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On the "Bubble"

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Yesterday at the Epic Poker League's second Main Event they played down from 23 to a final table of eight, during the course of which period the tourney reached the money. (As it happened, they also reached the money over at WPT Paris, as Matthew Pitt reports.) It was around 10 p.m. in Vegas at the EPL event when Allen Bari was eliminated in 13th place, making him the last of those knocked out who would be earning nothing for three hard days of poker. Meanwhile, Bari's elimination ensured the remaining 12 players trips to the cashier's cage and a positive return on their $20,000 investment.

As a poker tourney reporter, it is all but impossible to describe that moment -- that is, the one in which the final non-cashing player is eliminated -- without using the word "bubble." Somehow I managed to do so there in that first paragraph, but I wouldn't be surprised if you found my report to be somehow lacking something. Or perhaps a little wordy, yes?

The "bubble burst," we say. Similarly seduced by alliteration, we instinctively refer to the unfortunate player (if male) as the "bubble boy." Nor do we seem capable of describing the action leading up to that moment without using the term. The "bubble is approaching," we say, slightly ominously, as if we were referring to some '50s Hollywood alien beast squeezing through the poker room doors and advancing upon potential victims seated around the tables.

From where did we get this term "bubble"? Somewhere along the way this bit of vocabulary floated into our talk about poker tourneys. And unlike those actual little spheres of soap and water whose existence is necessarily temporary, the term appears here to stay.

A bit of etymological detective work reveals how the word "bubble" starts appearing with reference to a "thin globular (or hemispherical) vesicle of water or other liquid" (as the Oxford English Dictionary has it) around the 14th century, having drifted over into English from the Germanic languages. Soon after come references to bubbles of the glass variety, too, such as turn up in the labs of the early modern pioneers of science.

Soon -- "from the 17th century onwards," says the OED -- come the figurative applications of the word to "anything fragile, unsubstantial, empty, or worthless; a deceptive show." It wasn't long before the word turned up in economic contexts, perhaps the most famous reference coming with regard to the spectacular failure of the South Sea Company that traded stocks in South America in the early 1700s. Its crash -- or bursting -- in 1720 came to be known as the "South Sea Bubble," a ruinous event for many.

bubble-johnson.jpgWhen Dr. Samuel Johnson came to define the word in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, he'd explain how the term could be used to refer to "any thing that wants solidity and firmness," or indeed "any thing that is more specious than real."

Johnson goes on to explain how "bubble" could be used to refer either to a cheater or the person being cheated, and as a verb could work as a synonym for such deception. As an illustration, Dr. J. quotes Joseph Addison writing earlier in the century in the Spectator, describing a man writing to him to complain how a woman had extended their engagement so long that she "has bubbled him out of his youth."

All of which is to say that by the time poker tournaments emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, there'd been more than a couple of hundred years' worth of the word "bubble" being used to signify something delicate or easily broken, or empty or without value. That connotation of something superficially brilliant but ultimately fraudulent was already there, too, thus encouraging use of the word to refer to anything beautiful to look upon, but capable of rudely vanishing into nothingness should one get too close.

A few have conjectured that the concept of being "on the bubble" possibly first entered the sports world via baseball. There the phrase apparently began to be used to refer to a player on a major league roster who was about to be sent back down to the minors, the idea perhaps being that his dream of being pro was being shattered, i.e., his bubble had burst.

The more commonly-cited sports reference, however, comes via auto racing, specifically the Indianapolis 500 in which drivers competed for a limited number of spots via time trials. Many quote an article from May 1970 about that year's race appearing in The Lima News, an Ohio-based newspaper. There we read that a rookie driver named Steve Krisiloff had a relatively slow qualifying speed, thus putting him "on the 'bubble'" or in danger of not earning a spot in the race. Some have pointed out that the term was already being used in that way much earlier at the Indy 500, perhaps even a couple of decades before.

Again, the connotation appears to be related to that idea of one's "bubble" or hopes being burst, with the last day of qualifying runs soon coming to be called "Bubble Day." And it is likely from there that the word came to be used with reference to other sporting events like the NCAA basketball tournament, wherein teams that just miss making the field are said to be left "on the bubble."

In any case, when it comes to poker tourneys, the term has -- like a pink gooey hunk on the bottom of one's shoe -- stuck.

Accounts of the earliest poker tournaments -- even the first few World Series of Poker Main Events in the 1970s -- are often sketchy and without the sort of detail we've grown accustomed to today. Still, I imagine the term "bubble" likely didn't come up much at the WSOP until 1978, the year it stopped being a winner-take-all event and players other than the first-place finisher got to share in the prize pool.

There were 42 entrants that year, with the top five getting paid. It was the colorful, top hat-wearing Ken Smith who'd actually make the six-handed final table but miss the money when Buck Buchanan knocked him out in sixth. According to CBS' coverage of that final table, Smith was all in for the 12th time when Buchanan finally took the last of his chips.

Announcers Brent Musberger and Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder didn't refer to Smith the "bubble boy" in their commentary, but I imagine if the term wasn't employed there it started to be used soon thereafter. And now, hardly a tourney goes by without the word being used.

Or should I say, popping up.

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