For the fifth straight year, the WSOP Main Event final table is being played out months after the rest of the Series was completed. Instead of being played out in November, though, the final table has been moved up a week to avoid a conflict with the U.S. presidential election.
Perhaps fittingly given the shift to playing in October, the makeup of the nine remaining players returning to the the Rio is a little different than it has been in years past. Since its inception the November Nine has always had a heavy international contingent, but this year’s lineup is 89 percent American. There has often been a recognizable pro in the mix, too – think Michael Mizrachi or Phil Ivey – but none of this year’s players are going to be particularly well-known to casual poker fans. And where there has usually been a clear separation between the stack sizes, this year we have several players clustered together near both the top and the bottom of the leaderboard.
One thing will be exactly like years past, though: the poker. There are nine players vying for the oldest and most prestigious tournament poker title in the world, and one of them is going to earn the right to call himself a world champion for therest of his life. But who will it be? Here’s a look at the four players who will be working with big stacks when the tournament resumes with the blinds at 150,000/300,000.
43,875,000 chips (146 big blinds)
Being the chip leader at the Main Event final table is far from a guarantee of ultimate success. (Just ask Philip Hilm.) But having more ammunition than one’s opponents has proven to be very valuable in the recent past; since 2004, every incoming chip leader except Hilm has finished in at least third place. Jesse Sylvia will be looking to keep up that trend this year, starting with nearly 50 big blinds more than his nearest opponent.
Sylvia, a native of Martha’s Vinyard in Massachusetts, chipped up steadily throughout the tournament before riding to the three-month chip lead on a huge wave of Day 7 momentum. He won a huge all-in pot on the river with pocket aces after Greg Merson had hit his combo draw on the turn. Then he won a big coin flip with king-queen against Robert Salaburu’s pocket jacks. Finally he flopped a set that held up against Scott Abrams’s top-pair-and-flush-draw combo to send Abrams out in 12th place.
Next week Sylvia will return not just to the chip lead, but to an interesting seat draw. In Seat 6 he has the most dangerous player at the table (Greg Merson) to his right, but four consecutive tough opponents (Robert Salaburu, Andras Koroknai, Michael Esposito, and Sylvia’s former roommate Russell Thomas) to his left. With more chips and therefore more options than anyone else at the table in a given hand, his fate mostly rests in how well he processes each individual situation he finds himself in at the final table.
“I feel like a donk stuck inside a good player’s body,” Sylvia told the WSOP’s media staff in July. “I have to keep the donk contained. I know what the right move is. I just have to act on it.” As long as he does that, Jesse Sylvia stands a very strong chance of walking away from this tournament as poker’s world champion.
29,375,000 chips (97 big blinds)
If you were so inclined, it would be easy to make Andras Koroknai the villain of this year’s final table. You could take the Cold War stance that he’s the only non-American at the table – and from an Iron Curtain country, no less. Or you could go feminist and hate on him for knocking out the last two women in the tournament, Elisabeth Hille and Gaelle Baumann, in the last two spots before the final table.
If you decided against those you could still go the poker-purist route and hate on Koroknai because of the fortune he enjoyed on Day 7. First he knocked out Danny Wong with A-9 against A-10; then his A-K hit a flush against Marc Ladouceur’s A-K. Then, later, he mucked his cards prematurely without realizing Gaelle Baumann was still in the hand; Koroknai was given a reprieve when the floor ruled that he would only lose the a stack of chips the size of Baumann’s opening raise, rather than being forced to make a call for his tournament life, after she moved all-in with pocket kings.
No doubt there are some people out there wishing him ill for these and other reasons. They’ll be the ones holding their breath throughout the final table because Koroknai stands a very strong chance of becoming the first Hungarian champion of the WSOP Main Event. He has enjoyed more success in high-level poker tournaments than anybody else from his home country, having previously won the 2010 L.A. Poker Classic. With 97 big blinds, he has enough ammunition to apply pressure to his opponents at any point he chooses. And sitting two spots to the left of the chip leader, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to put those chips to work to steal big pots in he chooses. The chances of Koroknai being in the middle of something big seem pretty strong; the only real question is whether it will end up propelling him forward or earning him an early trip to the payout cage.
28,725,000 chips (95 big blinds)
Second in chips to start the final table is Greg Merson, a 24-year-old, cash game grinder originally from Maryland. Already boasting one big win in the $10,000 six-max NLHE event this summer – a tournament he called his “personal Main Event” since he’s logged so much time at the shorthanded tables online – Merson is sitting at the final table third in chips despite having been down to just two big blinds at one point late in the tournament.
As if the prospect of winning $8.5 million weren’t enough, Merson will have a little extra motivation next weekend. When the Main Event broke for the summer, he was sitting in particularly strong contention for the WSOP Player of the Year award. The 100 POY points he was guaranteed at the Main Event final table would have been enough to move him ahead of then-leader Phil Ivey for the title. Since then strong performances by a number of players have put him further behind; Merson now needs to earn 408.2 POY points to overtake WSOP Europe Main Event winner Phil Hellmuth in the standings and win the title. Second place in the Main Event is only worth 350 points, so a Main Event win is his only route to the POY crown.
Motivation will be the key factor for Merson at this final table. He’s on the record saying that the Main Event final is more of a crapshoot than the six-max event was. He’s also talked about how he doesn’t feel like anything to prove because the people who matter – the online poker community – already know who he is. And to top it all off he has the worst seat at the start of the table in Seat 5, with three short stacks directly to his right and the chip leader directly to his left. Given that this is a guy who’s logged millions of hands at high stakes and already overcome one of the toughest tournament fields in all of poker this summer, my bet is that Merson is going to respond to his situation by playing world-class poker. Only the cards will tell whether he ends up winning, but I expect a deep run from Merson.
24,800,000 chips (82 big blinds)
It would be accurate to call Connecticut’s Russell Thomas an amateur poker player, since he makes his living working as an actuary for the insurance giant Aetna, but it wouldn’t exactly be fair. He’s more semi-pro than amateur. He began playing poker in college four years ago and had the bankroll and skills to go pro after graduating; the desire to have structure in his life led Thomas to choose a career in insurance instead. Playing part-time he’s still managed to build a short but impressive resume that includes one WSOP final table and one Main Event cash.
Though he’s a few big blinds further back from the other big stacks, Thomas has enough chips to chart his own course through the early portion of the final table. In Seat 1 he has two short stacks to his right and one to his left, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities to lay on the pressure if he senses his opponents are up to anything funny. You can count on an actuary’s ability to understand the percentages in whatever situation he’s in, so there’s no reason to believe Thomas is going to make any major missteps. A cooler or a bad beat might stop him earlier, but I think he has a very strong chance of making the final three or even winning the tournament.