Last woman standing
It's a personal thing for me to write about Tiffany Michelle. We first met when I was working with Bluff Media at the 2006 World Series of Poker, and I can still remember the introduction.
"Bombshell Poker got in touch because they heard I was a cute chick who played poker," she recalled after the conclusion of Day 6 of the 2008 WSOP main event. "Through them, I came to WSOP in '06 to do Bluff Radio."
That year, we sat side by side for the duration of the WSOP, which led to a friendship that has forced me to chastise drooling friends on more than one occasion.
Michelle has become a little sister to the poker world. After her stint at Bluff, she moved on to PokerNews.com, where she has served as an on-camera personality from the 2007 WSOP to the present. She worked in that same function this year in the days leading up to the main event. This time around, though, she wasn't content to watch from the sideline. She's making her first $10,000 buy-in tournament count in a way that will change her life forever.
Michelle's run wasn't an easy one, but she managed to make it through quite a bit.
"On Days 1 through 3, I fought," she said. "I was exhausted because I just had to work and work and play short-stacked. I was never in a comfortable spot. I had to grind and wait and wait. The last two days have been great, though, because I'm making more money, the tables have been good and I'm getting more chips.
"Everything went good. My first table today was the first I've had so far where I felt like, wow, the players are getting really good. I was a little worried, but then, the feature table I was at was pretty easy. It was a weird day. I'm just coasting, coasting, coasting. I've never had to get my chips all-in. I never ran bad, never had any bad swings. I'm expecting the bad beats, but they aren't coming."
Apparently, it's been an easy transition for her, despite some of the reactions from a professional community accustomed to her asking the questions instead of answering them.
"I've had a couple of people who were shocked to hear I played," she said. "They don't realize I got the job because I knew how to play. I think the on-camera work has taught me what not to do. You hear about the bad beats and the mistakes, big drops in chips and knockouts. In '06, being on radio, hearing the pros talk poker started putting buzz in my ear, but most of my experience has come from playing."
"She's become a real serious part of the poker culture," said John Caldwell, editor-in-chief of PokerNews.com. "It's her personality. She gets along really well with the players and is just an engaging person. Her experience with Bluff meant she knew a little about the circuit, but it was her comfort on camera that drew us to her. She's become a very real part of the poker culture."
Caldwell is among those who believe Michelle's ascendance in this year's main event -- she stood third in chips with 27 players remaining heading into the seventh day of play, but busted in 17th place.
Still, many believe her performance can really spark the industry.
"This is exactly what poker needs: an attractive woman -- even further -- a woman who understands media and sound bites and what being a public persona in the modern world is like," Caldwell said. "It can't be overestimated. It turns over a whole new leaf, creates a new dynamic. I don't know if it will draw women into the game, but it creates a true media celebrity who's not a male for this game."
Bluff Media co-owner Eric Morris, another of Michelle's former employers, also believes her success will have a profound impact on the game.
"I think it would actually bring a lot more women into poker," he said. "They'd see a normal girl winning it and ask, 'Why not me?' It would bring a younger audience into the game along with more women."
WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack agreed: "[Tiffany's performance] will absolutely broadcast to women everywhere that poker is a terrific game and the WSOP is a special event worthy of their consideration. Women in poker are very important to us. We've said all along that poker needs to better represent and reflect America and the world. We'd like to see more women play."
The high praise is a reflection of the personality involved. The affection for Michelle is virtually universal.
"She's just a great person," close friend Jeff Madsen said. "She's fun to be around, just warms up a room. She never says bad things about people. She's honest, she's interesting and she's a really good story. I'm glad she's doing this well."
"I love Tiffany, everyone does," Justin Bonomo said matter-of-factly. "She's just a cool, down-to-earth person. There's no bull to her. I'd bet she's the most attractive person left in the field, also."
Maria Ho, last year's last woman standing, has been supporting Michelle over the past few days of play.
"She's a good person," Ho said. "I feel like I have a good read on people, and from the first time I met her, I've felt like she's had this positive vibe, someone you can talk to about anything. She's just so much fun to be around and a really great person."
Ho is especially pleased to be handing off her queen's scepter to Michelle: "If it's not going to be me, I want it to be someone who's young, who's attractive and who will bring people in the door. Someone like Tiffany."
Michelle has been waiting for this her whole life. As an actress and musician, the bigger the stage, the more natural it is to her.
"Cameras?" Michelle questioned. "Whatever! If nothing else, it's fun to have the audience. I realized today that there were four cameras on me and none on anyone else. I guess I'm a story. That's really surreal."
With the eliminations of Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow on Day 6, she was the biggest story left heading into the final day of play until November.
"Coming to this feature table, she'd been in the room a hundred times, but when she got here and looked around and realized that she was the reason they were featured, that's the moment when she thought, 'Oh, it's here,'" said constant companion "Hollywood" Dave Stann. "She realized she's in the spotlight now. Everything's going her way."
Michelle isn't just the little sister anymore. This is the moment of her ascendance, both as poker player and poker star, and it's one that might signal a change in poker's direction. Michelle will still be that same young woman I worked with two years ago, except she'll be at the top of the poker world.
Gary Wise will cover the WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.