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Friday, June 5, 2009
History in the making

By Gary Wise

The 40th anniversary of the World Series of Poker was the overriding theme coming into the 2009 edition: a celebration of the game, its people and its history. The plan coming in was to trumpet the tournament's legacy and poker's as a whole. Little did the organizers know, however, how quickly the present would come to the forefront in the form of victory for a man who may eventually go down as the greatest player ever to ruffle chips.

Phil Ivey is the present. On Thursday night, the former Atlantic City regular added to his legend and lore by winning his sixth WSOP bracelet, taking down Event 8, $2,500 no-limit deuce-to-seven draw. The win, which netted Ivey a $96,361 payout, made him the youngest player to win six bracelets and moved him into a seventh-place tie on the all-time bracelet list with T.J. Cloutier, Layne Flack, Jay Heimowitz and Men Nguyen.

Phil Ivey
Even after winning a bracelet, Phil Ivey never lets go of his poker face.

Ivey emerged victorious from a seven-player final table that saw his stack go as low as $65,000 of the $1.11 million in play with six players left. He was again threatened with elimination when his stack dropped to $100,000 with three players remaining and once more when he got all-in with a draw to come in a tough heads-up match against tough Los Angeles pro John Monette. Monette, who was looking for his first bracelet, won $59,587.

Ask any educated follower of the game to name its best player, and "Ivey" is the most likely name to escape their lips. Such witnesses as Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu have given testimony to this effect. If he wanted it, Ivey would be the most famous poker player in the world. The truth, though, is that he has no use or desire for fame.

Reputed to have a bankroll in the high eight or low nine figures, Ivey is a fiercely private man who's proved so good at poker and business that he hasn't found a need for endorsement dollars. His bankroll runs deep enough that he supposedly won some $3 million in proposition bets by winning this bracelet in 2009.

"There are some disappointed people in Bobby's Room," Ivey said after the win, referring to those who bet against him.

While Ivey may not want fame, his accomplishments demand attention. Six bracelets (three of them coming in 2002), 30 WSOP cashes, a WPT victory in one of eight final table appearances, the most successful online record of anyone at cyberspace's highest stakes and massive reported success in his bread-and-butter live cash games … all at the age of 32. As the WSOP celebrates its history, it also celebrates history in the making. Ivey's feat is the just the latest development in a WSOP that seems to be rewarding the game's best players and creating high drama by the night. Consider that after eight events we've seen:

• Thang Luu did the unthinkable: winning the same event -- $1,500 Omaha high-low split eight or better (918 players) as he won a year ago (833 players). In 2007, Luu finished second of 534 players in a $2,000 buy-in WSOP event playing the same game.

"I didn't feel like I would win again," Luu said after his most recent win. "But I thought I could win again."

• Two of poker's brightest young stars, Steve Sung, 24, and Jason Mercier, 22, each won their first WSOP bracelets. Sung triumphed over a non-main-event WSOP tournament-record field of 6,012 to win the much-talked-about "Stimulus Special" event ($1,000 no-limit hold 'em). Mercier topped 808 others to take Event 5, $1,500 pot-limit Omaha.

• Tom McEvoy and Eric Drache, two men linked in poker history (both to each other and to what Brunson himself called the single most important innovation in the development of modern day, big buy-in tournament poker), have helped us recall the very history WSOP is recognizing. It was Drache who created the satellite system in 1981 and McEvoy who two years later used that system to become poker's world champion. Now, the two men have made their way back into the spotlight more than a quarter-century later on poker's biggest stage.

Eric Drache
Former WSOP Tournament Director Eric Drache finished second in the $10,000 seven-card stud world championship.

McEvoy, 64, is poker's lost star. After winning his world championship in 1983, he began a long career of giving back to poker in the form of writing books and articles on its tactics and history. He's won four WSOP bracelets in total, cashing an impressive 36 times over his career. He won one of the WPT's short-lived Professional Poker Tour champions, triumphing over a truly elite, invitation-only field. Even with all of that on his résumé, however, he's seen himself passed over for poker's younger, more ratings-friendly stars.

On Monday, McEvoy finally found the spotlight he's longed for, when he won the WSOP Champions Invitational, a televised invite-only tournament that pitted 20 former world champions (with combined WSOP career earnings of $78,465,995) against one another. While the victory netted McEvoy "only" a car and a trophy awarded in honor of WSOP co-founder Jack Binion, McEvoy wasn't fazed.

"Winning this tournament against all the past champions is worth more than a bracelet to me," McEvoy said in the afterglow. "Being the champion of champions re-establishes me. I can say without pause that I wanted to win this more than anyone else. I get the needle all the time from the railbirds online. They say I'm over the hill, that the game has passed me by. Well, let's see how they'd do against this field."

For McEvoy, it serves as a reminder to the world of the legitimacy of his candidacy for the Poker Hall of Fame. Such luminaries as Kathy Liebert and T.J. Cloutier have stated he was deserving of the honor before this re-emergence. Now, the voters won't have to be reminded to consider his name.

Drache, a former WSOP tournament director who's mostly retired from active play, is one of the poker world's most popular personalities. When he made a deep run in Event 6, $10,000 world championship seven-card stud, Drache's presence caused a veritable who's who of poker to appear at the final table to offer him support. Drache eventually lost the heads-up to 74-year-old Freddie Ellis, who himself made history by becoming the oldest man since Johnny Moss to win an open bracelet event. This year's WSOP, which includes Ivey, Luu, Mercier, Sung, Drache and McEvoy, is barely a week old, with six more weeks to come. It's going to be a fun summer.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to You can hear more of his poker musings on The Poker Beat at Poker Road.