Preface:  This year marks the tenth anniversary of the World Series of Poker being played at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas.  During this series, we’ll occasionally take a look back at the highlights from each of the past ten years.  Today’s feature looks back at the highlights from 2007.

Everyone remembers 2006 for having the largest Main Event ever, with 8,773 participants.  But in terms of sheer size, the overall numbers of the 2007 World Series of Poker were actually bigger.  A then-record 54,288 players entered a total of 55 gold bracelet events held that year, which included the most diverse schedule in history.

One longstanding tradition which hit the ash heap was the chip-for-dollar ratio given to players at the start of each tournament.  In previous years, chips had been matched according to the exact buy-in amount.  However, for the first time ever players were given double the previous starting stacks.  Structures were adjusted accordingly, and the end result was tournaments that lasted longer than ever before.

Indeed, growing field sizes mandated adding days to each event.  In what was once measured in terms of hours became days as some of the larger events, mostly $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournaments, took as many as four days to complete.  Of course, the Main Event Championship lasted nearly two full weeks because of the multiple starting days which were necessary to accommodate such large a field.    

The longer tournaments made winning a gold bracelet not just a test of poker skill, but also an endurance test.  Best suited to adapt to the new testing ground were younger players, who racked up victories in event after event, despite having relatively little experience in live tournament poker.

Another catalyst for change was the influence of the Internet, and specifically online poker, which fueled not just larger numbers into each event, but a higher skill set among participants.  Poker’s more rapid evolution occurred during this era when the most successful players began getting markedly younger.  By the end of the 2007 WSOP, it was no longer a big story when a 21-year-old poker player won a gold bracelet.  Such an occurrence would have been unthinkable just a decade or two earlier.

The crescendo on poker’s youth movement occurred in the opening event that year, which was televised on ESPN.  In the $5,000 buy-in Mixed Hold’em tournament, a complete unknown ended up winning the gold bracelet, the youngest in history ever to do so. Steve Billirakis was just 11 days removed from his 21st birthday (the legal age to participate in WSOP events in Nevada is 21) when he won the event.  Remarkably, even that record was shattered a few months later at the debut of WSOP-Europe in London when Norwegian online pro Annette Obrestad won the championship at age 18. She remains the youngest gold bracelet winner ever.

The youth movement in poker did have some interruptions, namely by well-known pros who enjoyed success at the tables.  Foremost among them was Phil Hellmuth, who won his 11th career gold bracelet that year, taking the all-time wins lead for the first time over his two rivals, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan.  Hellmuth won a $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em event about midway through the series, which pretty much dominated the early headlines.

Tom Schneider also made headlines for the first time by winning two gold bracelets.  Those victories propelled him to the WSOP Player of the Year title.  Oddly enough, the Arizona-based poker pro also won two gold bracelets last year.  His wins apparently come two at a time.

Other big names who collected jewelry included Alex Kravchenko, who became the first Russian in history to win a WSOP title. Longtime poker journeyman Chris Reslock also took home gold for the first time.  Others included Allen Cunningham, Scott Clements, Eli Elezra, Hoyt Corkins, Jeffrey Lisandro, Ram Vaswani, and Erik Seidel.

Arguably the most prestigious event was the return of the $50,000 buy-in Poker Players Championship (H.O.R.S.E.).  This time, another popular pro who was good for the ESPN cameras won the event.  Freddy Deeb, the expressive Lebanese-born poker pro, collected one of the largest cash prizes of the summer, earning $2,276,832 for first place.

The 2007 WSOP also included a celebrity-driven charity event for the first time.  Ante-Up for Africa was created to raise donations and awareness for the suffering on the African subcontinent, which drew support from many poker and Hollywood celebrities.  The charity event, which was created by actor Don Cheadle, attracted several big names – including Martin Sheen, Adam Sandler, Ben Affleck, and other movie stars.  The debut of Ante-Up for Africa was won by Dan Shak and Brandon Moran.  Remarkably, the co-winners agreed to split the title and then donated the entire amount of their winnings to the charity.

The Main Event Championship four starting days and drew 6,358 players.  The drop from the previous year was largely attributed to the changing nature of the relationship between online poker sites and land-based casinos, including the WSOP.  While online sites undoubtedly boosted the numbers in previous year, increasing restrictions on financial transactions from overseas made buying into the WSOP more difficult for many, which resulted in a decline in attendance.  Nevertheless, the Main Event remained the pinnacle of glory and achievement, attracting players from more than 100 different countries.  

For the last time before the November Nine concept would be adopted the following year, the Main Event final table was played in continuation with the rest of the series.  Several firsts occurred that year, with two nations represented for the first time.  Previous gold bracelet winner Alex Kravchenko from Russia made it to the finals, as did Raymond Rahme, the first-ever South African to make the final table.

However, the real star of the series was a complete unknown, someone who had never even cashed at the WSOP before.  In fact, he won his seat into the Main Event via a small satellite tournament played at a casino in Southern California.

Jerry Yang wasn’t given much of a chance when he sat down in the biggest poker game of the year.  That didn’t dissuade the psychiatrist from Temecula, CA from tangling with his far more experienced opponents.  Nothing seemed to faze Yang, who knocked out his opponents one by one, until the final jubilant moment when the immigrant from Laos defeated another Asian immigrant living in Canada named Tuan Lam heads-up for the championship.

Yang pocketed the (then) second-largest sum in poker history, $8,250,000 and was declared the World Champion.  It was quite a chapter in the remarkable life of a man who grew up poor, spent part of his life in a relocation camp following a decade of war, and who immigrated to the United States to ultimately realize a most unusual interpretation of the American Dream.