It was, without a doubt, the greatest series of tournaments in the history of poker and, for that matter, in singular competition of any sort. The 2005 World Series of Poker saw a new venue (the Rio), a new company running it (Harrah's), and brought together almost 30,000 players through the run of the forty three events and, at the end, 5,619 runners came to the felt for the largest tournament in the history of the sport. When Australia's Joseph Hachem captured the $7.5 million first place prize in mid-July, he also became the winner of the largest cash payout to any team or individual in the history of sports overall.
Those weren't the only highlights of what turned out to be an outstanding six weeks of poker at the Rio in Las Vegas during last year's World Series. After watching the "new blood" in poker overrun the event in 2004, it seemed that 2005 was marked by the resurgence of the professionals in the game. No other event signified that more than the very first $1,500 No-Limit preliminary event. With over 2300 players (at that time, the second largest tournament of all time), it seemed that it would be difficult for one professional player to reach the final table. It was impossible for one to do it…in fact, five prominent pros, eventual winner Allen Cunningham, Scott Fischman, David "The DevilFish" Ulliot, Can Kim Hua and An "The Boss" Tran and one burgeoning professional in Liz Lieu signaled that the professionals had come back to defend their ground.
This was a theme that was repeated in most every event that occurred last year. While the newcomers to the game may have perceived an edge in the larger fields that would move them past the pros, every final table last year had very solid representation from those who make their living from playing poker. If you look at the eventual winners of the bracelets in the rundown from last year, it was evident that the professionals have learned some new tricks to take against the masses at the World Series. Pros such as Cunningham (who had a breakout year at the World Series in 2005), Patrick Poels, Josh Arieh, T. J. Cloutier, Barry Greenstein, Todd Brunson, Jan Sorensen, Farzad Bonyadi, Phil Ivey, David Chiu and David Grey all were big winners in 2005 and players such as Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, "The DevilFish", Cyndy Violette and others made frequent appearances at the final tables at the Rio.
The most significant bracelet wins came from two of the legends of the game and a man who marked his emergence onto the worldwide poker scene. While many thought that it couldn't happen in a World Series ever again with the size of the fields, professional player Mark Seif made history when he was able to capture two bracelets during the run of the 2005 Series. He picked up his first win in the $1,500 No-Limit Shootout event, then turned around exactly one week later and defeated Minh Nguyen in one of the several $1,500 No-Limit events. Seif was known as one of the most dangerous players in poker before this turn of events but he truly made his mark on the World Series in 2005 with his double bracelet victory.
The legends who made their histories even more luminous were, of course, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan. They were both tied with Phil Hellmuth with nine bracelets before the start of the 2005 Series but, by the end, the two nearly simultaneously moved to the head of the class by each taking bracelets. Chan was first, as he overcame the entertaining Phil "The Unabomber" Laak in a quick ten hands to capture the $2,500 Pot Limit Hold 'Em championship. Five days later, Brunson quickly retied the bracelet race when he was able to vanquish Minh Ly and Scotty Nguyen in the $5,000 Short-Handed (six player) No-Limit tournament. Hellmuth, while cashing in several events in 2005, left the Rio without a bracelet and will definitely be looking to get back even with both of them in 2006.
Finally, the Championship Event in 2005 was historic across the board. Not only were the numbers huge, but the play of the defending champion from 2004, Greg Raymer, added to the drama that unfolded. There hadn't been a successful championship defense since Chan pulled the feat in 1988 and many thought, with the 5,619 players massed in the Amazon Ballroom for the tournament, that it wouldn't happen in this or any other year. Raymer stunned the crowds and the players as he drove to the chip lead late into the tournament before eventually succumbing to the field on Day Six, finishing in 25th place. This achievement has been called (deservedly so) as impressive as Chan three consecutive final tables in the late 80's and former World Champion Dan Harrington's back-to-back final tables in 2003-4.
2005 was marked by the arrival of new faces to the game (Michael Gracz' bracelet winning turn, the youngest ever bracelet winner in Eric Froehlich and Jennifer Tilly's literal "star turn" in the Ladies' Championship) and the return of the professionals to prominence in at the tables of the World Series of Poker. So what surprises face us as we get ready to head to the Rio for this year's event? That's what we'll look at as we wrap up the 'Countdown To The World Series of Poker' with the final segment of this series.