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Final Table Time

It’s November 9 time – the final table of the WSOP Main Event which is, of course, generally played in November will begin next week. For those of you who aren’t poker junkies, this started some months back when some 6300+ souls each shelled out 10,000 coconuts for the privilege to play in this event. They began back in Vegas’s blistering summer heat – though the cavernous rooms at the Rio were freoned down to somewhere in the neighborhood of your local meat hanger. After seven grueling days they winnowed the field down to a mere nine, the fabled “November 9.” As I noted in an earlier post, these nine are the luckiest of a very talented bunch and it was fun watching the TV feed. It was also instructive. Things of note:

First, luck had the lead role. Two players, Carlos Mortensen, a previous winner of this prestigious event, sucked out at least three times that we saw. In an interview he acknowledged that he had been outrageously lucky to have lasted as long as he did. If you didn’t watch, he was the FT Bubble Boy – he finished 10th which isn’t shabby at all and earned him a satisfying 573,000 rutabagas. Twelfth-place finisher Rep Porter hit so many unlikely magic rivers that even the TV crew was stunned. Sylvain Loosli went on a heater that, at one point, elevated him to position of chip leader (though he is currently in 6th place). He hit so many hands for a time that he actually looked embarrassed.

But this is ordinary and obvious and, well you know, it kind of has to be this way. You’ve got a bunch of astonishingly skilled players going up against each other. They differ only marginally from each other in overall knowledge, cunning, skill and emotional stability so luck has to be the dominant factor. Yes? Yes, of course … but not so fast.

There’s another element here that’s not being talked about and it just might be the most important one of all. These guys (and, yes, the final table is, again, all male as it has been with one fleeting exception when Barbara Enright finished 5th in 1995) all care about the money – and caring about the money can cost you so much money.

There were several hands that were give-aways. J. C. Tran (current chip leader and all-around good guy) won two medium-sized pots with small pairs when his opponent checked behind him on the flop, turn and river. Several other hands had similar scenarios. Players checked where, earlier in the tournament they would have bet. Several players called in situations where they would, earlier in the tournament, have raised. Somehow the advantage of position seemed to be lost on them.

The more I watched the more familiar this felt. These guys, some of the best in the world, were playing like the mid-level folks I (and most of you) play with. They were playing tournament poker, not like it was the Main Event, but like it was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill buy-in tournament, the kind that most of us are used to. The reason seemed obvious to me – these guys care about the money just like the folks who play at the mid- and low-levels of the game do. At your local poker room, those who regularly play the 100 banana buy-in events play like just this when it gets down close to the final table. They worry that their opponent who checked the flop and the turn has a big hand and is trying to draw them into a bet so he can check-raise the river. They are suspicious that if they try a steal bet they’ll get raised off the hand. They sit there with their pocket 6s and assume that the other guy hit one of the three over cards on the board. They get cautious and just go for the show-down hoping they’re best. They’re trying to keep the pots small. They’re playing defensive poker.

Then I flashed back to the intro scenes to the show where a montage is put together of great moments in poker and one of them is Stuey Unger pushing all his chips in and I suddenly realized why he was such a great player, maybe (certainly? who knows, it was a different time, an earlier era) the best ever. Stuey didn’t care about the money. It didn’t matter, not at all. No matter how much he won he knew he would lose it shooting craps or betting on football. The money was just a tool, something he needed so he could gamble. If 1st place paid 20 zucchinis or 2 million it didn’t matter. Winning was what he was passionate about and if he won twenty bucks he would lose that. If he won two million, he would lose that.

He would have eaten these guys alive. There is no way that he would have checked back a third time with a raggedy-ass king high. He would have cut his wrists before checking 4,4 on the river after his opponent checked back on the flop and turn. There’s a reason why Unger won a third of all the major tournaments he entered in his life. No, that’s not a typo. Not “cashed in.” “Won.” A big piece of it was because he didn’t give a flying fuck about the money and he consistently steamrolled opponents because they did.

Will things change when the final table play begins? Dunno. Let’s all tune in and see. My guess is that we’ll see a bit less tentativeness and a bit more aggression. The big thing was making it to the November 9 simply because you can’t win the damn thing unless you do – and if you care about that and care about the money and you’re not some really crazy, brilliant, fucked-up crack-head, muddle-brained genius, you’re going to be wary, very wary….

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