His cap backwards, his face little yet acquainted with razors, Denmark's Peter Eastgate hardly looks the part of a card-playing superstar. But his $9.1 million purse from a first-place finish at the World Series of Poker main event this month confirms otherwise. The 22-year-old is the youngest player ever to capture that title and indicative of the game's emerging champion prototype-young, aggressive, fearless, and unknown.
Unlike open tournaments a decade ago, when final tables teemed with names from a static pool of recognized stars, today's contests invariably elevate an unheralded mix of new players with varying degrees of talent and luck. Seven years have passed since an established superstar has filled a seat at the WSOP's Final Table. Most analysts of the game don't anticipate that trend will change, given the propensity of many amateur players to target big names for early showdowns.
In 2003, such unpredictability worked to poker's favor when unknown amateur Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP main event and launched a nationwide boom of amateur interest. The following year, entries into the main event more than tripled to 2,576, a number that grew by more than 3,000 in 2005 and 2006.
But the inability to produce consistent winners has since backfired. With most well-known players losing early in the tournament, viewership of the WSOP on ESPN is down considerably from its peak in 2005. And the number of entrants into the event has failed to crack 7,000 for two consecutive years following its peak of 8,773 in 2006.
In an effort to reverse that decline, the WSOP first whittled its competitors down to a nine-person Final Table last July before taking a four-month break to market and popularize the men left standing. The move helped generate greater name recognition for Eastgate when he finally outlasted the eight other opponents over a two-day championship that included 274 hands and more than 15 hours of play.
But the 117-day marketing break can do nothing to combat several other potential reasons for the game's dip in popularity. First, many Moneymaker-inspired amateurs who initially dove into poker for the apparent ease of making big green have since realized that the game is a losing proposition for a huge majority of its participants. Second, the mid-level players who made their living feeding on unsuspecting amateurs now have a smaller pool on which to prey.
Of course, the cultural phenomenon is in no danger of returning to its former level of obscurity. The modest declines of late are still a long way from the seven-player backroom tournament that determined poker's first world champion in 1970.
What is it about Arizona and old guys? In a year when one aging Arizona public figure suffered crushing defeat, another has emerged to fill the state with victory. Not unlike former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was considered too old a year ago. But unlike the Arizona senator, Warner is proving his critics wrong.
The 37-year-old play caller is in the midst of what some are now calling an MVP-caliber season. Warner twice won that top individual award in 1999 and 2001 but had not started more than 11 games in any season since and appeared to be in decline before his resurgence this season.
As a Christian, Warner has used his public platform throughout his career to promote charity work among disabled children and pro-life causes. Another MVP award would elevate that platform further, making Warner just the third NFL player ever to receive the league's highest individual honor three times.