All eyes were on Greg Merson as he made a graceful exit Saturday afternoon from the World Series of Poker. But not that long ago, no one was watching him.
“We didn’t know him last year,” said Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate communications for Caesars Interactive Entertainment, which owns the WSOP.
Merson was the definition of a Cinderella story when he won the Main Event in October. He was up against astronomical odds in his bid to repeat, and still overcame a lot en route to finishing 167th. It was an impressive run, all things considered.
The 44th year of the Main Event looks nothing like it did in 1970, when Johnny Moss was the winner from a field of seven players. Moss won again in 1971, when there were six entrants.
The $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold ’em World Championship field of 6,352 players had dwindled to 82 by 11:30 p.m. Saturday, the fifth day of the tournament at the Rio Convention Center.
In 1977, when Doyle Brunson repeated as champion, there were 34 players.
Stu Ungar outlasted a field of 75 to successfully defend his title 1981. Johnny Chan, the last back-to-back winner, beat a field of 167 players in 1988.
“It’s a different world,” Palansky said. “As one of the guys said, you’re trying to dodge raindrops in a thunderstorm to get to the final table.
“Even the pros call amateurs who have no chance landmines because they are so unpredictable and you don’t know what moves they are going to make. Johnny Chan did an incredible thing. You’ll never see that string of three years again.”
Chan nearly three-peated, finishing second to Phil Hellmuth in 1989, when there were 178 entrants. Hellmuth, Brunson and almost all of poker’s big names were bounced from this Main Event long before Merson.
On Merson’s final hand, against Brett Richey, both players moved their chips in preflop. Merson showed A-2 against A-K and was off to collect a check for $42,990. Last year, he hauled in $8.5 million.
“I wanted to represent the game as well as I can,” Merson, 25, said after getting knocked out. “I never went into poker to be this famous person.”
There will be a new champ this year, and it most likely will be a relative unknown making a breakthrough. Chris Lindh was the first player in the tournament to top 4 million in chips, but he was passed by Sami Rustom, who took the lead with 6.7 million late Saturday.
This era of the World Series, with thousands of players, is incomparable to decades past.
“It’s very difficult to do what (Merson) did in back-to-back years,” Palansky said. “He actually took it very well. He’s legit. He’s an elite player. You can’t really luck your way through 10 days of poker.
“At the same time, we’ve had guys who have not done anything meaningful in years since.”
Merson’s departure left Carlos Mortensen (2001) as the only former Main Event winner remaining in the field.
Of the final 82 players, there were three women, led by Jackie Glazier of Australia. Glazier won a big hand against Merson on Friday night.
Glazier, who was sitting behind about 2 million in chips, is pretty talented herself. She’s made the money in the Main Event for the third time in four years, placing 282nd a year ago.
“I’m excited, of course. But I’m just trying to stay level headed about it,” Glazier said. “A long way to go. The final table. That’s my goal. That’s what I want.”
Palansky admits he would like to see Glazier or another woman survive to Monday, when nine players will advance to the final table Nov. 4 and 5.
“I should be impartial. But, yes, I openly root for a woman, and I think the entire poker community does,” Palansky said. “It’s good for the health of the game and attracting new players. A woman would be a great story that could help that effort.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.