Spirited fan base floods the Main Event final table
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS -- Anyone who ever doubted the concept of poker as a spectator sport would probably have a change of heart after seeing the spectacle that transpired at the Penn & Teller Theater Sunday morning.
It was like March Madness and a heavyweight prize fight all rolled into one. That's the type of atmosphere that surrounded the ESPN featured table inside the Rio All Suites Hotel & Casino as the much-anticipated World Series of Poker Main Event final table resumed play. There was blaring music, player introductions and those annoying "thunder sticks" that have become commonplace at seemingly every major sporting event. The overflowing crowd was both boisterous and spirited, taunting each other with chants and erupting any time their favorite player made a good call or won a hand.
Simply put, this was poker like nobody had ever seen it before and, for all intents and purposes, that was exactly what Harrah's and the WSOP wanted when they made the bold decision to pause the world's biggest tournament for 117 excruciating days.
Jake Godshalf from Los Angeles was the first person to get in line outside the theater for the general admission event. He got there at 2 a.m. Sunday morning, more than eight hours before cards went into the air.
"I just absolutely love poker and I didn't want to miss this," he said with a smile as the doors were at long last opened at 10 a.m. "I wanted to be here to see history."
He wasn't alone. For most of the day there was a steady line of more than 200 people standing outside waiting to get into the 1,400-seat theater. When they got inside they sat high above the actual table, at a vantage point where they could barely see the players' faces. But they didn't care. As Godshalf put it, they were seeing poker history, even if it was from monitoring the action via two giant monitors and a play-by-play given by Tournament Director Jack Effel, who every so often had to ask the crowd to quiet down during play.
"We're really pleased with the turnout; it's been incredible," said WSOP Commissioner Jeffery Pollack, who on Monday night will hand over the Main Event bracelet to either Ivan Demidov or Peter Eastgate, the two men who survived Sunday's grueling 13 hours of play. "I think the 117-day delay brought a number of game-changers into the mix and one of them was the crowd. You can really feel the electricity in the room. It's the kind of atmosphere we were hoping for when we made the decision.
"It's a lot different than your average sporting event, but the whole thing has been really cool to watch," added Chris Balabous, who made the trip from New York. "It's exciting. It was well worth the wait."
Balabous was one of the many people in the crowd rooting for Dennis Phillips, the trucking sales manager from St. Louis who was the leader coming into the day in both chips and support in the audience. Sitting in the mezzanine level were a sea of more than 300 people wearing replica Dennis Phillips white, long sleeve, button down shirts complete with the Broadway Trucking Center and PokerStars logos. Many of them also had a St. Louis Cardinal baseball cap on, just like what Phillips wears at the table.
In addition, the Phillips Fan Club had signs, a truck horn and a laundry list of chants that they serenaded their man. During the near-four month break, Phillips has become an instant celebrity, for more reasons than just the fact that he was the surprise chipleader. Phillips has taken advantage of his status to donate to charity while also coming across as the type of "regular guy" you would want to root for.
"I met him during the Main Event in July when he didn't have many fans out here and we really kind of hit it off," said Bob Lynch, a New York transplant who has lived in Las Vegas for the last four years. "He invited me to come down today and root him on and I'm honored to do so. The thing about Dennis is that he's going to donate a lot of this money to charity so if he wins, you know the money is going to a good cause. Plus, he's just a great guy."
In the end the Phillips faithful went home disappointed when the 53-year-old was ousted in third place at around 12:44 a.m.
On the other end of the chipleader board coming into the day was Kelly Kim. But while the 31-year-old poker pro from California had eight million less than the next shortest stack of Craig Marquis and a 23.6 million less than Phillips, he was not starving for crowd support. In fact, other than the Phillips Fan Club, Kim had the second most-vocal backing when play got underway. The pro-Kim crowd continued to make its presence felt as their man battled from the bottom spot, won a few hands and ended up finishing in eighth place.
"It was amazing," Kim said of his support. "You would never think that this many people would come out to watch poker. I had family and friends here from all over California so I was glad that I was able to double up when I did and give them a chance to cheer for something."
Kim's older sister Julie was one of the leaders of the Kim contingent in the crowd that totaled just under 200 people. She said she wasn't surprised to see her brother get so much support.
"He may have had the small stack coming in, but he has the most passion," said Julie, who was sitting with her husband, Jimmy Chang, and their friend James Yoo. "It's poker so we came in knowing that anything can happen. This whole experience has been incredible for all of us. It's been a fun ride."
While some of the other players' cheering sections weren't as loud as the Phillips and/or Kim sections, they were just as devoted.
Eastgate, the 22-year-old from Denmark, had around 20 friends make the trip to Las Vegas. The Scandinavians were wearing brown T-shirts with gold stars with the words "It's in the Stars" on the front. Eastgate's nickname "Issuer," which refers to his "icy" demeanor, was on the backside.
"I've got goose bumps sitting here watching him," said Nice Eckhardt, 29, who was sitting inside the No Limit Lounge just a few feet away from his childhood friend. "It's amazing to be here. I've played poker against Peter for hours and hours so to see him doing well and going after a world championship is fun."
Eastgate said having his friends and family in town to support him was just as helpful away from the table as it was during the actual play.
"I think having them here really helped relax me during the last five days," he said. "I love my family and friends. They mean a lot to me and they helped me get here."
Darus Suharto, the Indonesian-born accountant who lives in Canada, had a cheering section of about 20 people that was wearing white T-shirts with the Canadian flag on the front and "Suharto" on the back in red letters.
And the player with perhaps the smallest fan club may be the only member of the November Nine to send his group home happy. Demidov, who hales from Russia, had just four family members sitting behind him, but they were difficult to miss. His father had a Russian winter hat on the entire day and the other Demidov fans were also dressed in garb from their home country. And whenever Demidov took home a pot, a big Russian flag was waved through the air.
"It's great because normally for a final table we'll have 200 or maybe 250 spectators," Pollack added. "But today there was a line out the door until around 9 o'clock. The place sits over 1,000 people and it's been pretty much full all day. The point of breaking the action for 117 days was to build excitement. Anyone who was here today will tell you just how exciting it has been. It's been a great day for the sport of poker."