- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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A given World Series of Poker is defined in history's eye by its moments. 2003 was Chris Moneymaker's run. 1988 was Johnny Chan trapping Erik Seidel. 1997 was Stu Ungar's comeback. 2006 was Chip Reese claiming the title of "best in the world" that was already rightfully his. A good series? A bad series? In the eye of the fan, it's all about what strikes you as memorable.
The 2012 WSOP was looking for its moment. The stories of the series to date involved player disputes and the lack of availability of bathrooms and slightly lagging numbers. These are bits that seem important in the daily news cycle, but which history will ultimately forget. Matt Matros won a third bracelet in as many years, an incredible feat that will be cited the next time someone accomplishes it, but really, this WSOP wanted a landmark moment. It needed a landmark moment. That moment arrived Sunday night, when the poker world's two brightest stars went on potential bracelet runs. In the end, one got there and one didn't, but together, these two men linked in name and deed gave us our first lasting memory of the 2012 WSOP.
Phil Hellmuth will tell you he's the greatest poker player of all time -- often getting an eye-roll or two -- citing WSOP numbers that have to do with both longevity and excellence. Heading into Sunday night, he held records with 11 bracelets and 88 cashes, numbers that have long confounded his detractors in debating his level of excellence. Some observers don't give Hellmuth full credit for the numbers, in part because his comical, externalized narrative makes him seem more like a poker character than poker player. It is the bracelets though, upon which he's always stood his ground, which is why the five-year bracelet drought he'd been in the midst of heading into Sunday had to be pressing on him.
Hellmuth's bracelet count entering the 2012 WSOP was one ahead of legends Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, but in the long term, those two don't pose the same kind of threat to the record that Phil Ivey does. Ivey is steel. Cold, powerful and incredibly effective. At just 36 years old, he entered Sunday tied with Erik Seidel at eight bracelets, good for fifth on the all-time list. He has stated repeatedly that as poker accomplishments go, he's bound and determined to surpass Hellmuth on the all-time bracelet list. While they were playing in separate tournaments -- Hellmuth in Event 18: $2,500 Razz; Ivey in Event 17: $10,000 pot-limit hold 'em -- you got the sense that Ivey was playing a big-picture heads-up match against Hellmuth, because anyone can win a single tournament and Phil Ivey isn't just anyone.
Ivey had another stake in a power performance. He sat out last year's WSOP, stating publicly that he wouldn't be playing again until Full Tilt Poker players got their money refunded in the wake of Black Friday. The decision conveniently allowed him to avoid the otherwise inevitable pressure from those he was swearing to protect, simultaneously kicking poker's greatest institution while the game was down. Ultimately, his departure did nothing to further his stated goals and he came back this year, the boycott apparently over. These are the fallible actions of Phil Ivey, man, but it was Phil Ivey, poker player, who was the idol to millions. A superlative performance from the player could remind the masses of why they adored the man so much in the first place. Throw in reported bracelet bets (Ivey apparently has been getting 2-1 to win one) and there was plenty more at stake than the $445,899 first prize.
Both entered their respective final days in the mix. Hellmuth was third of 18 and Ivey was 11th of 17, but it wasn't until evening that the real chase began. Hellmuth had taken control of his event, holding approximately half the chips in play with five left going to dinner. Ivey, who'd seemingly been hanging on forever while Frenchman Manuel Bevand held a commanding lead, finally struck when back from that same break, immediately winning a flurry of pots to take the lead without showing a hand. Bevand went out at 10 p.m. PT, emblematic of what was starting to look like an inevitable Ivey bracelet win. When Scott Fischman exited the razz in fourth and Alex Venovski did the same in hold 'em, both Phils were seemingly in control. Hellmuth almost immediately took out Brandon Cantu, leaving Don Zewin as Brunson/Chan's lone defender. Zewin doubled through almost immediately and memories of Hellmuth's three second places from a year ago were sure to have crossed his mind.
Meanwhile, for Ivey, a new challenger was rising. Andy Frankenberger won a bracelet a year ago, another bullet point on a résumé that includes a WPT Legends of Poker victory and WPT Player of the Year honors. Frankenberger was playing a surprisingly passive game downwind of Ivey, but he made his move at the right time. After the clock struck midnight, Frankenberger was dealt aces against the ace-king of Ali Eslami, who'd lost a strong chip lead established after Bevand's ouster. When the bullets held up and Eslami subsequently exited, Frankenberger joined Zewin in trying to stop the seemingly inevitable. The only difference was that Frankenberger started heads-up play virtually even with Ivey in chips.
For those watching the WSOP.com live streams from home, it was almost too much of a good thing. Poker-themed Twitter accounts lit up as every conscious member of the community struggled internally with which match to watch, inevitably developing whiplash and carpal tunnel syndrome as the decision never came. Others loaded up two computers side-by-side to make sure they wouldn't miss any of the action.
Hellmuth was holding his lead, but Ivey was starting to wane to Frankenberger's pressure. A touch after 1 a.m. PT, Frankenberger called an Ivey bet on the flop, then bet 450,000 on the river (with the total chips in circulation at 5.3 million) with the board showing 4s-Ah-Ks-Qd-2c. Ivey, as he always does, stared his man down for minutes, but this time he made the wrong read. He made the call to discover Frankenberger's J-10 had hit the straight on the turn. Ten minutes later, he got all-in on a A-5-4 flop with 7-6 against Frankenberger's A-J. The turn and river were both fives. Ivey had missed his straight. Missed his bracelet. Missed his redemption.
One Phil had failed to come through.
All eyes turned to Hellmuth as a throng migrated through the Rio. Zewin had been holding tight, but slowly, surely, he was losing the battle. As the clock neared 2 a.m. PT, Zewin called Hellmuth bets on fourth, fifth and sixth streets but folded when Hellmuth threw out one more bullet, leaving Zewin with just 300,000 (out of 2,317,000, the total chips in play). From there, it was all but done. It took 15 minutes and Hellmuth finally finished his man off. No. 12 was finally his and at last, the poker world could sleep.
For Hellmuth, the win is monumental. He's added a cushion to his claim as the greatest player of all time as measured through bracelet count, and perhaps just as importantly, he's added one more obstacle to Ivey's eventual challenge. His first 11 bracelets had a common theme other than victory -- they all came in hold 'em events. That this one didn't suggests that Hellmuth may still be evolving as a poker player, adding to his game, learning new tricks all of which in turn displayed growth that many have suggested Hellmuth was incapable of. The five-year drought is over, and the future seems bright for a man who has now made it to WSOP heads-up play four times in the past 13 months.
For Ivey? Disappointment. Losing doesn't suit Ivey well. Some players will tell you that finishing second, for all the money you get, feels like losing a two-man tournament. There's no doubt Ivey is one of them. His goal of surpassing Hellmuth is a little harder to reach today and his bracelet bets remain unfulfilled. For a man who's been compared often to Tiger Woods, though, some questions have been answered. The break didn't diminish him like it did Woods. He's still the force that succeeds at will. His play wasn't perfect, but it was a remarkable performance, and with it, he's reminded the world of the game play and presence that so endeared him in the first place. If he continues to put on this kind of show, FTP-burned players may even start to forget their anger with Ivey the man, marveling instead at the way Ivey the poker player plies his trade.
While Hellmuth basked in the victory and no doubt ordered his favorite Dom Perignon to celebrate, the real winners were the WSOP and poker fans. With Hellmuth grabbing the spotlight, the bickering was relegated to back-page news. When players talked Monday, it wasn't about bathrooms and tournament structures. It was about WSOP's two biggest stars, the show they'd put on late into the night, the history they'd made and the indelible mark they'd put on the 2012 WSOP. This Series finally has its first moment. We've finally started unveiling how 2012's story will be remembered in the years that come.