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Top 10 storylines to follow during the Main Event

6 Jul 2015

By Dan Podheiser
It’s been an incredible summer at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. With 67 events down and just one to go, the 2015 World Series of Poker has seen record fields, huge side action and dozens of feel-good stories.

Every year, from late May to mid-July, the poker world flocks to Las Vegas. The pros try to grind out a living and possibly hit a big score, while the amateurs are here to have a good time -- and if they're lucky, make a name for themselves. Everyone just wants to have a great summer.

And even if the summer hasn't been kind to you on the felt to this point, the Main Event is where you can turn it all around. Make a deep run and you can pad your bankroll with six figures or more. For a pro, that means the ability to play bigger stakes. For many of the thousands of amateurs who will play the Main Event, it could mean wiping away a mortgage and completely changing a way of life.

As the 2015 Main Event gets underway, it's important to remember why the game of poker is so popular: anyone can play. And that means that even when the odds are stacked against you, you can run hot for two weeks and become the game’s next world champion.

With that in mind, here are the top 10 storylines to follow during this year’s Main Event.

10. Will earlier massive field sizes lead to a larger Main Event field?

The 2015 World Series of Poker started off with a bang, as the $565 buy-in Colossus saw a total of 22,374 entries and 14,284 unique players, shattering the previous field size record of 8,773 entries in the 2006 Main Event.

The WSOP brass was very clear in its intentions for the Colossus: To bring as many players out to the Rio as possible at the beginning of the series, hoping that a good portion of them would stick around or come back. The World Series was sprinkled with similarly attractive, low buy-in events throughout the summer, from the $1,000 DraftKings 50/50 event to the $777 Lucky Sevens.

The turnout from amateurs has been great so far. But how many of them will play the Main Event? Last year’s field of 6,683 players was a slight uptick from 2013. It will be disappointing if the 2015 field does not crack 7,000.

9. Will pros (incorrectly) complain about the flatter payout structure?

This year, the WSOP is experimenting with a different kind of prize pool guarantee, as the top 1,000 players are guaranteed to cash, assuming the field is a minimum of 5,000 players. For reference, a standard tournament payout structure will pay 10 percent of the field – in 2014, 692 of the 6,883 players made the money.

You'd think that more players getting paid would please everyone. An amateur is usually happy just to make the money, and when amateurs are happy, pros are happy, too. Or at least they should be.

But when the WSOP broke the news that the Colossus payout structure was unusually flat, and that first place would only earn $638,880, several top pros were openly displeased.

It's understandable to be a little annoyed when the largest poker tournament ever does not pay seven figures for first place. And one could certainly make the argument that the WSOP could have done a better job of making the payout structure clear prior to the Colossus starting. But the core of the WSOP's reasoning behind the flat payout structure is to make amateurs happy. When they're happy, they come back. And when they come back, it means a better bottom line for pros.

So if a professional poker player voices his displeasure over the flatter payout structure at this year's Main Event – even though it was announced months ago – we should all take a moment to collectively laugh at him or her.

8. Will Ronnie Bardah cash for a sixth straight year?

The extra guaranteed payout slots should only please Ronnie Bardah, who is amazingly trying to add to his record of five straight cashes at the Main Event.

Bardah was visibly emotional as the bubble burst last year, and grinded hard to finish in 475th place for $25,756. If he tacks onto his record this year, it will truly be one of the greatest accomplishments in World Series history.

7. Will someone join the three-bracelets-in-one-year club?

The current club includes six players: Phil Hellmuth (1993), Phil Ivey (2002), Ted Forrest (1993), Jeff Lisandro (2009), Walter "Puggy" Pearson (1973) and George Danzer (2014).

Brian Hastings and Max Pescatori are the two players in the running to notch a third bracelet in 2015. Hastings, who amazingly bet big money on himself to win a bracelet this summer, took down the $10,000 Seven Card Stud Championship before winning the $1,500 Ten Game Mix. Pescatori, meanwhile, won the $1,500 Razz and the $10,000 Seven Card Stud Hi-Low 8 or Better Championship.

If either Hastings or Pescatori wins the Main Event, he will become the first player to join the illustrious three-bracelet club by winning the big one.

6. Will Mark Newhouse make another deep run?

In 2014, Mark Newhouse simultaneously achieved, in my opinion, the most improbable success and the biggest letdown in Main Event history.

In July of 2014, Newhouse shocked the poker world by locking up his second straight trip to the November Nine, becoming the first player to make back-to-back Main Event final tables since Dan Harrington in 2003 and 2004. But when November came around, Newhouse disappointed by finishing ninth for the second straight year, even though he entered the final table third in chips.

If Newhouse even simply cashes again in 2015, it will be a remarkable accomplishment. Another deep run would be insane. But you get the sense that Newhouse would rather bust in the first level on Day 1 than finish ninth again, even if it means another near million-dollar score.

5. Which celebrity will last the longest?

NBA star Paul Pierce made headlines last year when the former Celtic great made it to Day 3 of the Main Event. Pierce had a big stack of chips after Days 1 and 2, but eventually fizzled and busted before the money.

The Main Event always sees a handful of non-poker celebrities show up to test their wits against the pros, from Pierce to football star Richard Seymour to actors Ray Romano and Kevin Pollak.

Hell, even Aaron Paul showed up last year, much to my delight. He wasn't playing – he was watching a friend, apparently – but there's no doubt in my mind that he could make a deep run if he tried. Hell, if Jesse Pinkman can fade Gus Fring, Walter White and a rabid gang of murderous neo-Nazis, I'm pretty sure he could outlast thousands of dimwits at the Main Event.

4. Will international players dominate the November Nine again?

When you have 24/7 access to online poker, you're going to get a lot more practice than those who don't. That's how a wave of Internet kids overtook the poker world in the mid-2000s, and it's how Europeans and other international players are gaining an edge on their American counterparts post-Black Friday.

The 2014 Main Event had five international players at the final table: Martin Jacobson, Felix Stephensen, Jorryt Van Hoof, Andoni Larrabe and Bruno Politano. A sixth, William Tonking, is from New Jersey, where online poker is regulated, and he plays live and online for a living.

Now, 2014 certainly doesn't prove anything or indicate any sort of trend. But the logic still follows that players who have access to online poker will be able to gain a competitive edge. And it will be interesting to see how many members of this year's November Nine are online grinders.

3. Will a past Main Event champion make the final table?

Dan Harrington is the last previous Main Event champ to make the final table, when he did so in both 2003 and 2004. There have been no past champs at any of the November Nines.

If I had to make a wager on any past champ to make the final table this year, I'd actually have to put my money on the reigning winner, Martin Jacobson. He showed an incredible ability to grind a short stack in the final stages of last year's Main Event, and I think his style of play is perfectly suited to the tournament's deep stack structure.

2. Will a woman make the final table?

Barbara Enright is the only woman to have made a Main Event final table, having finished fifth in 1995. The last woman standing in 2014 was Maria Ho, who came in 77th.

The fact is that women simply make up a small percentage of the Main Event field. But if I had to pick one, I'd definitely go with Ho, who was also the last woman standing in 2007, when she finished 38th.

1. Will the Main Event champion be born before or after 1987?

The last six Main Event winners – Joe Cada, Jonathan Duhamel, Pius Heinz, Greg Merson, Ryan Riess and Jacobson – were all born in 1987 or later. Again, this speaks to the rise of the young online poker player, and all of these guys were grinding online in the mid-to-late 2000s.

But it also speaks to the grueling nature of the Main Event, which is two straight weeks of 12-hour days at the tables. Younger people simply have more energy and stamina for these marathon sessions.

If 1987 were the over/under for this year's champion, I'd take the under. Anyone want action?
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