Commentary

The greatest competition in the world

Updated: July 3, 2009, 2:26 PM ET
By Gary Wise | ESPN.com

You can't win the Super Bowl.

Sorry to break it to you, but if you're reading this, chances are it's literally impossible. You aren't big enough. You're too slow. Your knees hurt, you have a bad back, you haven't had the proper coaching, and most of you are just too damn old.

Aren't you sick of being told what you can't do?

When we watch sports, we're reminded of our frailties. We're told to celebrate athletes because they do what we can't, because they're better than we at throwing or hitting or tackling one another. Professional sport is a celebration of the human condition, but the reality is that it's a celebration of someone else's human condition. The life you live -- that I live, too -- is one that will never allow us to date supermodels, drive Lamborghinis, do underwear commercials or hold news conferences. We're just not good enough … or so they tell us.

You're not going to win Wimbledon, or the Masters, or the Stanley Cup or World Cup or just about any cup under the sun. On the world stage, sport will not allow you or me to compete, let alone emerge victorious. We're not going to win those cherished titles because we're not allowed to so much as play for them, but there's one uniquely American competition left that any of us can play in and win and that can fulfill every one of your dreams of wealth and fame and glory. You can win the main event of the World Series of Poker.

[+] EnlargeGreg Raymer
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesGreg Raymer outlasted the field of 2,576 players during his 2004 main event championship run.

It starts with tradition. The event, first held in 1970, was originally a seven-player gathering of cash-game players, a spectacle designed to attract spectators to founder Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. The following year, since there was need of a more definitive means to determine a champion, the first recorded poker tournament was held. It started a 40-year chain reaction that's seen poker go from back room to television studio, from a game played by a few seedy characters to a game played by hundreds of millions in every nation in the world. "'Tradition' is the best word for it," said Doyle Brunson, who was there in the beginning and has twice won the tournament. "After all these years, it's the prize everybody wants."

"It's the original event," professional Howard Lederer said. "The most important tournament of the year, the one everyone thinks about. It is history and anticipation and money, all making it something beyond. Anyone who sits down in the main event is connected, part of a continuum. It's electrifying to be connected to that history, regardless of whether you win or not."

Beyond the history, there's the numbers. A year ago, 6,844 players put up $10,000 each to play for a prize pool of $64,333,600, with $9,152,416 going to the winner, Peter Eastgate.

"It's the greatest competitive event in the world," said Greg Raymer, a former patent attorney who in 2004 won the championship. "We know that because it involves the most money. We're going be playing for something like $70 million, and there's no competition in the world with as much at stake. Money may seem like a grubby thing to be trying to win, but really, that's what drives all of the world's major competitions, sport or otherwise."

With the money comes glory. "There's nothing like the main event," Canada's Daniel Negreanu said. "It's the one event that transcends poker and enters mainstream society. The whole world knows who won that tournament."

"Nothing in sport is more transformational," 2005 winner Joe Hachem said. "It's like 'American Idol' #133; from obscurity to fame and fortune. As sport goes, I don't think anything can catapult a person into the spotlight like the WSOP can. There's nothing like it."

[+] EnlargeJoseph Hachem
Pokerstars 2005 WSOP main event champion Joseph Hachem has had continued success since his breakthrough victory.

Hachem, Raymer and the game's other recent world champions have seen their lives forever changed by their victories, the influx of money tied to newfound celebrity. It's hard to imagine a patent attorney achieving rock-star status, but it's an easy comparison.

Similarly individualistic sports like golf and tennis don't shine the spotlight on their champions quite so pointedly. "It really does transform your life," 2000 champion Chris Ferguson said. "You're known as a world champion for the rest of your life. What separates that experience from golf or tennis is there's only one major in poker." Win this tournament and you reign for a year and are remembered forever. Of course, winning isn't simple.

More than half the field will be sent home on their first day of play. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday will feature days 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D respectively -- the four starting days are necessary because of the size of the field. If you survive some 14 hours of action, you're looking at another six similarly long days to pare the field down to nine. Your reward for making it through some 90 hours of play, with each hand a life-or-death struggle for your tournament hopes? Four nail-biting months of waiting under the watchful eye of the entire world before you finally get to play the final table in November.

"I defy anyone to tell me that a tournament like the WSOP does not require as much or more physical and mental endurance than athletics, to sit there hour after hour after hour, playing and competing under the greatest pressure," said WSOP media director and poker author Nolan Dalla. "You try to constantly make decisions for [hundreds of thousands of dollars] for that length of time and tell me that's not pressure in a supreme test of stamina. Keep in mind that poker players post 100 percent of their own money. When they lose, they aren't guaranteed a salary. Miss a free throw, throw an incomplete pass, professional athletes still receive a paycheck. If you don't cut it in poker, you don't eat. You tell me which players have more pressure and which is the real sport."

"Come sit at the table for 14 hours with me," Hachem says, grinning. "Maintain your concentration without making a mistake and then tell me what you think. I've had some of the toughest athletes in the world play, and it kills them."

The main event is about passion. It's about endurance. It's about concentration, commitment, focus, manipulation, competition, money, attrition and survival. What's more, it's what poker players big and small dream about from July to June every year.

"I doubt there's anything closer to the American dream," pro player Mike Matusow said. "It's sure my dream." His dream is shared by some 7,000 others. Today is the beginning of a narrative that will end with one of those dreams coming true. If it were any event but the World Series of Poker, it probably couldn't be yours.

Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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