Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Sunday, July 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Final hand of the 1993 Main Event
Jim Bechtel was assigned to table No. 393 Orange Saturday during the first day of the World Series of Poker Main Event. Yes, it’s fair to say much has changed since Bechtel won the tournament in 1993.
When Bechtel won $1 million 20 years ago, 220 players were in the field. Saturday, the first of three Main Event starting days, there were 480 tables in three sections of the Rio. Monday, when two-thirds of the field is anticipated on the last day for registration, tournament officials expect to surpass the 6,598 participants from 2012.
“No doubt, it’s harder to win today because of the amount of players,” Bechtel said. “The talent was good then and it’s better now. If there was 300 players (in 1993), 200 of them were good players. Today, 6,000 will maybe play in (the tournament) and there’s probably 3,000 good players.”
Most of the 20-somethings at Bechtel’s table -- who came of age during the poker boom -- had no idea they were playing against a former champion.
Unlike decorated professionals such as Johnny Chan, Phil Helmuth and Doyle Brunson, who are widely considered the game’s most legendary players, the 61-year-old from Gilbert, Ariz., goes relatively unnoticed.
He could have worn his championship bracelet to intimidate the others, but he only breaks that out on special occasions. Besides, he knows the new generation isn’t easy to rattle.
“I don’t think you can intimidate these kids,” said Bechtel, who has more than $2 million career earnings. “These kids don’t get intimidated. They’ll put their chips in the pot on every hand without fear.”
Bechtel’s place in World Series history could have been different if ESPN cameras were rolling during his championship run. He could be a household name just like Chris Moneymaker.
It’s been 10 years since Moneymaker went from Tennessee accountant and recreational online player to Main Event champion, sparking an unprecedented growth in the game because his journey to the $2.5 million purse was televised by ESPN. The tournament field continued to expand most years, going from 839 when Moneymaker won to more than 8,000 in 2006.
Most of the players credited for the growth are younger, easily spotted at tables with headphones in their ears nd killing time between hands by toying with their iPads or cellphones.
They learned poker from television and played games online before it was illegal, gaining experience at a young age. The past five World Series champions have been younger than 24.
There’s little doubt Bechtel was the most seasoned player at his table Saturday, but to make a deep run in the modern-day Main Event, stamina is a must. The tournament plays down to a final table over the next 10 days.
“As you get older, you don’t have the energy of the kids to stay up until 2 in the morning or play 16 hours a day,” Bechtel said. “But I still love to play. It’s still fun.”
Bechtel has advanced to nine World Series final tables and has cashed in 23 events. This year, the World Series is 62 events, capped again by the Main Event.
Bechtel first started playing in the World Series in the 1980s when the tournament was at Binion’s. A small majority still prefer the small smoke-filled card room downtown, when the tournament featured a few hundred of the best players.
Bechtel can still rehash certain hands of the 1993 tournament and how he eliminated then chip-leader John Bonetti at the final table. A few hands later, he took down Glenn Cozen for the championship.
“John pretty much had the lead the entire tournament, so I always had a few less chips than he did,” Bechtel said. “But I felt real comfortable because John was a guy that really gambled and like to take risks out of position. I thought I could eventual trap him and I did.”
He also finished in the money four other times, placing 11th in 1986 and sixth two years later. Back then, however, poker wasn’t covered by media — this year, 386 credentials have been issued to document virtually every hand in helping turn the players into celebrities.
But Bechtel doesn’t need the spotlight. He's more than content walking through the casino not being recognized.
“All the pros, they know me and they know I can play. I have their respect,” he said.
And, when you talk with older-timers such as Bechtel, they’ll confirm nothing could beat the Main Event back in the days of Binion’s. The tournament moved to the Rio full-time in 2005 and is attended by thousands of spectators each day. There’s photo opportunities with players, vendors selling everything from poker strategy books to poker art, and plenty of all-in action.
“The old set up at Binion’s was great when old-man Benny was around,” Bechtel said. “Then Jack ran the place like Benny. Everybody knew everybody. There were a lot of characters. Yeah, I miss that.”