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Top 10 observations from the World Series of Poker Main Event

16 July 2012

LAS VEGAS -- Walking around the floor at the World Series of Poker Main Event, you notice a lot of little things that remind you why this game -- and this tournament -- is so interesting. Here's a list of 10 things that caught my eye at this year's Main Event:

10. The waffle
I'd never heard anyone call ace-queen "the waffle" until this year at the Main Event. It seemed to be mostly a European thing. I didn't hear any Americans calling ace-queen "the waffle." But I did hear several Europeans call it the "the waffle." And I have to admit, I like it. I'm just waiting for French toast and scones to enter the poker parlance as well.

9. Kevin Pollak
You'll likely see plenty of Pollak on ESPN's television coverage. The actor finished in 134th and won $52,718. And ESPN was pretty good about tracking his play. He was at the TV tables a few times. But what might not have come across is just how much fun Pollak was having at the Main Event.

Pollak was having the time of his life, and he didn't try to hide it. But at the same time he was very serious about playing well in the tournament.

When he was playing a hand, he was into it. Early in the tournament, he called an all-in bet that would have left him crippled if he lost. It's was his ace-king against ace-jack. He started walking around chanting, "King, king, king." A king didn't come, but his hand held up and he was a happy camper. He wanted to win badly.

In between hands, Pollak was very genial. He talked with other players, laughed, had fun and enjoyed the experience. But when he was in hands, he was in them to win it. He played thoughtful, smart poker and the results showed it. Pollak brought a breath of fresh air to what has turned into a very serious and quiet tournament. More players should follow his lead.

8. Marcel Luske on focus
Marcel Luske hasn't been a major player in the Main Event in several years. After finishing tenth in 2004, Luske didn't cash again until this year. The dapper Dutchman
finished 102nd and won $52,718. And he did so without wearing his trademark suits.

"The suits were very uncomfortable at the table," Luske said. "And the PokerStars patches kept falling off. It was easy to lose focus."

"If you lose focus, you get into trouble," Luske explained. "Just a few hands ago, I was talking [to somebody else] and thought I had pocket threes, so I bet. I ended up winning the hand, but when I looked at my cards again, I only had three-five. It's easy to make a mistake when you lose focus. So I'm wearing the tracksuit now."

"It's comfortable," Luske added. "Plus, wearing the suit is like celebrating before you accomplish something. If I reach the final table, I'll wear a suit."

7. Phan cutting chips
Players do all sorts of things to gain information. They talk. They stare. They look for tells. They stare some more. They ask if you'll show. They say they'll show. It's a never-ending quest for information. When John Phan goes the intimidation route for information, it's a scary sight. Phan knows what he's doing.

He begins by staring straight at his opponent. At times, it looks like he's drilling a hole through his head. Then he starts cutting chips, as if to place a wager. His eyes never leave his opponent's face as he cuts the chips. If he doesn't get a response, he starts shuffling around stacks of big-denomination chips, looking for any sign of reaction. Then he lines the chips up behind his cards, as if he's looking for the right bet size. He'll start off with small stacks of chips and make them progressively bigger. If he doesn't get a response, he adds more chips, and then more after that. He doesn't stop unless he's satisfied he has the information he needs -- or his opponent isn't going to give anything away. Then he makes the bet (small or big) he was going to make the entire time.

If I'm sitting down at a poker table, I'd rather see Daniel Negreanu or Phil Ivey across from me than Phan. Negreanu and Ivey are better players. But they don't scare me like Phan does.

Phan finished 149th in this year's Main Event and won $52,718.

6. Vanessa Selbst
In case you hadn't heard, Vanessa Selbst is really, really good. We're talking top-20 players in the world good. Here's what Selbst did in the Series this year:

-- $10,000 Main Event: 73rd, $88,070
-- $2,500 10-game mix/six handed: First, $244,259
-- $2,500 No-Limit Hold-em: 24th, $20,327
-- $10,000 Heads-Up event: 9th, $20,674
-- $1,500 No-Limit Hold-em: 4th, $161,345

Selbst was a dominant force at the WSOP this year. And more importantly, every time she sat down at the table, everyone knew she was the person to beat. At the Main Event, whenever Selbst was involved in a big pot, the room started to buzz.

Selbst was hardly an unknown quantity prior to this Series. She won a gold bracelet back in 2008. But this was her coming-out party as a dominant player. And now everyone knows who she is.

5. People not showing up
Arriving late on the opening days of the Main Event has become de rigueur for poker's top players these days. The opening levels of the Main Event don't necessarily provide much action for them, and they'd rather rest comfortably than sit at a poker table. But once the opening days are finished, poker players are pretty diligent about arriving on time to start play -- or at least as diligent as poker players can be. Chips are valuable, and you don't want to have to lose any unnecessarily.

That's what made the 2012 Main Event so weird. Three different players didn't show up on time to play on three different days. And while they were absent, their chips were blinded off.

On Day 4 of the Main Event, Ryan Young didn't show while play was approaching the money bubble. Young had a healthy starting chip stack of around 400,000 and it was blinded off until he arrived (which was at least an hour after play began). Young did make the money and finished 350th to win $32,871. But you have wonder if he could have done better if he had arrived on time.

On Saturday, Jarrett Nash observed the Jewish Sabbath and hoped his chips would last until 8 p.m., when he could resume play. He left his player's card with his chips so tournament officials could pay him his prize money if he was blinded out. Unfortunately for Nash, he was eliminated before 8 p.m., and finished in 171st place. He won $44,655.

On Sunday, Nicco Maag missed the start of play by at least 30 minutes. Maag began the day among the chip leaders with 3.895 million.

4. Tracking
One of the more interesting dynamics in the tournament was all of the players keeping track of what was happening at all of the other tables by following the live updates at the World Series of Poker website. In between hands, they would check their iPads for the chip leaders, who was still in the tournament, how close they were to the money bubble or money jumps and read about all of the bad beats without ever having to leave their chair. If you didn't have an iPad or a smart phone, you didn't have as much information as everyone else in the tournament.

3. More aggressive TV coverage
Typically, the Main Event has had two "televised" tables, where cameras captured every hand, and roving camera crews looking for good hands or interesting people to film. This year, Poker PROductions changed things up. In addition to the two traditional TV tables, they added a section of three tables for cameras to focus on. The tables didn't have hole-cams built into the table, but they were manned by cameras at all times and hole cards were revealed after the fact to hand-held card-cams on interesting hands.

The addition of three television tables allowed Poker PROductions to cycle chip leaders and top poker personalities among five tables, and they took advantage of it. The best and most interesting action was happening on these tables, and Poker PROductions now has tape of it, something they wouldn't have been able to do in years past. Poker PROductions also changed who was on the main TV tables (the ones with hole-cams) much more frequently than they did in the past in an effort to "keep up" with the story as it was unfolding. Hopefully, this will allow them to establish a better narrative on TV, rather than focus on just the big stars that all poker fans know.

2. Floor rulings
When you play 10 hours of pokers a day for a week, it's easy to make simple mistakes, like forgetting to push an entire raise out at once, or accidentally mucking your hand. When that happens, it's the job of the tournament officials on the floor to rule what should happen next.
Most rulings have only a small impact on the game. For example, earlier in the Main Event, a player announced a raise. He created two stacks of chips that he intended to raise with. Instead of pushing both stacks out at the same time, he pushed them out one at a time.

Players are only supposed to make one betting action to prevent fake bets designed to elicit information about hand strength. But the player clearly intended to raise with both stacks. A tournament official was called in and he ruled that the player could only bet the original stack of chips. The other chips were returned to him.

In the end, this had little impact on the tournament. The remaining player folded and the hand was over.

Occasionally though, floor rulings can directly impact the outcome of a tournament.

Late Saturday night, Gaelle Baumann raised to 60,000. The remaining players at the table folded around to the small blind, Andras Koroknai. Koroknai moved all in for around 2 million. Gavin Smith in the big blind then folded. Then came the unthinkable. Korkani, thinking that everyone had already folded, mucked his hand. But Baumann hadn't had a chance to act on Koroknai's all-in bet. Theoretically, whenever a player mucks cards, the hand is dead. And if Koroknai's hand was dead, he was going to lose all of chips to Baumann, who easily had him covered.

But tournament officials ruled that Koroknai would only lose the 60,000 chips Baumann had bet initially.

The ruling struck a smart balance between what was clearly a hand being folded, and what the intent of the player was. Korkani didn't mean to fold, and officials didn't want to knock him out of the tournament for making a stupid mistake. In that sense, it respected the spirit of the game. Most friendly home games would have made a similar decision. But Baumann was understandably upset. If she wins the pot, she's one of the three biggest stacks in the room.

1. Change in room after bubble
The change in atmosphere between the opening days of the tournament and when the players make the money is remarkable. Before the money bubble bursts, players tend to have their headphones on and listen to music or podcasts while they play. And between hands, they're texting or reading their iPads. As a result, the very social game of poker has no social interaction, unless you count Twitter. Outside of the chips clacking at the table, the World Series of Poker is very much like a library -- there's hardly any noise.

All of that changes when players reach the money. Yes, they're happy that they've won money. But the rules at the WSOP change when players reach the money. As soon as prize money is being distributed, players can't wear headphones. And all of sudden, people start talking to each other. There's laughing, cheering, agonizing and empathy. The poker players emerge from their cocoons. Now if there was only a way to get people talking in the beginning of the tournament.
Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the former managing editor at Casino City and has been involved in the gaming industry for over a decade Vin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he runs his own consultant group and works as head of gaming and public relations for Mega Digital
Entertainment Group.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the former managing editor at Casino City and has been involved in the gaming industry for over a decade Vin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he runs his own consultant group and works as head of gaming and public relations for Mega Digital
Entertainment Group.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for, USA WEEKEND and CNN.