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Best of Ryan McLane
The flags said it all.
The standards for the U.S., England, South Africa, Canada and Denmark were waved proudly in the stands as fans stood in solidarity with their players at the final table of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event. Add in the birth counties of three other players - Laos, Russian and Vietnam - and the WSOP had its diverse Main Event final table ever.
The international flair at the final table was a microcosm of the entire WSOP. Although U.S.-born players still dominate WSOP fields, more international players than ever competed in 2007. More than 27 % of the field starting Day 2 action came from outside the U.S. And several left the Series as rising superstars.
Russia's Alexander Kravchenko won his first WSOP bracelet and finished fourth in the Main Event. His more than $2 million in 2007 WSOP winnings (six total cashes) vaulted him to the top of Russia's all-time money list.
"I can't really wear my pajamas to the supermarket anymore," Thater said. "People recognize me (in Germany) now and I sign a lot of autographs."
But perhaps more important to the WSOP's growth is the influx of International players looking to become their country's next big star.
Players like 35-year old Magnus Karlsson, who was born in Sweden but now lives in Costa Rica. He watched fellow Swedes Erik Fridberg and William Thorson become famous in the 2006 Main Event and wants to follow in their footsteps.
Karlsson said he was proud to watch his friends succeed with an aggressive style unfamiliar to most Americans, but innate to most European competitors. He was so inspired that he entered the WSOP for the first time this year.
Poker landscape changing
"It seems like English wasn't the first language at many of the tables this year," said Norman Chad, color analyst for ESPN.
Players from outside the U.S. made up more than 16 percent of all top-50 finishers in the 55 WSOP bracelet events, according to a Casino City survey.
Additionally, 32 percent of the top-25 finishers in the Casino City WSOP Player of the Year race were from countries besides the U.S.
English speaking nations still have a large grip on the WSOP with 91% of the top-50 finishers coming from the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia. But Germany, Sweden, and Italy all boasted double-digit cash figures.
Ten of in the 55 bracelets awarded were handed to players from outside the U.S. with seven countries represented.
Canada led the non-U.S. bracelet race with three winners (Robert Cheung, Jason Warner and Lukasz Dumanski) while Germany grabbed two (Thater and Michael Keiner). Russia's Kravchenko, England's Ram Vaswani, Italy's Jeffrey Lisandro, South Korea's Daniel Schreiber and Israel's Rafi Amit also won gold.
"We came as a group of 10 from Germany," Thater said. "When I wasn't playing I was watching and cheering. I wanted my friends to succeed."
In total, 32 countries made an appearance in the Casino City survey.
Why they keep coming (and why that won't stop)
Television and Internet poker are the two biggest reasons why there are more players at the WSOP from outside the U.S. than ever before, according to experts.
"(International) Players see their countryman on television, winning large amounts of money, and it just looks cool," said John Duthie, creator of the European Poker Tour and a member of Team PokerStars. "Sweden is a good example. It's an acceptable pastime for young players there and as they learn the game and succeed, they seem to branch out to other parts of the world and do well in the biggest events."
But Chad, like many others, believes the increase is in part due to the online gambling restrictions placed on American players.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) made it illegal for U.S. financial institutions to conduct transactions with online gambling firms, thus Chad said, "thousands of Americans players" lost out on a chance to qualify for the WSOP. This left a large, open conduit for international players to qualify and play.
"This is the World Series of Poker," Chad said. "It's not like the World Series of Baseball, which really just crowns a U.S. champion. Anyone from anywhere can win a bracelet or a World Championship here and I think that also draws the players in."
Star power also has an influence. Friberg, a young up and coming player from Sweden in 2006, served as another catalyst for international growth when his aggressive style was showcased on the ESPN Main Event broadcasts.
Other European stars like Friberg, Thater, Thor Hansen, Ram Vaswani and Gus Hansen add color to the game with their personalities and unique playing styles.
"They (international players) bring a little bit extra color a different amount of aggression to the game," Duthie said.
Duthie, one of England's finest players, finished 487th in the Main Event and was a media favorite for spending most of the tournament with a massage therapist behind his chair.
Karlsson said Europeans play poker differently, learning to bluff in drawing games like Omaha and Suki, a five-card-stud game where four-flushes beat pairs. Because success in these games relies heavily on drawing, Karlsson believes Europeans are inherently more aggressive -- bluffing more -- which in turn creates an exciting playing style suited for television.
Denmark's Philip Hilm, a 2007 Main Event final table participant, is a good example. He came to final table as the chip leader, but told ESPN's Phil Gordon after he lost that he was not content to sit back and wait for cards. He wanted to "own" the table.
When eventual Main Event champ Jerry Yang got aggressive early, Hilm decided to put a stop to it – or lose trying. This attitude culminated in one of the final table's most exciting hands. Hilm pushed more than $20 million chips in the middle with nothing more than third pair and a flush draw, forcing Yang, the other chip leader, to make an early decision for all his chips.
Hilm lost when he missed his outs, but the hand became and instant classic because one of Denmark's rising-stars was willing to risk millions of real dollars on a gamble.
"We put a lot of pressure on our opponents," Karlsson said of European players. "We're not afraid to push, push, push."
International players: The future of the WSOP
The first WSOP Europe kicks off in September, the beginning of a major WSOP expansion into markets outside Las Vegas, WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said.
London will play host to WSOP Europe with three bracelet events scheduled, including a $20,000 Main Event. Americans Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, and Jamie Gold have already committed to playing, but the point of this expansion is to draw international players to the WSOP brand, Pollack said.
"They (international players) are critical to the WSOP," Pollack said. "We are trying to put more World into the World Series of Poker. It's a global game and we want to bring our brand to fans and players around the world through the television and the Internet."
Drawing international players was a focal point of 2007, Pollack said. The International Players Advisory Council (IPAC) was created to help change the WSOP and serve as a compliment to the Player's Advisory Council (PAC), Pollack said.
"We met with the international players last fall and it was a major wake up call for us," Pollack said. "We realized quickly that we needed to do more to better service the International player."
One major change was the registration process.
Given the difficulties with dealing with currency conversions, Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino Director of Customer Service Joe Scibetta created separate lines for international players. The area was staffed with personnel experienced in dealing with foreign money, and the result was a smoother process and shortened wait-times.
"We got some instant feedback that the process was much more efficient this year than last," Scibetta said. "We plan to make similar improvements next year."
Pollack said changes like these will become the norm as the WSOP brand expands.
Duthie believes the international player influx has more to do with the exposure of International players to Americans and vice versa.
"As more Americans are exposed to their colorful international counterparts, a bridge is created through the poker experience that will bring more U.S. players to the European tournaments and beyond," Duthie said. "And that will work both ways once more Americans players come to Europe. It already exists, but I think you'll see that it gets larger."