After 118 days of waiting, the WSOP Main Event final table began last night. The final table was played out at the Penn & Teller Theatre in the Rio in Las Vegas for the seventh consecutive year. For the first time it was broadcast “as live” on ESPN2, with hole cards displayed for every player to enter a hand on a 30-minute delay. Players from six different nations sat to the table, including the first ever from Brazil, Bruno Politano, and the first ever to make the November Nine twice, Mark Newhouse. By the end of the evening, only three of them remained in contention for poker’s world championship.
The plan was to play down to either two or three players and return on Tuesday to crown a new world champion. With deep stacks in play and two-hour-long blind levels, the ESPN2 presentation showed live poker in all its detail – a good thing and a bad thing at once. Good because it does away with the heavily edited poker most people are used to seeing on television, but bad because it takes forever to play out. TV viewers are a fickle lot, so it’s hard to imagine anyone who didn’t already care about the WSOP clicking over to ESPN2 and becoming entranced enough by what they see on the screen to stick around for the duration of the final table.
Despite that, the presentation of this year’s November Nine is hands-down the best that ESPN has ever put together. The 30-minute delay not only removes editing from the process but also gives the tournament a sense of immediacy without compromising the integrity of the game. The commentary from regular WSOP team Lon MacEachern and Norman Chad was supplemented by Antonio Esfandiari, whose easygoing attitude and sharp poker mind made him a good fit for the live broadcast. The hand number, blind/ante values, all chip stacks constantly displayed on-screen, along with hole cards of everyone who has put money into the pot and the percentages for their hands to win. It’s all the information any poker player has ever wanted to see during these tournaments, presented in an uncluttered and intuitive manner.
Newhouse’s exit in ninth place for the second consecutive year, after a quick on-the-fly bet of all his chips on the river that was called by Will Tonking, who was getting better than four-to-one on his money, was about as dramatic as poker gets on TV. Newhouse came in third in chips and was looking for an improvement on the previous year’s finish, but Tonking’s disguised pocket queens ended that dream. His exit interview was about as awkward as it could be – no fault of Kara Scott’s, especially since she avoided asking him about his comments on the table being softer than last year’s, but more the inherent awfulness of the interviewer’s subject busting first from the final table two years running.
Tonking’s switch of gears after knocking out Newhouse was great to watch because it’s exactly what you’re supposed to do when you have a chip lead. After coming in with 15 million chips, he was able to climb over 60 million by applying constant pressure with a wider range of hands than the snug frame he started off with. Jorryt Van Hoof also hit the gas and the two of them showed how a big stack can run a final table. For long stretches while the table was still mostly full, it seemed almost as if the Dutchman and the American were destined to end up heads-up with one another.
The longer the table went on, the clearer it was that only Van Hoof was in position to guarantee himself a spot in Tuesday night’s finale. He picked his spots with precision and applied maximum pressure repeatedly, picking up lots of small pots to put himself in a commanding position. He held more than half the chips in play with five players remaining, sitting with more than 100 million while nobody else held more than 30 million. It might have been tempting to declare him a lock for the title, but deep-stacked tournament poker doesn’t allow for such clear-cut declarations.
Politano’s departure in eighth place was a loss for the cause of poker abroad. The Brazilians are as passionate about poker as they are about their sports, and Politano’s presence in the November Nine sparked a wave of interest in his home country that could have proven infectious had he become the champion. The loss of his crowd of supporters also crushed the atmosphere in the Penn & Teller Theatre, since they had kept things lively through the first two levels of play.
Billy Pappas’ crew made up for them when their man survived an all-in during six-handed play with K-J against Martin Jacobson, whose Q-3 had flopped a pair of queens. Their reaction the king on the river was the most electric since the hand that saw Mark Newhouse eliminated from the tournament. Then Pappas got all-in again with K-K against Andoni Larrabe’s K-Q and flopped a full house to move into third place, and they went wild again. Those explosions were a great reminder of just how important it is for the television end of things to have someone with strong fan support in the field – and outside of the biggest names in the game, only an amateur player brings that factor to the equation.
It was a shame to see those explosions come to an end when Pappas was eliminated in fifth place. He hung on with a short stack to make a few pay jumps when Dan Sindelar and Larrabe busted in seventh and sixth, then began making a run of it before losing a coin flip in a key spot five-handed. He was warmly embraced by his four remaining tablemates and given a standing ovation by the crowd, all well earned. It’s a moment he’ll never forget. Moreover, it’s a lost chance for poker to have a likable amateur champion to put in the public eye for the next year. Blame that on the cards, though – he played a great final table and did everything he could to get there in the end.
Tonking’s final table journey came to an end in fourth place, sputtering to the finish line after getting off to such a great start early. None of that was through any major mistakes on his part – again, the deck had a major say in the results. The final trio of Van Hoof, Jacobson and Felix Stephensen played a bit longer but were finally called to a halt by tournament director Jack Effel at about 4:30 a.m. PST. Each is still relatively deep-stacked – Van Hoof with 89 big blinds, Jacobson with 64, and Stephensen with 46 – so there’s a chance play could draw out into the night for a second straight day, especially considering there’s $10 million in prize money on the line for the winner. They’re great for showcasing high-level poker, but probably not so great for ratings on ESPN in the U.S., since all of them are European pros.
The poker in this Main Event final table has been high-level, the presentation is intriguing for anyone who knows the game, and the players have all been solid – this is really as good as the WSOP has ever looked on television. With that said, it’s hard to imagine this product grabbing the mass audience the way that everyone hopes it will – at least not on its own – before the deal with ESPN expires in 2017. A return of cheap and easily available online poker would go a long way to fixing that, since people who play poker generally like to watch poker, but the political environment right now makes that highly unlikely. As such, the improvement in the coverage feels like it almost might be too little, too late – but with all that up in the air for a few more years, it’s best just to enjoy the improvements now that they’ve arrived.
Play is set to resume at 5:30 p.m. PST on Tuesday, November 11th, and will continue until we have a winner. The rest of the tournament will be broadcast on a 30-minute delay on ESPN.
2014 WSOP Main Event Final Table results, following Day 1
1st place – TBD – $10,000,000
2nd place – TBD – $5,147,911
3rd place – TBD – $3,807,753
4th place – William Tonking – $2,849,763
5th place – Billy Pappas – $2,143,794
6th place – Andoni Larrabe – $1,622,471
7th place – Dan Sindelar – $1,236,084
8th place – Bruno Politano – $947,172
9th place – Mark Newhouse – $730,725
– Sponsorship report: Newhouse & Politano were wearing 888 patches, Pappas & Sindelar & Tonking wearing 888 & DraftKings, and Van Hoof & Jacobson wearing the REG charity (Raising for Effective Giving). Newhouse was wearing a t-shirt promoting some musician’s album on iTunes. Ruffles potato chips and online payment processor Neteller were on the felt, while NJOY e-cigarettes/vaporizers were around the inside of the table railing.
– Hearing the multilingual chatter of the players with their friends on the rail during confrontations reinforced the international nature of the game these days. It’s a great thing to see, and also a needling reminder of how political interference has so heavily influenced the current state of poker in the U.S.: most of these countries barely knew what poker was when the UIGEA was passed.
– There are a lot of patches and ads for DraftKings during this year’s WSOP – no big surprise given how much poker players enjoy daily fantasy sports. DFS is fun, but the situation is kind of gross, really. The online version of the game you’re watching has been arbitrarily outlawed, but it’s legal to use it to advertise other online games whose legality was just as arbitrarily enshrined in the same law.
– This year’s “World Series of Poker Presented by Gentleman Jack” is a big step up from the “World Series of Poker Presented by Milwaukee’s Best Light” of years past. But the ads that are on during the ESPN2 broadcast say a lot about poker’s place on TV, and it’s not all good. There are lots of ads aimed at old people in poor health, from heart health supplements to Viagra to PSAs with Terry Bradshaw for shingles awareness. There are also lots of suggestions that the audience might be less than educated, with lots of ads for the University of Phoenix, college finder websites, and HVAC repair training. And then there’s the slew of infomercial-quality products like the hair-removal tool No!No!. In other words, poker occupies a weird spot with television advertisers these days. It’s not exactly the NASCAR situation former WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack hinted at when he came in during the late boom years, but at the same time it’s a lot more mainstream than back when every other ad was for PokerStars or Full Tilt.
– Canadian presenter Kara Scott’s accent has changed over the years. In some of her earlier gigs she sounded more British, having lived in the U.K. These days she’s sounding more like a standard American TV presenter.