Two for the money
Editor's note: Consider this your warning. The information below will reveal the final two players at the World Series of Poker main event. If you would like to find out who these players are, keep reading. If not, the show will air Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. OK? Ready to find out who is left standing?
We know this much about poker's next world champion: He's young and hails from overseas. He's an online player who didn't need the World Series of Poker to make his living from the game. He's sponsored by PokerStars. He's a straight talker and loves the game. We just don't know who he is.
In the early hours of Monday morning, the most anticipated final table in poker's history completed the run from nine players down to two. After 117 days, the November Nine finally got to do what they'd been waiting for: play poker. Seven went home with inflated bankrolls and crushed dreams.
"I put my heart into this," said seventh-place finisher Chino Rheem. "Now, my heart is broken."
Sad sentiments from a man who had just taken home $1,772,650.
Such is the pressure and passion these players play with in poker's ultimate tournament. Now, with the World Series of Poker bracelet, the title of world champion and a difference of more than $3.3 million between first and second place all on the line, only Peter Eastgate, 22, and Ivan Demidov, 27, still stand. While they wait, the trumpets play.
Demidov and Eastgate were the featured performers as the press conference hailing their coming heads-up match unfolded at the Rio. Harrah's Nolan Dalla, decked out in a tux and with microphone in hand, let his booming voice go no-holds-barred as he announced the two quiet survivors. Arm-in-arm with jubilee girls, each man descended the stairs, looking a little unfamiliar with all the attention. These are two young men who are willing to play the bigger game, but are far more comfortable playing the one with flushes and full houses.
Along those lines, Demidov and Eastgate have so much in common. Both were awkward in the early stages of the interview process, going though growing pains to become so much more than just poker players. They both have earned the respect of the live and the online poker communities, a difficult thing to do.
There are little differences. Demidov has more live experience, while Eastgate is more accustomed to heads-up play -- so that's a wash in tonight's final. Demidov is the more experienced tournament player, while Eastgate holds an edge in chips, $79.5 million to $57.725 million. At this point, it really is anyone's ballgame. Either will make for a suitable champion.
Eastgate's obvious story line is the threatening of a 19-year old record for youngest main event champion, held by perhaps the most famous poker professional in the world. In 1989, a 24-year-old Phil Hellmuth defeated two-time defending champion Johnny Chan to win the championship, setting into motion a career that would change the face of the game.
"It's a record that I didn't think would fall for a long time," said Hellmuth, who sat front-row center throughout last night's proceedings. "In order for someone to win the main event and be under the age of 25, usually they just wouldn't have enough experience and they'd be too reckless. They usually lack the patience. Peter impressed me. I was sitting right there and he was playing excellent poker. If he happens to win it, I think it's great for poker."
Eastgate is from Denmark, a nation with a well-established community, while Demidov hails from Russia, one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. Demidov's nationality provides a major story line for this final.
"Considering how big [fellow Russian] Alex Kravchenko's [fourth-place] finish was last year, it's going to affect the Russian market a lot," said Demidov, taking in the whole scene with amusement. "Last year, we had 10 players maximum traveling to the WSOP. This year we had 50-plus in the main event, because last year's performances showed the people they could make money and find the dream."
It seems like the tip of a very tall iceberg for a nation steeped in strategy-game tradition.
"Look what it did for Australia, with Joe Hachem," said one industry insider of how Hachem's 2005 main event victory caused poker's cultural explosion in the land Down Under. "There's a tremendous amount of national pride that comes from that kind of victory in a game. I think that pride inspires people to play, especially in a country like Russia where chess has always provided a part of their national identity."
Eastgate comes across as the hungrier of the two. Demidov has already made his history. After making this final table, he followed it up with a third-place finish at WSOP Europe, making him the first player to pair the feats. Those results can't help but impress the best players in the world.
"Ivan surprises me because he comes from online, and while online players are usually good at certain aspects, he's also a people-reader," said Daniel Negreanu, who shared that European final table with Demidov. "He knows when someone's weak, makes big bets; he's tough and he plays like a veteran."
"I was rooting for good players," Negreanu continued. "I feel like these two were the cream of the crop. I think it's good for poker for the good players to win. Cinderella stories are great, but they're boring when they're the norm."
In a year dubbed the "Year of the Pro," there's little doubt these last two standing fit the definition.
"From the players at the final table, I'd have chosen him as champion if I couldn't win it," said Demidov of his new friend. "In all of my interviews, I said he had the best chance to win. He would be a great champion. He's a strong player. If he wins, I think he'll be the strongest main event winner in the last few years for sure."
"Ivan was definitely my easiest competition at the final table," Eastgate joked. "We'll definitely share a bond after this. We're friends. He's a very cool guy."
As he said this, he looked over to see Demidov hopping in a circle in pain after having his foot stepped upon. Cool? Yes. Not too cool for school, though.
"Ivan would be a good ambassador," Peter admitted, a more serious expression on his face. "He loves the game, plays live tournaments, would travel the circuit and is an honest guy. His ambassadorship would be a sincere one. He'd be a good guy for the job."
That admiration though, comes second to the competition. There's a lot of money at stake: The winner will reap not only the extra $3.3 million, but also the ensuing massive endorsement deals. It's enough to remind Eastgate that now is not the time for weakness.
"I feel excellent," said Eastgate, with fire in his eyes and the scent of the championship in his nostrils. "There's still a lot of money on the line, but I feel good. Even though we became friends, through it all, we were enemies. Beating Ivan is what poker's about."
Demidov, perhaps because of his shorter stack, perhaps because of the $5.8 million he is already guaranteed, seems a little more prone to the sentimentality that friendship inspires. "I hope we'll share a bond," Ivan reflected. "I've really enjoyed traveling with him, doing the media stuff with him. He's the guy I like the most from the group."
Now, he'll have to put those feelings aside for the biggest night of both of their lives. When all is said and done, we'll have our champion.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.
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