Four years ago, across one super-hot summer, the World Series of Poker dominated headlines not only in poker publications, but in the mainstream media too.
One hand defined the action, with British lawyer Will Kassouf the aggressor and Canadian Griffin Benger the assumptive hero. Both men held monster hands, but Kassouf’s pocket kings, the second-best starting hand in poker, were way behind Benger’s pocket aces.
A standard opening raise from Benger saw 875,000 in chips go into the middle. Kassouf’s three-bet to 2.3 million saw the rest of the players fall away. The two men were ‘heads-up’, and the mind games and war of words could begin. As legendary commentary from Norman Chad and Lon McEachern described at the time…
“A big hand at the wrong time… and we now will wait for Will Kassouf because this is his time.”
The background to the hand was something far, far bigger than just a huge hand of poker. Earlier in the same event – the Main Event stretching out over eight days like a Mafia hitman tracking down its eventual quarry one by one – Kassouf had been polarized on social media as either the worst person since Hitler or the single reason poker was now fun for a hand against Stacey Matuson.
In the hand, Kassouf was given an eventual ban for how he talked too much to her during the hand. In it, he successfully bluffed all-in with just nine-high and Matuson folded pocket queens. The poker moment triggered a hundred memes and left many with the kind of nightmarish fear of the phrase ‘Nine High Like a Boss’ that is usually associated with a particularly visceral episode of horror genre television.
Because of his controversial ‘speech play’, Kassouf was hated, rightly or wrongly, by pretty much every player remaining in the event when this hand took place. Just 17 players remained in the hunt for the one WSOP bracelet they all want to win.
“I think I’m ahead at the moment, you need to get lucky.” Quips Kassouf straight off the bat.
“I must be ahead right now. You can talk, we’re heads-up, don’t be shy.”
For a start, Kassouf is taking on the exact wrong player with table talk. Benger is hardly likely to exchange chat at the table. He’s got the kind of banter that gets you banned from top tables at weddings. No-one wants to know what’s inside the table favours, Griffin.
Benger reaches for chips and Kassouf goes on the attack. Of course, we all know he’s goading a man who is sitting with the only poker hand better than his. Kassouf thinks that he has the best of it. He’s trying to trap a man who has already snapped his own inescapable torturous implement around his enemy’s ankle.
“Nah this is Hollywood,” continues Kassouf. “How many miles from here to Hollywood, 230 miles? Do we know?” Kassouf asks to no-one in particular.
Even the commentary team now announce that this is repeat material, which if anything, harmed Kassouf more than his palming of a $100 poker chip in a casino two years ago did, and that cost him his sponsorship. Keep putting on repeats and eventually, no matter how good the original show was, the audience is going to change the channel.
Benger makes it 5.6m and Kassouf swallows something jagged. Despite doing so, perhaps because of it, he makes what is an early yet fatal move.
“I take it if I ship it, you’re not passing.” He grins like a fairground doll stuck on the grim loop of asking question after question despite the seaside visitor having walked away many hours earlier. Back to Chad and McEachern.
“Kassouf has built his whole image for this moment. Talk a big game, then show up with the goods… except he’s crushed.”
“One of these coolers again! If you’ve got, you’ve got it.” Says Kassouf, unable to stop killing himself. Like a man who has jumped off a cliff, Kassouf is morbidly determined to blow his own brains out before he reaches the rocks.
“I’ve got a big hand. I don’t think I can pass. I can’t call; its all-in or pass. What do you want me to do? If you don’t say anything, I have to ship it here.”
All nonsense. ‘He wants a reaction’ littered discussions that defending him on Twitter in the days after the Matuson event. But Kassouf is hardly looking at Benger, who could just as easily be sticking his tongue out for 75% of this chat without being noticed. Kassouf often reveals his own nerves rather than exploiting the frailties of his opponent.
“You want to gamble?” (no response) “I’m not here to ladder, I’m here to win it.” (blankface) “I’m not laddering. Play for the win right? You doing the same, or you gonna wait for the next pay-jump at 15th?”
This is one of Kassouf’s more desperate attempts at wheedling information out of Benger. At this point, it’s not Benger who calls the clock, either. Kassouf now has 60 seconds and with the clock called, Benger springs to life and goes on the attack in order to push the all-in through from his opponent.
“You’re just an abusive person, man,” he says to sycophantic agreements from the other players at the table. “It’s not funny. What you’re doing to me is verbal abusive. You’re a bully – it’s rude, it’s mean.”
Kassouf may be displaying idiocy, but it’s hard to peg him as mean at this point. Kassouf refutes it, of course.
“It’s called speech play.”
“No,” Benger bites back. “It’s called being a bad person. Check your privilege.”
Check. Your. Privilege! He actually said it. It’s at this point that the other players at the table really do merit mention. Not only do they refrain from bursting into incredulous laughter at the ludicrous words that Benger has just spoken, but some of them actually agree with him, nodding sagely. Kassouf, feeling a little like the sacrificial lamb in an episode of Game of Thrones, is doing everything under the belief that he is about to have the last laugh, not knowing that every chuckle is about to be had at his expense. He looks to the tournament director and Benger, spurred on surely by his tablemates allowing ‘check your privilege’ to escape their bullshit-o-meters, brings it all down to playground level.
“He’s not your Dad – he’s not going to help you! Stop, no-one is going to help you. Ask anyone – your word against theirs.”
There’s so much that’s wrong with this from Benger that the words barely warrant interpretation. The ‘Dad’ stuff is pretty peak, even for four years ago. He’s lowered himself to Kassouf’s level, then continue to drop the rope until staring at up the British player from the bottom of the well.
“You wanna gamble?” says Kassouf, thinking that he’s reveling in the greatest of all-time switcheroos. “OK, I’m all-in.”
The instant “I call.” From Benger must have sounded to Kassouf like the executioner slipping the guillotine free of any impediment to the effect of gravity upon its deadly blade.
The slam of Benger’s cards onto the table would have been impressive had he managed to do it with both cards. Instead, he had to go back and do it again, but once the two black aces are facing the two black kings on the felt, and Kassouf realizes the horrible truth, that he has spent six minutes tying a noose with a huntsman élan, only for it to end up around his own neck.
“Come on baby, let’s go!” gloats Benger, proving if it was in any doubt, that he has every intention of being as big a dick as Kassouf during the hand come what may.
“Whatever happens,” he roars, as if now suddenly the commentator to his own poker hand, “He’s coolered!”
As if this mere statement of his own amazing fortune wasn’t enough, he starts taunting the poker Gods.
“Put a king, I don’t care. Put a king, I don’t care.”
Repetition added to lack of grammar. Surely ‘put a king’ down.
“I’m not slowrolling.” He states, having already laid out his cards. Again, this stating of the obvious tells you why Benger hasn’t recently traded playing cards for talking about them.
“Put a king out there, I’m fine.”
Out there? We’ll accept it.
“My life is good.” Crows Benger. It’s blood-curdling stuff. You can barely watch, but you are compelled to.
“Now we’re having fun. Now we’re playing poker.” says a tablemate, the voice of all of our minds.
“Now would be the time,” states Kassouf, as if now pleading with the poker Gods he has insulted so many times to appease him and he’ll turn his life around.
“The king of hearts. Watch.”
Everything about this micro-pair of sentences is wrong. Not only is he chopping in half the chances of him suddenly looking like he controls the very cards that come out of the deck, but he then implores others to do what they are already doing. It’s like watching an entire town flee from Godzilla, overtake them all, then encourage them all to run for their lives.
“Give it to him, it doesn’t matter.” Benger continues, now clearly having gone insane. “He’s still miserable, I’m happy.”
At this point, Kassouf feigns happiness. In turn, Benger does the same in what has become a disturbing kind of ‘smile off’ the like of which hasn’t been seen in poker. Both men are stuck with a rictus grin that corpses would – literally – die for.
“I’ll tell you verbal abuse. You let it get to you, I’m still smiling,” professes Kassouf. “I’m smiling. We’ve got fireworks now. The king’s coming, I’m telling you.”
“It won’t change my life.” Snarks Benger. “That’s fine.”
Then, going against what he has just exactly said, Benger turns to someone on his rail who has failed to fathom what hands the two men have despite a) both of them behaving like $10 rebuy donks at the Dog and Duck, b) both hands being clearly on display on a television screens near to the table.
“Aces against kings for everything,” says Benger. “We have the aces.”
We. Not just him, now he’s inviting everyone to share in his moment of bickering.
We can rely on Norm and Lon to summarise what we are all feeling.
“If this gets any worse, it might rival the ‘Russian Roulette’ scene in The Deerhunter.”
“I say king of hearts, big heart.” says Kassouf, thumping his chest in what he imagines looks like that scene that chauvinists love in The Wolf of Wall Street but, in reality, looks like an asthmatic lemur bringing up a piece of bark.
“King, one time!” says Kassouf, “King!”
A ten-high flop. Kassouf looks as though he’s just swallowed a tablespoon of salt.
Benger is calm, having his shoulders massaged by his male friend.
“It’s happened to me before, if it happens again, I’ll be fine.”
Sweat breaks out on Benger’s forehead, possibly in a desperate attempt to escape being damned by association with his mouth.
A six on the turn.
Kassouf’s last refuge is the dealer. If he can appeal to them, then surely, he buys some credit with those poker Gods. Instead, he pretends to listen (?) to the pack of cards as if it is speaking to him.
“What’s that?” says Kassouf, now in full Basil Fawlty mode. “King on the river? One time! One time! One time! Any kings about? Ping!”
A ten on the river ends the hand with Kassouf crestfallen, while Benger bursts into life, shouting “Come on!” as if he wasn’t a huge favourite to win the hand pre-flop, but rather has just produced the most incredible magician’s trick ever seen. Kassouf asks for a count and in a stunning case of aural infection not seen until 2020, the commentary team seem to catch the ability to speak absolute nonsense.
“Will wants a count; his count is zero and falling.”
What, he’s going to end up with less than zero chips? How does that work? Does he have to go out back and do the washing up? Pay back some of his winnings?
One tablemate of the pair of the two men at the centre of the hands says it all.
“That should have been over in five seconds.”
Kassouf cashed in 17th for $338,288, while Benger lasted until the final table before sliding out in 7th place for $1,250,190. Neither man got close to a win that would eventually be sealed by Qui Nguyen for just over $8 million. Nguyen said barely anything at all, which came as a bit of a relief to everyone.
If Kassouf had found a king on the river, we would surely have witnessed the first mass-brawl at the World Series. Who knows what else might have happened? Maybe Jack Eiffel would have revealed himself to be both men’s true father and sent them to bed to read a book and learn how to talk nicely to each other.
You can watch the whole hand play out right here: