In my opinion the WSOP Main Event final table this year was the most exciting one I have ever watched. You can make a case that Jamie Gold’s win in 2006 rivals it because of the table talk dynamic but after tuning in to the first few hours of this year’s final on Sunday night I felt compelled to watch all of it till the very final hand, which was just after 7am EST on Wednesday morning. Despite being obsessed with poker myself I’ve never had the urge to watch every single hand of the Main Event final table before and have usually lost interest mid final table only to resume following the action once it reached 3 handed or heads-up play. This time I tuned in for every minute and was extremely satisfied with my experience. In general poker is much more of a background thing to watch such as cricket or baseball where your focus drifts in and out of it rather than an action based game like football or tennis, for example, but this final was different for a number of reasons.
The overriding factor had to be Qui Nguyen. Qui came in as a big stack wildcard who was largely unheralded and seen as easy fodder for the 7 professionals that he’d be facing. He’d earned his right like everyone else had over the previous 7 days of action In July though, and would be dangerous with his unique style which had led to highly skilled pros laying down huge hands like sets and flushes to him. The wildcard factor of Qui made the tournament so fascinating to watch because you truly never knew what he was going to do next. For example, railing poker gets old pretty fast if you have Antonio in the booth saying this will go check bet fold or check bet call on the flop and it goes down like that every time. What you need to make it more interesting is the players mixing it up and being unpredictable so that even the commentator can look silly at times and then in turn Norman Chad can come in and do his thing and therefore ensuing banter occurs amongst the commentary team which leads to the viewer directly having more fun.
Unlike some pros I like that the broadcast didn’t focus too heavily on strategy. When I’m watching a football game on TV sure I enjoy the analysis of different tactics employed by the two teams, but in the actual moment of play I’d much rather the commentators focused on describing the action whilst analysing statistics and having banter with one another rather than telling me what the players should or shouldn’t do and why. Also, I think it is important that it is easily accessible to non-serious poker players who know little about the game and are tuning in for the first time. If you start talking about a ton of concepts that they’ve never heard about before it is going to lead to the majority of them channel hopping pretty quickly.
The Main Event with the “November 9” format is a unique tournament to play in and I think it is easy to be over critical of certain plays people make. Of course, you have months to prepare and develop your winning strategies with the help of some of the best minds in the game through coaching but when thrown in at the deep end under all the cameras and lights it can be tough to implement that strategy correctly for even the most talented players. When you consider the emotional swings and momentum changes that certain huge pots can have I’d say it is almost impossible to play perfectly throughout (much props to Martin Jacobsen for being able to do this). For that reason, I am not going to criticize any plays that were made but instead try to explain why they occurred.
The fear of losing is a very real thing and one which I think particularly applies to the November 9. This is a tournament that the players have over 100 days to prepare for the final table. In some cases, it would be possible to do almost too much preparation as that can lead to taking your gut out of decisions i.e. intuition, which in my opinion is an essential part of tournament poker. At the time Vojtech Rusicka’s huge bluff with AK high against Gordon Vayo’s set of 8s for all the chips was largely criticized but given the magnitude of the occasion Gordon is going to be bluff catching at a much lower % than normal and Vojtech held the perfect blockers to make such a play. At the end of the day it is hard to make a set and it’s highly likely that Gordon wasn’t calling down on the river with a hand such as KQ or QJ in that spot not even considering the auto folds he has there such as missed flush draws. Vojtech was the pro who showed the least fear overall given his play throughout especially with his K5 spades semi bluff turn jam on a 7-5-4-J-2 spade board which likely would have got Kenny Hallaert to fold a ton of his value range as well as the dominating draw that it did work against. If he gets called there and loses it would have been seen as ICM suicide to bust out in 9th place after beginning in 6th so for Vojtech to still have the heart to make such a play was great stuff to watch. Qui Nguyen didn’t have to deal with the fear of losing as much as the other players because being one of only two remaining amateur players little was expected of him and it’s also likely that he didn’t realize the magnitude of the final table he was at and how it was most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think pros realise how lucky they are to be at the final table of the Main event and almost play too carefully because of their knowledge of ICM and that any ‘blow up’ will be heavily scrutinized.
The 3-handed dynamic on the last day of the final table was incredibly interesting. Cliff Josephy turned into Johnnybax overnight when he showed up with a hat, sunglasses, an aggressive attitude and a rowdy rail. I think the game plan was pretty clear with it being designed to unsettle Qui and get him out of his comfort zone that he’d largely been in on the first two days of play. It worked like a dream for Cliff on hand 1 with Qui making most likely his biggest error of the tournament 4b calling A4 for 40bb and doubling Cliff up in the process. Unfortunately for Cliff his new-found chips would shortly all disappear to Gordon in a particularly tough set over set situation in a 3 bet pot. Although he started to mount a comeback from the fumes that he had left after that hand it wasn’t to be and he busted in 3rd place. A Johnnybax v Qui heads up would most likely have been the best for TV but the Gordon versus Qui dynamic was a pretty good consolation prize instead with their two very contrasting styles of plays leading to an interesting dynamic.
Going into heads up play Gordon had to be the favourite with his decade of experience on both the live and online felts, along with a 3-2 chip lead to go with it. Within 10 hands, though, Qui overcame that deficit and declared it was very much game on after a courageous 3 bet preflop and double barrel with A5 on K-J-3-2. Largely the reason Gordon had got to heads up play on the final table came down to two flopped sets in 3 bet pots and a very careful strategy which was designed to keep him out of trouble. I assume his thinking was that he would loosen his ranges in 3 handed play once he was guaranteed a bigger payday. It seemed that it was tough for Gordon to significantly shift that strategy after it had worked so well to get him there and it appeared he was hoping for Qui to make a mistake when he had a big hand rather than Gordon trying to win the title himself. This strategy had been so successful in getting him to the final 3, and even resulting in him arriving with a chip lead going into heads up play, that he didn’t adjust his play one he actually got there. Not helping the fact that the few times Gordon did try to get aggressive with Qui, Qui was having none of it. One example would be when Gordon raised Qui’s flop donk on K-8-4 with Q10. Although Qui only had Q10 high as well and knowing Gordon had been playing tight, he still shot right back with a raise forcing Gordon to fold. Another example would be when Gordon made his first 3 bet of the heads up match over 50 hands into play with 43h. It was bad timing for Gordon, though, as Qui quickly came back over the top with AJ forcing another fold.
These rare aggressive plays from Gordon didn’t work out for him and ultimately led to him playing more passive than he would have planned to going into heads up. With the stacks so deep to start with it wasn’t a bad strategy from Gordon to stay patient and try and grind Qui down but ultimately he didn’t do enough to change his strategy when it wasn’t working out and the blinds were increasing. Even though playing aggressively hadn’t worked out for him in those two pots previously that is a very small sample size overall and is likely not indicative of how well timed aggression would have worked out. Having said that I can see why Gordon chose to approach the heads up the way he did.
Qui on the other hand went from strength to strength and overall played very aggressively on turns and rivers. He correctly recognised that his opponent was reluctant to make a huge call down and attacked him multiple times because of this. Qui showed great heart and really good poker instincts. Even though his J5 three barrel on the 9-4-2-T-5 might appear a bit button clicky he recognised his opponent likely had a 9 on the river and that he was unlikely to risk his tournament life in that spot. I truly believe that Gordon planned on calling down in this spot but was thrown off by Qui’s timing which was almost identical to that of a previous hand where Qui had rivered a flush and Gordon had correctly folded his counterfeited two pair with A9. Qui’s snap river jam was particularly impressive given his exact hand. Now that he rivered the 5 he could easily have considered that he had enough showdown value to check back and beat some 4x and missed ace high/combo draws.
Overall I think the Main Event was a great representation of poker from the speed of play to the sportsmanship shown multiple times in the 8 hour heads up battle with almost 4 million dollars on the line and I for one can’t wait to try and make it to the final 9 next year. If not, I’ll be sure to tune in to what I thought was a really well presented broadcast which showed the game that we love so much in a really great light.