The Empire Strikes Back

2007 was the first running of the WSOP after the dramatic decision by the U.S. Congress enacting the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act or UIGEA for short. They had previously fought for online gambling to be found illegal under the Wire Act, but the courts ended up ruling that this old law did not apply to online gambling. So politicians ended up slipping this new anti-gambling legislation into a much larger bill, the SAFE Port Act, which addressed matters of national security involving America’s ports. So the UIGEA was attached to that, and Congress had to vote to approve the bill or not in its entirety. Since security is such a high priority these days, the bill had no trouble passing.

The UIGEA ended up deeming as illegal any financial transactions involving online gambling that was unlawful under any state or federal law. However, at the time there were no laws at all in the entire country making online gambling illegal, but that didn’t deter them. Even today, only a few states have since passed legislation making it illegal by any stretch of the imagination, and there still is no federal law against it that has not been overturned by the courts. Still though, this had the effect of scaring many online poker operations into pulling out of the U.S. market, most notably the largest poker room at the time, Party Poker, in addition to many of the other online poker rooms.

Now Americans could still play poker online, and in fact the mass migration that resulted ended up vaulting PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker into the top two largest poker rooms in the world by far. However, the confusion that resulted from all of this had many Americans erroneously thinking that it was clearly illegal for them to play poker online anymore. This ended up impacting the size of the online poker market in the U.S. and thus the global online poker market as well.

This was especially significant for the World Series of Poker, and although it’s of course not an online event, and is held in the city of Las Vegas where gambling is clearly legal, its phenomenal growth over the preceding few years had been spurred in large part from the huge influx of online poker players who had won their seat that way, and most of these players were from the United States. So anything that would end up hurting online poker was bound to affect the WSOP, and this definitely had its impact.

So not surprisingly, instead of dramatic increases in the number of participants that the big tournament had been experiencing year after year lately, there were 2415 fewer participants in the main event than the year before. This wasn’t due to poker decreasing in popularity in any sense, and in fact its popularity grew significantly during this year in question. There is no question though that there were simply more than 2000 less online players showing up this year than in the previous one, where the WSOP reached its peak. 4 years down the road, the record number of participants in 2006 still stands, as does Jamie Gold’s record $12 million first prize.

As a result of the UIGEA decision, Harrah’s Entertainment, the owner and host of theWorld Series of Poker, initiated a policy where they would no longer “directly” sell WSOP seats to online poker rooms who accepted Americans. This was more for show though and to try to insulate them from potential legal issues, as the poker rooms had no trouble buying as many seats as they wanted “indirectly.” So instead of buying the seats for them, poker rooms simply gave them the cash instead so that they could do it themselves. So it wasn’t that the seats weren’t available, it was because the demand from them dropped off significantly with so many players now out of the online market.

Still though, 6358 entrants in the main event was the second highest amount in the 37 years that the tournament had run, and the $8.25 million dollars for first place, also the second highest of all time, was certainly not too shabby indeed. One thing that did continue to grow though was the number of preliminary tournaments, which now numbered a total of 54, including the prestigious H.O.R.S.E. championship, with a $50,000 buy-in, and requiring players to master the five separate variations of poker played within it, which included Hold’em, Omaha Hi-Lo, Razz, 7 Card Stud, 7 Card Stud Hi-Lo.

This was the second year in fact that this format had been run, with the late Chip Reese winning the inaugural event the year before, taking home over $1.7 million for his effort. Reese is considered by none other than Doyle Brunson to be the greatest player who ever lived. He certainly was the best stud player of all time at the very least. Tragically, a year later, he died in his Las Vegas home of natural causes at the age of 56. This year, Freddy Deeb was crowned the champion of the event, and the first place prize money had already ballooned to over $2.25 million. Many consider this tournament to be more prestigious than even the main event, and it later was to have its name changed to the Player’s Championship.

In the main event, once again, the players were divided up into four groups with four separate starting days. In spite of a smaller prize pool than the year before for the main event, the increase in popularity of the other events had the total prize pool blowing away the record from the previous year, going from around $100 million in total to over $150 million. The payout structure also changed this year, rewarding less of a percentage of the overall prize pool to the top finishers and a higher percentage to lesser ones than had been the case in the past.

The last player with any sort of name recognition at all was Scotty Nguyen, the 1998 World Champion of Poker. In spite of what was still a huge field, he managed to work his way up to 11th place before busting out. The final table was comprised entirely of virtual unknowns.

Jerry Yang had won a satellite to the main event at a local poker room in his home town of Temecula, California, and turned his $225 initial investment into the $10,000 entry fee, which he would then leverage for much more.

He started out the final table eighth out of the nine players that remained, but did not let that discourage him. Often, players in this situation will play rather conservatively, hoping that other players will bust out before they do and thus win more prize money that way. However, Yang wasn’t interested in that; he was instead playing to win. So he reasoned correctly that if he were to have a shot at this, he would have to play pretty aggressively. He didn’t do this indiscriminately, like some players tend to do, he instead studied his opponents and chose his spots carefully.

So,like Jamie Gold the year before, he ended up dominating the action at the final table, and took out his opponents one by one. Like Gold, he ended up personally busting out 7 of his 8 final table opponents. As each one fell, his stack size grew larger and larger, and the opponents left grew fewer and fewer, until there was only 1 more opponent left, Tuan Lam. Once again, it came down to a pocket pair versus an over card, and in fact this time the other player had 2 over cards, an ace and a queen to Yang’s pocket eights. The magic queen hit the flop once again, giving Lam a pair of queens to Yang’s pair of eights.

Yang now needed either another 8, of which there were two more left, or a runner runner straight, which was even less likely. For this to happen, he’d need both a 7 and a 6 to hit. The turn was a 7. Could it be? Could a 6 fall on the river and give Yang the title? It seemed all too improbable. However the final card was turned over and it was the 6 of hearts. Yang’s own heart leapt as he raked in $8.25 million, the gold bracelet, and the world championship.