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Top 10 questions and answers from the WSOP Main Event final table

16 November 2015

It's been almost a full week since Joe McKeehen was crowned the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event champion. We've had enough time to digest everything and reflect on what we witnessed during a six-day stay in Las Vegas at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

So, as we close the books on another WSOP Main Event, here are 10 questions and answers from what was an anticlimactic – yet still compelling – final table.
Joe McKeehen may not be the most media-friendly poker player, but that shouldn't take away from his status as the new WSOP Main Event champ.

Joe McKeehen may not be the most media-friendly poker player, but that shouldn't take away from his status as the new WSOP Main Event champ.



10. What was the atmosphere like at the final table?
We're eight years into the November Nine Era, and while the environment inside the Penn & Teller Theater is always electric at the start, this year it seemed as though overall attendance was down – and so was the pomp and circumstance that typically surrounds the entire weekend.

Back during the first few years of the November Nine, the WSOP used renowned boxing ring announcer Michael Buffer to kick off the festivities. The theater was typically at capacity, and numerous "big names" from the world of poker would come out to take in the action.

There was none of that this year. The mezzanine and balcony sections were nearly empty on Day 2 and 3, and the only real "poker stars" in the house all three nights were Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Antonio Esfandiari – and they were being paid by ESPN.

Maybe you can chalk it up to the final table now being aired live – on a 30-minute delay – so people can stay home and watch it. Nonetheless, the "electricity" level was decidedly down this year.

9. What do you make of the "tanking" controversy?"
It was definitely painful at times to watch the players agonize over their next move, especially since inside the theater we had no idea what the hole cards were. The biggest culprit was Ofer Zvi Stern, who quickly became a target of the crowd on Sunday night when he played noticeably slowly. He wasn't alone, however, as just 72 hands were dealt on Day 1: an average of just 13 per hour.

The pace of play picked up the following two nights, but that didn't stop many prominent players like Hellmuth and Negreanu from taking to Twitter to vent their frustrations. All seemed in agreement that some sort of "shot clock" should be added in 2016.

Call me crazy, but I don't agree. The game of poker has lasted this long without a strict deadline being placed on players to act, and if it weren't for the event being televised "live," there probably wouldn't have been as much criticism this year.

Martin Jacobson – last year's Main Event champion, who coached Stern during the break – defended his student, telling us, "He's a really good guy and it's unfortunate that he comes off bad on TV because people think he's tanking, but he was actually making legitimate decisions and I think when people see the hole cards he was dealing with they'll get a better understanding.

"It's not his fault. He's playing for millions of dollars and a world title. There's nothing that says he can't take his time. He wasn't doing it to piss anyone off. He was just doing it to make sure he made the correct decision."

One solution would be for opposing players to "call the clock" more often and let the dilemma regulate itself. There were plenty of opportunities for that to happen during the final table, but for some reason, the other players didn't use it.

8. Is ESPN's "live" coverage of the final table here to stay?
WSOP officials hinted to us that, yes, "live" coverage of the final table (with a 30-minute or so delay) is likely to continue. According to PocketFives.com, ESPN drew 810,000 viewers on Sunday night, compared to 592,000 last year; on Monday night the jump was even higher, with 709,000 tuning in, compared to 439,000 last year. On the final night, ESPN had 1.147 million people tuning in, compared to 1.234 million in 2014, but this year the final night was up against the Republican presidential debate.

Many were surprised to see Josh Beckley (left) and Neil Blumenfield (right) still standing on Tuesday night entering three-handed play at the WSOP Main Event final table.

Many were surprised to see Josh Beckley (left) and Neil Blumenfield (right) still standing on Tuesday night entering three-handed play at the WSOP Main Event final table.

"I don't think that will be a factor," WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart predicted to us on Tuesday night. "We're used to going up against the NFL and the Major League Baseball World Series, so I think we can take on Donald Trump and survive."

If I were Ty Stewart for a day, I would eliminate the live coverage of the final table. I just don't think you can expect the casual poker fan to sit through that many hours of coverage. Why not live stream the final table to satisfy the hardcore poker fans, and then go back to presenting a two-hour, traditional prepackaged episode that airs the night after the Main Event champ is crowned?

Yes, most everyone will already know the outcome, but the broadcast will be much more entertaining and concise, and will eliminate the dead time and meaningless hands.

7. Was the new three-day format of the final table effective, and will it be back?
Yes, and yes. Going to a three-day format for the final table was a hit with the players, the WSOP, the media and the fans. In years past, Day 1 of the final table would last until the table went from nine players to two, and it would run into the wee hours of the morning.

This year they went from nine players to six on Sunday night, went from six to three on Monday night, and then picked up the action three-handed on Tuesday night until McKeehen prevailed. Play was completed before midnight on the East Coast on Monday and Tuesday night – and even on Sunday night, when the play was painfully slow, it was over by 11 p.m. local time.

"It accomplished exactly what we were looking for, and that's getting more poker in the prime-time hours and not keeping people here until four in the morning," Stewart said. "I would never say that it's definitely coming back next year because we're always looking for ways to change things up and improve, but we thought for the first year, the three-day format was a success."

6. Was Joe McKeehen ever in danger of coughing up his huge lead?
In a word, no. In addition to running hot and catching some great flops, the 24-year-old played the big stack brilliantly. He never mixed it up unnecessarily, but throughout the final table he put pressure on his opponents by regularly raising and calling.

He started on Sunday night with a historic lead, holding 33% of the chips in play. That advantage swelled to 47% entering Monday night and a staggering 67% entering three-handed play. After he snuffed out a bluff and crippled Neil Blumenfield, sending him to the rail in third place, McKeehen had 81% of the chips in front of him when heads-up play against Josh Beckley began, and shortly thereafter he was the Main Event champ.

Give McKeehen credit. Yes, he had what turned out to be an insurmountable chip lead, but he earned it by playing the role to perfection late on Day 7 back in July. And it isn't always a slam dunk for the chip leader to prevail; McKeehen joined Jonathan Duhamel as the only two November Nine chip leaders to walk away with the bracelet in the last eight years.

5. What was the biggest surprise of the final table?
Judging from the WSOP Final Table predictions we gathered from a panel of poker players and media, the most shocking development had to be Beckley and Blumenfield making it to Tuesday night. Neither was given much of a chance by anyone, and for different reasons.

The thinking was that Beckley, playing in his first Main Event, simply had too much of a chip deficit to overcome to be a factor, as he entered Sunday night with just 29.5 big blinds and 11.8 million chips – nearly 52 million off the pace. But Beckley, who had a couple of impressive laydowns in key spots, picked his spots superbly throughout the final table. There were many times when he was one of the shorter stacks and you expected he'd be the next one sent to the rail, but he would survive by either winning a sizable pot or seeing a fellow short stack lose a big pot. It was an impressive performance from the 25-year-old New Jersey native, who now has nearly $6 million in career live earnings.

As for Blumenfield, despite holding the third-biggest stack entering the final table, most observers felt his amateur status and sometimes erratic play would doom him and lead to an early exit.

Two of the comments from our panel that stuck out in particular came from Chad Power ("Blumenfield will play like an amateur and pick bad spots to put money in. He isn't afraid to go with his gut though, and that can be dangerous") and Brian Hastings ("Blumenfield is a very nice guy and smart person, but he's a recreational player who lacks the experience of the pros").

But the 61-year-old from San Francisco surprised everyone. He was, by far, the most aggressive player at the table on Sunday night and successfully re-raised pre-flop a number of times, helping him survive until Tuesday night when he admittedly did not play his best.

"I'm not happy with how I played today," he said after busting out in third place and cashing in for $3.4 million. "But obviously it was a great run. If you had asked me four months ago about finishing third, I would have been very excited."

4. Who suffered the toughest beat of the final table?
Speaking of our esteemed panel, more than a few (including yours truly) thought Tom Cannuli would make a spirited run and become a factor, but it never happened.

According to Cannuli, the best hole cards he saw during five hours of play on Sunday night were ace-jack suited and a pair of sixes. But he managed to survive and advance to Monday night, and then two hands after the cards went in the air he looked down and saw pocket aces.

Neil Blumenfield arrived at the Poker Hall of Fame ceremony with his original copy of "Super System," hoping he could get Doyle Brunson to sign it.

Neil Blumenfield arrived at the Poker Hall of Fame ceremony with his original copy of "Super System," hoping he could get Doyle Brunson to sign it.

After raising to 1.4 million under the gun, he got exactly what he was looking for when Max Steinberg moved all in from the big blind with pocket 10s. The hand was playing out exactly how Cannuli wanted it to as he was an 80% favorite to double up. But the flop came J-10-6 and that was it. Cannuli, and his large band of supporters, were gone.

He handled the cruel beat like a pro's pro, saying he had no regrets and wouldn't dwell on it, but if there is one player still saying "what if," it has to be Tom Cannuli.

3. Other than McKeehen, who was the biggest winner of the final table?
We have to go with Blumenfield. Not only did he stun a lot of people by playing his way into third place, but he did so with a lot of class and his "likability" factor was off the charts.

Blumenfield is a former software executive who got laid off just before the Main Event, which almost prevented him from entering. His wardrobe of a fedora hat and scarf caught on with fans, and his cheering section was full of middle-aged friends who had a blast while wearing similar hats and black t-shirts that read "Fear the Fedora."

After busting out, Blumenfield was genuinely thankful for the opportunity. He graciously thanked his friends for supporting him, and he talked about how if his deep run at the Main Event helped the game of poker, he was "all for it."

His love of the game was never more evident than when we ran into him at the Poker Hall of Fame ceremony at Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel, two nights before the final table action began. Blumenfield lugged his coveted, dog-eared original copy of Doyle Brunson's Super System with him to the hall, with the faint hope that his idol would be there to sign it. Of course, Brunson was not in attendance, but Blumenfield did not regret holding out hope.

"I knew it was a long shot, but if he was here, I would have been kicking myself if I didn't have the book," he smiled.

A pretty cool gesture, especially when you consider the majority of the November Niners couldn't find time in their schedule to even attend the Hall of Fame ceremony (Federico Butteroni and Pierre Neuville were the only others at Binion's), let alone show up looking for an autograph.

2. Who was the biggest loser of the final table?
Considering the payouts, it's difficult to call anyone here a "loser." Heck, even Patrick Chan pocketed a million bucks, and he was at the final table for all of two hands.

But if there was one guy whose reputation took a negative hit, it was Stern, who will likely forever be remembered as the guy in the hoodie who took forever to act. Ask PGA TOUR player Kevin Na, who is renowned for his slow play on the golf course. It's a difficult stamp to shake after you're branded by players and media.

Stern definitely seems like a nice enough person, and the 37-year-old was convincing when he said after busting out that he wasn't totally aware of the tanking controversy.

"I've heard some remarks regarding that. And I do realize that sometimes it may seem like it's too long, but for me it's rather crucial to take another moment and make sure you make the optimal play. If you need to take an extra moment in order to make the correct decision, then you should take it."

While that may be true, it's going to be difficult to persuade poker fans who watched the action on ESPN.

1. What do you make of Joe McKeehen, the person?
McKeehen's presence and demeanor seemed to rile some fans and media. I pointed out that he was definitely the 'villain' at the table because of his actions leading up to Sunday night, and he didn't come across as the most personable guy at the table once the cards went in the air.

But looking back at how he dominated the table, it's difficult to argue with McKeehen's game plan. This was a business trip for him. He wasn't there to make friends. He didn't care that while Max Steinberg looked ready for a Hollywood movie set with his expensive suit, he was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants and looked like he combed his hair with a deck of cards. And as we found out from his parents, McKeehen is a "good kid" who acts as a great role model for his kid brother.

Will he be the best "ambassador" for the game? Probably not. But that doesn't make him a bad person, and he shouldn't be admonished for it. There are only so many Daniel Negreanus and Antonio Esfandiaris to go around. For the next year, the reigning WSOP Main Event champ will be a Philadelphia-sports-teams-jersey-wearing kid with not much of substance to say to the media.

The poker world has no choice but to deal with it.

Top 10 questions and answers from the WSOP Main Event final table is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT