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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Eight players left in $50,000 HORSE

By Gary Wise
ESPN.com

Editor's note: The final table of this event will be broadcast on ESPN360.com starting at 5 p.m. ET

Take away the TV cameras, reduce the field by a third and there's still something special about the $50,000 HORSE event. To put the buy-in into context, Phil Ivey's first bracelet win this year netted him less than twice as much. Then there's the Chip Reese legacy.

Vitaly Lunkin
Vitaly Lunkin has a chance to win both of the largest buy-in tournaments in 2009.

Reese, considered by many the finest all-around poker player of all time, won the event's inaugural edition in 2006, triumphing over a final table that included Ivey, Doyle Brunson, TJ Cloutier, Dewey Tomko, Jim Bechtel, Andy Bloch, David Singer and Patrik Antonius. In toppling such a rogues' gallery, Reese turned the event not only into a classic, but into his classic. When he passed away in late 2007, it was only natural that the winner of the event receive the memorial trophy that bears Reese's name.

"It's still the tournament everyone wants to win," insisted Gavin Smith, despite acknowledging the step lost with the absenteeism of the cameras. "It's still the Chip Reese Memorial. Other than the main event, this is the one I want to win."

Many pros, especially those who shared countless hours in cash games with Reese, feel the same way. By and large, this tournament is an ode to the biggest cash games in the world, those held in Bobby's Room at the Bellagio. The regular denizens of that game will continue to play in abundance.

At the end of the fourth day of play Monday, eight players were left standing. Five of them hold bracelets, all have established strong résumés before this event and each is worthy of his place at the final table and the right to go for the gold. Here's a look at how they line up:

Erik Sagstrom -- $3,675,000

What Tom Dwan is to online play now, Erik Sagstrom was four years ago. Better known to online denizens as "Erik123," Sagstrom has been an online cash game monster for the better part of a decade now … despite being just 26 years old. Seldom one to play in tournaments, this event will prove to be his first WSOP cash. Best known for his hold 'em and Omaha play, Sagstrom took a step back from his rigorous play schedule some three years ago to pursue other endeavors, amongst them apparently the learning of razz, stud and high-low.

Vitaly Lunkin -- $2,490,000

When it was announced that there would be a $40,000 buy-in hold 'em event at this year's WSOP, it is unlikely anyone dared to conceive that one man might win both of the mega-buy-in events, but Lunkin could be on the verge of doing just that. The Russian backgammon master-turned-poker pro won his first bracelet a year ago and his second in Event 2 of 2009 before managing a runner-up finish in Event 40 -- $10,000 pot-limit Omaha. While Jeff Lisandro's triple bracelet performance has put the player of the year award virtually out of reach, a win here would certainly cement Lunkin's status as a tournament star.

David Bach -- $2,345,000

The 11th-place finisher in this event a year ago, Bach took his efforts in 2009 a step further as he heads to the final day of play third in chips. Unlike most of the players left standing, Bach was weaned on HORSE, the mix of choice in his native Atlanta. "There's nothing but great players in this event as far as poker players," Bach said after making the final table. "But some of them don't know how to play the more obscure games on a technical level." He's seeking to exploit that fact and finally get himself on the poker map.

John Hanson -- $1,700,000

Two years ago, when Hanson made his first $50,000 HORSE final table, he was hailed as the first amateur to do so. Despite his relative inexperience there, he managed to finish third, and took home more than $850,000. Now, the question is just what the New Yorker has to do to gain the respect of his peers. He joins David Singer, Barry Greenstein and Huck Seed in the exclusive fraternity of players who have made this final table twice.

Huck Seed -- $1,380,000

Seed's done just about everything in the poker world. He was the world champion in 1996, backed the world champion in 1990, won the National Heads-Up poker championship in 2008 and has thrived in cash games and proposition bets alike. A win for Seed here would make him just the second player (along with Scotty Nguyen) to win both the world championship and the HORSE event.

Chau Giang -- $1,075,000

The owner of three WSOP bracelets, when Giang uttered his famous words "I love play pokah" during the ESPN broadcast of his 2004 bracelet victory, he endeared himself to the viewing public. As Greenstein did a year ago, it's Giang who is carrying the torch into this final table for the regulars of Bobby's Room.

Erik Seidel
Erik Seidel is hoping his ninth bracelet win will come at the $50,000 HORSE final table Wednesday night.

Erik Seidel -- $965,000

One of the all-time greats, Seidel is searching for his ninth bracelet win, which would put him in sole possession of fourth place on the career bracelets list. Interestingly, despite his vast experience, no one seemed happier to have made it this far. "I'm really thrilled to be here," said Seidel after clinching his final table birth. "It's been a lot of fun to play the games I don't have a lot of experience with. I've had about as much fun with this tournament as any tournament I've ever played. I think the history is very important. This is a very important event to the top players and that makes it thrilling to be here at the final table. I'm not all that optimistic, but I'm having a lot of fun. Really, that's all you can ask for."

Ville Wahlbeck -- $645,000

As remarkable a WSOP as Lunkin has had, Wahlbeck's has been one step beyond. The $50,000 HORSE final table will be his fourth of the series, with the others netting him first-, second- and third-place finishes. A victory here would not only make Wahlbeck the fifth player to achieve multiple bracelets this year, but would also move him to the top of the player of the year race. Starting as the short stack, he has a long climb ahead if he's to get the gold again.

Elsewhere at the Rio:

• As of Monday, we've now seen 52 final tables. Fifteen of those have featured players with a combined zero bracelets. Meanwhile, WSOP media director Nolan Dalla's excellent official reports have classified 35 of this year's first 48 bracelet winners as poker professionals, seven as semi-pros and just six as amateurs.

• Ylon Schwartz's third-place finish in Event 47 -- $2,500 mixed hold 'em -- marked the first final table appearance for any member of last year's November Nine.

• Word is that Nelly will be performing at the PokerStars party at the main event. It makes sense, as the hip hop star has been spending more than a little time at the tables of late.

• More and more, Twitter seems like the latest way to be burdened with bad beat stories.

Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.