They’re still here…and so is the WPT

Brad Willis
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Posted on: December 16, 2022 7:19 pm EST

In poker reporting, the first part of a tournament day often begins with a scan of the overnight chip counts. This is typically accompanied by some mumbling from whoever is reading the spreadsheet.

“He’s still here? She played in this tournament? He’s still alive?”

In massive fields like this one at the 2022 WPT World Championship at the Wynn, that mumbled liturgy can take longer than other times. Today, I was that reporter looking over the chip counts and seeing names like Noah Boeken and Michael Banducci, just two among many people who are still here. 

I’m a big fan of the musician Billy Strings and his cover of John Hartford’s song, “I’m Still Here.” It’s not a poker song, but it easily could be with its long meditation on tough times and its triumphant chorus of “I’m still here.”

Surviving in any industry is tough. Surviving in the poker industry–whether as a player, tour operator, or even member of the media–is a different sort of tough. It requires a different sort of resilience, the kind that’s more than evident around here this week. 

I mentioned Boeken and Banducci because their names are branded on my brain from their appearances in the early part of my career and their own.

Boeken won the EPT Copenhagen stop in 2005. It was the very first tournament I covered in Europe and only the second I’d covered in my life. Banducci appeared less than a year later after winning a heads-up online (but in-person) challenge we at PokerStars called Battleship. And I mention their names not just because they are they still in the game of poker. They were also both in the chip counts at the beginning of Day 3. Nearly two decades down, and they’re still here. Two days of poker at the WPT World Championship, and they were still here. 

Same thing went for John Duthie. The EPT and how it was presented on TV was John’s baby, and I traveled with him for years around Europe. He was the first person I saw at the Wynn when I arrived on Sunday night, and he was the first person I saw when I got off the elevators Monday morning. He doesn’t make poker TV anymore, but he still plays. He’s still here and still every bit the gentleman he’s always been.

And though it might seem weird to say, Justin Bonomo is still here.

Well, of course he is, you say. He’s the tournament player.

But if you go back far enough, it wasn’t as if Bonomo didn’t struggle through some tough times of his own. And just like the others, he was getting his start on the live circuit at the same time I was, back in the day before we had professional photographers and we had to rely on whatever we could shoot ourselves. There were times in those early days that folks might have predicted Bonomo wouldn’t be here today, but he proved all of them wrong in spades. He’s still here in the biggest way.

Though we’ve said it many times this week, it’s worth noting the WPT is still here. Though it blazed a hot trail for televised poker 20 years ago, it’s reinvented itself time and time again to adjust to its players and how the public consumes poker. There were so many times it might have been easy to close up the shop and make the WPT a fine memory of those good times in the aughts. Instead, the WPT is still here, and for this week, it’s the reason we’re all still here, too. One could argue that this week is what poker needed to make sure all of the game and all of us are still here for years to come. 

As I was going back through my ancient pictures to find the picture of Michael Banducci, the photos reminded me about who Banducci faced in the finals in that Battleship Championship.

That year, Banducci had beaten Gavin Smith for the title. I took this picture right after it was over. Anyone who knew Gavin will understand that smile in defeat.

Gavin Smith 2006

Seeing that picture of Gavin–a man who became my friend in the years afterward–is a stark reminder of those people who aren’t still here. Whether it was poker’s loss of Mike Sexton in 2020 or of Gavin Smith in 2019, everyone who is still here knows how quickly we could be on the other side. 

After this week and this bright winter moment for poker, thinking about Sexton and Smith offer a poignant reminder that making it this far in poker is indeed often a slog and struggle, but it’s also something else. 

It’s a reminder that we can be pretty damned grateful for poker and the people who work so hard to nurse the game through hard times and build it stronger for the next generation of players. 

In other words, everyone who still has the privilege to be in poker after 20 years has had to work hard to survive.

Moreover, everyone who has that privilege should also pretty grateful to still be here. 

I know I am.

My cigarettes are gone and so’s my money
So are all my nerves and all my teeth
My hair is falling out n’ I’m getting skinny
my friends are either dead or on relief

But I’m still here
I’m still here, so don’t sweat it
I might be good as buried
but I’m still here

John Hartford, I’m Still Here