Lee Davy shares his votes for the seven categories of poker excellence scheduled for high praise at the World Series of Poker’s ‘First Fifty Honors’ celebration, including a mid-opinion piece decision to not vote at all.
There is always an ache in my heart at this time of the year. After three years of World Series of Poker (WSOP) abstinence, I still miss the Rio. I feel like a wolf removed from the taiga and dumped into a zoo. My zoo is currently Starbucks in Cardiff city centre.
I made my debut in 2011, working for PokerNews as a live reporter. I was in for the entire series, with a week respite to play $1/$2 cash games in Bally’s with visiting friends. It was the only year that I worked the full series in this capacity. Days of the week vanished, ambushed by Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and so on. My lungs ached for air, brutalised by the chill of the air conditioning units, carbon dioxide and bad beats.
In the ensuing years, I divided my time between playing in WSOP events and live reporting. I eventually put a bullet through the last part of that tandem and restricted my work to interviews.
I bow down to the strength and tenacity of those live reporters. As I have learned from countless interviews with the best in the business, you have to love what you do with a molten iron passion. I didn’t. I still don’t. That’s why I found it so hard to handle it.
The WSOP is not all roses and bubblegum; there is also a toxicity to it if you are open to the transmutation of energy in the Rio – desperation, sadness, and pointlessness. Hours of life spewed into nothingness as we fling cards into the muck, or photograph, interview or write about those flingers.
Despite my love-hate relationship with the place, there was always something special about the WSOP Main Event. It’s a feeling that’s challenging to describe, one that you get when amid the rabid frenzy of a pack that’s come together to experience the same thing. Sporting events and music concerts create this feeling, but I have never felt it so beautifully as at the beginning of the Main Event – and I’ve never played in the thing.
I have plenty of WSOP memories, and in casting my votes for the winners of the ‘First Fifty Honors’ celebration due to be held on Saturday, June 29, I am leading with these.
1. Most memorable WSOP TV hand
The hand that emerges from my memory is Jonathan Duhamel’s axe to the heart of Matt Affleck in the 2010 WSOP Main Event.
There are only two tables left in the tournament, the finishing line is in sight, and Duhamel opens to 575k, holding pocket jacks in the cutoff. Affleck raises to 1.55m on the button, Duhamel four-bets to 3.925m, and Affleck calls.
Duhamel checks, Affleck bets 5m, and Duhamel calls.
Duhamel checks, Affleck moves all-in for 11.6m, and Duhamel calls.
Duhamel becomes the overwhelming chip leader and goes onto win the tournament; Affleck exits in 15th place for $500,165.
There are many things I love about this hand. Firstly, it’s the guts of both of these players to go for it with the end in sight. Amateurs freeze hoping to find a better spot, praying that everyone else does the dirty work, but these two just went for it.
I also love the tension and the emotion of the hand. It’s a quick hand, but full of tension and the juxtaposition of sadness and joy is primal (I also love the cheeky devil like grin that Duhamel slides into his hoodie after hitting his gin river card).
We can empathise with both of these players.
Brené Brown teaches that empathy is not about the innate knowledge of real experience, but more about experiencing the emotion. Who hasn’t felt the high of extreme happiness, and the crushing blow of sadness?
2. Best overall WSOP performance (single year)
I hate to say it, but Chris Ferguson’s Player of the Year performance in 2017 was incredible. Ferguson’s involvement that year set alight an internal moral debate for me. There’s a part of me that wanted him punished for his silence on the Full Tilt Poker scandal, and felt that it was ridiculous for him to be allowed to win the Player of the Year award, and be celebrated for that. On the other hand, I also believe that people deserve forgiveness, juxtaposed with the challenge of forgiving someone who doesn’t explain his part in a travesty. At the time, I felt the WSOP should have banned him, but in hindsight, I can see how complicated that decision would have been.
Full Tilt aside, Ferguson cashed in 17-events at the WSOP, including two final table appearances before travelling to Rozvadov to lock up the award at the World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) with six cashes and a sixth career bracelet.
Forgetting his bad deeds for a moment, imagine how courageous it was for him to even appear at the event. I know the use of the word ‘courageous’ may offend some people, but set aside the brazen, unapologetic balls of the man, and how undeniably offensive it was for him even to take a seat – it still took courage.
Also, unless there is a ‘Chris Ferguson Home Game’ he returned in 2016, without as much as an orbit of top-class poker competition, outside of the WSOP, in six years.
I’ve decided I am not going to vote.
I don’t want to give him a vote, but it’s the performance that sticks in my head.
3. Most likely to succeed (player currently 35 or under to win the most gold bracelets between 2020-2070)
I once wrote that Dominik Nitsche would be the man to overtake Phil Hellmuth’s record because of his age, his ability and his love for the game. However, as Nitsche pointed out to me, that’s a bad call. If anyone is going to surpass Hellmuth’s record, then it has to be a mixed game player.
With this in mind, I am going to go for two people with a caveat separating the pair.
Justin Bonomo’s performances over the years have been incredible. If you set aside his unbelievable 2018 (winning $25.4m), and take a gander at his Hendon Mob stats, it’s apparent that had he run better at critical junctures in his WSOP experiences he wouldn’t be that far behind Hellmuth on the bracelet count.
The other person I would like to take a punt on is Shaun Deeb. His 2018 run was terrific, and his ability to compete at the highest level in all forms of poker is a testament to his love of the game. If I had to choose one of them I would go with Bonomo. My only reservation is whether his kindle still burns below his love for the game after achieving so much, contrary to Deeb, who you know is going to show up each year and try to win as many bracelets as possible.
4. Fan favorite player
I first fell in love with the WSOP watching the highlights on TV back home in the UK, and back then, Phil Hellmuth was the man I always wanted to watch.
Yeah, his behaviour is, at times, hugely disrespectful, but I find his outbursts as compelling as watching clips of John McEnroe back in the day. For me, it’s like watching a punch up in ice hockey, or a vicious tackle in football. It tells me something about the man’s love of the game. When Hellmuth goes for it, it’s more than mere petulance, you understand that this is his life, and it doesn’t matter how many books that Tony Robbins tells you are amazing without reading them, or how many hours of meditation he does, he will never change.
5. WSOP’s favorite bad boy
6. Most impressive main event win
Martin Jacobson’s win in 2014 stands out for me because it showed what is possible when you treat poker like world-class professional sportsman handle their respective playgrounds. I also knew him and had always loved interviewing him, so that helps. There’s nothing better than having a vested interest in at least one person at the final table, and in 2014 mine was Jacobson. The fact that there was a film crew following him as he prepared for the November Nine was a bonus.
7. Four most important players in WSOP history
I’m not much of a historian so I will keep it short and sweet.
1. Doyle Brunson.
2. Phil Hellmuth.
3. Chris Moneymaker.
These three are obvious.
Brunson for his early work in getting the thing off the ground, and Hellmuth and Moneymaker whose performances and personalities elevated the game to the mainstream audience.
4. The John Hesp Type
There must have been countless John Hesps in the past 50-years that gave people like me (enthusiastic poker fans dreaming of one day being a millionaire) the belief that anything is possible in this great game of ours.
How many of us can win Wimbledon, appear in the World Cup final, or win an Olympic gold medal?
We can all win the WSOP Main Event, and despite the skill gap widening thanks to the prevalence of AI-driven third-party software tools and a more holistic approach when it comes to the professionalism of the game, every so often a pensioner comes from nowhere forcing us to think of a reason to scran together ten large and book a flight to Vegas.