What Happened to the Tournament of Champions?

Over the past three years, the World Series of Poker brought back to the poker world the sanctified Tournament of Champions. As this year’s event has now closed, there hasn’t been an announcement of even if one will be held for 2007. After crowing about the “Tournament of Champions” photo room at Caesars Palace last year, where the pictures of the three champions were displayed, Harrah’s this year, almost in the dark, has mentioned nothing regarding a TOC for 2007. The question is, why (and it may be as simple as you are thinking)?

Back in 2004, the Tournament of Champions was started as a simple, nine player sit and go that featured some of the greatest names in the game. At stake was a $1 million winner take all prize provided by Harrah’s and the players were invited to attend, which raised some controversy as to how they were selected. Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu (who lobbied hard for a position at the table), T. J. Cloutier, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Chip Reese and newly minted World Champion Greg Raymer all came to the felt and fell victim to the final three that included Howard Lederer, Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke. Many of us still remember the bad beat administered by Annie on her brother Howard and then the meticulous mental torture that she put “The Poker Brat” through. The former psychology PhD was able to completely twist Hellmuth’s mental state at the felt heads up and, in the end, Annie Duke captured the million dollar prize and was crowned the first champion of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions.

In 2005, the rules were amended some to make it more of an actual poker tournament. This time around $2 million dollars was the prize and the final table would be able to partake in the largess. The field would also be larger as well; all the final table participants of the 2005 WSOP Championship Event would be entered as well as the individual winners of WSOP Circuit Events. The remainder of the field was filled out by a points system which resulted in the field being 116 players strong.

Controversy once again raised its head for this tournament as well. Pepsi, who sponsored the event and its prize pool, demanded that three players were added to the field. This was contrary to what had been stated per the qualifying guidelines that Harrah’s had set down but, to maintain the sponsorship, Harrah’s relented and three quarters of poker’s Mount Rushmore, Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan, were added to the field. While Hellmuth was the only one to make the final table (finishing third), the tournament was more known for the phoenix-like ascension of Mike Matusow and his return to poker greatness after tremendous personal issues. Matusow was able to capture the title by defeating Hoyt Corkins and taking the $1 million first place prize, becoming the first man to win a million dollars in two different tournaments (he had also finished ninth at the 2005WSOP Championship Event for the other million dollar win).

2006 marked another change in the WSOP Tournament of Champions. There was the same $2 million prize pool and this time around–remembering the hubbub of the previous year–Harrah’s made it well known that they could add up to six players to the field. The final table from 2005 once again was admitted to the field as were the individual winners of the WSOP Circuit tournaments. Adding in the six “wild card” entries, the field totaled twenty seven players and was probably the best of the three TOC’s to this point.

Matusow was hell bent on repeating as the champion of the event and he did make it to the final three players, along with Daniel Negreanu (who had won a Circuit event) and Mike Sexton (a “wild card”). Over three hours of play, the triumvirate waged war before Matusow succumbed in third place. Negreanu and Sexton then went into a six hour heads up battle before Sexton was able to vanquish Negreanu. In winning the 2006 TOC, Sexton (who had created the original idea for a “tournament of champions” seven years previous) also showed the philanthropic nature of poker by donating half of his $1 million prize to several different charities.

As 2007, and this year’s World Series, has rolled along, there hasn’t been any mention of a Tournament of Champions for this year. What has become one of the more entertaining poker tournaments on ESPN is inexplicably not on the schedule and doesn’t look like it will be. This simple fact can be put down to one thing…a lack of a sponsor to put up the $2 million prize.

Pepsi was the sponsor of the last two TOC’s, after Harrah’s put on the first one with their funding. A highly placed source in the Harrah’s hierarchy has stated to this writer that the TOC is not being talked about because there isn’t a sponsor for it and, thus, no one to put up the prize pool. If this is the case, then it is a travesty that it isn’t being done.

Of course, its not that easy to find expensive sponsors for TOC after the not so great performance in the last few seasons but thankfully, Pepsi has indeed been a loyal friend in this regard as they are still relying on the tournament without looking for greener pastures and rightly so as this is no poker online where the cards determine your skills.

Harrah’s could easily put up the funding if a sponsor couldn’t be found to carry on what could potentially be a tremendous tradition for the game. ESPN has already demonstrated that a table filled with some of the biggest names in the game is palatable to the poker fans around the world and would probably snap it up in a heartbeat. And what better way to give something back to the players (in the form of a $2 million freeroll) and the fans but by continuing the TOC?

Invite the final tables from 2006 and 2007, the Circuit event winners from the past year and then throw in enough “wild cards” to balance it out to nine handed tables and the people will eat it up (especially if the entirety of the event is shown). Poker is steeped in tradition and history and for the WSOP Tournament of Champions to disappear would be one of the great disappointing developments in recent poker. There’s still time to change this and we have to hope that it will soon happen.

John

Author: John