Boy Crowned King
In 1989, Johnny Chan was on top of the poker world, having won two consecutive world championships and vying for a third. In the World Series of Poker that year, Chan marched to the final, where he faced a brash, cocky 24-year-old named Phil Hellmuth.
Before Hellmuth shocked the world with his victory over the legend, he was approached by a reporter, who asked what he thought of playing against a great player like Chan. The story goes that the answer came, "Why don't you ask Chan what he thinks about playing against a great player like Hellmuth?"
A legend was born.
On Monday night, the path of a new legend began as 22-year-old Peter Eastgate, an online professional just four years into his poker odyssey, won the world championship of poker, the WSOP main event, breaking Hellmuth's record for youngest ever to do so. Eastgate won the most cherished prize in the game and the second-largest prize ever awarded in poker, taking home $9,152,416. He insists, though, that the money won't change him.
"It's not about the money," the champion said. "Money is only the opportunity to help yourself grow, become a more complete person. It shouldn't change who you are."
On top of the money, he became the first world champion to truly represent the next generation of online player, and he inspired immense national pride in his native Denmark.
"Poker's popularity in Denmark will definitely increase," said Gus Hansen, perhaps no longer the greatest Dane in poker. "It's been booming, but it's a small country, and when you have a guy like Peter winning maybe the biggest title in sports, beating the biggest field, it will get a lot of attention. His name will be household in Denmark."
"There are hundreds of thousands of people following this table, watching it intently," said Jesper Hougaard, who has won bracelets in both the USA and Europe this year. "In the last 12 months, Danish players have won everything worth winning; EPTs, WPTs, WSOP bracelets here and in Europe and now the world championship. I think everyone in Denmark knows Peter's name. I guarantee you almost every single workplace in Denmark had a radio tuned into the Internet broadcast. There will be celebrations in Copenhagen tonight."
"I hadn't thought about being the father to the country's most famous son yet," mused Eastgate's father, Robert. "I think there will be some hysteria back home. I'm very proud. At this stage in his life, it's just too much for us to fathom. It's a fantastic opportunity for him. Unbelievable. His whole future has changed from today onward."
That future will include his obvious endorsement of the November Nine experiment. Traditionalists cowered at the unveiling of a four-month break between WSOP main and the playing of the world championship final table, but for numerous reasons, drastic measures needed to be taken. The break would build up the excitement, the characters and the possibilities. The debate over whether the dispensing of tradition for increased interest would itself inspire interest. The lack of closure would cause the myriad possibilities to swirl in the minds of the viewing public. It would also be more fun to watch without knowing who won. On Monday, we finally got what we were waiting for. All of those days between July 14 and Nov. 10 accomplished the task. Lines to enter the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio reached out of the building, with direct supporters and general fans alike wanting to be a part of something historic. What they got may well be looked back upon as the completion of WSOP's goal to be the year-round apple of poker's eye.
The throngs of fans cheering constantly and jubilantly between silent hands provided the kind of backdrop televised poker's been looking for. They provided the kind of excitement level that will inspire others to attend in the future. It was more than just two great days of poker; it was a spectacle.
"I don't know what tonight represents for the future of poker, but what we did this weekend was unprecedented and exceeded our expectations," commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said of the event's conclusion. "This room was electric yesterday and today in a way that no final table has ever been electric. I think that has to do with the number of people in the room, but we couldn't have asked for a better final table than we had."
Indeed, the energy was palpable as some 1,500 spectators cheered and hushed at every turn of the cards. After Sunday's lead-up ensured what would be a record-length final table, the last two members of the November Nine standing put on a four-hour show that concluded in the crowning of a confident-yet-humble young man who is ready to carry poker's banner.
Throughout the wait, Eastgate kept his focus. While other members of the Nine became friends, he held them all at arm's length, knowing full well the competition that waited between them. In the final, he dismantled Ivan Demidov, riding a hot run of cards and at the same time completely outplaying the Russian, who popular consent suggested was more ready to be champion. Even in his victory, though, Eastgate refused to acknowledge what seemed to be his own superior play.
"Just because I won heads-up doesn't mean I'm a better player than Ivan," Eastgate reflected. "It just means I won the WSOP and it's good to be lucky."
It's a typically modest statement from a surprisingly eloquent young man who said a week ago that he was eager to fill the role of poker's representative to the world. Eastgate, who entered the heads-up final with the chip lead, quickly relinquished it to Demidov. He kept his cool and started chipping his way back on top, his superior experience in heads-up play asserting itself. Every Demidov bluff seemed to get called; every Eastgate win seemed capitalized by accurate value betting. There was little doubt that on this day, the better man won.
Today, poker has its new champion amid renewed interest in the televised game and renewed debate over the November Nine experiment. In the weeks that come, the boy king will settle into his throne, and feedback on the new WSOP will help to shape the 2009 edition.
"I'm relieved and disappointed that it's over because this is what we do," tournament director Jack Effel said. "We live and breathe it. I'll be excited to put together next year's event and see what we can do with the 2009 WSOP. We started that on July 15."
Proof that it's truly a year-round experience now. So, too, will be Eastgate's reign.
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.