Baseball, which evolved in the U.S. Northeast around the same time poker was emerging along the lower Mississippi, is now played in dozens of countries, and most of its best players are from Latin America. Basketball, our other 19th-century sport, is even more popular globally.
Yet because of a noxious mix of puritanical and cynical politicians, it is illegal in 47 states to play the country's national card game online, while the on-land game is proscribed in thousands of local jurisdictions. This is despite abundant evidence that poker is a contest of skill played by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Gates and countless other civic and business leaders.
Far more people now play poker outside the U.S. The game's championship event has already been won by men born in more than a dozen countries, including China, Laos, Iran, Vietnam, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Germany and Spain. The U.S. has long been a melting pot, and its favorite card game is a sturdy crucible in which people from six continents now find themselves welcome contenders.
Players from 83 countries entered the World Series of Poker's Main Event last week, so it shouldn't be surprising that the final nine players represent six different nations: Jorryt van Hoof of the Netherlands; Felix Stephensen of Norway; Andoni Larrabe of Spain; Mark Newhouse, Dan Sindelar, Billy Pappaconstantinou and William Tonking from the U.S.; Martin Jacobson of Sweden; and Bruno Politano of Brazil.
As you may recall, Politano jumped into the lead on Day Four, when he flopped a set of kings against Zach Jiganti's set of 9s to win a 4,930,000-chip pot.
Van Hoof's key hand came on Day Seven, with blind bets of 100,000 and 200,000 and a 30,000 ante. The tall, bearded Dutch pro called a raise by Andrey Zaichenko with the 10 and 6 of clubs and flopped a flush to crack Zaichenko's pocket aces. The huge pot installed van Hoof as the chip leader. He's only the second Dutch player to make the Main Event's final table.
Van Hoof, Newhouse, Jacobson, Stephensen, Politano and Larrabe are all full-time professionals. Sindelar is a circuit regular. Tonking, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, has cashed in a respectable number of tournaments. Pappaconstantinou (who usually goes by Pappas) is a 29-year-old foosball sensation competing in the Main Event for the first time. He had never played a tournament with a buy-in of more than $500 before this one, but it's a fairly safe bet that the former poker dealer will be competing in bigger events once he cashes in for at least $730,725 in November, if not before.
Perhaps most impressively, Newhouse becomes the first player to make two consecutive final tables since "Action" Dan Harrington in 2004. (Harrington also won the whole thing in 1996, going on to write a definitive series of primers on No-Limit Hold 'em.)
Last year, Newhouse finished ninth after starting with the smallest stack. "I would rather finish 10th than ninth," he told one reporter. "Ninth is brutal, man. Coming back four months later and getting no money -- I told myself I wasn't going to be disappointed (at the time), but it was very disappointing."
Once again, all nine finalists are men. This isn't altogether surprising, of course, given that 96 percent of the starters were male. Yet with rising stars such as Vanessa Selbst, Liv Boeree, Annette Obrestad and Vanessa Rousso competing, along with such bracelet-winning veterans as Jennifer Harman, Allyn Shulman and Kathy Liebert, many expected 2014 would be the year at least one woman would break through in the Main Event. For that, we'll have to wait until next year -- or at least until the Asia-Pacific World Series in Melbourne in October.
After that, the focus will return to the final nine, who'll divide up a prize pool of $28,480,121, with $10 million reserved for the winner. All this will happen Nov. 10-11, right back here in the Rio casino's ESPN Thunderdome.
By then, baseball's World Series will be in the books, with the new football, basketball, hockey and futbol seasons well under way. We might even be seeing some progress in the various federal and state legislative efforts to make our national card game legal again in this country.
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