You might have missed it, but the World Series of Poker did in fact stage a live, in-person Main Event in 2020 despite the still ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.
It was not the multi-week spectacle of past years. But the WSOP did crown a Main Event champion at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, much as they’ve done every year since the mid-2000s.
ESPN was there as well, and this week the WSOP announced the broadcast schedule for the 2020 WSOP Main Event. Four hours of 2020 WSOP Main Event televised coverage will air this Sunday, Feb. 28 on ESPN2 starting at 8 p.m. ET.
Sunday’s airing will include action from both the “international” and “domestic” final tables and culminate with the heads-up finale. Lon McEachern and Jamie Kerstetter will provide commentary.
WSOP created ‘hybrid’ Main Event following pandemic postponement
The WSOP started 2020 with a plan to host the largest tournament series in the series’ 51-year history. Early in the year, the WSOP announced a schedule that included 101 bracelet events. Of those 14 events were to take place online at WSOP.com. Meanwhile, the other 87 would play out in person at the Rio from May through July.
However, the pandemic forced the closure of all casinos in Nevada and across the country starting in March, and by mid-April the WSOP announced the series had been postponed.
In early June, the WSOP announced an alternate online-only series would take place. The series included 31 events hosted in July on WSOP.com for players on the WSOP Nevada and WSOP New Jersey sites. A second leg of 54 events took place on the global online poker site GGPoker from mid-July through Sept.
That series culminated in a $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em Main Event. Bulgarian player Stoyan Madanzhiev topped a 5,802-entry field to win that Main Event. Madanzhiev claimed a Main Event bracelet and more than $3.9 million for his victory.
However, a mid-November announcement from the WSOP indicated that despite appearances (and most observers’ understanding), Madanzhiev was not the official “World Champion” of poker for 2020.
Rather a new “hybrid online and live version” of the $10,000 WSOP Main Event would take place starting on GGPoker and WSOP.com in December. Online tournaments would play down to nine-player final tables that would each then meet in person to play down to single winners.
The two champions of the “international” and “domestic” events would then meet in Las Vegas for a heads-up battle to determine the 2020 WSOP Main Event World Champion.
ESPN to show Las Vegas, Rozvadov final tables, heads-up finale (SPOILERS)
Those without knowledge of how the hybrid 2020 WSOP Main Event played out who wish to watch the broadcast on Sunday without spoilers should stop reading here.
On GGPoker, 674 players entered the freezeout tournament. The final nine came from nine different countries. However, one player, Peiyuan Sun of China, chose not to travel to King’s Casino in Rozvadov, Czech Republic to play the live final table. Sun received ninth-place prize money. Damian Salas of Argentina ultimately won that final table, earning a first prize of just over $1.55 million.
Meanwhile, on WSOP.com on the WSOP NV and WSOP NJ sites, 705 players entered. All nine who made the final table were American, although again one of those nine did not participate in the live final table. After testing positive for COVID-19, three-time bracelet winner Upeshka De Silva was forced to withdraw. Like Sun, De Silva received ninth-place money.
Joseph Hebert of Louisiana won the live final table played at the Rio. Hebert’s first prize was almost identical to what Salas won at just over $1.55 million. Those two then met to play heads-up to determine the World Champion. Adding further intrigue, the WSOP and GGPoker added an additional $1 million prize for the heads-up winner.
That heads-up match had been scheduled for Dec. 30, 2020. However travel difficulties for Salas delayed the finale until Jan. 3, 2021. The heads-up duel was a long one, lasting nearly six hours before Salas secured the win.
Salas had come close to a Main Event title before. In 2017, Salas finished seventh out of 7,221 players to win $1.425 million.
ESPN to give poker fans something familiar following unusual year
ESPN will no doubt highlight big hands from both final tables and the heads-up match in its edited broadcast Sunday. Interestingly, it might mark the first time since the mid-2000s that most viewers will not know the outcome beforehand given the relatively scant coverage of the Main Event in December and early January.
McEachern returns for his 20th-straight year of covering the WSOP Main Event. Kerstetter was part of the coverage in 2019 and returns this time as co-host.
Meanwhile McEachern’s longtime partner Norman Chad who has been part of every WSOP Main Event telecast since 2003 will miss the show this time. That, too, is a pandemic-related change of plans, as McEachern reported on Twitter Chad continues to fight some long-haul effects of COVID-19.
Expect the show to acknowledge the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the 2020 Main Event. That said, the coverage will also likely try to provide something familiar for poker fans following an especially unusual year.