One player per hand, or so the rule goes. Poker is as individual a game as you're going to find on the planet. For over a century, the very idea of sharing your holdings was ludicrous. There are friends at the table, but they're the kind of friends who are looking to steal your wallet when you aren't looking.
Slowly, that reality has been changing. Only at the World Series of Poker do we really find players cheering one another on in a way that's reminiscent of one rooting for one's own best interests. That's because the stakes are so high at the main event. Not only is there fame and fortune at stake, but one winner can change the fortunes of even a nation's poker community. Just look at Joe Hachem and the impact his win had on Australia.
James Akenhead is a man playing with a nation on his shoulders. The 25-year old Londoner, a true pro who collected a half-million-dollar score just a year ago at the WSOP, has been feeling and reveling in the pressure that comes with representing your country.
"It's been great," said the live tourney specialist from his hotel room in Greece. "The support I've gotten since making it to the final has been nonstop. Even during the tournament, all of the rooms there were posting live video updates and announcing [Akenhead's progress] over the loudspeakers." Akenhead felt the universal support of his countrymen firsthand when he returned home. He returns the love.
"Brits are getting really good both online and live," said Akenhead. "I mean, we don't have as many known pros as the Americans do, but you have to remember there are so many more Yanks playing than Brits. Considering that, I think we've been really good. We're as good as anyone in Europe."
Akenhead should know. Making his way into the English poker scene in late 2005, he's been a regular in tournaments there since. It was thanks to his success in England that he was able to make his first trip to the WSOP in 2008, where he lost heads-up to Grant Hinkle in attempting to win his first bracelet. Now, after surviving the greatest gantlet poker has to offer, he has another chance.
Akenhead's trip through the main event seemed relatively smooth. Playing on Day 1C he more than doubled the $30,000 starting stack, finishing with $71,050. Day 2B saw him more than triple his chip stack to $240,200. When the field finally consolidated for Day 3, he was vaulted onto the leaderboard, finishing the day with $794,000. Days 4 and 5 were both successes, as he again ended both days in the top nine, but it was on Day 6 that his challenge truly began, courtesy of someone he'll meet in November.
After an early hand against fellow N9er Steve Begleiter cut his stack in half, Akenhead was playing to survive instead of thrive. For the first time, he went backward in the chip counts, dropping down to $1.65 million (from $2.69 million) at day's end, ranking him 48th of the last 64 players standing. No one else who wasn't in the top 40 at that point would make the final table.
The Breakdown: James Akenhead
James Akenhead will have the pressure on him from the start being the short stack at the 2009 WSOP main event fnal table.
Current position: Ninth
Chip count: $8.6 million
Tournament winnings: $2,086,770
WSOP final tables: 2
WSOP cashes: 3
Day 7 saw Akenhead make a monumental climb through the remaining field, finishing with $8.6 million, a precursor to a tough Day 8 that saw him win the war of attrition to make the final table with $6.8 million. With the starting blinds of $120,000/$240,000, he'll have to find something playable quickly to survive much longer.
Akenhead heads into the November Nine with the shortest stack at the table, but it seems likely his will be a different case study from that of Kelly Kim a year ago. Kim limped into November play with significantly fewer chips and substantially larger pay increases with each spot he moved up the standings. In 2008, ninth place paid $900,670, eighth paid $1,288,217 and seventh $1,772,650. This year, ninth pays $1,263,602, eighth $1,300,228 and seventh $1,404,002. In classic form, Akenhead's keeping his cards close to the vest, but it's obvious he's considered the ramifications of the change in payout.
"I don't really want to say much about my strategy heading into the final table," Akenhead insisted. "I think it's obvious though that the structure changes a lot with regards to how we're going to play. I need to double up pretty quickly. I need to run well. If I can double up, I'll have a shot."
That shot will be crucial if he's to achieve his goals.
"I'm playing to win, that's my only goal," he said. "I'm probably never going to get a chance like this again. I'm spending a lot more time thinking about the table, planning and studying, getting myself prepared. I'm at one of the greatest tables of all time, so I know I'll have to be ready to play my best. Winning would be so big, not only for me, but for British poker. We haven't had someone do something like that for a good few years."
Maybe it's time.
While Akenhead himself is obviously the biggest beneficiary of his success in the "Big One," he and Britain are hardly the only ones to benefit. Along with Phil Ivey, Akenhead is one of only two November Nine members who had a sponsorship deal in place prior to the start of the event. "I'm playing for Full Tilt Poker," said the well-spoken Englishman, who was presumably signed to appeal to the country he's now so ably representing. "It's been gratifying for me to show them their faith in me was well-placed. I'm proud to be with them."
Of course, that pride is nothing compared with that of his countrymen. "Everyone's been getting in touch with me, letting me know how proud they are. I'm bringing 150-200 people to support me," he enthused, " … just family and friends and a few guys I play with." Regardless of his results, they're going to be proud. If he takes the title home to England though, they'll probably be a tad prouder.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.