Commentary

Getting behind the WSOP Final Table

Originally Published: November 10, 2009
By Laura Lane | Special to Page 2

The spectacle that is the World Series of Poker main event is unlike any other sporting event, but perhaps poker legend Doyle Brunson said it best. "It looks like a football game!" the 76-year-old said, looking out on the animated crowd of 1,500 at the Penn & Teller Theater in Las Vegas on Saturday. Brunson was on stage to say the honorary "Shuffle up and deal," the equivalent to baseball's first pitch. Before him was the November Nine, nine players who had survived the field of 6,494 at the World Series main event in July. And after a four-month hiatus, they were ready to battle it out for the title.

Brunson was joined by 2008 WSOP champion Peter Eastgate, who at age 22 last year broke Phil Hellmuth's 1989 record of being the youngest main event winner ever, at age 24. Eastgate was able to hold that record for only one year. Early Tuesday morning, 21-year-old Joe Cada became the youngest main event champion ever, claiming the $8.5 million top prize and the world championship bracelet. Unless another young poker protégé can beat Cada's record by a matter of months, he'll be holding the record for a while.

It was an exhausting and unprecedented 18 hours of play Saturday, beginning at noon and finishing when most casino visitors were eating breakfast, once the nine players had been whittled down to two -- Cada and 46-year-old Darvin Moon, a self-employed logger from Maryland. The two resumed play Monday, finishing in just under four hours.

Cada wasn't a favorite to win the title. Poker pro Phil Ivey was by far the most hyped player of the November Nine. Now the question was, Phil Ivey who? Ivey, who was seventh in chips coming into the final table, was the third player knocked out, much to the disappointment of gamblers who had picked him early on to win the main event at 750-to-1 odds and to the relief of bookies who would have had to shell out extraordinary dough if he won. Ivey's unmatched attention going into the final table was no surprise. He is considered the greatest poker player in the world, and needed to cement his legacy with a WSOP main event championship. Ivey appeared to be so distraught after he was knocked out, he snuck out the back door of the theater.

"I could tell that he really took this one hard," Ivey's close friend Freddie Seale said. "I've never seen him at a loss for words and this time he was just quiet." Ivey was a short stack at the table and was never able to battle back. He went all-in with ace-king against Moon's ace-queen, hoping for a double-up, but instead his tournament run ended. "He started with 9.8 [million], if he could have gotten to 20 million and play Phil Ivey poker, then basically the bracelet was going to be his," Seale said. "But he never got that chance."

Despite appearing distraught Saturday night after seeing the coveted title slip away, Ivey quickly rebounded. In fact, it's hard to believe he was upset at all. Less than an hour after busting out, Ivey was on Full Tilt Poker's site, playing $2,000-$4,000 Hi/Lo Split, and the following night Ivey was partying like he was celebrating a win. Ivey kicked off his Sunday night by playing craps at the Bellagio at 2 a.m., throwing down around 50 grand on the pass line from a stack of millions while his entourage watched by his side.

Ja Rule, who visited the final table Saturday, walked over and starts throwing dice. People who don't belong at their craps table are moved elsewhere. Floyd Mayweather passes by but sticks to playing $500 a roll on high-limit slots nearby. Ivey orders Patron shots for his crew of more than 20 people around the table, tipping the waitress hundreds, of course. This continues for multiple rounds. Phil decides he has had enough of craps and is ready to party. Security escorts him and his group, including Ja Rule, through the back of the Bellagio, through the service entrance and to an elevator, which leads them to the Bellagio's hotspot nightclub, Bank. Phil Ivey's coming to Bank is a very big deal. Such a big deal that the club decides to move everyone out of VIP to make room for Ivey, much to the displeasure of the groups who had bought bottles. "Take it somewhere else," they're told. Four tables are blocked off for Ivey in VIP, and soon multiple bottles of Patron, Cristal and Grey Goose arrive. Phil drinks more. His friends drink more. Girls come over and dance. Phil sits in the booth, maintaining his expressionless poker face. The night goes on past 4 a.m..

Meanwhile on Sunday, eight-place finisher Kevin Schaffel receives a text from sixth-place finisher Steven Begleiter over at the Bellagio, convincing him to join Begleiter at the poker room, where they discuss hands and talk about the previous day at the final table. "We got some good beat stories we'll be talking about for a while," Begleiter said.

Back at the Rio, Cada, who got hardly any sleep Saturday, makes the press rounds, stopping at Starbucks for a caramel frap, while his agent, Dan Frank, steps in as party planner and starts making plans for a post-party Tuesday, originally planned for the Palms, but then moved to Pure at Caesar's Palace. Title or no title, making the final two was already reason to plan a celebration. Especially considering the runner-up walks away with more than $5 million.

As in any sporting event, athletes have different strategies on how to prepare, and there were no exceptions with the nine final table players, whose pre-tourney routines all varied. Moon hit up the 3-card low-limit poker tables, where he'd become a regular, even playing on Saturday during a lunch break at the final table. Cada joined his girlfriend, Alanna, for a couples massage at the Rio on Friday. Schaffel's brother planned a party for his friends and family at Indian restaurant Gaylord at the Rio before the crew went to see the Terry Fator show at the Mirage. Begleiter hosted a party at Asian Bistro Tao at the Venetian. Despite his comped room at the Rio, Begleiter opted to stay at the Bellagio, keeping consistent with his routine four months ago during the main event. Frenchman Antoine Saout partied with friends 'til 2 a.m. at VooDoo Lounge at the Rio, where he'd partied until the early morning for the past couple nights. But for Cada, the partying would be saved for later.

Fast-forward to Monday for the Cada versus Moon showdown. It's 10 p.m. at the Penn & Teller Theater, and Motley Crue's Vince Neil is in the house to say the honorary "Shuffle up and deal" this time around. Neil is joined by two Vegas showgirls decked out in headdresses and large feather costumes that have a tendency to knock audience members in the face as they pass by. Even though there aren't nine different groups of friends and fans cheering in the theater this time, the energy is no less intense. If anything, it's just more evenly divided. You're a Moon supporter or you're a Cada supporter. A friendly "you're either with us or against us" attitude seems to be the sentiment. The lights seem brighter. The crowd more rowdy. The announcer reminds audience members not to scream suggestions during hands -- not that this is Jeopardy and someone has the correct answer, but because they don't want the players distracted. While it might be irritating to have random shouting, it's impossible to conceive that the noise would sidetrack a player any more than the obvious distractions around: There's dozens of cameras circling the table and, even more diverting, a pile of $8.5 million in cash bricks stacked in a towering pile on the poker table. Just a tad tempting.

Groups of 20-year-old co-eds in hollandaise-sauce-colored yellow T-shirts and hats on the main stage and in the packed audience are screaming for "The Kid." It's Cada's self-dubbed nickname, and it's spelled out on the Michigan logo T-shirts that arrived late Friday night. Many of the November Niners had personalized gear. Some were catchy, such as Kevin Schaffel's "Schaffel Up And Deal!" shirt with a cartoon version of Kevin on the front, while others were more prideful than comedic, such as third-place finisher Saout's T-shirts and scarves embellished with the French flag.

"Joey, Joey, Joey!" Cada's friends chant. "Mooooooooon," Moon's followers chant. "You got this, Joe!" says a friend, who's taken on a Johnny Drama-type role of supporter behind the rail.

While a few of the famous faces from Saturday such as Daniel Negreanu, Annie Duke, Mike Matusow and Chris Ferguson are missing at Monday's showdown, there are plenty of familiar faces in the crowd for the final faceoff. Begleiter is seated next to 2004 WSOP champion Greg Raymer, who is next to Schaffel, fourth-place finisher Eric Buchman and 2008's WSOP main event chip leader Dennis Phillips.

Moon began Monday with $59 million in chips, just $1 million more than he started with as chip leader entering the final table. "I had planned a little different in the amount of chips I'd have," Moon said Saturday, admitting he was a little worried. "I haven't played much heads-up." In fact, his hometown poker game usually splits the pot when there are two players left. Cada, on the other hand, began the final table fifth in chips despite getting down to just $2.3 million in chips at one point and looking like his final table hopes were gone. He battled back, though, and came to the heads-up showdown Monday with $136 million in chips.

Cada's first and last hands of heads-up play were pocket 9s. In the first hand, he lost a chunk of his stack to Moon's pocket queens, which began the logger's slow and steady, but aggressive chipping away at Cada's chip stack until "The Kid" was under $50 million. Cada eventually doubled up before the final hand, in which Cada went all-in with pocket 9s. Moon called without much hesitation, showing queen-jack suited. Cada was only a 52 percent favorite before the flop. But luckily for the Michigan native, the board didn't grant Moon one of his outs, and Cada became champion. The diamond encrusted bracelet was handed over. Cada's friends let loose, cheering like frat boys at a tailgate, gawking over the bling, while Cada's parents rushed over to the dealer, tightly wrapping their arms arond the young woman and thanking her like she was a family doctor who had delivered good news.

There aren't many kids like Cada. At 19 years old, the Michigan native bought his first home, paying for it in full. It's where he currently lives with his roommates, one of whom pays rent by cooking and cleaning. The guys sit at home most days playing online poker, which has been Cada's full-time job since he left community college to play cards. That decision served him well.

All nine final table players received at least $1.26 million, and whoever was knocked out first didn't get a penny more. That person was the short stack, London's James Akenhead, who grabbed a Miller Lite from the bar before his postgame interviews were over, admitting his friends back in London would be "gutted."

But a sweet million or two will certainly put any "gutting" feeling at ease. Moon walked away with a nice consolation prize of $5.18 million for second place. "If you can't have fun, why be out here?" Moon said. "Am I sad because I came second? Hell no!"

Although Cada will hand over half of his $8.5 million to an anonymous backer who paid for half of his $10,000 buy-in to the World Series, he's certainly not complaining. With millions of dollars in endorsements already in the works, including a deal with Poker Stars, he won't be worrying about money any time soon. On Nov. 18, Cada will turn 22 years old, and he'll have plenty to celebrate.

"It feels pretty good," Cada said after the win. "Not gonna lie."

Laura Lane is a contributor to Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. She is also a host of the "ESPN Inside Deal" video magazine.

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