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WSOP 2014: Report on the Final Table

Last year I made a prediction on who would win the coveted bracelet for the WSOP Main Event. I made the same prediction I’d made the previous couple of years. I was right every time!

I predicted that the player who got lucky would win. Yeah, that’s a cop-out but it makes sense. You have nine skilled players, each of whom is experienced and understands the game, the situation and the legacy of this event. They have strategy coaches, mind-set coaches and have spent months analyzing their opponents.

In poker (and most other competitions), when everyone is pretty much equal in skill the role of chance is magnified. So, the obvious prediction: whoever gets lucky is going to take the title.

This year I didn’t make a prediction (too busy with so many other things) but if I had it would have been the same — and it would have been wrong. This year’s final table was different and quite wonderful to watch — if you’re a poker junkie that is.

It was won by Sweden’s Martin Jacobson in one of the most masterful displays of virtually perfect poker I (or anyone else) have ever witnessed. Because the WSOP and ESPN show every hand (and not just the big “TV moments”) it was possible to watch the ebb and flow, the shifting chip stacks, the decisions made and the emotions expressed. Riveting.

Looking back over the 300+ hands played over some 16 hours one thing struck me. There were no monster suck-outs. No one hit a magic river card, no gut-shots on the end, no miracle two-outers to pull someone’s chestnuts out of the fire. Recall Joe Cada’s win back in ‘09 when he hit three sets at critical moments which propelled him to the win. There were very few big hands this year and few critical coin flips.

Mostly it was careful, nuanced, balanced play where chips moved slowly but inexorably from one seat to another — and Jacobson was masterful. He just didn’t make any mistakes. Yes, he folded hands where he was best and, yes he bet into hands where he was not but those weren’t mistakes. They were well-judged poker moves and each time he recovered the chips lost. He was almost as though he knew, understood, that he was playing the game a tick above the others, that he appreciated that a small edge in decision-making ability would, over time, win.

This year’s finals also reflected a broad style-shift. In recent years, with more young, aggressive players entering major tournaments play had become much more dramatic with 3-bets, 4-bets and 5-bet shoves common moves. This year 4-bets were rare and the pre-flop all-in shove restricted to those with desperately short stacks. As a result there were few big hands that either crushed a player or gave someone a huge boost. Does this auger a change in preferred style? Don’t know, of course. We’ll have to see what happens.

Did Jacobson “get lucky?” Yes, of course, you have to to win any tournament. But his “lucky” moments were subtle and many might not have spotted them. They came early on when he had a dangerously short stack. He was forced to make the only move left when this happens: the pre-flop “all-in.” He made it some 18 or 19 times. Most of the time he took the pot uncontested but, critically, no one woke up with a big hand or hit the flop hard. This was very lucky. I emailed friends after this sequence of all-ins that I was now picking him to win it all — not because he was getting lucky but because everything about the way he played a short stack said that he understood the game better than the rest. All he needed was some chips to maneuver with and his share of randomness.

One last note: Jacobson said he had spent the months since the final table was set preparing. He said he spent well over 500 hours running simulations exploring the complexities of small-stack situations, big-stack settings, in-position options,  short-handed play, analyzing opponents’ playing styles, whatever. Compare this with Mark Newhouse who, quite remarkably, made the final table two years in a row.[1] Newhouse said he didn’t play a hand of poker since July. He came to the final table with the 3rd biggest stack and imploded. Out in 9th, just like last year.


[1] BTW, I really got ticked at everyone saying that the odds of this happening were over a half-million to one. They are, but only if you were to select a random player and estimate the likelihood of making two successive final tables. But if you ask what the probability of one of last year’s group making the final table this year it’s 9/6,680 or roughly one in 740. And that’s a “mathematical” estimate. In reality, with lots of dead money and last year’s final group comprised of world class players, the likelihood of a repeat is far lower. It’s still unlikely but not as weirdly so as everyone keeps saying.


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