- Bernard Lee, ESPN Staff Writer
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The 45th annual World Series of Poker kicks off on Tuesday, May 27, and while thousands of spectators will fill the hallways of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, hundreds of thousands of players will shuffle their chips at the tables in search of the holy grail of poker: a WSOP bracelet. At the end of the Series, one tournament will once again capture the poker world's imagination as thousands of players will enter the last event with hopes of winning the granddaddy of them all.
Last year, 23-year-old Ryan Riess captured the title over Las Vegas VIP host Jay Farber. Riess' meteoric rise from Michigan State University student, to Michigan card-room dealer, to runner-up at the 2012 WSOP Circuit Hammond main event, to 2013 WSOP main event champion is what dreams are made of. Every poker player hopes to follow in Riess' footsteps, at least the last steps to WSOP main event glory. Whose turn will it be this year? We have a few months to find out, and for now, let's look back over the last few decades. 2014 is a unique year for several players as it marks historic WSOP anniversaries for special main event victors. Congratulations to these worthy champions on this special year as they have all enjoyed additional success beyond their WSOP main event title.
Joe Cada (2009 -- fifth anniversary): When Riess won last year, he was the second Michigan native in the last five years to win the WSOP main event. Amazingly, it has already been five years since the young Joe Cada came all the way back from only three big blinds to beat a final table that included Jeff Shulman, Darvin Moon and, of course, Phil Ivey.
"Time flies," said Cada. "I can't believe it's already been five years. It seems like yesterday. It's still a very vivid memory for me."
After 19 years of being the youngest WSOP champ, Phil Hellmuth's record (at 24 years old) was broken in consecutive years. In 2008, 22-year-old Peter Eastgate calmly captured the title during the inaugural November Nine, and in 2009, Cada would break the record at the age of 21 years, 11 months. After his victory, Cada noticed that a virtual bull's-eye was on his back during every tournament, making him the target of many poker players.
"After winning the main event, no one wanted to fold to me," he said. "I needed to go back and adjust my game in order to be successful." Cada has made the necessary adjustments to return to being a profitable player, and in 2012 he captured his second live tournament title in the $2,150 no-limit hold 'em at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. These days, Cada is enjoying success once again playing online, where he got his start and initial education. He still enjoys playing live for the challenge, and there is no greater challenge than the WSOP. Over the past five years, Cada has been successful in Vegas, making three final tables that included a runner-up finish in 2012 and two fourth-place efforts in 2013.
Greg Raymer (2004 -- 10th anniversary): Chris Moneymaker's victory ignited the poker boom in 2003. In 2004, the WSOP main event reached the four-digit mark in registrants for the first time ever (from 873 to 2,576 players). Binion's Horseshoe was bursting at the seams with the massive registration.
"Usually, most of the tournament was held upstairs in Benny's Bullpen," recalled Raymer. "The Horseshoe would take out a whole section of slot machines downstairs near the poker room for overflow. ... In 2004, it was the first time they ever had a Day 1A and Day 1B."
Interestingly, the main event in 2004 was almost cancelled due to the overflow. With tables being placed anywhere possible, a row of tables created a fire hazard, which upset the local fire marshal. "They had put a bunch of poker tables in an emergency exit aisle," said Raymer. "The fire chiefs showed up and said they had 15 minutes to clear these tables out or they would shut down the casino."
Thanks to the quick actions and quick thinking of tournament director Matt Savage, the issue was resolved and the tournament continued.
Raymer, with his fossil-card protector and dizzying sunglasses, suddenly became an icon in the world of poker. Since 2004, "FossilMan" has enjoyed additional success, making five more WSOP final tables, including his memorable third-place run in the 40th anniversary $40,000 event. A former patent attorney, Raymer has also had tremendous success on the Heartland Poker Tour; he set the poker world abuzz, winning four events in a row to easily win the HPT Player of the Year. Depending on the 2014 WSOP schedule, Raymer will play a variety of events, whether mixed games or no-limit hold 'em. However, one event is on his schedule for sure, unless he is incapable for some reason: the 2014 WSOP main event.
"If I'm not in the main event, I'm either incapable because I'm too sick or I'm dead," he said.
Phil Hellmuth (1989 -- 25th anniversary): Can you believe it's been a quarter of a century since the fresh-faced 24-year-old kid from Wisconsin stunned the poker world by winning the 1989 WSOP main event? Remember him listening to his state-of-the-art yellow Walkman in his blue Polo dress shirt? Can you still picture him exuberantly thrusting his fists in the air when he denied Johnny Chan his third WSOP main event victory in a row?
Since capturing his first WSOP bracelet, Hellmuth has become one of the most recognizable poker players in the world. This summer has special meaning for the 13-time bracelet winner.
"It seems to me that it is a year of big dates for me," said Hellmuth. "Right now, I'm sitting on 100 [WSOP] cashes, and one more final table this summer would be my 50th. My 50th birthday is this summer, my 25th wedding anniversary is coming up, and of course, my 25th anniversary of winning the main event. Oh my goodness!"
When asked which of these WSOP bracelets was the most special, Hellmuth surprisingly had difficulty choosing one, and the one he chose may surprise most people.
"Obviously, winning the main event in 1989 was significant, but winning the WSOPE event was the first time that the public got to see me play, and they got to see me doing things that they hadn't seen any player do before," he said. "The WSOPE might have been the best tournament I played in my life."
With all of his WSOP success, Hellmuth has suffered heartbreak in the WSOP Player of the Year chase. He has agonizingly finished second in 2006, 2011 and 2012, but entering the WSOP, Hellmuth doesn't focus on that challenge.
"Honestly, I don't think about Player of the Year. I just show up and play," said Hellmuth. "I'm a bracelet hunter and that's what it is all about. Now, winning Player of the Year is sweet. I mean, it's a great validation."
Hellmuth had a disappointing 2013, and he thought he was not as prepared last year as in 2011 and 2012. Now he's ready.
"This year, I spent a month in L.A. [where] I played a lot of mixed games and a lot of no-limit hold 'em tournaments," he said. "It is a matter of putting in some time and effort. I think that I'm really ready. I've done my homework, and I've put in the work and effort to do well."
Truly a living poker legend, Hellmuth was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007. At the age of 43, he became the second-youngest member inducted behind the legendary Chip Reese (who was inducted in 1991 at the age of 40). The Poker Brat has plenty of poker left, and his lofty goal of 24 WSOP bracelets may not be as unreachable as some think.
Celebrating its seventh anniversary, The Bernard Lee Poker Show interviewed all four of these champions to reminisce about their special anniversaries. You can find these interviews on iTunes or RoundersRadio.com
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