“Please be patient,” said Jack Effel, WSOP Tournament Director.
The Amazon Room and its 847 players were momentarily silent. Of all the things Effel would say all day, this was the most important. After all, it was about money. Thousands of dollars, in fact. The players had just returned from a break and the entire room looked different. Effel explained why. With 100 players left to go until the money line, this was how the bubble was going to work:
“As we get closer to the money,” Effel continued over the mic, “please do not get out of your seats and run around…like this guy is doing.”
The request was genuine, pure, and well-considered, but even Effel knew that asking poker players to keep their seats during the bubble is like trying to keep a kid in bed on Christmas morning.
During the last break, the tournament staff had moved the rail back to the periphery of the room. Throngs of people pushed against each other on the wall as screams of “all-in and call!” echoed across the Amazon Room cavern. Most members of the media were corralled into the center of the ballroom, wide-eyed and straining to see what was happening deep in the middle of the action. ESPN producers walked with purpose as they directed roaming camera crews from table to table in the biggest televised poker assault of the year. It was a bit like a war, but without all the blood and bullets.
Effel was a field general, too. Every tournament official on duty stood sentry, dutifully counting down the number of eliminated players. The first twenty players fell in the first ten minutes of play. Thirty minutes in, another twelve had gone. At the one hour mark, 792 people remained, about half of what the field needed to lose before it hit the money.
ESPN’s Andrew Feldman was keeping a keen eye on the floor and organization. He pointed to the payout cage and a corral of stantions set up like a queue at a bank.
“I love how they made the payout line look like Disney World,” he quipped. “Your wait from this point is 15 minutes.”
An hour into the high dollar high wire act, the blinds moved up to 2,500/5,000 with a 500 ante. The average stack stood at $277,235. The players could smell the money. Or so they thought.
One hour and fifteen minutes into the run down from 100, 774 players remained. Five minutes later, the number dropped to 765.
Yevgeniy Timoshenko, WCOOP champion and all around laid-back kid, let a small smile creep to his face as he raked a pot. This was the time the stronger players abused the folks looking to make the money. Perhaps trying to deflect attention from this fact, Timoshenko, a man who probably hasn’t worn a french-cuffed shirt in his life, looked at the dealer and said, “I like those cufflinks.”
Team PokerStars Online Pro Andre Coimbra was doing the same thing. Sitting in the small blind and facing a raise and call, he squeezed, moving the bet up to 50,000. He sat stoic as the original raiser sat tortured. The man folded and commented, “I’m such a bad player.”
At the 90 minute mark, Effel took the mic again. “There are 755 players remaining. Seven hundred fifty-five players remaining.”
On cue, the players voices rose in volume by 30%. Just a few players off the money, it was only going to take a few more short-stacked busts before the survivors had enough money in their pockets to buy an affordable car or a year of college tuition.
In a bam-bam, one-two punch WSOP champion Dan Harrington and EPT Grand Final winner Pieter De Korver went bust. An army of dealers walked two-by-two into the room ready to escort the vanquished to the cage for their money. Harrington’s exit left Johnny Chan as the only remaining WSOP Main Event champion in the field. Like a tumbleweed bouncing across the desert, a half-full water bottle rolled inexplicably across the Amazon Room floor. This was the 2010 WSOP Main Event bubble.
With 751 players remaining, Effel instructed every dealer to stand when their action was complete. This was the moment every player had been waiting for. If expectations were correct, the tournament would move into hand-for-and play until the bubble burst.
Effel took the mic. The players waited breathless. Finally, after four days of play, the time had come.
“We want you to enjoy your dinner break,” Effel said, and then sent the players our for supper.
Then there rose a thunderous “boooooo!” that signalled the least-appreciated decision in this year’s Main Event. Instead of making it to the money immediately, the players had 90 minutes to kill over whatever food they could find. They would have to wait.
How does one eat when he has to wonder whether he is going to leave with nothing or leave with nearly $20,000? How does one enjoy any kind of dinner when he is just one kings versus aces from being the bubble boy?
One man did it by getting drunk in the middle of dinner and not being able to find his seat when he returned. Most of the rest shoved some food in their faces and came back for hand for hand play.
Jack Effel had recovered from the boo-birds and took the mic again. He explained how things would work: players stay at their tables, dealers spread the stub and stand when the their hand is over, eliminated players don’t move from their seats.
The first hand took eight minutes. Players quickly learned that the wait between deals was going to be a long one. They sat back in their chairs, bored and waiting for something to happen.
Within a few minutes, the tell-tale “ooooohhhhhhhhhh!” erupted from the blue section. One down.
Hand number two saw Paul “X-22” Magriel lose the majority of his stack with an ace-jack versus kings hand. Seven minutes twenty seconds passed but nobody went down.
The third hand of hand-for-hand play was the second-longest of them all, coming in at 9 minutes 30 seconds. It saw another man go down.
That left two people to bust before the money. One would get nothing, the next would get a seat to the main event. This was the true bubble.
Mexico Team PokerStars Pro Angel Guillen’s head popped up from the crowd. He motioned to a friend across the room. From a distance, it wasn’t clear if it was good or bad news. Photographer Joe Giron was on top of the situation, and saw it clearly. Aces for Guillen, jacks for his opponent. The hand signal made it clear. Guillen had been out-flopped. He was the last person to leave the 2010 WSOP with nothing.
“I actually bubbled the bubble,” he remarked.
Nine minutes and 55 seconds passed on that hand. Finally, we’d reached the moment.
It had to wait through the fifth hand, all eight minutes and seven seconds of it, but finally, hand #6 came. Like a game of whack-a-mole, all-ins popped up in every corner of the room. Kevin Boudreau put himself at risk with big slick, a hand that held, doubled him up, and put him firmly in the money.
Across the room in the red section a slow applause began, then a murmur, then a few screams. There was no doubt, the WSOP bubble had popped.
It happened to Tim McDonald of Lexington, Kentucky. His queens cracked, he stood from his chair, punched a few numbers into his phone, and then allowed himself to be led up onto a podium in the middle of the room.
McDonald stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction as he was pronounced the bubble boy. He received a polite applause, was told he would play next year’s WSOP for free, and then turned to leave. McDonald paused, stopped, and then raised his thumb in the air. It was, for all intents and purposes, okay. It was as if within just a few minutes had come to terms with what he’d become. At least, his face seemed to say, I got it in with the best hand.
In all, hand-for-hand play took just under 48 minutes, which for the players will no doubt be the longest 48 minutes of the WSOP.
Now that it’s over, it’s time to find a final table, and then a champion.
All photos by Joe Giron/Joe Giron Photography