07/16/2009 12:00AM

Amidst all the frenzy, one player stays calm


As far as the poker world is concerned, the November Nine is divine.

The World Series of Poker's No-Limit Hold'em World Championship Event, which is more commonly referred to as the "Main Event" due to ESPN's popular coverage through the years, played down to its final table of nine players Wednesday at the Rio All-Suites Hotel. With the explosion in tournament poker the past decade, the field for the Main Event has gotten so big - 6,494 put up the $10,000 buy-in this year - that many feel it's impossible for the top players to navigate such large fields since they not only have to be playing at the top of their game but also have to avoid all the players taking shots at the bull's-eyes on their backs. And we've seen a run of unknowns (or at least as far as the general public is concerned) take poker's top prize.

So a lot of people in the Amazon Room at the Rio - not the least of which were executives for Harrah's Entertainment Inc., owner of the WSOP and the Rio, and ESPN - were pulling for Phil Ivey to make it to the final table, which will now take nearly four months off (114.5 days to be exact) and reconvene Nov. 7.

Ivey, 33 of Las Vegas via a New Jersey upbringing, is the face of the game, or at least right up there in the modern-day Poker Mount Rushmore along with Daniel Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, and Phil Hellmuth. Many consider him the best poker player in the world. He has seven WSOP championship bracelets, and even though this is his first Main Event final table, it is his fourth top 23 finish.

Jeff Shulman, 34 and also of Las Vegas, is the second most well-known player to make the final table. He is the president/editor/COO of Card Player Magazine. He downplayed his own skill - he finished seventh in the Main Event in 2000 when he was the chip leader before losing it to eventual champion Chris "Jesus" Ferguson - by saying he got lucky table draws and survived because of the poor overall quality of play.

"I'm surprised I'm here," he said. "I had pocket aces seven times. I just played my cards this week; any of you could have played my cards.

"There were a lot of amateurs who don't really understand how to play a deep stacked poker. It was the easiest field I've ever seen in my life. People would go all-in with ace-seven, and you'd look at them like 'You're risking your tournament life on that?'

"I feel like everyone in the tournament was on Adderall, while I was on Xanax."

Play started at noon Wednesday with 27 players, three tables of nine each. The first player eliminated was the last woman in the field, Leo Margets, 38 of Barcelona, Spain. By 4 p.m., the field was down to 18 and two tables. The eliminations slowed and by the dinner break at 7:10 p.m., the field was at 14. But after dinner, the eliminations picked up and when Ivey knocked out Jamie Robbins of San Diego in 11th place at 9:55 p.m., the two tables were combined into a final table of 10. The antes were at $30,000, with the blinds of $120,000 and $240,000.

After a nearly half-hour delay, play resumed with the intention to reduce down to the November Nine. Obviously, everyone wanted to survive to the final table, not only for the boost in winnings from $896,730 for 10th place to a minimum of $1.2 million for making the November Nine but for the potentially lucrative endorsement deals.

Jordan Smith, the last bracelet winner in the field besides Ivey, went all-in after a flop of 8-2-4 and was called by chip leader Darvin Moon, 45, of Oakland, Md. Smith showed pocket aces, but Moon had an 8 for three of a kind. The last two cards didn't help Smith, and the spectators cheered wildly as the final table was set at 10:50 p.m.

That hand gave Moon, who owns a small logging company and had never been to Vegas before the July 3 start of the Main Event, the chip lead at more than $58.9 million. Eric Buchman, 29, of Valley Stream, N.Y., is a distant second at $34.8 million. Steven Begleiter, 47, of Chappaqua, N.Y., is third at nearly $29.9 million. Shulman is fourth, while Ivey is seventh.

However, Ivey was still the star of the show for the crowd gathered in the Rio's Amazon Room, though there were no more than 500 people present, including tournament workers and media. It has always amazed me to walk through the casino at the Rio - and before that at the former home of the WSOP, Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Vegas - that you would see all these people that had no idea that the world championship of poker was taking place within walking distance, or that they didn't care. I get the same feeling when I walk through a casino on NFL Sundays and wonder why all those people aren't glued to the TVs watching the games.

Of course, poker has grown because of it being pared down to the best hands on TV shows when you can see the hole cards, which isn't available when watching the action live and in person.

ESPN will air its coverage of the Main Event starting Tuesday, Aug. 18.