When players returned from the dinner break on Saturday night to play one more level on Day 5 of the 2008 World Series of Poker main event, a TV producer's greatest dream scenario took shape.
The seat to Mike Matusow's left had been vacated by a classic return-from-dinner-break elimination (players often tend to overplay hands after the pause in play); meanwhile, Phil Hellmuth's table broke. Hellmuth was moved to the vacant chair, and suddenly the audience was treated to 90 consecutive minutes of double-streamed audio, courtesy of best friends Phil and The Mouth.
Televised poker combines elements of competition and entertainment, and these are two of the men who have best exemplified that duality. Both are good enough to earn their shining moments, and both are charismatic enough to keep the cameras' attention. It's the kind of charisma that can be exploited in the best possible way on poker's biggest stage.
Once Hellmuth and Matusow were reunited, The Mouth was the loudest at the table. The resulting monologue was the equivalent of 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters: Given enough time, Matusow was bound to say some funny stuff. A few of the gems:
" "I haven't put one bad chip in for I don't know how many years."
" "I just came out to hang with my buddy Phil. He just got here, and already I have to hear how great he is. Another hour and a half I have to hear this."
" With 90 players remaining: "There are probably 60 morons left."
" "I'd say there's an 80-20 chance I knock Phil out."
" "You're talking about Phil Hellmuth, the greatest player who ever lived."
It was classic Matusow: biting sarcasm backed up by utter fearlessness and what, up to this point, has been some excellent play. Matusow has fought back from being the short stack to $1,169,000 (the average stack going into Day 6 was $1,732,658) and he has only begun to fight.
"It means nothing right now," Matusow said as the day wound down. "I'm playing the best poker of my life. I have for the seventh time this tournament the toughest table draw. Out of all 6,800-some players who entered, I've played with one player who's played bad. It's amazing. People laugh; they say it's not possible, but it's true. I'm grinding. I've picked up one pot all day. I'm surviving somehow -- I don't know how -- probably because I'm playing perfect. Somehow, if I could get off this table miraculously with like $750,000 and get to tomorrow and draw somewhere where people are putting it all-in, people like that nut ball Brandon Cantu, people who put their money all-in with nothing, they might double me up and give me a shot.
"The final table is so far away, but if I get like 100 big blinds in front of me, then I might have a shot. You know me, though; I'm taking them one hand at a time, one hour at a time. It would mean a lot of money."
$9,119,517, to be exact. That's a lot of reasons to try to prevail over the next two days -- as if fame, endorsement dollars and the bracelet aren't enough.
Unfortunately, there won't be another Hellmuth/Matusow feature table reunion in 2008. Hellmuth was eliminated at the end of the second level of play on Sunday, leaving Matusow as the biggest name left in the field of 44, and shattering our dream of seeing the two stars at the final table.
" Here's a few of the other names you'll want to know as Day 6 unfolds:
Tiffany Michelle -- A two-year veteran of the industry side of poker, Michele has served as an on-camera presenter for a number of poker outlets, including Bluff Media and Poker News. Playing in her first $10,000 event, she's one of two women left (the other is short-stacked Lisa Parsons).
Chino Rheem -- This is just the latest in a string of high-profile successes for Rheem, a Miami, Fla., resident. He followed up a cash in the 2005 main event with a second-place finish in a $1,500 buy-in event at the WSOP in 2006. This year, he finished fifth in the WSOP's $5,000 mixed hold 'em event, good for $93,624.
David Benefield -- "Raptor" is one of the best online players on the planet and is proving to have made a flawless transition to the live game. He's received a remarkable amount of support from the online community. "It seems like everyone online is rooting for me," he said. "I've been getting a lot of messages online and text messages from back home, just lots of support. I appreciate that from everybody. I'm feeling great."
Brandon Cantu -- Cantu won his one WSOP bracelet in 2006, then proved it was no fluke with a win at the 2008 Bay 101 Shooting Star, taking a $1,000,000 first prize. Cantu survived what he described as a rough day of questionable play.
Kido Pham -- With a résumé that boasts three World Poker Tour final tables, you'd think Pham would be more of a known commodity. "Honestly, there's a lot of good poker players out there," he said. "If they don't give me respect, it's fine. I mean, I enjoy the game and I try to make more money. I need to make the final table if I want respect. Top 100 doesn't mean anything."
Phi Nguyen -- Aside from Hellmuth and Matusow, Nguyen is one of three remaining multiple-bracelet winners in the field. Both his 2003 and 2004 bracelets came in no-limit hold 'em formats.
Adam Levy -- "Roothlus" was assured of his fifth cash of the 2008 WSOP when the bubble broke, representing his most successful stretch of live tournament play. "I think online players get a bad rap, but they also don't give respect to a lot of live players," he said. "You need some live experience. You just need to know certain things. I went 0-for-17 in 2006. I didn't really know much about live play."
" Here are some players who were eliminated early on Day 6 and their thoughts on their performances through Day 5:
Victor Ramdin -- The fun-loving native of Guyana and the 2006 WPT Foxwoods Poker Classic champion had a rough end to his Day 5, but it didn't dim his smile or his hopes. "I need to win a million dollars -- that's what it will cost to get all those heart surgeries [referring to his long-running efforts to get Guyanese children needed medical assistance]. In my country, we have 65 to 70 kids who need surgeries. If I win that money, those kids will be so happy."
Matt Matros -- This is Matros' fifth cash of the 2008 WSOP. The author of "The Making of a Poker Player," Matros is keeping any potential excitement in check. "It seems like we're really deep, but there's still a long, long way to go before we get anywhere near the final table where the big money is. It's really just bear down, focus and get chips any way you can at this point."
Alex Outhred -- A former member of the WPT production team, Outhred is now an instructor for the WSOP Academy. "I absolutely love teaching and working with people. I usually play my best poker right after camp, and we had a camp before the main event and here I am."
Thomas Keller -- Keller went into Day 6 in 79th place out of 79 remaining. The 2004 bracelet winner still has dreams of making the final table, though. "This would be huge. I think that at first, I was kind of against the November changes, but now I think it's going to be really good for poker. I think it's going to be a lot of excitement and attention, and for any player fortunate enough to make the final table, it's going to be good for them. It would be awesome for me."
Jeremy Joseph -- The chip leader at the start of both Day 4 and Day 5, the 23-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., resident dipped to barely more than $500,000 chips at one point on Day 4 before rebounding nicely. He entered Day 6 ninth in the standings.
" As Day 5 came to a close, Hellmuth lost control after being shown a bluff by Christian Dragomir. Phil's resulting diatribe included the words, "Listen, buddy, you're an idiot! This is the main event and you are the worst player in history!"
It was the kind of moment that reminds us of why so many viewers love to hate Phil, and why we'd all love to hate him again on Nov. 11. For him, for Matusow and for the 77 other players remaining, they just want to be there when that day comes.
Gary Wise will cover the WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.