Always a bridesmaid
It's sometimes amazing to realize the premium our culture puts on winning. In poker, success generally is measured by the bottom line, but with the knowledge that luck will play its part in determining winners and losers. If you get your money in when the time is right, only to get an unfortunate flop, it doesn't mean you've played the hand any worse. Why, then, is the winner of the final coin flip always remembered, while the loser is always forgotten?
The World Series of Poker has given us a number of remarkable runners-up. Johnny Moss finished second to Puggy Pearson in the main event in 1973. Doyle Brunson finished second to Stu Ungar in the main event of 1980. Johnny Chan finished second to Phil Hellmuth in 1989 after his 1988 victory made Erik Seidel a runner-up.
Each of those men is as remembered for his victories as he is for his defeats, though. They don't have to carry the burdens that men such as T.J. Cloutier, Crandell Addington and Dewey Tomko do. All of them finished runner-up in the main event twice without ever winning. Though they accumulated numerous accolades during their careers, they're likely best remembered for their second-place finishes.
Andy Bloch knows the feeling.
Bloch is one of poker's good guys. His story now borders on fable: He was a member of MIT's blackjack team, a graduate of Harvard Law and one of the original poster boys for Full Tilt Poker.
"He's obviously a very intelligent guy," said Mike Sexton, who commentated both of Bloch's early World Poker Tour final tables and recently shared a table with him during Event 1 of the WSOP. "He may be the most intelligent guy in the poker world. He could be successful in any endeavor he chose -- he just happened to choose poker."
Bloch, who has more than $2.8 million in winnings, has had his share of success. But it's hard to look at his career without noticing the glaring omission of that one big televised win every poker star needs to get over the hump with the viewers. He's been on the brink of that victory more than once, most notably with a runner-up finish to Chip Reese in the $50,000 HORSE event at the 2006 WSOP and more recently in the 2008 National Heads-Up Poker Championship. It's a void he looks at philosophically. His blackjack experience helps.
"In blackjack, winning or losing as a player wasn't as important as playing right, making sure you never make a mistake," Bloch said. "Making a mistake would still penalize you if you won a hand. I carried that forward to my poker playing. I try to look at where I played well, and not whether I won or lost. Obviously, it helps to win and it's a lot easier to be happy when you win, but even when you do, you have to look back and say that there were a few hands I could have played better.
How'd he do it? "There's always a feeling like, oh no, here we go again," he said about his repeated runner-up results. "I just put it out of my mind, just think that there's only a few players left, I still have plenty of time, I'm still close to the chip lead. I just had to wait for a good situation and draw on my experience and refocus on winning."
That ability to regroup was crucial at the beginning of the 2008 WSOP. Coming off the loss to Chris Ferguson on NBC and a semifinal loss in Full Tilt Poker's $25,000 heads-up championship just a week before, Bloch was still in the zone. He put up the $10,000 for Event No. 1 - $10,000, the pot-limit hold 'em world championship, and immediately stormed his way to the final table.
"There's definitely such a thing as seeing the ball better in poker," Bloch said. "In baseball, you guess where the pitcher is throwing the ball; in poker you're more reading an opponent and a situation. Throughout the tournament, I didn't feel like I had many tough decisions. There weren't many situations where I really wanted to know what my opponent had. You usually want to know if they have you beat, but I was feeling like I was reading situations well and making the right plays for the most part."
Bloch needed to have his best game to thrive at what ended up being one of the fiercest final-table rosters of the 2008 WSOP. He was joined by Patrik Antonius, Chris Bell, Phil Laak, Kathy Liebert, Amit Makhija, Nenad Medic, Sexton and Mike Sowers. I won't ruin the ending for you, but Bloch went deep again. So did Sexton.
Sexton and Bloch were two of four players at the final table who have million-dollar cashes on their résumés. Those four were the last four players standing.
"In the history of poker, I have to wonder if that's ever happened before," Sexton said. "That was pretty unique. I thought, 'If it's happened, we haven't seen it.'"
Bloch understood why the four lasted as long as they did. "I think the four of us were no strangers to final tables, so I don't think any of us were thinking about the money or the bracelet," he said of the four millionaires. The four of us probably played a more patient game than the other players. We had the chips and the experience and knew there would be plenty of opportunities that would jump out. That probably part of why we were the last four standing."
Bloch will watch Tuesday night, curious to see the hole cards and how he played in retrospect. For the rest of the viewers, there are questions to be answered and an epic roster of players from whom you'll glean the answers. Regardless of the outcome, Bloch is still one of the good guys of the game even if he stays a runner-up.
Event 1 airs on Tuesday, July 22 from 8-10 p.m. Complete TV information.
Gary Wise has covered the World Series of Poker for ESPN.com.
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