“No Limit Hold’Em Poker. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” — Tom McEvoy, 1983 World Series of Poker Champion

The main event of the World Series of Poker, the World Championship of No Limit Hold’Em, has a nickname: the Big Dance. It’s an appropriate moniker — the way this year’s 6,358 starters were whittled down from many hundreds of poker tables to just a single table, and then eventually to just a single winner, was very much like a dance.

And the Dance sure is Big. This year’s Main Event was the climax of a carnival which lasted 47 days, included 55 events, had 54,288 registrations, and gave away a spectacular $US159,796,918 in prize money.

The Big Dance is the ultimate ultra-marathon. Although officially it takes seven days, days one and two have such enormous fields that they are spread over multiple days. As a result, The Big Dance actually takes twelve days to complete.

Already $US37,765,053 has been awarded in prize money to those who placed 10th to 621st. But the serious money goes to the final table, comprised of nine players who have played 60 hours of gruelling poker over days one to six to be there. They have needed a Zen-like temperament and infinite patience, as well as their share of luck. Their prize money totaled $US22,019,901, ranging from $US8,250,000 for the winner down to $US525,934 for ninth.

Each of the nine left has an incredible story to tell of their journey to the final table, but perhaps the most incredible is that of Jerry Yang, the most inexperienced player of the field, with only two years’ experience.

Yang says he was born into abject poverty in Laos, and recounts the stories of how his family was so poor they couldn’t afford a ball to play with. He eventually managed to escape Laos, began to learn English at age 13 and eventually obtained his masters degree in health psychology. He thanks God for being here. He talks about his wife and six kids, and pledges to give away 10% of what he wins to charity.

But the spectacle of the “final table” is what we’re all here for. ESPN has equipped the table with hole-card cameras. Cameras on dollies constantly swing around the table. A director sits at a desk off to the side, pushing buttons and marshalling cameramen. All the ESPN people wear headsets. It is more like a scene from a movie set than a poker game.

Play started at midday. The first fourteen hands took a little over an hour, and were relatively innocuous. Suddenly, on hand number 15, the overnight chip leader, Phillip Hilm, inexplicably pushed all-in and was busted by Jerry Yang. From this moment until hand number 60, Yang had a rush of cards, and busted four players out in quick time. A fifth player was busted out by the South African, Raymond Rahme. Only 60 hands had been played, and we were down to our last four players at only 5:30pm. It looked like the tournament could be over relatively early in the evening. How wrong that proved to be.

The last four players suddenly tightened up. The stakes were so high, it became very rare for a hand to actually go the distance. A single raise, followed by all other players folding, became the order of the day.

It took a painful 107 hands before the fourth player, Alex Kravchenko, was finally busted out at 12:55am. Forty-five minutes later he was followed by the third place player, Raymond Rahme. So it was down to “heads-up”, only two players remaining. In the previous three years, it had taken an average of five hands of heads-up play before a winner is determined.

But not this year. Not for Tuan Lam. Jerry Yang had over 100 million in chips, the first man in the history of the world’s poker tournaments to do so. Lam had a mere 20 million or so. But Lam didn’t play ball. He wasn’t going to roll over and die quietly. In fact, he lasted for an incredible 35 hands, over two hours of play. It was past 3am. We were in the thirty-sixth level of the tournament and the blinds and antes were now almost incomprehensibly huge: 400,000/800,000 chips and 100,000 chips respectively. No-one was used to dealing with numbers this big, not the players, not the dealers, not the crowd, not the commentators.

These two men had now played more than 70 hours of poker in the tournament. Finally, just before 4am, it happened.

Lam moved all-in for his remaining 22.2 million chips, and Yang called. After the flop, Lam was in front, and it looked like the tournament could drag on for some time yet. But Yang luckily picked up a runner-runner draw to hit a straight and we had our new champion. The crowd went wild and the celebrations began. No-one got to bed until after sunrise. So here are the final standings for the WSoP 200:

Place

Name

Prize money

From

1st

Jerry Yang

$8,250,000

Temecula, CA, USA (born in Laos)

2nd

Tuan Lam

$4,840,981

Massasauga, Ontario, Canada (born in Vietnam)

3th

Raymond Rahme

$3,048,025

Johannesburg, South Africa

4th

Alex Kravchenko

$1,852,721

Moscow, Russia

5th

Jon Kalmar

$1,255,069

Chorley, Lancashire, England

6th

Hevad Khan

$956,243

Poughkeepsie, NY, USA

7th

Lee Childs

$705,229

Reston, VA, USA

8th

Lee Watkinson

$585,699

Cheney, WA, USA

9th

Philip Hilm

$525,934

Cambridge, England (born in Denmark)

Total final table prizes:

$22,019,901

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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