Poker purists hated it. It was the Survivor-ization of the World Series of Poker Main Event, turning the ultimate Texas hold’em competition into a reality show. It was an interruption of the natural order of things, a redirection of the momentum.
And what if one the players died in the interim? (That became the “won’t somebody please think of the children?” rallying cry of the opposition crowd.)
Today marks 10 years since the first “November Nine” final table began, on, appropriately, November 9, 2008. One man’s innovation is another man’s desecration, apparently, but 10 years on, now that the November Nine experiment has come and gone, it seems safe to assert that no harm was done. Nobody died during the hiatus. No decidedly unworthy champions were crowned.
In 2017, the plug was pulled on the November Nine delay; after nine Novembers, the story was complete. And the legacy looks something like this: The WSOP tried something new, bold, and different. And whether it did or didn’t benefit the health of poker in the long run, for a little while, it created an “event” feel that the game had never seen before.
Messing with success
It was WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart who came up with the idea, a few months after the 2007 World Series ended, to delay the final table. Instead of playing the entire tournament over the summer, then airing an edited version on ESPN a few months later with much of the viewing audience already knowing who won, as they’d done from 2003-’07, Stewart suggested taking a near-four-month break once the final nine players were set. Edited episodes building toward the final table could air on ESPN throughout September and October, setting the stage for an almost-live telecast with a spoiler-free ending.
“Ty Stewart proposed it to the commissioner at the time, Jeffrey Pollack, who made all the decisions,” then-WSOP Public Relations Director Nolan Dalla explained to US Bets. “One of Ty Stewart’s main responsibilities was brainstorming, and he came up with a lot of very unusual ways to try to jumpstart interest. This was right in the middle of the poker boom, so there was a feeling that even if the decision proved to be an error, the World Series probably wouldn’t suffer from it. The World Series was so big, you almost couldn’t screw it up.”
Pollack wasn’t crazy about the idea, Dalla recalled, thinking there was no sense messing with something that was working. The WSOP Main Event field had grown by a factor of 10 between 2003 and 2006, and even after coming down in ’07 due to the attempted outlawing of online poker, the game was healthy.
But Pollack’s opinion wasn’t the only one that mattered.
“It was ESPN that came in and recognized that by delaying the conclusion, they could build an audience during the hiatus,” Dalla said. “ESPN really liked the idea, so that became a real tipping point — when ESPN’s in favor of it, because it would bolster their lead-up shows for 10 or 12 weeks, that was the tipping point.”
Gone til November
The theoretical pros of the delay:
- Nine players, not just one, would have an extended opportunity to do press and promote the game.
- Those players could make additional money by signing sponsorship deals.
- The players could bring family and friends to Las Vegas to root for them, something that had been much more difficult to arrange on one day’s notice.
- The players would be sharper, not as exhausted as they often were after playing for a week straight in July.
- The final table would take place not in a dimly lit corner of the Amazon Room but in the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theatre, in front of hundreds of screaming fans, where it just might feel less like a card game and more like a sport.
On the flip side, however, were all the fears noted in the opening paragraphs of this article, plus concerns that months of coaching and running simulations would leave us with a final table full of players who hardly resembled their former selves from a strategic perspective.
In Year One, the positives mostly won out. The cheering sections were boisterous. Stars were made of players like everyman third-place finisher Dennis Phillips, who in other years might have been quickly forgotten. Fans were treated to a tremendously skillful heads-up showdown between young guns Peter Eastgate and Ivan Demidov.
And then there were the TV ratings. They rose almost 50 percent over the prior year, and kept on going up in 2009.
Can’t see the stars
One thing that 2008 final table lacked, however, was a household name. David “Chino” Rheem was the most established pro at the final table, and he probably wasn’t one of the top 200 most recognizable poker players in the world prior to that.
This became a trend, unfortunately. Phil Ivey made it in ’09 and Michael Mizrachi final-tabled the tournament the following year, but after that, the World Series didn’t have much luck with landing true headliners. In 2012, after a 17-year drought without a woman at the final table, there were two, Elisabeth Hille and Gaelle Baumann, among the final 11. They busted in 11th and 10th place, respectively. In 2015, Daniel Negreanu, poker’s unofficial greatest ambassador, almost got there, then went out in 11th place.
“I would say those were the two most crushing moments for WSOP management. We were bowled over, couldn’t breathe because it was so disappointing,” Dalla said of the Negreanu near-miss and Baumann and Hille in 2012. “The ladies, that’s the worst bad beat in the history of poker if you’re into poker marketing. They went out 10th and 11th. And by the way, they had chips. It wasn’t like they were low. This was unforeseen. They were perfect potential ambassadors for the game.”
Maybe if Negreanu had cracked the final nine in 2015, the November Nine would still be happening today — maybe John Cynn would be battling Tony Miles for the title right now. We’ll never know.
But in general, the November Nine experiment wasn’t helped by the particular people who made it to the final table.
“Publicly, we would never have said it’s a disappointing crop of nine players,” Dalla said. “Our spin was, these are nine superstars in the making, tomorrow’s superstars. But really, the last thing we wanted was unknown 23-year-olds wearing hoodies. That was poison for television, poison for poker. And that’s the one thing that we unfortunately got way too much of.”
Nine times nine
It’s quite possible, though, that it didn’t matter who did and didn’t make the November Nine; it was simply an idea with a finite shelf life.
The format changed a bit from year to year — the final table varied between two days and three days, and it was frequently aired in its entirety on 30-minute delay instead of being edited down for a broadcast two days later.
But what changed most was the world around it. Online poker sites exited the U.S. following “Black Friday” in 2011, making it much harder for the November Niners to earn big sponsorship checks. The spread of social media created such information immediacy that the idea of pressing pause on a live competition for four months felt increasingly out of step with society. In 2013, ESPN began cutting staff and laying off employees, a pattern that unfortunately repeated a few times in the years ahead. The network in turn reduced its poker coverage both on TV and on its website, which was somewhat at odds with the idea of stretching the WSOP into a four-month extravaganza.
In 2017, it was announced that the final table would take place in July, after just a one-day break. The November Nine was no more.
For a nine-year span, the biggest bubble in poker came with 10 players left in the Main Event. Busting in 10th was more devastating than busting one spot out of the money or finishing second. You did everything you could to be part of that final nine. As Dennis Phillips told ESPN’s Bernard Lee earlier this year, “The November Nine changed the dynamics of the game drastically.”
Now the difference between finishing 10th and finishing 9th can be measured purely in dollars. It’s just another pay jump.
There were nine November Nines, and because Mark Newhouse incredibly made the final table twice during this 2008-’16 run (back to back, in fact), there are exactly 80 men who share this unique bond as part of a club that, quite possibly, nobody else will ever join.
It was an experiment that was greeted with very mixed reaction 10 years ago, but now that it’s over, it’s easy to forget whatever it was that poker fans and players didn’t like about it, and just focus on the good times.
The November Nine era is over. The November Nine nostalgia era is just beginning.