The 2006 World Series of Poker saw the industry at its zenith. PartyPoker was still in the United States, the victories of Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem were still fresh in the minds of the general public, law and politics were words that seldom entered the lexicon and the main event would go on to record easily its largest sign-up list to end the series.
Capitalizing on that popularity, the WSOP created what, to that point (and probably still, at least until later this year), was probably the most-anticipated tournament in poker history outside the main event: a $50,000 HORSE event that many were calling the true poker players' championship. With its deep structure and myriad of games, many felt this, finally, was the tournament that would define "best in the world" as much as any one tournament could.
The final table was a PR dream. Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese and Phil Ivey represented the best of their respective generations. T.J. Cloutier and Dewey Tomko are enshrined in the Poker Hall of Fame, Jim Bechtel was a former world champion, Patrik Antonius was the new wunderkind … and all of those credentials made Andy Bloch's dominance all the more shocking.
Bloch, a former blackjack whiz kid who had enjoyed some success on the World Poker Tour, played a beautiful tournament leading up to his heads-up duel with Reese, considered by many the best player in poker history. Once there, Bloch continued to dominate. He got Reese all-in four times. The chance Bloch would win one of those standoffs calculated at 93 percent, but Reese won all four of those showdowns and came back to win the event.
Until this week, Bloch joked he'd won 93 percent of a bracelet.
"It's definitely a coping mechanism," Block admitted, a little sheepishly. "Yes, it's important to win the bracelet and the money, but the only thing you can control is the time up until you're all-in. Your bets, your raises, your folds. The right way to treat poker is the percentages. If you start to be results-oriented, you're going to think 'I won, so I'm the best' and you'll play the same way, when really, probably just got lucky that day."
The HORSE final table was Bloch's second WSOP final table that year, the fourth of a WSOP career that started in 1995. While Bloch had a pair of WPT final tables prior to the HORSE event, that finish made him a star. With that attention, he was officially on bracelet watch. From that point on, his name was included in those sort-of-complimentary-sort-of-dubious 'best without a bracelet' lists … year … after year … after year. He had two more final tables in 2007, then another two, including a runner-up finish in 2008. Still, no bracelet.
Bloch on Black Friday
For years, Bloch was a representative of Full Tilt Poker, consistently wearing the colors proudly. The time since Black Friday, which subsequently saw that company falter, has been difficult for him.
"I haven't played any online poker and I haven't really played any poker," Bloch told ESPN.com. "Like everyone else, I'm stuck here, waiting, hoping things will get resolved. Hopefully, the latest rumors are true and we'll get an announcement soon.
"Black Friday definitely made focusing on poker more difficult. I haven't had the same desire, energy or drive to play and it's basically taken me a year before this [WSOP] started to get back to playing. I only played 4-5 events last year and only a handful of tournaments since then, all in [Bloch's home base] Vegas.
"I feel like what I could say right now [about the situation] wouldn't be enough and hopefully, by the end of the series, things will be better. Hopefully. The nature of our legal system means people are rightfully reluctant to say anything. The old adage 'anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law,' pretty much gags anyone in any fashion. It kills everybody, I think. Everybody I talk to really wants to be able to talk."
As the years continued to pass, his participation at the WSOP started to wane. Involvement with Full Tilt Poker and non-poker ventures ate into his time, and while he wouldn't say as much, the explanations of his lack of jewelry had to be tiresome. Fortunately for Andy, those explanations are a thing of the past.
"I wouldn't call it pain," said Bloch of the near-misses. "It stings a little bit at first, and when you pick up the check for second place, it takes the pain out of it. I was proud of the way I played those tournaments, so any pain dissipated quickly. There's so much more to life than winning poker tournaments, but I'm happy to have finally won one. When I've played people and they've asked me, 'How many bracelets have you won?', they've assumed I'd won one. Even some of my friends couldn't believe I hadn't won one. Now I have. Now I can answer that proudly."
Bloch was one of 367 players to enter Event 7, $1,500 seven-card stud, and found his way to a final table that also featured David Williams and Barry Greenstein. Williams fell in fourth. Then, Bloch took out Stephen Su, giving him a strong chip lead heading into heads-up play with Greenstein. A few hands later, Bloch had his bracelet.
"I think it's pretty clear that if you really want to say who the best player to not win a bracelet is, it's hard to say it's not Patrik Antonius," said Greenstein, when asked about Bloch's credentials as (formerly) one of the best without a bracelet. "Patrick doesn't play a lot of events, so he's not all that likely to win. If you change the name of that to 'the most likely player to have won a bracelet amongst non-bracelet winners,' Andy is near or at the top. He plays all the games well. It'd be hard to argue that he wasn't in the top few picks."
Despite his long wait, Bloch has kept the value of the bracelet in perspective. "I don't know, I think I'd take the $126,000 over the bracelet," Bloch assessed. "If you ask me in a couple of years, I might change my mind. Obviously, it depends on your financial situation at the time. Obviously, a billionaire doesn't care about the $126,000. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to win the bracelet in the future."
In other words, the bracelet doesn't complete him. In fact, it has done the opposite. Bloch, an admitted stat head, likes to spend time at the HendonMob database, seeing what it would take to work his way up certain all-time lists. For him, it's a means of keeping score. He's also fully aware that winning one bracelet is something a lot of players have done.
"The win incentivizes my playing in as many events as possible," Bloch explained. "No one remembers who won a bracelet, but winning two is a major accomplishment. Winning this early gives me around 50 more events to win another one. I'll probably play around 20 more events. Certainly at the end, if I'm in the running for player of the year, I'll try to play as many events as I can."
Fortunately, when he does, he'll be able to do it with bracelet on wrist and in hand. As much as 93 percent is a nice number to hold on to, when given little other choice, Bloch can play with the confidence that he can take it to the end, that he can win. It's a powerful feeling to have for a deserving player whose long wait is finally over.