- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Editor's note: The poker world is mourning the passing of player/writer Lee Munzer. Our condolences to his friends and family.
When the World Series of Poker and Players Advisory Council chose to hold a $40,000 hold 'em event to launch the WSOP, the economy crashed, and it was decided that ESPN would not broadcast Event 49, the $50,000 HORSE, a nightmare began to unfold. With all questions about turnout in mind, Friday's Day 1 of the $50,000 HORSE found itself delayed when just over 30 players were registered by the time the tournament's noon start time reared its head. When registration closed, only 95 players had taken their seats.
The HORSE championship, commonly and unofficially referred to as "The players' championship," was created in 2006 with a no-limit hold 'em final table intended to make the tournament more relatable to the hold 'em-hungry viewing masses at home. During that first year, 143 players competed and the tournament was called a resounding success, but consensus cries suggested the final table didn't fit with the body of the tournament to that last day using a limit HORSE format. In each of the past two years, the event attracted 148 players while ratings for the event weren't uplifting. In the end, with a $40,000 hold 'em event already sating the viewer need for the highest of stakes, HORSE was deemed expendable as a TV product.
With the cameras absent this year, so too were the players. Sponsors weren't coming through and putting mediocre HORSE players into the event.
"If you have TV and you get 20 players who shouldn't otherwise play, it makes it rational for a lot of other people who are on the fence to play," said Brandon Adams, himself a strong HORSE player who opted to skip the event. "When the field is small, you're playing against the best in the world. As an average player in that field it doesn't make sense to play."
The pause that those players on the fence applied came as a result of a late entry policy that WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said needed serious examination.
"I think that [Friday] set off a little bit of a signal to us, to some of the players and to the Players Advisory Council that we need to have a little more discussion, debate and examination of our late registration policies, especially in regard to the 50K," admitted Pollack in the wake of the tournament's start. "I think we didn't have enough players to start on time because there weren't enough who'd registered and shown up. It was a combination of late registration and a predisposition for some folks to come late, and that's their right, but the net effect was we couldn't start on time. There were players who were there on time and kept waiting and that wasn't very fair to them. We want to start our events on time. It's a promise we make to all our guests and customers and we want to be able to fulfill that promise on every turn."
Other players had different reasons for staying away, but it was essentially a domino effect with no player taking the first step to the registration line to buy in.
"I was in L.A. the night before and was still planning on playing, but they had so few players and there was no value in it, so I opted not to play," said Mike Sexton.
Daniel Negreanu, a member of the PAC and the man often credited with the $50,000 HORSE's conception, wasn't feeling so diplomatic.
"One thing that was built into the event was the understanding that HORSE is a great game for players to play, but it does not translate to television," Negreanu said while waiting through the event's late start. "ESPN has to cover this event and the only way they'll do that is by making the final table no-limit hold 'em, which was the original format. It wouldn't be changing the format. It would be restoring the original format. We're going to do that next year if I have anything to do with it. If that happens, we'll see a lot more players sponsored by sites for the event. Why would they put them in this event? It's not televised. It needs to be on TV. This will be a prestigious field, but it would be better off with 140 players than 65."
While the field lacked such names as Phil Hellmuth, Sexton and even last year's runner-up Michael DeMichelle (who decided he had better places to spend his money), the storylines that will shape the final table are emerging after three days of play. Chip leader Vitaly Lunkin, the winner of Event 2, $40,000 no-limit hold 'em, is looking to sweep the mega-buy-in events. Third in chips is 2007 winner Freddy Deeb, who is looking to become the first $50,000 repeat winner. Erik "Erik123" Sagstrom and Gus Hansen are amongst those looking to win their first bracelets. With much more than just another bracelet on the line, Ville Wahlbeck is looking for his second bracelet and a shot at player of the year. No matter which of those stories ends up emerging though, one can't help but think the disappointing turnout will overshadow it.
Others were left with some choice words for ESPN and their actions this year.
"I'm disappointed with it not being televised," said Jeffrey Lisandro. "Celebrity tournaments are nice, but they're not necessarily doing the poker industry a service."
And while the tournament continues for two more days, everyone in Las Vegas is already looking forward to next year with hopes that the $50,000 HORSE can bounce back and become an event nobody would skip for any reason.
Year of the Multiple?
• I've fought hard to avoid using the phrase "Year of the Multiple." It's an unpleasant name with no flow and it hurts my eyes just to read it. That said, with the second bracelet win achieved by Greg Mueller on Sunday night, it's hard not to argue that the moniker fits.
In 2004, only Scott Fischman won twice. In 2005, Mark Seif was the lone two-time winner. 2006 saw both Bill Chen and Jeff Madsen score multiple wins, but in 2007 and 2008, only Tom Schneider and John Phan respectively managed the feat. In 2009, four players have managed multiple bracelets, with Jeff Lisandro winning three, while Phil Ivey, Brock Parker and now Mueller have two apiece.
In addition to the multiple bracelet scores, there have been a number of players who have multiple top-three finishes. Wahlbeck, Lunkin, Brandon Cantu, James Van Alstyne, Marc Naalden, Pete Vilandos and Angel Guillen have each scored both a win and a runner-up finish (Wahlbeck has a third-place finish in addition to that). Steve Sung and Eric Baldwin each have a win and a third-place finish. Scott Clements hasn't taken home gold, but he's scored a second- and a third-place finish.
It's been a remarkable year for individual achievements, reminiscent of 1993 when Hellmuth and Ted Forrest won three bracelets apiece. If Lisandro can win his fourth, or one of Ivey, Parker or Mueller can get his third, that would serve as some masterful punctuation on another great WSOP.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.
The turnout in the $50,000 HORSE at the 2009 WSOP raised some concerns in Las Vegas.