Seeing the World Series of Poker Final Table play out on ESPN tonight was a semi-surreal experience, since I’d been at the Rio to view it live on Sunday and Monday.

Watching a poker tournament in person is to endure long stretches of boredom interrupted by a minute or two of heart-stopping excitement. TV wants none of the former and much of the latter, which ESPN accomplished by working overtime to edit two days of play into just two hours of primetime coverage.

Condensing time like that can create illusions, though. You didn’t see the long pauses between players’ decisions, the time-outs while video was collected from the cameramen or other technical concerns were addressed, the extended Poker Hall Of Fame induction ceremony right after the dinner break. On the other hand, those of us in the Penn & Teller Theater didn’t see any of the on-screen graphics showing the players’ hole cards and their win percentages. We also couldn’t hear anything they said to each other around the table (which added context to much of what we saw), nor the pre-taped player interviews, nor the brilliant comedy of Mr. Norman Chad.

On tonight’s telecast, it looked like Dennis got in trouble right out of the gate on the first two hands played. In reality, very little happened in the first hour or so. I had to explain to several of Dennis’ non-poker-playing fans that this is how tournament poker is often played — mostly a single pre-flop raise and everyone else folds. It was as if the players were waiting to see if any of their opponents had changed their style or were masking their tells or had returned to the groove they’d been in when the tournament went on hiatus in July.

Then came the hand that effectively crippled Dennis. After a series of re-raises pre-flop, Ivan Demidov made a huge move with Ace-Queen on a flop of Jack-Ten-Eight. Dennis had picked up something weak about the Russian, and bet out with his Ace-King. But Demidov came over the top and pushed all-in, putting Dennis to the test.

Dennis took his time making his decision — had he read Demidov wrong, or was the kid bluffing with a gutshot straight draw? Enough doubt crept in that Dennis finally folded, giving up 10 million of his 26 million chips. Had he made the call and his cards held up, it would have given him a huge lead with a massive stack of over 50 million.

As things didn’t get better for Dennis, his huge crowd of supporters was quiet for a long time. But we came to life later when Dennis won a couple of crucial hands, got his momentum back, and rebuilt his chip stack. Unfortunately, once it got down to three players — Dennis vs. Peter Eastgate vs. Ivan Demidov — the two younger men had too much of a chip lead for Dennis to overcome, particularly with cold cards.

After he went out, the Dane and the Russian played for four more hours with very few hands of note. On ESPN, it came down to two hands — one in which Eastgate put a major hurt on Demidov, and then the final one where Eastgate’s five-high straight crushed Demidov’s two pair and made him poker champion of the world.

I had several people from the WSOP and the Rio (and even supporters of other players) tell me how much fun my fellow St. Louisans — in our Broadway Truck shirts and Cardinals caps — added to the event. Some of the other players seemed to enjoy it, too. You could tell that ESPN was thrilled to still have us around, giving them great visuals and lots of noise, two elements of good television.

All of that is because of a truck salesman from St. Louis named Dennis Phillips, who beat 6,842 other players to finish third at the 2008 World Series Of Poker Main Event.

He went out with a smile on his face, and so did lots of other people.