The Journey Begins Here
You love your professional sports, but you can't play them. It's the great, cruel irony of fandom. We wrap ourselves in team flags and study the stats like they were course material for our life exams. In the end, though, all that time spent — all those words expunged defending "our guys" — is energy sourced toward someone else's endeavor. Sure, in our drunker moments we may insist we could stand with them, but we're not even allowed to play. With good reason.
The reality is that you'll be writhing on the floor with broken ribs if you try to absorb a shoulder from LeBron James when he drives the lane. If Clay Matthews were to hammer at your wrists, they'd snap like twigs. Manny Pacquaio knows about 40 ways to get you unconscious in 10 seconds and you can't do a thing about any of them. The only way you're stopping a Rafa Nadal serve is with your cup.
I don't think you want to do that.
In the realm of professional sport, the comfort of your couch is about as close as you'll come to mixing it up with the big boys and having any kind of competitive chance. For a lot of us, that's enough. It has to be. We go on with our lives carrying that resignation in the hip pocket of our dress pants or our jeans or any manner of real-life work trousers in between, because we can't wear the uniforms of the teams we love. There is one venue, though, where you can stare down the best in the world and have a real chance to win.
The World Series of Poker crowns that game's world champion and its only qualification criteria is money. For $10,000, you, me, your best friend, your father, your mother or anyone else who deems the expenditure worthy can enter, play with the best and, given the appropriate focus, even win. In 2003, that very thing happened when a Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker toppled giants, won $2,500,000 and saw his name loaned to a cultural explosion that has seen one previous unknown realize the dream of fame and fortune in every year since. Chris Moneymaker is why poker is on your TV, because at the WSOP fantasy becomes reality. The unknowns play with the superstars and win.
"This is what the WSOP is all about," said WSOP Vice President Ty Stewart. "Anyone can enter. Anyone can win. Anyone who engages in competition wonders what it's like to stare down the competition and own on the biggest stage. Here at the WSOP, it is reality. It does happen. You can win. It's the ultimate playoffs because nothing else you've ever done compares when you've sat down at the table. The history is written one hand at a time."
"If you want to play hockey, you'll get your [butt] kicked," said Jonathan Duhamel, 23. "If you fight [George St. Pierre], you'll get your [butt] kicked again. In poker, you never know. If you get good cards, you can win against the best. That's the biggest beauty of poker."
Duhamel learned that truth in the best way possible. A year ago, the newly embarked professional made his way to Vegas and entered the main event. Two weeks later, he'd made the final table. When the final nine reconvened in November, he stood supreme and became poker's world champion.
The 23-year-old Canadian and the Tennessee accountant are just two among the strange mosaic of the past decade's world champions. A Laotian-American social worker … a 22-year-old Danish kid … a Hollywood agent … a patent attorney … they've all won the poker world's biggest tournament and millions of dollars with it because, in a game in which skill plays its largest part over the very long term, anything can happen today.
"That's why it's a great game," admitted Shane Schleger, a professional player who has yet to cash in six main event tries. "Yeah, there's a lot of luck involved, but you don't need to get lucky to beat a great player. You could play one great hand. They can make a mistake. It's not like a pitcher's going to suddenly throw a 60-mph fastball."
That's the thing. Step in against Roy Halladay and you'll barely be ready when the ball hits the catcher's mitt. When preparing for poker's best, you can take appropriate measures — you can play, practice, trade thoughts with friends and read up on the mathematical principles that guide good fundamental play. Get the right cards at the right time and anything can happen.
"Certainly, amateurs can win more than in [major] sports," agreed legendary rounder Barry Greenstein. "Twenty years ago, people didn't get to see hole cards, see the strategy, access the learning material. Now, anyone who's serious about the game can get to the level where they have a shot to make a deep run. The edge that the better players have is that they're not going to make as many bad decisions. On the other side of the coin, you'll see some people win and get lucky with the worse hands."
"It's our big championship," explained Daniel Negreanu, one of the game's true stars. "Like the Super Bowl or the World Series, it has that energy, but the fan participation is like people participating on the field. I can't remember the last time I was eliminated by someone I knew."
You can hardly blame Negreanu for his lack of recognition. In the past five years, the field has averaged more than 7,000 entrants. It's a lot of heads to climb over, a virtual sea of hopes in which all but one will eventually be dashed. The odds for any one player emerging victorious are obviously incredibly long but at least they get to play.
"Last year, I just wanted to go," Duhamel said with a smile. "I didn't expect to win. I didn't know who I'd play. I just wanted to play the best I could. This year, people might target me, but that's great because it's their chance to play the big names. It's an opportunity for them to play with one of the big guys."
Duhamel's transformation from unknown to star was completed over the course of this one tournament. This week, the cycle begins again. Maybe you can't play with LeBron or Manny or those others, but you can play with poker's world champion. And you can win.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.
Follow Gary Wise on Twitter: @GaryWise1