Imagine sitting down at a table with $1 million of your money on the line. The fear. The excitement. The intensity. The power. The anticipation. The frustration. The stress that comes with realizing, "This is the hand where I could lose $1 million" recurring every two minutes for days on end. Either terminal defeat or supreme glory is always on the horizon. Now, imagine you were just one of 48 players going through the exact same thing.
Welcome to The Big One for One Drop.
Sunday marks the beginning of a singular event in poker's history. Last year, the $50,000 buy-in for the World Series of Poker's highest-rolling event, the Poker Players' Championship, seemed monumental. It felt like maximum capacity might have been reached. However, buy-ins had been skyrocketing worldwide, with a trend in super-high-roller events of players put up as much as $250,000 to play in tournaments that would barely reach double-digit entries. Even the WSOP might not have inspired better numbers. It felt like the WSOP just might not be the right vehicle for that kind of tournament, especially since the WSOP has always blazed the trails, not walked them afterward.
Enter Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque de Soleil, poker player, humanitarian. The Big One for One Drop is his brainchild and One Drop is his cause. What Laliberte proposed to Caesar's was a pro-am style event with a $1 million buy-in. He knew poker's heaviest hitters would generally not risk this much in a single tournament unless there were more incentive than just money. It needed to be a golden opportunity, so Laliberte infused a charity component (11.111 percent of all buy-ins go to One Drop). He became the tournament's first entrant.
Laliberte started flying to meet with his business contacts, heavy hitters in the business world and enthusiasts at the table. He told them about One Drop and its mission to make sure no child would go thirsty. He waxed romantic about the incredible experience a tournament like this would provide, and one by one, the businessmen started making their commitments. From the sharks' perspective, with each businessman dollar that entered the pot, the tournament started looking like a potential feeding frenzy. Laliberte had provided them the incentive to feed, and where putting up $1 million for just about any player at one point seemed implausible, when the expected 48 seats filled this past Friday, there were numerous pros left holding large wads of cash with nowhere to spend them. The rake, $5,533,328, has been set aside for the foundation.
Outside of Las Vegas, the event and the cause are gaining national exposure. Days 1 and 2 will be streamed live online at WSOP.com. The final table on Day 3 will be broadcast live on Tuesday, starting at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2, then moving at 8 p.m. to ESPN. It's safe to say the world's education on this issue is about to hit a steep incline. Thus the event is already a massive success.
"There's no chance this could have happened without Guy," Daniel Negreanu told ESPN.com. "He put this all together. The idea of a $1 million buy-in was ridiculous. He's so tapped into the business world, though, that he was able to go out and recruit, rally the players. Without him, this never happens he's just really passionate about the charity. It's a great way to raise awareness and a whole lot of money. The rake is going to charity. I think his passion for charity is what motivates him."
"Guy was so important," said poker pro Bertrand Grospellier, who helped promote the event from the start. "If it wasn't for Guy, there wouldn't be a tournament. It had to be him, a guy who loved poker, knew the players and knew the businessman. Guy was definitely the absolute best person to do this."
Starting at 4:11 p.m. ET Sunday, 48 players (29 of them professionals, 19 of them big-time businessmen) will receive a stack of 3 million in chips for the $1 million they've each put up. The tournament will begin with six tables and will continue for three days. The winner will take home $18,346,673 of the $42,666,672 prize pool and will automatically be tournament poker's all-time leading money winner. Amazingly, for hosting this monster, the WSOP isn't taking one red cent off the top despite providing space, tables, chips, dealers, drinks and the rest that comes with a class poker event, because for all of the personal fortune the players stand to gain, this event isn't about them. Really, it's not even about the WSOP, even though there's a platinum bracelet for the winner.
What it's really about is water.
"Our mission is two things," Laliberte has explained more times than he can count. "We want to do field projects because there are people all over the world who need our help. The other part of our mission is education, awareness, which is equally important. We're living in an area of privilege where people feel like water as a resource is infinite, which isn't the case. There are people who don't have that access to water, whose neighbors are dying every day. Really, the One Drop campaign is calling for unity and international collaboration on a solution to water access issues in the world."
Laliberte knows his work has only just begun. "There's many ways of supporting the One Drop cause," he said. "First, there's always the money part of it. The campaign has tried to reach the community and the individual, asking for them to commit a percentage of their winnings financially because we'd be able in that community to raise a lot of money. The more money we raise, the more lives we save. It's important because this informs people about the importance of access to water, how important the resource is, how it isn't infinite."
"It's a shot in the arm for poker," said Ty Stewart, executive director of the WSOP. "But it's just so much bigger than that. The Big One shows how philanthropy can spring up in the most unlikely of places. We're proud poker's most historic moments happen at the WSOP."
Now, with money and awareness raised, after a year of planning, recruiting and promoting, the time to shuffle up and deal is at hand. As much as the world's best tournament players are accustomed to reducing poker chips in their mind to game pieces, even they're expressing excitement you seldom hear.
"I'm more excited for this one than I have been for a tournament since I first played the main event," said Brian Rast, who's biggest win, in the 2011 $50,000 Poker Player's Championship is about to no longer be the biggest buy-in event in WSOP history. "The size of the buy-in, the amount of money I've put up, the exposure of this whole thing it's a crazy, sick, cool, awesome tournament."
"For now, it feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Grospellier. "I'm so excited, so happy to be a part of it. That it's benefiting such a great charity is great also."
"It really didn't sink in until I saw my buy-in receipt," admitted Negreanu. "It said $1 million for buy-in and it just felt crazy. I feel like it's an honor just to be a part of a select group."
Will Laliberte give all his winnings to charity if he were to be victorious?
"Absolutely not!" he said with a laugh. "I'm a poker player. A percentage will go there, sure, but absolutely not. I play also for myself. There's no one out there who paid a million to not win it. It's a big boxing match type of weekend in Vegas, the pros in the red corner, businessmen in the blue corner. I think the pros have an edge because of their profession, but the luck factor could go either way and the power and the money could balance these things. These businessmen, there will be a situation where they would push an all-in situation, the pro won't have the nuts and will be representing 10-20 people who have invested in them it will be tough."
On Saturday night with 46 seats full and two satellites left to play, the world watched with anticipation to see who would be the final members of the brotherhood that would form this field. Typical of his late-entry theatrics, Phil Hellmuth finally joined the party, taking the seat paid for early on by MGM. Then, Gus Hansen won the final seat in a $25,000 satellite that awarded a seat for first, $1 million for second (claimed by Shaun Deeb), $400,000 (claimed by Jason Somerville) for third and nothing for fourth (sorry, Will Failla). It was dramatics proceeding dramatics. Nothing is small about this tournament.
Hansen and Hellmuth join the stellar roster that will not only be competing for that first prize, but also be immortalized as the cast of this monumental spectacle. Just being able to say you played in One Drop is a big, big deal. You won't need to say you won it, because you'll be remembered forever. Here's the list of players:
The pros: Roland De Wolfe, Tom Dwan, Jonathan Duhamel, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Galfond, Bertrand Grospellier, Philipp Gruissem, Giovanni Guarascio, Phil Ivey (the favorite?), Eugene Katchalov, Jens Kyllönen, Ben Lamb, Tom Marchese, Jason Mercier, Michael Mizrachi, Daniel Negreanu, Brian Rast, Vivek Rajkumar, Tobias Reinkemeier, Haralabos Voulgaris, Nick Schulman, Noah Schwartz, Erik Seidel, Mike Sexton, Justin Smith, Sam Trickett, Andrew Robl, Phil Hellmuth and Gus Hansen.
The businessmen: Paul Phua, Richard Yong, Ilya Bulychev, Mikhail Smirnov, Bob Bright, Cary Katz, Frederic Banjout, John Morgan, Paul Newey, Bobby Baldwin, Talal Shakerchi, Rick Salomon, Guy Laliberte, Dan Shak, David Einhorn,
Phil Ruffin and Brandon Steven. (Steven and Shak are regularly found on the poker circuit.)