McKeehen wins from the front at a final table that promised a procession and delivered across three days of action
If the disgruntled tweets are any indication, this year’s WSOP Main Event final table is going to reignite the debate about stalling in poker. The live coverage on ESPN is supposed to be the highlight of the poker year, but play was so slow here it was almost unbearable at times.
Zvi Stern was the chief culprit and, in an age when poker and eSports are coming closer together and the poker industry is desperate to attract new young players, this wasn’t a great advert for the game. ESPN’s coverage was exemplary, as always, but there’s a growing feeling that the game needs a fresh approach to thrive as a spectator sport.
No more dime
Joe McKeehen was the huge chip leader when the cards hit the air but he started off with the air of a petulant kid, pouting as he sulkily folded the first hand to a raise from the sartorially splendid Max Steinberg.
On the second hand, Patrick Chan decided to call his stack off after a button shove from McKeehen. McKeehen had A♦-4♥ and his hand held in an effective flip – a pattern that would be repeated many more times over the course of the next three days. It was tough for Patrick Chan, who realised the nightmare scenario of waiting four months to get precisely no more money and only five minutes of camera time on the final table. The spot itself was standard though and the rich got richer.
Afterwards Chan said: ‘I had 3% of the chips in play and it’s a button jam – he [McKeehen] is jamming any two cards and K-Q is a pretty strong hand in the small blind with a total of 13 big blinds. I have to call… I got lucky to get here, I just got a bit unfortunate to go out after two hands.’
One of the elder statesmen at the table, Neil Blumenfield, was also a little unlucky not to take advantage of an aggressive move with Q♣-8♣ on the third hand. He woke up with Aces and Queens the following two hands and after three-betting three hands in a row he might have expected action, especially from Pierre Neuville who folded Tens preflop. Steinberg didn’t want to tangle with A-10 either.
Blumenfield, who had obviously benefited from coaching in the break, showed the most aggression early on, including a four bet with A♠-7♣ – perfectly timed to get rid of Stern’s K♥-2♣, even though it took Stern the best part of a minute to release his hand. Players’ actions at the WSOP have led to rule changes in the past and Stern’s serial stalling could easily bring about the introduction of a shot clock in 2016. He’s not a player you’d want at your home game.
The 30-minute delay also led to the unedifying spectacle of players scurrying to the rail to get information on previous hands, but it was the stalling that annoyed everyone – including the commentators.
In the booth Esfandiari said he thought people should take five to six seconds on every fold. ‘So people don’t know whether you want to play it or not. You don’t want to go over the top though. A lot of younger players are destroying poker by taking 40 seconds over every decision. It’s completely uncalled for and they should be 86’d from every tournament on the face of the earth.’ Asked how you’d regulate that Esfandiari was unequivocal. ‘Get a clock.’
Some players seemed out of sorts as well, perhaps stymied by the dynamics in play with McKeehen as the huge chip leader. Pierre Neuville folded A♥-7♥ to a 7BB shove from Butteroni that made little sense to anyone watching.
Butteroni was the first to get perilously short stacked and called another of McKeehen’s button shoves with A-J. McKeehen had A-K and it held. Butteroni was followed by Neuville who hit a similar stack before getting it in good with McKeehen. Good… Bad… It makes no difference when someone is running this hot. Neuville could only watch in despair as his A-J was cracked by J♥-6♥ with a runner-runner flush for the dominant chip leader. That brought the first day of action to a close and McKeehen had done his job, increasing his chip lead.
After the first day’s action everyone wanted to talk about stalling. Even Phil Hellmuth said that it was ‘becoming unwatchable.’ Zvi Stern was taking an average of 34 seconds preflop and 37 seconds postflop to make his move. Compare that with 12 seconds and 17 seconds for Max Steinberg.
Daniel Negreanu said that he would start calling and cutting the clock on Stern on every tank, but reiterated that Stern wasn’t breaking any rules. He said the rules needed to be changed with the possible introduction of a shot clock mooted. Hellmuth agreed: ‘I feel like there needs to be a rule change and a chess clock is something we might have to introduce.’
It didn’t take long for Thomas Cannuli to exit though as the second hand of the night claimed another victim. Cannuli got his last 10m in with Aces but Steinberg flopped a set of Tens. It was heartbreaking for Cannuli but he took it like a champ, hugging each of his opponents before puffing his cheeks out and savouring the moment for the last time. It was about as classy an exit as you can imagine. The only surprise perhaps was that it wasn’t McKeehen who dropped the noose, after the chip leader had knocked out every other player from 11th downwards.
It left McKeehen on close to 90m, with Stern, Blumenfield and Steinberg sharing that amount between them. Josh Beckley was the short stack with about 15BBs.
Beckley fared better when he picked up Aces, after Stern moved all-in on the small blind with 9♠-10♠. Beckley snapped on the big blind and held to leave Stern in trouble. The staller was next out, shoving with A-J and getting picked off by Blumenfield in the big blind with A-K. He might have wound people up with his slow actions but Stern was also classy in defeat, hugging his executioner warmly.
The Joe show
After this McKeehen took over again. First he took out Max Steinberg with A-Q v A-J sending the only bracelet winner to the rail and bringing the action to a close again. This time he only had one more sleep before he played for the bracelet.
Three-handed, McKeehen might have been the best player at the table but he also got the best hands – something that was true since he knocked Daniel Negreanu out in 11th and went on a rampage, knocking five straight players out in a row. He also won without the best hand though, using the power of his huge stack to batter Beckley and Blumenfield into giving it up through fear of losing out on the $1m difference between second and third. It was the perfect storm for McKeehen, who hadn’t used his time at the final time to win over the support of the neutral.
He didn’t need it though and you have to be impressed at a player who went into the final table as the chip leader and didn’t lose the lead for the entirety of the 184 hands.
In the end he picked up Queens to dispatch Neil Blumenfield and his Twos. Heads-up the lead was 155m-37m and the pattern was set form the first hand when McKeehen raised with A-K and flopped two pair. What a time to run so good. ‘I can just imagine how ridiculous the commentators are saying I’m running right now,’ said McKeehen with unerring accuracy.
Immediately after this he called Beckley’s all-in shove with A-10. Beckley had Fours and there was no surprise when the dealer put a Ten in the window. McKeehen raised his arms in triumph and claimed the prize that seemed his destiny. When asked if he was ready to be a poker ambassador after being presented with the bracelet he said, ‘We’ll see.’ If Negreanu was the perfect winner for the WSOP, McKeehen is not even a close second.
For Beckley, coming into the final table as 7th and taking second place prize money has to be a success, but he’ll forever wonder what might have been if the cards had decided to run for him heads-up.
2015 WSOP Main Event results
1st Joe McKeehen $7,683,346
2nd Josh Beckley $4,470,896
3rd Neil Blumenfield $3,398,298
4th Max Steinberg $2,615,361
5th Ofer Zvi Stern $1,911,423
6th Tom Cannuli $1,426,283
7th Pierre Neuville $1,203,293
8th Federico Butteroni $1,097,056
9th Patrick Chan $1,001,020
Watch the action!
Watch a replay of three-handed play with commentary from Max Silver, Patrick Leonard and Justin Schwartz