Play resumes at the World Series of Poker Main Event final table next week, with nine players vying for an $8.5 million payday. As you sit down to watch ESPN’s televised coverage of the final table –- or head to Vegas to watch it in person, here are 10 stories to keep an eye on.
10. Player of the year race
Phil Hellmuth's victory in the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event made Greg Merson's quest for the WSOP Player of the Year award significantly more difficult, but not impossible. Instead of needing to finish fourth or better to win POY, Merson now needs to win the Main Event to claim the honor. If Merson is the first player to be eliminated at the final table, he will finish fourth in the POY standings. Merson is third in chips at the final table with 28.725 million.
9. Americans are 1-for-4
Since the WSOP began pausing play at the WSOP Main Event in 2008 to allow TV coverage to catch up with the action at the table, only one American (Joe Cada, 2009) has won the tournament. In 2008, Europeans finished 1-2. In 2010, American John Racener finished second to Canada's Jonathan Duhamel. And in 2011, Germany's Pius Heinz beat a final table that included just three Americans. This year's final table features 8 Americans, so the odds favor an American winning. But Hungary's Andras Koroknai is second in chips with 29.375 million and can spoil the party for the Stars and Stripes.
8. Bracelets don't help
None of the Main Event winners in the November Nine era have won a WSOP event prior to winning the Main Event. Until this year, only three people who had won bracelets had even reached the final table -- Phil Ivey, Michael Mizrachi and Ben Lamb. None of them won the Main Event. This year, Merson and Steven Gee enter final table play with the goal of breaking that trend. Merson won his gold bracelet this year in the $10,000 Six-Handed No-Limit Holde'em tournament. Gee won his bracelet in 2010 in a $1,000 No-Limit Hold'em tournament. Gee is fifth in chips at the final table with 16.86 million.
7. Neither do cashes
Cashing at the WSOP is not a predictor of success at the final table. So far, none of the players with most cashes entering the final table has won the event. Ylon Schwartz (11), Phil Ivey (38), Michael Mizrachi (23) and Ben Lamb (12) all fell short. Meanwhile, the Main Event champions combined for five cashes prior to their victories.
6. Chip lead doesn't guarantee victory
The chip leader entering final table play has only won once in the November Nine era. Duhamel had 65.975 million chips when final table action began in 2010. His closest competitor, John Dolan, had 46.25 million. The other November Nine champions started outside the top three in chips. Peter Eastgate (fourth in chips), Cada (fiftth), and Heinz (seventh) all came from off the pace to win their championship. This year, Jesse Sylvia has the most chips with 43.875 million. Koroknai is second with 29.375 million.
5. But chips matter
Even though only one chip leader has won the Main Event since 2008, no chip leader has finished worse than third. Dennis Phillips finished third in 2008. Darvin Moon and Martin Staszko both finished second. If Sylvia finishes worse than third, the big story of this final table won't be the winner. It will be the dramatic fall from grace by the chip leader.
4. The reign of 20-somethings
In recent years, Main Event champions haven't just been 20-somethings. They've been really young 20-somethings. Heinz was 22 when he won last year. Duhamel was 23 when he won in 2010. Cada and Eastgate were both 21 when they won their Main Events. This year's final table features five players in their 20s. Sylvia, the chip leader, is 26. Merson is 25. Russell Thomas, at 24, is fourth in chips. Robert Salaburu, 27, is seventh in chips. And Jake Balsiger, 21, is eighth in chips. If the Main Event continues its trend of really young champions, Balsiger will come from well off the pace to win it.
3. TV ratings
With the top online poker rooms no longer serving the U.S., it's hard to measure just how popular the game still is. WSOP tournament entries and prize pool statistics can be misleading. This year's prize pool, for example, was $222,035,192 -- the largest prize pool in Series history. But $42,666,672 of the prize pool came from the $1 million Big One for One Drop tournament. If you take out the Big One for One Drop tournament, the 2012 prize pool would fall around $13 million short of the 2011 pool. Does that mean poker has experienced a decline? Does it mean the economy is still tough? It's tough to say. But that's where poker TV ratings come in. This could be a better barometer for the how the game is faring. Are more people interested -- and therefore watching the final table broadcast? Or are fewer people watching, indicating a decline in the overall popularity of the game? And as much as we will monitor the ratings, there are still problems with using it as a metric for measure the popularity of the game. This year's final table lacks a big name pro that casual viewers can tune in to see -- and that can have a definite impact on the ratings as well.
2. The ESPN effect
Like last year, ESPN is providing nearly-live coverage of the Main Event final table. What fans see on TV will trail the live action by 15 minutes. Hole cards will not be revealed until the end of the hand. And like last year, we expect players to be fully prepared to take advantage of the nearly-live intelligence they're receiving from their iPad toting rail and cadre of friends watching from home. Think your big bluff or three-betting light will win you the hand? Be careful. In 15 minutes, you're opponent will know exactly what you've done. And how players plan for and handle that dynamic could be critical in determining the victor.
1. Will a star be born?
The Main Event final table has been the launching point for several stars in the game. Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem became some of the biggest celebrities in the game after winning the Main Event. Phillips didn't win it in 2008, but he's still a fan favorite. Duhamel and Heinz have cachet outside of the U.S. This year's final table features a rather anonymous group of players. Can any of these players emerge as a star? Do any of these players have the combination of skill and personality to capture the imagination of the audience? The spotlight is there to be seized. Someone just has to do it.
Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.