World Series riding high in early rounds

Jun 12, 2005 11:35 PM

After the first couple weeks of World Series of Poker (WSOP) action, it’s safe to say tournament poker is alive and well at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Harrah’s purchase of the World Series from Binion’s last year came at the most opportune time. Poker is at the height of its popularity and attendance records are being broken with every event.

Moreover, the recently completed convention facility at the Rio has turned out to be an ideal venue for the expanded World Series.

Judging by the overflow fields in the WSOP’s first five events, we can expect the pace to continue through the championship event in July.

Here are the early returns — this year’s entries in the first five events compared to last year’s numbers:

Due to the large fields, Harrah’s and ESPN have jointly decided to make all televised tournaments three-day events, up from the traditional two days. In addition, all events with 1,500 or more entries will be played over a three-day period.

With thousands of players participating, there has emerged several one-one-one battles as well as other interesting races worth watching. One of them is between Phil Hellmuth and Berry Johnston for the most "cashes" — that is, times they’ve finished in the money.

Coming into this year’s World Series, Johnston had a slight lead with 46 cashes to Hellmuth’s 45. In Event 2, Hellmuth cashed for a 24th place finish and the two poker greats were tied.

Then, in Event 3, Hellmuth cashed again (for 42nd place) and he seized the lead for the first time.

But Hellmuth could only revel in his glory for less than day. In Event 5, Berry Johnston cashed for a 30th place finish, which meant that Hellmuth and Johnston were again locked into a tie, each with 47 times in the money at the WSOP. With 40 more events left in the tournament, this battle could see-saw all the way to the end!

Of course, the big battle is for the gold bracelets, which are awarded to the individual tournament winners.

In the 36-year history of the WSOP, a total of 363 different players have won gold bracelets. There have been 92-multiple gold bracelet winners (two or more victories). As of the start of this year’s World Series, here are the top 15 in lifetime gold bracelets won (all with five wins or more):

Doyle Brunson, 9

Johnny Chan, 9

Phil Hellmuth, 9

Johnny Moss, 8

Billy Baxter, 7

Jay Heimowitz, 6

Men Nguyen, 6

Erik, Seidel, 6

Bones Berland, 5

T.J. Cloutier, 5

Chris Ferguson, 5

Layne Flack, 5

Ted Forrest, 5

Berry Johnson, 5

Stu Ungar, 5

Every year, the WSOP takes on a different personality, which is mostly defined by the composition of the winners. In 2003, for instance, the big names were resurrected from years past, as legendary figures such as Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth and Chris Ferguson collected gold bracelets.

In 2004, the younger generation invaded the WSOP. Twenty-something prodigies such as Scott Fischman, Thomas "Thunder" Keller, and Gavin Griffin made their mark on poker history and made the Series memorable as the "Year of the Young Guns."

Through the first few open events this year, it’s difficult to predict what will happen in 2005. Poker veteran Allen Cunningham won his fourth gold bracelet, defeating a star-studded final table, which led some to speculate that the "big names" would do very well.

Then, a relative unknown named Thom Werthmann won the following event. When Eric Froehlich (a.k.a. ”˜E-Fro’) became the youngest WSOP winner in history (at 21 years, 3 months, and 26 days), speculation arose that 2005 will be another year when the younger players will do very well — perhaps a Young Guns II could be in order.

Only time and our gold bracelet winners will tell. Stay tuned.