Point-Counterpoint: Damian Salas is the Real 2020 Poker World Champion

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If next Monday’s Alabama-Ohio State winner deserves the right to be College Football’s national champion, Damian Salas is the real 2020 poker world champion, in my opinion. He earned it, he deserves the title, and he’ll make a fine ambassador for this great game.

Damian Salas vs. Joseph Hebert heads-up WSOP poker
Damian Salas and Joseph Hebert joke around after the 2020 WSOP Main Event. (Image: Twitter)

Salas defeated Joseph Hebert heads-up at the Rio in Las Vegas on Sunday night to secure the bracelet. In doing so, he won an extra $1 million (had already won $1.5 million) and was crowned the 2020 world champion. He originally reached and won the GGPoker final table — played in the Czech Republic. Hebert won the WSOP.com bracket of the Main Event after shipping the final table for $1.5 million at the Rio. They both earned the right to face off, heads-up for all the marbles.

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My CardsChat colleague Daniel Smyth wrote that he doesn’t consider Salas the “real” world champ. He’s not alone with that opinion. However, I have to disagree.

Dan makes a valid point about the Main Event that ran this past summer on GGPoker, won by Stoyan Madanzhiev. He argues that Madanzhiev was the presumed world champ by the poker community at the time, and then the WSOP reversed course and decided to host a separate Main Event later in the year.

It’s true that Madanzhiev won what was considered the online WSOP Main Event in September. He took down $3.9 million for his efforts and even received a gold bracelet. But there are two important characteristics about the World Series of Poker Main Event that have remained consistent since the 1970s:  the buy-in costs $10,000, and the format is a freezeout.

The format for the online version permitted players to enter up to three times, and each buy-in cost $5,000. In addition, the WSOP never claimed the winner of that event would be considered the world champion.

Forced Changes Due to COVID-19

The past year has been hectic for the sports and poker worlds. Many games have been postponed, and sports leagues have been forced to adjust accordingly. Major League Baseball completed a 60-game schedule, down from its usual 162-game schedule, with no fans in the stands. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series in front of a mostly empty stadium following a shortened season. They’re still considered the champs.

On Monday, Ohio State has an opportunity to play for a national title against Alabama, despite having played just six regular-season games. Very few fans were permitted in the stands during the College Football season, which made it much easier for teams to go on the road and win. Part of what makes College Football so special is the hostile environments created by the rowdy fans at many schools.

Still, the NCAA will crown its national champion on Monday, and it could be a team that played half a normal season (Ohio State). So to that, I say, if we’re handing out trophies to the winners of professional and college sports leagues during the pandemic, why shouldn’t we consider Damian Salas a true poker champion?

What About Madanzhiev?

As I mentioned earlier, the summer WSOP online Main Event was never officially considered the world championship event by the World Series of Poker, and the buy-in was half of what it’s cost since the early 1970s. Plus, every hand was dealt online and players were allowed to reenter.

Compare that to the tournament won by Salas — a $10,000 buy-in freezeout event with two final tables and a heads-up finale played live. And, prior to the start of the tournament, the WSOP announced the winner would earn the title of world champion.

Changes Happen Annually

Many poker fans on social media don’t believe Salas deserves the title because this year’s Main Event differed greatly from previous years. That part is true. What’s also true is the Main Event of 2019 was far different than the Main Event in 1970 … or 2000 … or 2003 … or 2010. You get the point.

The tournament has changed drastically since its inception in 1970. In that inaugural year, Johnny Moss beat out five other players to become the first-ever poker world champion. He didn’t even win a tournament to claim that title; his peers voted him champ for being the top player in the event.

The next year, Moss won again, this time via a $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em tournament. In 1989, a young Phil Hellmuth took down the $10,000 freezeout for $755,000, beating out just 181 players. Compare that to 2006 when Jamie Gold won it for $12 million against a record field of 8,773 entries.

Many other changes have been made to the prestigious tournament over the years, including a venue change from Binion’s to the Rio in 2005, and a blinds structure that has been altered numerous times. Players in the 2019 WSOP Main Event received 60,000 chips, up from 50,000 the year before, and a stark contrast compared to the 10,000 starting stacks of a decade ago.

The point is, the WSOP Main Event is constantly changing. Thus, the reason we shouldn’t discredit the world title status Salas earned for winning a hybrid Main Event.

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