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Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Updated: January 7, 6:13 PM ET
Evolution, Scandal and History

By Gary Wise
ESPN Poker Club

It seems like just a few weeks ago that I was writing a recap of 2007 from a poker perspective. It's been an amazing, tumultuous and eventful 366 days since, with major shifts in the way we see poker on television, a series of historic individual achievements and a year in which we saw the television pro return to prominence in the winner's circle.

Before we move on to 2009, its time to take stock of what's gone on over the past 12 months. Here's a look at the stories for which we'll all remember 2008:

The November Nine

From an organized poker standpoint, there's no question about the biggest story of the year. It was less than a month before the start of the World Series of Poker that plans to break from tradition were announced to the world. The final table of the WSOP would be delayed by almost four months in order to heighten viewer interest and familiarity with the players.
Peter Eastgate
Peter Eastgate became the youngest main event champion in WSOP history in November.

From the moment the announcement came down, the debate flowed. Some asked why Harrah's was trying to fix that which wasn't broken; others asked whether this development might endanger the competitors or the sanctity of the event; still others hailed the changes as part of the inevitable evolution of televised poker. In the end, the nine combatants who were put through the wait benefited financially, and the ratings climbed in monstrous proportions.

Scandal

This time a year ago, we knew something had gone wrong at Absolute Poker. Hole cards were being seen at the highest stakes by a former AP higher-up, and there were attempts at a cover-up when a group of industrious poker players discovered that development through the now-famous "PotRipper hand." Little did they know this was only the harbinger of a similar story that would hit on a much larger scale.

UltimateBet.com, one of the industry's largest sites, was found to have a similar scandal in which the cheating had gone on for some four years to the tune of more than $20 million. The story received national media coverage, in part because to date, no one has been charged despite the scale of the theft. Many poker insiders hope that attention will finally force the U.S. government to protect its citizens through regulation of the online poker industry in 2009.

Scotty's Double
Scotty Nguyen
Nguyen's victory makes him the first player to win both the HORSE and main event.

Scotty Nguyen, "The Prince of Poker," became the first player in history to win what many consider poker's two biggest tournaments, adding the 2008 WSOP $50,000 HORSE title to his 1998 WSOP main event championship. In a startling victory, a drunken Nguyen was seen berating dealers, servers and opponents, but the booze wasn't enough to knock him off a hot run of cards. While the result of Nguyen's tirades was an about-face in the arena of public opinion regarding his table antics, there's no doubting that this was an amazing accomplishment that might not be matched for a long, long time. In taking the title, Nguyen also became the first player to win the Chip Reese Memorial Trophy, named for the inaugural champion of the event, who passed away late in 2007.

Demidov's Double and Juanda's Win at WSOPE

In this, WSOP Europe's second running, the event again saw history made at a remarkable final table that finally saw John Juanda emerge victorious after some 19 hours of play. For Juanda, the $1,580,096 win was more than twice his previous high tournament windfall despite an already stellar career.

Juanda triumphed over a remarkable final table that included close friend Daniel Negreanu and Russia's Ivan Demidov. What made Demidov's third-place finish so notable was that he did it with an unusual target on his back thanks to his being one of nine men waiting to play the final table of the other WSOP main event. He'd go on to finish second there, leaving himself something to shoot for in 2009.

Griffin's Triple

Ivan Demidov
Ivan Demidov proved that his appearance at the WSOP final table was no fluke with a third-place performance at WSOPE.

Ask any poker player to name the game's three best-established circuits and they'll name the WSOP, WPT and EPT. In 2008, Gavin Griffin became the first player to take a title in each of the three, marking himself as one of the most dangerous tournament players in the world. Griffin's victory at the WPT's Borgata Winter Open in February was the capper, adding to his 2007 EPT Grand Final victory and the WSOP bracelet he won in 2004. Like Nguyen's and Demidov's feats, this one might not be equaled for some time.

Jesus Reigns

In the three previous installments of NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson had twice finished second, losing the finals in 2005-06 to Phil Hellmuth and Ted Forrest, respectively. This time around, Jesus wouldn't be satisfied with second; he took the title home, besting a Who's Who-of-poker field, with his victories coming against John Juanda, Gavin Smith, Mike Matusow, Jon Little, Phil Ivey and good friend Andy Bloch in the finals. His 16-3 record in the event easily makes him its most successful entrant to date.

The Year of the Pro

Aside from the November Nine elephant in the room, there's no question the biggest running story throughout the 2008 WSOP was the return to prominence of live tournament pros. Negreanu, Nguyen, Matusow, Barry Greenstein, Max Pescatori and Layne Flack were among the pros who returned to glory by adding to their already-established bracelet collections, while John Phan won his first two bracelets and Nenad Medic, David Singer, WSOP Player of the Year Erick Lindgren, Vanessa Selbst, Kenny Tran, Phil Galfond, Rob Hollink, Dario Minieri, David Benyamine and JC Tran were among the notables who finally won their first WSOP hardware.

Eastgate wins the main event

Just in case you hadn't heard, Denmark's 22-year-old wunderkind Peter Eastgate became the youngest player in history to take the WSOP main event title, taking the record held previously for 19 years by Phil Hellmuth. Eastgate's victory netted him $9.1 million, the second-largest prize in recorded tournament history.

Chiu wins WPT Championship

A quiet man, David Chiu hasn't always gotten the attention he's deserved, but the poker world's spotlight landed on him when he took home $3,389,140 for winning the WPT World Championship at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Chiu staged a massive comeback in the finals to topple Gus Hansen, who had looked destined to win his record fourth WPT.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.