Card tricks

O, BY THE WAY

Despite big field, skill still rivals luck

On the World Series of Poker

June 05, 2008|By BILL ORDINE

The 39th World Series of Poker got going in earnest Friday, and perhaps the most common question pondered about the game is this:

Luck or skill, which is it? The obvious answer, of course, is:

It's just a matter of circumstances that determines how great a role either of those elements will play.

Skill is especially evident in smaller fields, especially at big-time tournaments. At the World Series of Poker at the Rio casino in Las Vegas, a "small" field is anything less than 400 players.

The first of 55 events - the WSOP will go on for almost seven weeks with the Main Event starting in early July - was a $10,000 buy-in pot-limit hold 'em tournament, and the pricey cost of admission kept the field to a cozy 352 players.

As a result, the final table included five well-known professionals: Andy Bloch (finished second), who was part of the famous MIT blackjack card-counting team; Kathy Liebert (third), who has a World Series gold bracelet for a 2004 win; Mike Sexton (fourth), a commentator on television's World Poker Tour; Patrik Antonius (seventh), a Finn with movie-star good looks who plays on both sides of the Atlantic; and Phil Laak (ninth), the zany "Unabomber" and a TV poker regular.

The winner was a lesser-known but still formidable pro, Nenad Medic, who collected more than $794,000.

In contrast, the second event of the current WSOP was a $1,500 buy-in, which is cheap by WSOP standards. The no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament started with 3,929 players (a record for a live tournament that's not the World Series Main Event) and so you would expect luck to be the key and that some no-name would win the thing.

And that's pretty much what happened.

Grant Hinkle, from Kansas City, Mo., who works in high-tech marketing and playing in his first major tournament, took down the whole deal yesterday and cashed for more than $831,000.

But here's the interesting part. The third-place finisher from among that land rush-sized field was Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, perhaps the most recognizable poker player in the word. The guy with the dark beard, black cowboy hat and doctorate in computer science from UCLA pocketed more than $388,000.

So it would appear that at a poker table, regardless of the size of the field, skill does still seem to come in handy.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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