But why the desire to see a pro win? Why the subtle, looming air of disappointment when a virtual unknown takes first prize? Maybe it's because the pros have been at this longer, having earned the calluses on their posteriors. Maybe it's because we want assurance that poker players aren't gamblers - that they're creative entrepreneurs using those math concepts we all thought were useless to actually make a living. Or perhaps we want validation that it's not all luck and balls that ensure a victory, that there's actually some degree of skill involved.
But is that really the case? If virtual unknowns are beating out the pros, maybe the key factor is luck. Arthur Crowson posed the question earlier in his blog, "Pro vs. Joe: Who Will Dominate Poker This Year?" and presently, the answer seems to be leaning on the latter. Indeed, virtual unknowns have been knocking out the pros in heads-up action at the final tables thus far, and the trend is showing no signs of stopping.
The first incident came in Event #5 when Joseph Hachem, in No-Limit Hold'em Short-Handed play. Everyone expected Hachem to win and secure his status as poker champion number one, but it was Boyd, who's done well in past WSOP events, most notably his 12th place finish in the 2003 Main Event, who went on to win the tournament and his first bracelet. (Aside from his poker successes, Boyd is known for his online poker business ventures and his role in creating "The Crew.")
Then there was the $5,000 No-Limit Hold'em event which delivered a horrible upset to Phil Hellmuth when he was beaten by Jeff Cabanillas. Hellmuth, the definite favorite of the tournament, was denied his 10th bracelet which would've tied him with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan for the record. Cabanillas, on the other hand, won his very first WSOP bracelet and some serious respect for having beaten one of poker's best.
Jon Friedberg, another unknown, won his first WSOP against John Phan in the $1,000 No-Limit Hold'em event. Phan has been playing poker for 16 years and is one of the sharpest minds in the game. A voracious competitor who enters more events than most, Phan has gained the respect of his peers, along with over $2.1 million in career earnings. But he couldn't take that bracelet from Friedberg no matter how long he stalled.
And what about Phil Ivey? I've heard more than one pro claim that he's the best poker player there is, and when he wants to win, he wins. Interesting, since he busted out in second place in the $5,000 Omaha Hi-Lo Split against Sam Farha and finished third in the H.O.R.S.E. event. Granted, Farha is definitely improving his game - he finished second to Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 Main Event. Still, his bracelet win at this year's WSOP was his very first, whereas Ivey already has five bracelets to his name.
Will the trend continue? Most of the pros I've spoken to unanimously agree that due to the consistently increasing number of entrants at the WSOP each year, tournament winners will be decided through luck rather than perfect playing. That's why solutions to prove that skill is a factor in poker playing have come in the form of the H.O.R.S.E. event - a bigger buy-in means a smaller field of competitors who have demonstrated the ability, and the bankroll, to win. Will more events like this keep the unknowns out? It seems unlikely. With the way they've been sweeping the Series so far, it won't be long before the average Joe goes from virtual unknown status to catchy poker nickname status.