Commentary: International Poker Players Serve Notice on WSOP Main Event Stage
For the fourth year in a row, an international player won the World Series of Poker Main Event, being held this time at the Bally’s-Paris hotel complex on the Las Vegas Strip.
Norway’s Espen Jorstad topped a field of 8,662 players to win the No-limit Texas Hold’em World Championship and collect the $10 million first-place prize after besting Australia’s Adrian Attenborough in heads-up play on Saturday.
Attenborough won $6 million as the runner-up.
In fact, as the final table got underway with an extra player — there were 10 rather than nine because the play-down on Friday was so lengthy — it included six international players. Besides, Norway and Australia, the UK (two players), Canada and Croatia were represented along with four Americans.
Jorstad won the event with a solid hand, a full house (deuces over queens), and became notable during the tournament for lengthy periods of stoically “tanking” — thinking about his immediate play. No argument that he is a deserving champion.
His first phone call was to his mother. “It was a very emotional call,” Jorstad, 34, reportedly said. “She could barely speak. She is my biggest fan, so to be able to share that moment with her was very special.”
Over the last decade-plus, international players have enjoyed significant success at the WSOP, particularly in the Main Event. Prior to Norway’s Jorstad, the most recent winners have been Koray Aldemir, a German living in Austria, in 2021; Damian Salas, of Argentina, in the pandemic hybrid version in 2020, and Hossein Ensan, born in Iran and living in Germany, in 2019.
Over the last 15 years, eight Main event winners were international players. The most recent American winner in 2018 was John Cynn, now 37, a University of Indiana Bloomington finance graduate from Illinois.
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WSOP Main Event results
1. Espen Jorstad, Norway, $10 million
2. Adrian Attenborough, Australia, $6 million
3. Michael Duek, Fort Lauderdale, $4 million
4. John Eames, UK, $3 Million
5. Matija Dobric, Croatia, $2.25 million
6. Jeffrey Farnes, Dallas, Oregon, $1.75 million
7. Aaron Duczak, Canada, $1.35 million
8. Philippe Souki, UK, $1.075 million
9. Matthew Su, Washington D.C., $850,675
10. Asher Conniff, Brooklyn, N.Y., $675,00
To Grow, Poker Needed to Become More International
Until the “poker boom” that began with Chris Moneymaker’s famous Main Event win in 2003, the World Series of Poker was mostly dominated by Americans. And to grow, the game really needed to become more international.
Occasionally, in the pre-boom era, an international player would break through to capture the Main Event. There was Ireland’s Neil Furlong in 1999 and the flashy Ecuadorian, Carlos Mortensen, in 2001. And just after Moneymaker, Australia’s Joe Hachem won in 2005 to choruses of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie.”
But the full-on international charge really began with Denmark’s Peter Eastgate’s win in 2008. From that point on, international players have become a force.
“Today’s WSOP is the melting pot of poker,” World Series of Poker executive director Ty Stewart told TopUSCasinos earlier this year.
There’s a reasonable view that the excitement and seduction of the poker boom and the attendant proliferation of televised poker is what generated international interest in the card game that had been the nearly exclusive province of road gamblers in the American West.
Online Poker Fuels Growth
However, there is far more involved in the evolution of poker as an international game, much having to do with governmental action, or lack thereof, in the United States.
As poker was growing in popularity over the first decade of the 21st century, the explosive increase in participation was largely fueled by online play. For a while, any time of the day or night, poker enthusiasts around the world could turn on their computers and start playing cash games or tournaments for micro-stakes, literally nickels and dimes, up to thousands of dollars.
That was true whether a player was in the United States, or in Europe, or even in Asia.
Then, in 2011, for American players, Black Friday descended on the game when the U.S. Department of Justice effectively shut down internet poker play in the U.S.
However, while that was happening in the United States, international players, depending on where they were located, were still able to mostly log-on and play the game as much as they wanted, sharpening their skills.
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Poker Stalls in U.S.
In America, the game languished. The poker fever cooled. Poker rooms began shutting down.
Even the good poker news of the states that legalized online play is tempered by the reality that poker playing, for practical purposes, has been limited to intrastate (in-state) games.
Some of those states have joined a compact that would allow for inter-state play whenever a gambling operator puts together a multi-jurisdictional tournament, but the whole process is awkward and confusing for most players.
The bottom line is that online poker play in the U.S. is bogged down in various regulatory quagmires that have made it hard for the game to gain traction and, in turn, that makes it difficult to attract novice players and to allow American players to hone their skills.
If American poker players want action on a regular basis these days, they’re better off finding live in-person games and putting in seat time, which is both time-consuming and not so convenient for people with normal lives.
Meanwhile, ROW (rest-of-the-world) players are putting in their time far more efficiently in the lightning-paced online poker-sphere where they can play hundreds of hands in the same time that a player in a casino is playing merely dozens of hands.
The Path Forward for Poker
To be clear, U.S. players like Phil Hellmuth still do quite well in the broad range of WSOP events that have large international participation. And, frankly, they should because Americans do have the home field advantage, especially in terms of travel logistics at a lengthy series of tournaments in Las Vegas.
And at the highest levels of the games, Americans still stand out with 14 of the top 20 money leaders in tournament play, according to the Hendon Mob database.
However, as the divergent arcs of the American and international poker landscapes wend their way forward, it only makes sense that it will continue to be the earnestly dedicated ROW players who will be putting themselves in position to challenge for the game’s richest prizes on the biggest and brightest stages.
A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the world Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.