Better than Chick-Fil-A
There's always at least a dozen storylines the media is watching at the beginning of any given World Series of Poker. The all-time bracelet race, new formatting developments and the best without a bracelet are the stories we know will make a connection with everyone following. We look at these stories before those that develop through actual play assert themselves.
Each year, one focal point is the emergence of the rookie class. Online play -- with its allowances for younger players than American laws permit -- prepares us years in advance for the generations of players making their Las Vegas debuts. Next year's WSOP will bring us names like Ozzy Sheikh, "ActionJeff" Garza and Adam Junglen. In 2010, we'll finally see Annette Obrestad on this side of the ocean.
WSOP rookies usually come in with a certain swagger. It's hardly surprising: They're too young to know better, are accustomed to the hype attached to their names and are buoyed by the success that's made them worth noting in the first place. That swagger was abundant in this year's debut crew. The 2008 rookie class was a strong one. It featured perhaps the most anticipated debut of the modern era, that of high stakes monster Tom "Durrrr" Dwan, who almost disappointed by 'only' managing two eighth place finishes. In addition to Dwan, notable 21-year olds finally allowed their WSOP freedom included 2007 Aussie Millions second-place finisher Jimmy Fricke, three-time World Poker Tour money finisher Andrew "Good2cu" Robl and Mike Sowers. The names and attitudes were loud and strong and they obfuscated one player who should have received a little more attention. That just forced Jeff Williams to get noticed for his play.
This Tuesday, Williams will be appearing on his first American tournament broadcast, as he marches towards potential victory in Event No. 5 -- $1,000 no-limit hold 'em with rebuys -- but he's no stranger to the lights and cameras of poker's biggest stages. Two years ago, Williams won the European Poker Tour's 2006 Grand Final in Monte Carlo - the single biggest tournament in the world not held on American soil.
"Winning 900,000 Euros was unreal," said Williams, with the aw-shucks approachability that makes him easy to root for. "It didn't make any sense at the time. My parents flew out for the final table to help me adjust. They helped me move the money around and invest it. I put it all away. My lifestyle hasn't changed very much."
Well, except for the absence of Chick Fil-A in his life. Williams worked at the fast food chain before he started his march toward the EPT victory.
"I started playing poker by messing around with friends," Williams said. "We played for change and the buy-ins started rising and we were playing for like $20 cash at the high point. That was in high school. In senior year of high school I finally deposited online after doing pretty good in the home games. I quit my job and promptly lost that money. I kept making deposits on different sites. Then I went to college and that's when my poker started taking off."
"I chopped a $10 rebuy after I got to school and won $5,000," said the University of Georgia senior. "Man, was that life-changing money. So now, I had a little money online. One Saturday, I had nothing going on, so I played a $10 rebuy satellite. I won that to qualify for a $600 satellite for the EPT Championship at Monte Carlo. I won a seat and then won Monte Carlo. That's the story."
He says it like the luckiest kid in the world, but his record suggests there's more to it. Now playing pot-limit Omaha in cash games and no-limit tournaments online, Williams has savvy transcending his age. That experience has provided Williams with a steady sense of confidence heading into the final table of Event 5.
"Every final table at the series is going to be tough," Williams admitted. "I knew a lot of the guys at the table from playing online. I felt confident about it because I had the final table experience and have played a lot of tournaments online. I guess I was a little nervous to be on TV, but at the same time I was pretty excited."
Getting to the final table -- while half the battle -- was apparently the easy part.
"I won a huge coin flip pretty early with the blinds at $200/$400, got up to $40,000 and was never all-in again before the final table," Williams said. "I just ran really well the second day. I won all of my coin flips, got my chips in the middle in a couple of good spots, so it was really a pretty easy tournament. I never really had to work for that seat at the final table."
"This was my first live tournament experience in the States," he noted. "I went to a couple of live tournaments around the world: EPT London, the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure in Bahamas a couple of times. I turned 21 right after the WSOP ended last year, so I planned all year to play this time. WSOP has always been the big one, so all my friends always talk about it. It's definitely the biggest stage in poker, so doing well there means a lot. It's a huge deal."
Tuesday night on ESPN we'll see just how successful a rookie campaign the 2008 World Series of Poker turned out to be. Regardless of his result, Williams knows one thing for certain: "It beats working at Chick Fil-A."
Event 5 airs on Tuesday, Aug. 12, from 8-10 p.m. Complete TV information.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his poker observations in his blog here.