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 highlights from 2008.
The 2008 World Series of Poker introduced a dramatic new component to how poker’s world champion would be determined with the debut of what’s become the November Nine.
For the first time in the 39-year history of the tournament, the Main Event Championship wasn’t played to completion at the tail end of the annual series. Instead, organizers pushed back the finale more than three months, to the first week in November, hence the catchy nickname given to the nine players who eventually made up the final table.
Delaying final table play was initially controversial, especially with poker purists. Critics charged the WSOP wouldn’t be complete without crowning the new champion during the summer series. Some compared it with watching a sporting event, and then stopping the game at the two-minute warning. Others raised concerns about what impact an extended delay might have on the players. However, several inherent advantages mandated making this change, including the potential for a big buildup on television and the associated publicity of having the finalists return to their hometowns as celebrities. Instead of the entire WSOP being over and done before ESPN’s broadcasts actually aired on television, the three-month delay allowed the big stories of the summer series to be integrated into an much-anticipated event that played out nearly-live on ESPN. The interim period also allowed finalists to return home, rethink strategies, and bring family and friends back to Las Vegas to cheer them on at the final table in what for most would be the biggest moment of their poker lives. Accordingly, the finale took on an atmosphere much like a sporting event played in a stadium rather than a quiet game of wits at a poker table.
The finale also found a brand new home at the Penn and Teller Theater, a first-class performance venue inside the Rio with a seating capacity for a few thousand, rather than just a few hundred, as had previously been the case in years past. This all contributed to a time and a place that poker had never seen nor experienced before.
The 2008 schedule included 55 gold bracelet events won by a mix of professionals and amateurs. The biggest names who won titles that year included David Singer, Rep Porter, Mike Matusow, Daniel Negreanu, Scott Seiver, Max Pescatori, Kenny Tran, Barry Greenstein, Vitaly Lunkin, Phil Galfond, Dario Minieri, Vanessa Selbst, Layne Flack, David Benyamine, Scotty Nguyen, J.C. Tran, and others.
Only one player won two gold bracelets that year. John Pham went on a monster run over an eight-day stretch, winning twice. However, WSOP Player of the Year honors went to Erick Lindgren for cashing five times, making three final tables (1st, 3rd, and 4th), and winning his first gold bracelet after years of headlining the unofficial "best without a bracelet" list.
A pair of brothers also won gold bracelets in the same year for the first time. Grant Hinkle and Blair Hinkle won two massive events. Grant topped a field of 3,929 players (good for $831,462) while Blair topped a field of 1,344 (worth $507,563).
The $50,000 buy-on Poker Player Championship (H.O.R.S.E.) was televised by ESPN and included a thrilling and much-talked about finish, with Scotty Nguyen ultimately winning one of poker’s most coveted prizes, the Chip Reese Memorial Trophy (posthumously named in his honor and introduced for the first time in a highly-emotional ceremony honoring the late poker legend). Nguyen collected almost $2 million in the biggest win of his poker career and remains the only player to win both the Main Event and the Poker Players Championship.
A few of the most coveted records in the game were broken that year, as well. Nikolay Evdakov became the first player in history to cash ten times within a single series. Meanwhile, Phil Hellmuth extended his supremacy in multiple categories, including most lifetime cashes and final table appearances.
WSOP winners continued to diversify geographically as players from three new nations collected gold bracelets for the first time. This select group of nations included Brazil (Alexandre Gomes), Belgium (Davidi Kitai), and The Netherlands (Rob Hollink).
The 2008 Main Event drew the second-largest turnout in history, with 6,844 players. Only the 2006 event was bigger. However, the final table did manage to break a record. It was the longest played ever, clocking in at more than 15 hours, spread over two days.
Four different nations were represented within the November Nine – Canada, Denmark, Russia, and the United States. However, an amateur poker player from the St. Louis area named Dennis Phillips captured much of the public’s imagination by coming into the final table as the chip leader. In a debut performance right out of a storybook, Phillips brought along hundreds of supporters who jammed inside the Penn and Teller Theater and seemed to make the arena a home-field advantage for the popular everyman poker player. Phillips ended up finishing in third place, leaving players from Denmark and Russia to battle for the world championship.
Ivan Demidov faced Peter Eastgate, guaranteeing the WSOP would be won by a non-U.S. resident. The final two players dueled heads up for the bracelet on the second day of the November Nine. Eastgate completed a straight on the final hand, topping Demidov’s two pair. Eastgate collected the (then) second-largest poker prize in history, winning $9,152,416.
The new World Champion was only 22 years old -- the youngest in history -- exemplifying the new era poker had entered by 2008. Eastgate’s age eclipsed Phil Hellmuth’s in 1989 (which was 24 at the time). Eastgate was just one of many younger players to win gold bracelets that year.
Demonstrating once again how much poker was in the midst of changes which seemingly favored younger, largely Internet-based players, Eastgate’s “youngest ever” record would prove to be short-lived. Just one year later, Joe Cada, the 2009 world champion, won the title at an even younger age.
Like an old vineyard producing classic wine, the old tournament that had been around for 39 years was certainly going through serious changes. A new championship venue, the debut of the November Nine, and the youngest winner ever made it abundantly clear that by 2008, the WSOP was a very different event than just a few years earlier. In the years to come, the world's biggest and most prestigious poker series would change and develop even further.