The Anatomy of the Final Table

When the World Series of Poker’s Main Event resumes next week, nine finalists will vye for a garish bracelet, life-changing cash and poker immortality. But first they must battle their nerves and the unknown. Here’s what the November Nine can expect.

Lights, camera, action: After a four-month layoff, the November Nine lay it all on the line. | Photo by Joe Giron

Lights, camera, action: After a four-month layoff, the November Nine lay it all on the line. | Photo by Joe Giron

Associate editor Jason Scavone talks WSOP on 97.1 the Point. Listen to the broadcast below.

Just before 1 a.m. on July 15, Luis Velador played his last hand in the 2014 World Series of Poker’s Main Event. Pocket fours, no good. That left nine men still kicking to scrap for the bracelet that has lit the wrist of every winner since Doyle Brunson collected the first one in 1976. It’s poker’s version of the Masters green jacket—ugly as hell, but prettier than Mila Kunis in a whiskey distillery.

By the time the tournament resumes November 10 with its November Nine, it will have been 119 days since any of them set to disemboweling each other over India green felt. When they left, all nine collected checks for $730,725—the guaranteed minimum payout for this year’s final table. When they reconvene at the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater, one of them will have spent months of worry, study, sweat and preparation for the privilege of going home without one more thin, measly, pissed-off-Roosevelt dime. Giddy-up.

Most of them have never been to the final table. Some have cashed more than a dozen times in WSOP events. A couple never have. One has had more success in foosball tournaments than at poker. Just one, Mark Newhouse, who reached last year’s final table, has any idea what’s waiting for him inside that showroom—only he truly understands that the final table is more than just the end of another poker tournament. It’s a bitch of a beast that wraps you up, draws you in—a Faustian parasite that promises much in the way of reward, sure, but demands a hefty chunk of psychic currency for the privilege. For the winner, it will all dovetail perfectly, energy well spent. For the other eight, years of what-ifs are in store: What if that four never fell? What if I never ran that bluff? What if I took up a less-stressful line of work, like Los Zetas informant, or Middle East dictator?

Study Long, Study Wrong. Maybe.

Forget the time in July spent amassing enough chips to build a credible replica of the Vatican; the real struggle began the second Velador’s forty-four came up just shy of Newhouse’s Sammy Hagar-blessed pair of fives. That kicked off the nearly four-month lull in action. It’s like the Super Bowl taking a break after the third quarter of a 21-21 game and coming back in May. All that focus, all that adrenaline shooting around like a ’55 Porsche just piled up against the oncoming Ford of a PR-mandated layoff.

Ryan Riess, the 24-year-old curly-haired 2013 champ whom ESPN’s Bill Simmons nicknamed “Megatron Nowitzki” for his Calvin Johnson jersey and more-than-slight resemblance to Dirk, says he initially didn’t know how he should spend the long layoff. He quickly realized he’d be better off getting his own game right instead of playing amateur Freud on the minds of his opponents.

Riess played in the WSOP Europe that October. He didn’t finish in the money, but he did keep his skills sharp rather than fret over what might happen come November. Hell, the 2013 Main Event runner-up and Las Vegas nightclub promoter, Jay Farber, was so committed to coming to the final table fresh he spent much of his downtime raging his way through Grey Goose and EDM in the clubs. If you want to convince the other eight guys that you’re not sweating the money, that’s the way to do it.

The November Nine made-for-ESPN break has only been in effect since 2008. Dennis Phillips, the canny veteran who finished third that year, went the other way. He tapped his inner J. Edgar Hoover and assembled dossiers on the other players—betting patterns, hand histories, tells, anything. He even played scout, traveling across the pond to get a look at Ivan Demidov, who would eventually finish second, one spot ahead of Phillips. “Ivan was playing in the WSOP event over there. I went to watch him for a little while. I think he got very startled [when he] looked up in the crowd and saw my face there,” Phillips says. If nothing else, it doesn’t hurt to unnerve your foes by going all Fatal Attraction2014 World Series of Poker

After all that prep, or lack thereof, that felt-covered sonofabitch is going to tie on a bib and dig into your mind, whether you’re ready or not. Everyone is in for it one way or another: sleepless nights, restless mornings or pukey minutes right before wobbling onstage. In ’08, at least one of the finalists booted twice before settling in. Better there than on the felt—though that wouldn’t have stopped anyone from gladly dragging the pot, half-digested eggs and all.

“I was extremely nervous the morning of,” Riess says. “I walked downstairs at the Rio to do something. As I was walking in the hallway back to my room I started getting really nervous. It was just a sense of being overwhelmed. All the time and energy I put into the final table all comes down to a couple of hours on the felt. It could essentially be one hand. It was nerve-wracking because the time was finally there, and I didn’t want to blow my shot.”

Shuffle Up, Deal and Hang On

Some guys, the ones who don’t win that ugly bracelet, never manage to conquer their nerves. It might take a hand, it might take an hour, but the rest settle into the old familiar patterns: Bet, call, raise, fold, bluff, value bet, pot odds, trap, position, table image, range. The game’s theories and rhythms are a blessing. When your brain is juggling ironclad math and the subtle art of table feel, there’s only so much room for pants-shitting terror.

Still, there are immutable realities to face once the cards are in the air. Phil Hellmuth, the ’89 Main Event champ and 2001 fifth-place finisher, has won more WSOP bracelets than anyone (13), has more cashes than anyone (108) and made more overall final tables in WSOP events than anyone (53). Forget the reedy-voiced petulance that ESPN cameras flock to like deer around a salt lick—Hellmuth is a table-slaying conquistador. But he’s quick to point out that these things always start out tight.

Yet, counterintuitively, losing that first player can be as irrelevant as it is a boon. Everyone is aware of how much their payouts increase with each bustout, but players insist that in all but extreme cases—Kelly Kim entering action in ’08 with $2.6 million in chips, enough to pay the blinds and antes for just a couple of rounds—climbing the ladder isn’t the goal.

“The difference between ninth-place [money] and eighth place was substantial,” Phillips says. “All you had to do was basically wait until Kelly busted out. Six of the people at the table realized that. The other two got in a heads-up match, and one of them wound up being eliminated in ninth place and bumped Kelly up to another level on a questionable poker move in my book. But once he left, everyone else looked around and said, ‘OK, now we get to play.’ … You did not want to be the first person out.”

Say you do survive that first bust—you’re not the guy going home without a check. At the very least you have the pleasure of adding, at least this year, a minimum of $217,000 to your roll. Your reward? Facing down some 800-pound gorilla at the table; either a big stack, or one of the big-name players who usually finds himself there at the end, the guy everyone else is secretly praying to the Baby Poker Jesus will run into a stack-killing cold deck.

WSOP Main Event Payouts

First place: $10,000,000
Second place: $5,145,968
Third place: $3,806,402
Fourth place: $2,848,833
Fifth place: $2,143,174
Sixth place: $1,622,080
Seventh place: $1,235,862
Eighth place: $947,077
Ninth place: $730,725

Last year, one of those stars was J.C. Tran, who arrived at the final table with about $11 million in career tournament winnings. In ’89, a young Hellmuth had to vanquish Johnny Chan, then the two-time defending champ and one of the most daunting players in pro poker.

Jim McManus famously played in the Main Event, as he’d go on to write in Positively Fifth Street, while he was here covering the Ted Binion murder trial in 2000 for Harper’s. His final table featured T.J. Cloutier, the man whose book McManus studied in preparation for the tournament. “He was the winningest tournament player ever at that point. Intimidation, at least for me, was a factor. T.J. was a scary guy. He didn’t just raise; he sort of raised with physical and voiced aggression,” McManus says.

If Hellmuth hadn’t come into the ’89 final table without having dusted up with Chan numerous times in the previous couple of years, he says the Orient Express’ mystique would have got to him. Similarly, Riess last year was less likely to defend his blinds against Tran than others at his table.

If anything, this year’s table bears more resemblance to the one Phillips faced in ’08, when Chino Rheem hadn’t yet cemented his $7 million in career earnings. Aside from the returning Newhouse ($2.8 million in his career) and Martin Jacobson ($4.8 million), this isn’t a wildly accomplished field. And isn’t building those earnings what the game’s all about?

It’s Sort of About the Benjamins

As the final table grinds along—eight, nine, 10 hours or more—you start to dive into poker’s inherent paradox, the kind that would make Zeno proud. The goal of playing poker professionally is to—slow down and follow closely here; it might get complicated—win money. Yet the more you sweat the bills, the harder it is to perform. The phrase “healthy disregard for money” gets thrown around. A lot. So in order to get the cash, you have to forget about the cash. Buddhists would love this game if it weren’t for all the material-world considerations.

“It plays on your mind leading up to it,” Phillips says of the jackpot. “When you’re actually down there playing, you really don’t think about the money. It’s probably one of the problems we have as poker players: We should be thinking about the money jumps more than we do. But when you sit there, you think of the angles, you think of the plays and you concentrate on playing good poker.”

Easy enough in theory, but harder to do when drug lord-size bricks of cash are being piled on the table next to you. In his first big tournament, Riess accepted a chop—where the last three players agree to divvy up the loot—and it made him play poorly the rest of the way. It clawed at him to the point that he vowed to never again play for anything less than first—even if it came at the expense of a safe, guaranteed, pocket-lining deal.

“I was just thinking of it as a poker game and I have to win. It starts with nine people, and the only option is to win. I wasn’t thinking about the money,” Riess says. “I just thought of it like we’re playing a game with me and eight of my friends, and if you lose, you die. All I thought about was winning.”

Only in T-Ball Is Everyone a Winner

Michael Jordan has the kind of competitive streak that sportswriters slobber over the way Greeks yammered about golden fleece. Jordan might be a famous gambler, but there’s no ego in blackjack. The math says you’ll lose, so lose you shall. Poker, on the other hand—poker’s got swag. If you ever sat down at a $1/$2 game and watched grown men lose their damn minds over a bad call, a bad beat, a bad run of cards, you can see the spidery edges of an ego fracturing into a crystal constellation of failure and regret.

Eight out of the November Nine are going to bust out, and those eight are going to have hands to think about in every shadowy little moment of self-doubt and 4 a.m. anxiety for the rest of their years.

Phillips simply called it a “huge letdown” when he busted, taking some measure of comfort when friends reminded him that he still finished third out of 6,844 entrants. In fairness, that’s like being happy to finish most of your steak in the middle of a pack of wild dogs.

McManus—who was crippled in one hand when Hasan Habib’s ace-four somehow found a miracle four on the river to beat McManus’ ace-queen, then was eliminated a few hands later when ace-queen held up against him—lays it all out in Fifth Street:

“[Bob] Thompson and [Andy] Glazer and Hellmuth and all the other commentators are telling the assembled and far-flung poker universe that I just won $247,760 by finishing fifth out of 512. What it feels like, lemme tell ya, is fifth out of six. As I stagger away from the action, it hits me how alive I had felt since last Wednesday and how dead I feel now. A swift rigor mortis of soul overtook me when that four hit the table. My head feels constructed of Styrofoam.”

But Someone’s Gotta Do It

Let’s say you have the guts of a Russian hacker and the luck of a Kardashian to survive several months’ worth of land mines, and you land heads-up—where the difference between first and second place this year is $4.85 million, and not having to spend a lifetime of playing poker’s version of Schuyler Colfax.

Heads-up strategy demands a different set of skills. You have to play more hands, often in worse position, than you’d ever consider at a full table. You also have to constantly maneuver to put the other guy in a bad spot before he has the chance to stick it to you, either by knocking you out or doubling up. You can have someone all the way on the ropes, but if they double through you once or twice, they can Jason Voorhees their way back into competition. It’s a proxy knife fight in ratty baseball caps and sunglasses.

“[There’s] tremendous pressure, and you don’t even know how to deal with it,” Hellmuth says. “I remember at dinner the night before with my dad and a friend of mine. He said, ‘What happens If you pick up kings vs. aces tomorrow? I just remember thinking ‘What in the hell?’ You don’t even want that possibility to exist in the world. … You’re in your own kind of world. You don’t want anybody interfering. You don’t want people telling you to visualize this or positive-think that. You just want to be in the zone and just be thinking about poker, not really thinking about negative possibilities, because if you’re a professional poker player your dream is lying right in front of you.”

Playing heads-up at the final table also opens the doors to get creative, to really get into the meta-game in a way that might not work so well when the variables of five or six other guys at the table are in play. Riess went out with friends and family after Amir Lehavot was eliminated in third place and the table broke for the night. Then he summoned his advisers to talk heads-up strategy. He knew that with ESPN airing the final day on a half-hour tape delay, his opponent, Farber, would be able to go back and talk to his rail about what happened in certain hands after they learned Riess’ cards.

So Riess immediately started playing erratically, firing big raises on medium-strength hands just so, half an hour later, Farber would chew on bum feedback. Sun Tzu and fencing masters would be proud of such feint. “I don’t know if it helped much, but he was probably shocked when he went over the hand. ‘OK, he’s raising me with top pair there.’ The next time I raise him there, he thinks I have it again when normally I won’t,” Riess says.

The Big Comedown

Ryan Riess ponders his next move on his way to the 2013 WSOP Main Event title. | Photo by Joe Giron

Ryan Riess ponders his next move on his way to the 2013 WSOP Main Event title. | Photo by Joe Giron

Either way, something worked. Riess beat Farber for the $8.36 million, for the bracelet, for poker immortality. Jimmy Kimmel invited Riess to appear on his late-night show, but he declined. It took him a month to settle down and realize he really won it all. Meanwhile, McManus might have taken a boot to the stones with that four on the river, but he’s philosophical about the fact that he got a book out of the deal. It doesn’t hurt, he muses, that winning wouldn’t have bumped sales any more than his fifth-place finish did.

But they all can recall, in bright, spectacular detail, the hands that defined their final table. None more so than Hellmuth, whose facility for recounting specific cards, frankly, whistles on the edge of creepy. It was the hand that knocked him out in ’01 that comes back with a Chuck Bronson vengeance.

He held queen-10 on a queen-high flop and got check-raised by eventual winner Carlos Mortensen. Hellmuth came back over the top all-in, figuring Mortensen had something strong, nothing at all or only a slightly better hand. In that spot, with the screws directly to him, it’s incredibly difficult for Mortensen to decide to call.

“[Mortensen] said ‘count’ and the dealer looked at me and said ‘call.’ Now I flip my hand up. Carlos swears he didn’t see my cards,” Hellmuth recalls. “It turned out to be the most important hand of my life at that point, or maybe one of the most important hands of my life since.” Hellmuth had a whole script ready to rattle off to dissuade Mortensen from calling, but that flub by the dealer scuttled that plan. Mortensen says he never saw what cards Hellmuth flashed, but he made the call to have his queen-jack stand up. “That hand haunted me for a couple of years afterward. I’ll never react that quickly again.”

Hellmuth has every right to the confidence he espouses when he says he’ll be back at the final table. Newhouse aside, a repeat November Nine appearance is black-diamond rare with the big fields the WSOP Main Event sports today. Dan Harrington went back-to-back in ’03 and ’04, and those were fields of 839 and 2,576. The 2013 tourney drew 6,352 and this year brought 6,683 entrants.

Most will admit winning the Main Event is a generational moonshot, but that doesn’t stop them from chasing No. 2. Phillips, at least, gave himself a chance to earn the favor of the Baby Poker Jesus. “I had 300 of my closest friends, and we had rented a restaurant,” he says of his post-tournament celebration in 2008, when his third-place finish netted him $4.5 million. “On my way there I swung by the high limits. I played blackjack for a while. I won about $10,000. I walked out, I saw a kid sitting there by a slot machine and flipped him a $5,000 chip. Then I walked into the restaurant and partied for the rest of the night.”

Photo by Joe Giron

Photo by Joe Giron

2014 November Nine Lineup

1. Jorryt van Hoof
$38,375,000 in chips

Your chip leader, van Hoof had one of the 10 shortest stacks when he finished Day 4 before he came roaring back. Though van Hoof prefers pot-limit Omaha, Phil Hellmuth says the 31-year-old Dutchman is the one to watch at this year’s final table.

2. Felix Stephensen

One of two players at the 2014 final table to never even cash in any WSOP event, the 23-year-old Norwegian entered this year’s tournament with only $22,118 in live career earnings (though he’s racked up more than $300,000 online). He once harbored dreams of playing pro soccer, but now lives in London, where he focuses, like van Hoof, on pot-limit Omaha.

3. Mark Newhouse

Last year, Newhouse came into the final table as the short stack and busted out first. The fact he’s part of the November Nine again should be absolutely terrifying to other players, given how insanely sharp your game has to be to navigate more than 6,000 competitors two years in a row. At 29, the Las Vegas resident has already amassed more than $2.8 million in career winnings.

4. Andoni Larrabe

If you’re sensing a trend, it’s because Larrabe is also impossibly young (22) and also lives in London, although he’s a native of Spain. Looking to become the second Spaniard to win the Main Event—Carlos Mortensen was the first in 2001—Larrabe has a couple of big online cashes on his résumé, including one for $229,212. He has $341,266 in live earnings.

5. Dan Sindelar

Sindelar is our second Las Vegan—by way of Nebraska—and has cashed 17 times in WSOP events to the tune of nearly $150,000. Sindelar told he’s been playing more golf than poker lately, though the 30-year-old will have plenty of ammo to swing that balance the other way after cashing.

6. William Pappaconstantinou

Meet your five-time world champion of foosball. Pappaconstantinou appears at the final table in between foosball tournaments, because poker suffers from a terrible dearth of tiny men to spin around. Along with Stephensen, the 29-year-old is the only other member of the November Nine with no WSOP cashes, though he does have $16,379 in career live earnings.

7. William Tonking

The 27-year-old New Jersey online pro comes in with three WSOP cashes to his name and a total of $93,306 in live tourney winnings. He also claims to be a Dallas Cowboys fan, so if you’re looking for somebody to root against at this final table …

8. Martin Jacobson

Like the other Europeans on this list, Jacobson also lives in London. But unlike anyone else in the field, the 27-year-old Swede has earned $1.2 million in various WSOP events. Jacobson, who has $4.8 million in total tourney winnings, doesn’t have much farther to go to eclipse two-time bracelet winner Chris Bjôrin’s $5.5 million in career tournament earnings as the all-time, top-earning Swede.

9. Bruno Politano

Politano, 32, is the first Brazilian to ever make the final table. He hit with a splash this year, cashing in three of 10 WSOP events, to the tune of $25,404. Odds are against Politano navigating his way to the top. Then again, the Main Event is held at the Rio, just in case you’re a believer in the stars lining up …

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