenny Tran's name was whispered among those of the elite cash-game players, and for years he showed his mettle by sacrificing the glory of potential bracelets for juicier cash-game windfalls. Last year, however, that all changed. Deep runs in the $50,000 HORSE event and the main event made him a familiar figure in an awful hurry, but he was still without that first bracelet coming into this year. That changed on the same night as Greenstein's victory.
Event No. 25 ($10,000 world championship heads-up no-limit hold 'em) saw 256 of the best players in the world sign up for an eight-round single-elimination heads-up tournament that saw the cream rise to the top. Among others, Tran had to defeat Erick Lindgren, close friend Brandon Adams and runner-up Alec "Traheho" Torelli. The last of those wins came in consecutive legs to start the best-two-of-three finale. The win netted Tran $539,040.
A year ago, Vanessa Selbst announced her presence as a tournament force by notching two single-digit finishes -- an eighth-place finish in the ladies event and a third-place finish in the WSOP heads-up world championship (in which she ended Paul Wasicka's amazing 13-match win streak in major tournament heads-up play). This year, she took her success a step further.
Selbst, less than a month shy of her 24th birthday, became the first woman to win an open-event bracelet since Annette Obrestad's WSOP Europe victory. She absolutely crushed Event No. 19 ($1,500 pot-limit Omaha), leading from start to finish with a dominant stack throughout. She followed up the $227,965 victory with a final-four appearance in the same event No. 25 won by Tran.
When the final table of Event No. 24 ($2,500 pot-limit hold 'em/Omaha) began, "The Italian Pirate" Max Pescatori was an afterthought. Allen Cunningham, he of the Norman Chad adoration who has won bracelets the past three years and owns a list of accolades that's a mile long, was among the chip leaders. It was all Cunningham all the time, but a funny thing happened on the way to the bracelet.
While Cunningham faltered, Pescatori thrived. He did major damage to Cunningham's stack, then sat second in chips when the 2005 WSOP Player of the Year went out in fourth. Young Kyle Kloeckner had taken what remained of Cunningham's stack and the chip lead, but he was no match for Pescatori. Pescatori, who was late for what would be his first bracelet win in 2006, did it right this time around to the tune of $246,471.
If this has been the year of the live pro, Phil Galfond has been the exception to the rule. Spending the majority of his table time online, "OMGClayAiken" has made forays into the real world, but never with the kind of impact he had in Event No. 28 ($5,000 pot-limit Omaha) with rebuys.
Although Galfond was the chip leader, he was an afterthought at a remarkably accomplished final table that included the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Daniel Negreanu, John Juanda and David Benyamine. When the dust settled, the marquee names were gone, and Galfond took the gold and $817,781. Galfond gave credit for the win to both Tom "Durrrr" Dwan and poker coach Tommy Angelo. Score one for the ESPN Online Poker Think Tank.
John Phan may be best known for what he's not best known. The Vietnamese-born Phan, who has had many bracelet near-misses (two runner-up finishes in WSOP events), finally ended his drought when he won his first bracelet in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Phan's win in Event No. 29 ($3,000 no-limit hold 'em) came after a marathon heads-up match against 22-year old American Johnny Neckar. Surviving another deep run by David Singer, the two squared off for over six hours in one of the longest heads-up battles in WSOP history. The duel got desperate enough to get both players to agree to three consecutive hands in which they moved all-in without looking at their hands. Both survived the run, but not the day. Phan finally took the tournament, earning $434,789. Phan has pledged a portion of his earnings to help friends and family in Vietnam.
The past few years, the question in Holland has been, "Who will be the first?" No player in Dutch history had ever won a bracelet, a surprising fact given that the country has produced a number of strong professionals including Marcel Luske, Noah Boeken and Steve Wong.
Luske almost made history before he finished third in Event No. 22 ($3,000 HORSE), but his elimination left the door open for EPT winner and consummate professional Rob Hollink to finally be the one. Though Hollink's win in Event No. 30 ($10,000 limit) world championship was obviously a major personal achievement (he won just under a half-million), it may have meant even more to his country. What had been a major burden is no more, and with the pressure gone, the players of Holland may be ready to break out.
Gary Wise will cover WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.