As a poker tournament official I'm supposed to be impartial. And when it comes to dealing with players and reporting events, I'm pretty good at staying neutral. But it's impossible not to cheer for certain people.
I always root for players who I think will best represent the game of poker. I also admit to having a soft spot for poker players who truly appreciate what winning a WSOP gold bracelet means.
Take the first event of this year's WSOP. The last four players at the final table were Mike Sexton, Andy Bloch, Kathy Liebert and Nenad Medic. Nothing against Nenad, whom I didn't know - but I had a tough time picking a personal favorite among Sexton, Bloch and Liebert.
I ended up rooting silently for Bloch, whom I've known for nearly 15 years. I thought he was the most deserving of the group, since he has yet to win a gold bracelet (while Sexton and Liebert had both won previously), despite coming close a few times.
Of course, none of my sentimental horses won as Nenad ended up winning the tournament.
I have emotional attachments to many poker players. I tend to favor players who have paid their dues over the years, and who have even survived adversity.
Indeed, all of the players on the following list include players who have experienced the peaks and valleys of tournament poker and who, I believe, deserve at least one more grand view from poker's mountaintop.
10 Poker Players to Root For
In alphabetical order, here are 10 poker players I'm cheering for at the 2008 World Series of Poker:
1) Michael Craig. Michael is a supremely talented writer. Michael is now showing us that writing about a subject for a long time can be a terrific means of self-improvement. He's cashed a number of times in major tournaments recently. He's also a very nice guy.
2) Jan Fisher. I can't think of anyone more often overlooked on everyone's list than Jan Fisher. The Las Vegas poker insider has been writing about poker for more than a decade. She used to play Seven-Card Stud for a living and now works on the World Poker Tour.
Jan has paid her dues in this business many times over, initially as a dealer and then as a player. She's always been the perfect example of what all players should aspire to become.
Generous to a fault, encouraging beyond words, selfless beyond measure - Jan is one of my favorite people and I'd love to see her win poker's most coveted prize.
3) Bruno Fitoussi. Before I met Bruno face to face, I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. The operator of The Aviation Club in Paris already has so much going for him that the last thing he seems to need is to make a big score at the WSOP.
Then I met Bruno, and realized what a great ambassador he is. I once called Bruno "The Benny Binion of France." It would be fitting for him to win a gold bracelet and become the most famous Frenchman in the game.
4) Phil Gordon. It's hard to come up with a famous poker player more deserving of a WSOP win than Phil Gordon. Just about everyone around him has already scored a WSOP victory. But Phil has been forced to sit idly by and cheer while others have seized the glory.
Phil has done very well for himself and is to be commended. But what I really admire is that Phil always remains so positive and encouraging to those around him. I know he wants to win badly. He deserves it.
5) Chris Gregorian. "The Armenian Express" is one of poker's kindest people. He gives me and my wife a bottle of Armenian brandy every year.
Anyone who gives me liquor gets an automatic vote. Chris is a sincere and kind-hearted person who could use a big win. I hope he gets it.
6) Mike Laing. Mike was once poker's most successful tournament player. From 1992 through 2000, he won just about everything possible. Then Mike ran bad, made some horrible personal decisions, went broke, and has been waiting for his comeback ever since.
Mike doesn't win poker tournaments anymore. Despite having incredible natural talent and uncanny raw instincts, Mike's confidence has lagged in recent years. Nonetheless, he has remained upbeat and maintains his dignity.
I've heard him appear on several radio and Internet broadcasts. He has a natural ability to analyze and entertain. I sure hope Mike makes a big comeback.
7) Marcel Luske. Marcel is one of poker's most well-liked stars. The Flying Dutchman is classy and always upbeat. Marcel has not yet won at the WSOP, which seems hard to believe since he gets so much attention from the media and his fellow players.
I think that's a testament to his natural appeal and sincerity. If good things happen to good people, then Marcel's time will eventually come.
8) John Phan, a.k.a. "The Razor." I've watched John finish as the runner-up at the WSOP and suffer what must have been extreme disappointment. What I saw was a fierce competitor who was gracious in defeat.
John is always positive about poker and life and I think his attitude is infectious. I like being around people like him because you always feel a sense of positive energy around them.
9) Young Phan. I like the regular guys - players who stay in hotel rooms, fly around the country and pay their dues on the WSOP Circuit. Phan has done this for years. He is always gracious and professional.
I have also seen him encourage other players. He's the consummate professional. Phan is on my short list of players who I hope might win the Main Event someday.
10) Gavin Smith. Gavin is poker's favorite party animal. He's also been a friend of mine since 1994 when I first met him at the Foxwoods Casino. It's hard to believe how far Smith has gone since we used to sit in the same poker games.
I've won $9,812 in my miserable tournament career. Gavin usually blows through that sum in the first hole out on the golf course. Now, he's up over $3 million. Nice going, Gavin. Now, it's time to get a gold bracelet.
Okay, just one more:
Maureen Feduniak. This wonderful lady has been playing poker at the WSOP for about 10 years. She is so sweet and loves the game so much. She has cashed 10 times and even ended up as the runner-up in an event two years ago.
We need more people like Mrs. Feduniak in our game. She makes us so much better as a game and as people with her presence.
One final note: If you were not included on my Top 10 list, it doesn't mean I'm not cheering for you!