Looking Back: My Favorite Moments from the 2012 WSOP
The 44th Annual World Series of Poker began this week.
This will be the 19th WSOP I’ve attended. My first was way back in 1985. I’ve also missed nine, since then.
I initially attended the WSOP as a player, then as a writer-journalist, and finally over the past decade-plus as a tournament staffer. If any job is a labor of love, this is it.
Many people outside of poker think of the WSOP solely in terms of the Main Event. But it’s so much more than that. It’s like pro football. The Main Event is the Super Bowl. But the other gold bracelet events are kind of like the regular season and playoffs. I tend to like working the earlier events better, because there are so many more people with interesting stories.
Last year was one of the most exciting WSOPs in history. Considering all the great storylines of the 2012 series, combined with some memorable moments surely to be remembered, as the 2013 events now begin, we’ll have a hard act to follow.
Here’s a look back to the personal moments I remember with greatest affection, along with a snippet from the official reports written by me, now archived at WSOP.com. I encourage everyone who enjoys poker — playing or just watching — to visit the WSOP.com website regularly as this year’s series progresses over the next six weeks, when additional history will be made.
Let the countdown from 2012 now begin:
#10 — Adam Friedman’s Tears of Joy
Adam Friedman’s victory in Event #15 was the classic tale of disapppointment followed by triumph. But the winner had to wait for seven years. Friedman has a great story. It was one of my favorite memories from last year:
Everyone who remembers watching the 2005 World Series of Poker on television can probably recall a red-headed 23-year-old college graduate who ultimately became the “Agony of Defeat” poster child for that year’s entire series.
Adam Friedman, playing in his first major poker tournament ever that year, not only managed to outlast several thousand players in the Main Event Championship, he also made it into the money in what was his first-taste of what it’s like to compete at the very highest level.
The experience was utterly intoxicating.
But as riveting as was the emotional high when Friedman exploded from out of nowhere to make a serious run at poker’s world championship, once he was eliminated in 43rd place, the cliff-dive off the mountaintop was devastating. Friedman was seen weeping afterward, collapsing into the arms of his parents, emotionally drained and utterly disappointed.
Of course, the actuality that he posted a remarkable achievement was completely lost. What mattered most was that Friedman thought he had not played as well as he could in the tournament’s final stages, which cost him a chance to finish higher and perhaps even become that year’s version of poker Cinderella.
Fortunately, just as in life, poker sometimes grants the most deserving a second chance.
Early this Saturday morning, Friedman enjoyed the thrill of jubilation he achieved with his first WSOP gold bracelet victory and the title of 2012 Seven-Card Stud High-Low Split World Champion. Instantly, the past was forgotten. Mmories of previous miseries were erased. Odd how winning a WSOP gold bracelet is the magical cure for all poker pain.
#9 — Matt Matros Wins a Gold Bracelet for the Third Consecutive Year
Those who read this website may recall that I played quite a bit of poker with three-time gold bracelet winner Matt Matros (guess who won most of the time). We both used to play in the Washington DC area together, as well as in Atlantic City. I gradually realized my limitations as player and went in a different direction. Meanwhile, Matros managed to acheive considerable success as a player. Here’s a snippet from last year’s official report. By the way, oddly enough — it’s sometimes tougher to write a story about someone you know. This was the case with Matt’s victory for me:
At the rate Matt Matros is winning gold bracelets these days, he may very well become the all-time World Series of Poker victory leader by year 2022. Matros keeps on repeating himself.
Speaking of sounding like a broken record, he won a WSOP gold bracelet for the third consecutive year, which places him into an ultra-elite club of champions. Only six players in history have achieved that rare milestone.
Following previous wins posted in both 2010 and 2011, Matros’ golden trifecta was completed on Saturday night at the Rio in Las Vegas, in the $1,500 buy-in Six-Handed No-Limit Hold’em event.
The calm and quiet New Yorker known for his intense focus and scholarly demeanor at the table collected $454,835 in prize money, which attractively garnished a delicious third gold bracelet victory. He topped a formidable starting field totaling 1,604 players and ended up as the last man standing – make that sitting– at the final table which was played on the ESPN Main Stage and broadcast live over the Internet on WSOP.com.
#8 — Andy Frankenberger Defeats Phil Ivey Heads Up
If there’s any way to top the thrill of winning a WSOP gold bracelet, it’s winning the bracelet by beating the person acknowledged to be the best player in the world. That’s precisely what Andy Frankenberger did on a memorable poker night when Phil Hellmuth managed to win his 12th gold bracelet on the other ESPN stage:
But incredibly, for all his seemingly instant success — there were still detractors.
Annoyed at a playing style that can only be described as unorthodox, Frankenberger’s unique methodology flew in the face of just about every poker principle. He seems to bet when others thought he should fold. He’d raise when others thought he should call. He’d fold when others thought he should call.
Of course, the “others” of this Frankenberger morality tale — loud and as obnoxious as they were and are — remain mostly cyber-anonymous, behaving like jealous schoolboys after seeing the other guy get the girl and the gold.
And so — preposterous as it may sound, despite winning multiple major tournaments including a WSOP gold bracelet a year ago, Frankenberger still thought he had something left to prove.
He got his chance to do just that in the most challenging test in the grandest arena possible.
Frankenberger could not have written a more perfect script to not only quiet his critics but to kick them in the groin and laugh all the way to the bank. He final-tabled one of the toughest tournaments of the series, and then managed in gradual succession to topple Hoyt Corkins, Daniel Weinman, Matt Marafioti, Shaun Deeb, Manuel Bevand, Alexander Venovski, Ali Eslami, and then finally…….drum roll please….
Indeed, with all eyes focused on “the man,” Frankenberger dug in, dug down, and played the heads-up match of his life. He was down to Ivey a few times during the duel, but still managed to scratch and claw back. Finally, Frankenberger got it all in after the flop with a pair of aces.
Ivey found himself on a draw for his tournament life. It was Ivey that needed to get lucky.
But, that wasn’t going to happen. Not against Frankenberger. Not on this night. Not with stakes this high.
Alas, a second gold bracelet now belongs to Frankenberger — representing two WSOP victories.
Which again brings up an incredible story. Did you ever hear about the guy who went to a Yankees-Red Sox game and caught two foul balls?
#7 — Allyn Jaffrey-Shulman Finally Breaks Ladies Curse
I’ve always liked and had great respect for Allyn Jaffrey-Shulman. Last year when she faced Dennis Phillips heads-up in the largest seniors event in poker history, I had a hard time picking my favorite. No matter who won, this was destined to be a great story — and it was:
Allyn Jaffrey-Shulman won the 2012 Seniors World Championship, which concluded in thrilling fashion today at the 2012 World Series of Poker, taking place at the Rio in Las Vegas. The well-known Card Player magazine attorney and writer collected $603,713 in prize money.
This year’s seniors event – open to players age 50 and over — drew a whopping 4,128 entrants, making it the largest such event in poker history. The turnout eclipsed last year’s number by more than 400 players. In fact, this tournament was the largest single-day start in poker history.
Jaffrey-Shulman topped a stellar final table that included some notable players — including two-time gold bracelet winner Hoyt Corkins. Dennis Phillips, best known for his third-place in the 2008 Main Event Championship, was the runner up this time to Jaffrey-Shulman.
The victory by a female in an event open to both genders breaks a long-running streak of 249 straight male winners of gold bracelet events. Vanessa Selbst had previously been the last female winner of a gold bracelet (aside from the annual Ladies World Championship). Selbst’s victory took place in 2008.
Jaffrey-Shulman is originally from Brooklyn, NY. However, she spent much of her life in Los Angeles, where she worked as a criminal defense attorney for 25 years. She now resides in Las Vegas. Since joining the staff of Card Player magazine, Shulman has not only served as legal counsel; She also has worked tirelessly as an advocate for the legalization of online poker in the United States. Allyn-Jaffrey has written extensively about this important issue to the poker community and is one of the cause’s most vocal and articulate voices.
This was Jaffrey-Shulman’s first WSOP gold bracelet victory following several previous deep runs, cashes, and final table appearances. Her husband, Barry Shulman, and step-son, Jeff Shulman, both made final tables over the course of the past week – a WSOP first.
#6 – Andy Bloch Finally Wins a Gold Bracelet
I’ve known Andy for nearly 20 years, so his victory was personal for me, as well as a great story of persistence paying off. When people ask me who I cheer for at the poker table, it’s usally for the players who have paid their dues. Andy more than paid the price and finally won a gold bracelet playing Seven-Card Stud.
Andy Bloch breathed a colossal sigh of relief on Saturday night when he finally won what had been an elusive accolade of near-mythical proportions.
He finally won his first World Series of Gold bracelet, following 18 years of hammering away in the world’s most prestigious tournaments and ultimately suffering the perennial heartache of disappointment after disappointment at each and every WSOP since 1995.
No doubt, Bloch’s most painful moment took place six years ago, in one of the most epic confrontations in poker history. Bloch faced legendary poker icon David “Chip” Reese heads-up in the inaugural $50,000 buy-in Poker Players Championship, which was nationally televised on ESPN.
Bloch had the great Reese all-in and drawing slim a few times. But Reese managed to survive and eventually won what turned out to become the longest heads-up match in WSOP history — clocking in at a mind-numbing seven hours.
But tonight, Bloch erased all that.
He woke up from a nightmare.
Literally on the exact same spot at the Rio Las Vegas where Reese had slain Bloch in 2006, leaving him bracelet-less once again, this time the roles were reversed and Bloch got to feel what it was like to drag the final pot of a WSOP tournament.
Bloch won the $1,500 buy-in Seven-Card Stud tournament, which included a stellar final table lineup of rivals that made the victory all the more poignant. His comeback finale included former two gold bracelet winners playing the roles of extras in Bloch’s triumphant biopic — David Williams and Barry Greenstein — their golden amulets of previous accomplishment, no doubt, annoyingly ringing in Bloch’s ears each time a new hand was dealt and chips were bet.
But in the end, which came at 10 pm in front of a small circle of intimate friends and well-wishers, Bloch was the victor and vanquisher of all the demons of WSOPs past – finally righting the recurrent wrong that had plagued his otherwise astral tournament career like a mustard stain on a tuxedo.
#5 – Ylon Schwartz Wins Gold Bracelet
I’m interested in interesting people. Few people in poker are as interesting as Ylon Schwartz. And so, this was one of the better stories of what was a very good year for personalities:
But Schwartz, for all his natural talent and vested commitment, is hardly conventional – either as a poker player or as a person. Aside from his anarchistic look — equal parts college professor and Rastafarian — Schwartz is a man who very much does things his way. Alas, if Albert Einstein had a love child with Bob Marley, it would probably look something like Ylon Schwartz.
Known at one time by his (former) online poker screen name “TenthPlanet,” Schwartz was once asked by a reporter where he was born.
“Outer space,” was his reply.
An only child, Schwartz actually grew up in Manhattan — which might just as well be outer space to just about everyone else in the pedestrian universe. At an early age, he became fascinated by the rabidly anti-establishment underground chess scene, a hodgepodge of vagrants and uber-geniuses which produced the likes of prodigy and eventual madman Bobby Fischer. While still in his teens, he began playing chess regularly in public parks and managed to win $2 the very first time he played the game for real money. In a sense, Schwartz’s path in life became set at that very instant.
Schwartz reportedly hustled chess games for decades. Arguably, just one step up from being a Three-Card Monte dealer in the minds of all the similarly-smart “Manhattanites” that went on to college and joined the establishment, Schwartz could at least boast he was using his brains and talent to make a bona fide living. He also answered to no one. Of course, that “living” consisted of a meager subsistence during most of the time.
He tried college, became bored, and flunked out. He was hired for odd jobs, but was never able to quite fit in. Each time he tried to depart from the comfortable, if unprofitable, path of “being Ylon Schwartz,” the temporary detour would lead back to chess and gambling games – or more precisely the people who played them.
Realizing the obvious limitations of his skill set, Schwartz’s focus moved beyond chess. He became proficient at backgammon, darts, and other competitive endeavors that increasingly morphed into gambling. Schwartz was also a fixture at New York’s racetracks, constantly searching for the Holy Grail betting system that just barely managed to escape the clutch of every gambler.
By 2000, Schwartz was on a dead end path to nowhere. He bottomed out at one point and became homeless for a short time — oddly enough, a predicament that he neither regrets nor bemoans. For all of Schwartz’s idiosyncrasies, he would eventually discover that living the life on the edge as a master gamesman would prove to be the perfect training ground for the next stage of his life.
#4 — Larry Wright Wins One for the Good Guys
Larry Wright is an exceptional man. You wouldn’t know it at first glance by looking at him. But now read his amazing story:
Larry Wright has been coming to the World Series of Poker from his Texas ranch for nearly 40 years. You might have seen him around. He’s often sits in low- and middle-limit cash games. He occasionally plays a satellite or two, or perhaps a second-chance tournament. Once in a while, he even enters a gold bracelet event.
Larry wouldn’t normally stand out in any crowd, except for this one.
Perhaps you will recognize him. He’s almost always has a smile upon his face, a kind word for strangers, and even kinder word for his friends and associates, and occasionally a gift for those he believes warrant his generosity and trust.
Fact is, we wish there were more like him. We need more Larry Wrights. Many, many more. Not just in the poker world, but alas – the real world, too. We need a thousand Larry Wrights. We need a million Larry Wrights. We need more of his happiness. We need more of his kindness. We need more of his countless acts of charity.
Alas, Larry’s gift to us all is himself, and what a magnificent gift that is.
This extraordinary man won tonight’s Deuce-to-Seven Draw Lowball tournament, played out in all its glory at the Rio in Las Vegas. Four decades in the making, he finally collected his first career WSOP gold bracelet. He also earned six figures, his largest poker prize ever. But if you think this was about cards or chips or gold bracelets or prize money or any of the trappings of a championship victory on poker’s most glamorous stage, you would be wrong. You would be very wrong, indeed.
This victory was about rewarding righteousness. It was about bestowing victory on someone who was deserving of the honor. It was about proving that once in a great while, great things do happen to good people. Over the years, Larry has helped half the poker world, it seems. If a line were to form consisting of all the poker players Larry has helped over the years, stanchions would be necessary. And judging by the huge turnout along the rail as he inched closer and closer to victory at tonight’s final table, all those people Larry helped over the years were there to show their love and respect.
Numerous cases of personal restitution were displayed on this night. Many of them probably never re-paid Larry back a cent, nor could they. But they could give him something, and that was themselves and their presence at a time when Larry could glance over at the rail and see what he’d meant to them in their lives. It was a final table stacked with big names. Brandon Cantu. Andy Lichtenberger. Michael “the Grinder” Mizrachi. Erick Lindgren. Rep Porter. Ryan Tepen. But the loudest cheers were for the barefooted player sitting in the nine seat. Four former gold bracelet winners were drowned out by Larry’s loyal band of family, friends, and followers.
When he finally scooped the last pot of the tournament at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and was assured of a long-awaited victory, Larry pumped his fist into the air. He ran over to his wife and dived into her adoring arms. He was swarmed by his daughter, a brother, and several well-wishers who engulfed the newest gold bracelet champion into a giant love hug.
It was a moment of celebration. It was a moment of exuberance. It was a moment of beauty.
#3 — Phil Hellmuth Wins Gold Bracelet Number 12
No intro is needed on this one. This was poker history in the making on an amazing night when both Hellmuth and Ivery were up for gold bracelets a different final tables. Here’s part of the official report, which was a blast to write. Check out the full report, as I had some real fun with it. Hellmuth is such a wonderful player to dig at while also praising his obvious excellence:
Half of the sardined stargazers appeared to be cheering for Hellmuth. The other half (okay, maybe more) were cheering against Hellmuth.
No surprise there.
Hellmuth is used to his detractors. He even relishes the role of villain.
All great athletes and legendary sports teams divide the public’s rage and fancy, but there was one thing everyone in the crowd could agree upon — that the Rio was the place to be at this very special moment in the poker universe. Each spectator was one of a few hundred lucky souls witnessing poker history being made by one of the most skilled craftsmen at the very top of his game.
This conquest marked Hellmuth’s record-smashing 12th WSOP gold bracelet, the most by any player in history. He collected $182,793 in prize money – which for reasons any poker fan understands was the very last thing on the great one’s mind as the precious amulet was uncased from the display and positioned around the poker king’s saintly wrist.
For Hellmuth — the special significance attached to this victory — and the number 12 — was the perfect symbol of a stellar career which shows no signs of recess.
Hellmuth now holds a comfortable — and some might say insurmountable — two-bracelet lead over his two closest rivals – poker legends Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, who each have ten wins.
Given his age – now 47, one must presume Hellmuth isn’t quite finished yet, nor is he ready to hang it up and call it a career. If any suspense remained about Hellmuth’s next big score in poker, it wasn’t so much if but when he would finally hit the magical milestone of one-dozen WSOP wins.
Yet, what is most surprising about tonight’s victory is that it came playing a game not normally associated with Hellmuth’s undisputed reputation as a Hold’em master. Indeed, all of Hellmuth’s 11 previous gold bracelet wins had taken place in one form of Hold’em or another – Limit, Pot-Limit, and No-Limit, you name it.
Of those, his most memorable win was clearly his initial triumph which took place in the 1989 Main Event Championship, where he defeated nemesis Johnny Chan in heads-up play and launched what would become an international dynasty that eventually transcended the green felt.
Year by year as he stacked bracelet upon gold bracelet and earned cash after cash, Hellmuth built what would become a pyramid of self-worship, manifested in a “bad boy” image and marketing empire that catapulted him into arguably the most famous poker player in the world.
By the mid-2000s, Phil Hellmuth wasn’t merely a poker champion. He had become a living, breathing, crying, screaming, fist-pumping, whining, money-making, individual “brand” and sideshow carnival all unto himself, relishing every victory and defeat while the public wallowed in the movement of his shadow.
#2 — Neil Channing’s Defeat and the Crushing Disappointment of Finishing Second
Poker isn’t just about winning. It’s about losing and handling adversity, which is inevitable. Few poker players are a loved an admired by their peers as the U.K.’s Neil Channing. Just as there were incredible moments of ecstasy as the series, there are moments of real pain. This was one of those instances, captured as best I could in a report that was just as much about the runner up as the winner:
Channing played an extraordinary match. He committed no discernible mistakes. In fact, if Channing had the chance to play out all his hands again in a rematch, most would have said he’d play them the same way.
But if Channing played a great match, then Lu played a brilliant one. Down by a 9 to 2 margin on two occasions, the fearless Brooklynite never panicked. He never tilted. He picked just the right spots each time when he committed his entire stack and – on each of those key occasions – he had slightly the best of it against the tenacious Englishman.
The grueling duel slowly took its toll. From the look on Channing’s face, he seemed to sense everything was slowly slipping away. And, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Four hours after the showdown began, Lu had seized the chip lead by a small margin.
The final hand of the tournament was dealt when Lu flopped over 4-4 against Channing’s A-J suited. The two players would essentially race for a gold bracelet. The next 45 seconds would determine the new poker champion.
As if the poker gods wanted to tempt, tease and ultimately torture poor Channing a little while longer, the evasive savior card that could have catapulted him to poker bliss did not come.
A mob of at least a dozen supporters stormed across the big stage and mobbed their colleague. One half of the stage was complete bedlam. Hugging. Cheering. Celebration. The other half of the stage resembled a funeral. Alas, dreams of victory had died a painful death – at least for now.
Channing’s supporters sat in stunned silence. A deafening echo of cheers rang through the gallery filling the cavernous void that was in the hearts of the Channingites. All they could do was watch helplessly, no doubt searching for the solace that could bandage the wound of a man they loved and respected.
It was a party that many thought should have been Channing’s. Meanwhile, the disbelieving Londoner continued to sit at that table. He sat and sat. He waited. Utterly dejected, Channing could not bear to look anywhere in particular – not at the opposite site of the arena engulfed in jubilant celebration, and certainly not at his supporters, who he must have felt were utterly let down by what they saw. Channing continued in his state of trance. Looking straight ahead. Blindsided. It was as though he was waiting for something to happen, anything to happen, some miracle – a stretcher perhaps – that could instantly transport him out of this utter hell of disappointment.
As the celebration gradually faded and quieted, Channing finally stood up from his seat. He looked ahead, trying desperately to find the path of least resistance, searching for the avenue that could ease the pain of defeat. But for Channing, that street did not exist. There was but one path to take, and the walk of defeat was a painful one.
The portraits of ecstasy and agony were emblazoned in the memories of everyone who was here on this night to witness a one comeback and one tragedy. The culmination of the great comeback was a glimmering cylinder of gold.
Photographs were taken. Interviews were conducted. Then, there was even more celebration. As all this was happening, just over the massive crowd swarming around the latest WSOP winner, Channing shuffled away slowly in dead silence, hopelessly consoled by the only people on this Earth who could share and empathize with the heartbreaking disappointment. Channing tottered past the gallery. Slowly, they began to clap.
They began to cheer.
Then, the cheers grew louder, and louder.
They knew a champion when they saw one.
#1 — Antonio Esfandiari Wins $18 Million and “Big One for One Drop”
There was legitimate concern than the $18 million first prize in the ”Big One for One Drop” might overshadow the WSOP Main Event Championship. Instead, there were two stars of the series who received top billing, instead of just one. Antonio Esfandiari’s victory was not only the richest poker moment in history, but also the most over the top in terms of wild celebration. No one really expected the final moment of victory to match all the hype and expectation, but this one did. Add in the charity component, and this tournament had absolutely everything:
That still leaves one other possible storyline that might take precedent over the prize money — which is really saying something.
And what would that possibly be?
To answer that question we must depart on an imaginary journey away from the Las Vegas Strip and transport our attention to places where there are no poker tables, no glitz, and glamour – and sometimes no hope.
Places like impoverished villages. Barren deserts. Refugee camps. Places where there is horrific famine. Where there is pain. Where people suffer and die.
No doubt, Esfandiari would be the first to insist that this victory was not just about him. There was more than one winner. Many, many more.
Long after this astronomical amount of money is come and gone, long after the television show is but a distant memory in the minds of millions who watched and witnessed it, and long after this gold bracelet victory is vaulted and padlocked into the record books, many thousands of people are going to benefit from the financial windfall of what happened on this historic night in Las Vegas. They aren’t interested in bundles of cash. They have no interest in the meaning of winning a WSOP bracelet. All they want and need is one thing.
That’s right, clean water.
Consider that every 20 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from a water-related disease. That’s intolerable.
Due to this tournament and one man who cares, many good people that none of us know, nor will ever meet, will be given access to one of life’s most previous resources. Clean water.
Guy Laliberté’s grand vision of holding an unprecedented historical event, in unison with Mitch Garber’s enthusiastic support on behalf of Caesars Interactive Entertainment and the World Series of Poker will put clean water into the mouths of people for the first time, which with continued financial support and greater awareness will hopefully last forever.
More than $10 million was raised by holding a tournament and playing a game. That’s right — a poker game.
Change does not happen overnight. It happens one step at a time. And poker players have helped others to take one big step forward, thanks to this event.
Indeed, Antonio may be the Big One for One Drop champion and $18 million richer. But the biggest winners of all are people whose names will probably remain unknown.
Honorable Mention: There were at least a dozen more great memories, including Greg Mersen’s win in the Main Event, Chris Tryba’s first gold bracelet, Ryan Eriquezzo’s personal comeback and WSOP National Championship victory, and several others. But I could only pick ten, and these are my choices.