ESPN decided to drastically curtail the number of WSOP tournaments it was going to televise this year, reducing the number of events to just three: The 40K no limit hold’em, the Champion’s Invitational and the $10,000 Main Event. In addition, they chose to air the Ante Up for Africa charity event, which will be televised next week. Tonight’s event was the Champion’s Invitational, featuring past Main Event champions (with the notable exception of Russ Hamilton) facing off in a freeroll with a vintage Corvette as the prize for the winner. Beginning this week, and going through the final table of the Main Event in November, welcome to your PokerWorks guide to ESPN’s coverage, with comments on the way the game we all love is presented to the mainstream consumer. So shuffle up and deal!
As in past years, the ESPN commentators are Norman Chad and Lon McEachern. The coverage began with the 20 champions who started the tournament already cut down to the final table of 10, which included, from shortest to biggest stack, Phil Hellmuth, Berry Johnston, Robert Varkonyi, Huck Seed, Peter Eastgate, Dan Harrington, Doyle Brunson, Jim Bechtel, Tom McEvoy and Carlos Mortensen. With no hesitation, Phil Hellmuth was eliminated on the first hand, when he went all-in on a severely short stack with 10-5 suited against Carlos Mortensen’s pocket deuces, which held up. Robert Varkonyi commented after the bust-out, “Now that we’ve gotten rid of the riffraff, we can play some poker.”
Peter Eastgate raised the next televised hand with 8-7 suited, only to have Dan Harrington re-raise with pocket aces. Eastgate, seemingly oblivious to Harrington’s tight reputation, then pushed all-in, which Harrington gratefully called. Although Eastgate hit a great draw with 5-6-8, including one of his suit, the turn and river blanked, and Eastgate was gone as well. Brunson joked that the young players think that 8-7 suited is actually the better hand, unlike the old guys.
In a critical hand that changed the chip leader, Mortensen limped with pocket tens, only to have McEvoy raise to 3,000 with the exact same hand! It should be noted that Brunson folded A-K in the small blind. When the flop came 4-4-3, Mortensen checked, and McEvoy fired out a bet of 5,000. Mortensen min raised to 10,000, but then McEvoy re-raised all-in!! Mortensen considered his options, and finally folded, leaving McEvoy as the new chip leader.
One of the new wrinkles in this year’s coverage is the Jack Links’ wild card hand, where one of the player’s hands isn’t shown, and the viewer is left to guess what he has. In the first installment this week, Harrington raised to 1,800 with , and Mortensen called with the hidden hand. The flop brought a 3-3-8 with one diamond, and Carlos checked, as did Action Dan. The on the turn brought checks from both players once again, and Harrington checked once more when the river brought the . Mortensen bet 2,500, and Harrington made the call. Mortensen turned over 7-6, and Harrington won the pot.
Doyle Brunson exited when his nut flush draw failed to hit against McEvoy’s overpair to the board. As always, Doyle was saluted with a standing ovation as he went to the rail. McEvoy now had 36% of the chips in play, but gave some of them back to Robert Varkonyi, when Varkonyi went all-in with pocket kings on a board of 5-Q-10 and McEvoy called with A-Q.
One of the treats of the ESPN coverage are the nuggets of poker history that they bring out that are not so well-known. After a short feature on the late Stu Ungar, Chad revealed that, during his nova-like career, Ungar won 10 of 32 tournaments of $5,000 or more that he entered. Those TigerWoods-like numbers once again make poker aficionados say “If only.”
The next player to exit was Berry Johnston who, remarkably, has cashed in the World Series of Poker 26 straight years! His elimination hand began with him raising to 2,000 with , which Mortensen, who had been the most active player at the table thus far, called with pocket sixes. Two spades came on the 7-8-K flop, and Johnston went all-in for his last 3,000 chips. Mortensen called, and then dodged Johnston’s outs on a turn of the and a river of the .
Mortensen’s roller coaster ride continued on the next hand, when he raised to 2,000 with A-9 offsuit, which Harrington called in the big blind with 7-6. The flop of 8-4-9 and two clubs brought a check from Harrington and a bet of 3,500 from Mortensen with top pair-top kicker. Harrington called with his straight draw, and then hit it on the turn, which was the . Harrington bet 6,000, which Mortensen called. The hit on the river, and Harrington checked, hoping to induce a bet from Mortensen, not realizing what a good second-best hand Carlos had. Mortensen obliged by pushing 8,000 into the pot, and Harrington called, winning the 40,000 chip pot, and taking over the chip lead with 38% of the chips in play.
Huck Seed, who had been card dead thus far, pushed all-in with K-J, but Mortensen called him with K-Q of diamonds. The flop of 8-6-Q, with two diamonds, had Seed on life support, and although he hit a jack on the turn, the river was no help, and there were five players left.
After Bechtel doubled up against Mortensen, when his pocket sevens held up against Carlos’ K-Q of hearts, the two battled again, when Mortensen raised to 2,500 with A-Q and Bechtel called with pocket threes. The flop of A-3-4 put Mortensen at risk, and after Bechtel check-called Mortensen’s post-flop bet of 4,000, he then checked once more after a turn of the . Mortensen fired again, this time 8,000, and Bechtel raised enough to put Mortensen all-in, which Carlos called, and saw the bad news. He was drawing dead, and exited in fifth place.
This left ESPN with a second hour featuring possibly the four least dynamic players of the original group that had begun the tournament, with Dan Harrington certainly being the best-known of the group, but both Varkonyi and McEvoy feeling that they had something to prove to re-establish their presence in the poker world.
The first hand of the hour saw Varkonyi raise to 3,000 with the . McEvoy re-raised on the button to 9,000 with A-K, and Bechtel made it 29,000 with pocket kings. Varkonyi, stating that he was clearly in third place, folded, but McEvoy, thinking that Bechtel was making a play at the pot, pushed all-in, and Bechtel called. McEvoy was crestfallen when he saw Bechtel’s hand, stating that he had seen him make a play in that situation in the past, however, his gloom turned quickly to joy when he flopped an ace, which held up, sending Bechtel to the rail and leaving McEvoy to acknowledge his good fortune.
After Harrington doubled up Varkonyi when his pocket tens ran into Varkonyi’s aces, he raised to 3,000 with Q-J, which Varkonyi called with A-5 in the small blind. Varkonyi led out after a flop of K-5-8 with a bet of 3,000, but Harrington, exploiting his reputation, raised him off the pot with a bet of 12,000.
The wild card hand followed with McEvoy holding the mystery cards and raising to 3,000 on the button, which Varkonyi called in the big blind with . A flop of 10-4-A saw Varkonyi lead out for 5,000, which McEvoy called. The turn was the , and after Varkonyi gave up the lead with a check, McEvoy bet 12,000 into the 16,800 pot. Varkonyi folded, and it turned out that McEvoy had him slightly outkicked with A-6.
Much of the rest of the hour featured some very nice lay downs in crucial situations, particularly by Varkonyi, who seemed to usually have a very good sense of whether he was ahead or behind. However, Harrington was able to knock him off of A-10 pre-flop with an all-in re-raise, which led to a hand with McEvoy raising on the button to 4,500 with . Harrington re-raised to 19,500 with pocket nines and McEvoy called. Harrington then pushed all-in on the flop of A-Q-4, and McEvoy finally made the call. Neither the turn nor the river helped Harrington, and he was out in third place.
McEvoy started out the heads-up with a 2 to 1 chip lead, and the final hand began with McEvoy calling with 10-9 (including the 10 of clubs), and Varkonyi checking his option with J-5 (with the 5 of clubs). The flop came 7-5-8, with both the seven and eight of clubs. Varkonyi bet 4,000 with bottom pair, and McEvoy called with his open-ended straight draw. The turn was the , giving McEvoy the straight and both players a straight flush draw! Varkonyi bet 8,000, McEvoy raised to 16,000 and Varkonyi went all-in, which McEvoy naturally called, leaving Varkonyi with just the as a single out. The river was the and McEvoy won the Binion’s Cup as well as the 1970 Corvette Stingray.
Although this was certainly not the final hour that ESPN would have preferred to shoot (think Hellmuth, Brunson, Scotty Nguyen and Jamie Gold, for example), they were able to present it as old-style gentlemen’s poker, and for the most part, pulled it off admirably. Norman Chad, as usual, alternated between being mildly humorous and somewhat annoying, but still injected enough life into the broadcast so that the lack of fireworks in the play went all but unnoticed. While Tom McEvoy came across as probably the weakest of the final four players, he caught the right cards at the right time, and emerged victorious.
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