A VIEWERS GUIDE TO SUNDAY’S FINAL TABLE ACTION

The 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event Championship has come down to just two playing sessions. 

The first session begins Sunday, November 6th -- starting at 11:30 am in Las Vegas (2:30 pm EST).  Sunday’s session will include play from nine initial players down to just three survivors.  Once the final three have been determined, play will take a one-day recess. 

The final playing session begins Tuesday, November 8th -- starting at 5:30 pm local time (8:30 pm EST).  Tuesday’s session will play from the three surviving players down to the world champion.

This year’s championship finale promises to be the most widely watched and highly-scrutinized poker match in history.  Indeed, no poker group nor game is likely to be seen by as many people in as many different countries as this year's final curtain call.  Players and all the hands they play will be watched, dissected, and ultimately discussed as thoroughly as any poker game, ever.

If the pressure of playing in a once-in-a-lifetime game were not enough, through the magic of hole-card cameras and semi-live television there’s also the weight of the entire world looking over each player’s shoulder, so to speak, and seeing every card, every hand, and every decision one-at-a-time, for the first time in history.  With the global microscope of intense scrutiny – the eyes of the entire world watching -- extra drama is inevitably added to this year’s finale.

Alas, no one knows what will happen, or who will win.

But, history does provide some insights.  Based on past WSOP finales, there are certainly things to watch out for.  Although most final tables have been wildly unpredictable, a rare few have played out much as was expected.  Given that nearly 400 players have made it to the Main Event final table since the tournament freezeout format was first adopted in 1971, history provides some interesting nuggets of speculation for this year’s cast of finalists. 

Here are a ten things to look for when watching the two final playing sessions.  Most of the following comments and predictions are based on the last ten years of WSOP Main Event final table results (2001-2010), which have been appraised alongside this year’s lineup of finalists.

#1 – Watch the Chip Leader(s)….

Will the chip leader(s) become the early aggressor(s)?  Or instead, will the chip leaders chose to play cautiously and let the shorter-stacks tangle amongst themselves and therefore risk early elimination?  Chip leader Martin Staszko, starting with 40,175,000 in chips at this final table, can nurse and nest his stack, waiting for hours before playing a single hand, if he so chooses.  He will still have enough chips to remain in contention for a long while.  There's a compelling reason to exercise patience at this level.  Remember, that each time a player busts out, the remaining players earn in prize money what amounts to the price of a new house.  The huge financial leaps up each notch of the money ladder discourage risk-taking.  But from what we’ve seen over the years, players often get caught up in the action and excitement and risk their stacks anyway.
Here's how the last ten starting chip leaders fared:
2001:  Henry Nowakowski finished seventh
2002:  John Shipley finished seventh
2003:  Chris Moneymaker finished first
2004:  Greg Raymer finished first
2005:  Aaron Kanter finished fourth
2006:  Jamie Gold finished first
2007:  Phillip Hilm finished ninth
2008:  Dennis Phillips finished third
2009:  Darvin Moon finished second
2010:  Jonathan Duhamel finished first
Prediction:  Based on the last ten championship final tables, the starting chip leader has a 40 percent chance of winning the tournament (4 out of 10 went on to claim victory).  However, there’s also about a 30 percent chance that the early chip leader will exit relatively early.  Three of ten previous chip leaders ended up finishing seventh or worse.  One early chip leader, Phillip Hilm in 2007, was the first player eliminated (9th place).  Taking ten years of data into account, the overall average finish for the early chip leader is somewhere between third and fourth place.
 
#2 – Watch for at least one of the shortest stacks to double up early and rocket up into serious contention….

It happens almost every year.  At least one of the shortest-stacked players at the final table comes in with a “can’t lose” mentality and proceeds not only to play an unusually high number of hands, but also gets hit with the deck and evolves into a serious threat to win.  The most notable example of this was Jerry Yang (2007).  From the instant “shuffle up and deal” was announced four years ago, Yang played an unusually high number of hands and things pretty much went his way the entire night.  Yang arrived at the final table in eighth place and went on to become the 2007 world champion.  Others too, have far exceeded early expectations:
2001:  Dewey Tomko started 7th in chips and finished second
2002:  Julian Gardner started 7th in chips and finished second
2003:  Dan Harrington started 7th in chips and finished third
2004:  David Williams started 6th in chips and finished second
2005:  Joe Hachem started 6th in chips and finished first
2006:  Michael Binger started 8th in chips and finished third
2007:  Jerry Yang started 8th in chips and finished first
2008:  Antoine Saout started 8th in chips and finished third
2009:  Joe Cada started 5th in chips and finished first
Prediction:  One of this year's three short-stacked players – either Sam Holden, Anton Makiievskyi, or Pius Heinz – will double up from around 15 million in chips up to around 30 million and then rank near the chip lead.  From that point forward, the underdog will play with renewed self-confidence and go on a major rush.  If history is any indication, one of the shortest stacked players may even win, as occurred three out of the last six years (2005, 2007, and 2009).

#3 – Watch for at least one major meltdown….

It’s both sad and unfortunate that the pressure of playing on poker’s biggest stage can make some players either crack or make what appear to be monumental mistakes at the worst possible time.  Two of the most notable WSOP final table meltdowns were committed by Amir Vahedi (2003) and Phillip Hilm (2007).  Vahedi (who ranked second in chips at one point) essentially bluffed all of his chips away on one fateful hand to Sammy Farha.  Four years later, Hilm did not make any single blunder but rather got caught up in an unfortunate set of circumstances where he pretty much lost every hand he played at the final table.  In actuality, the strong and mighty have fallen many times in the championship – Bobby Hoff (1979), Doyle Brunson (1980), Johnny Chan (1989), John Bonetti (1993), T.J. Cloutier (2001), Sammy Farha (2003), and so forth.  What's to be learned?  The history of the championship final table often reveals that great poker is played at the margins.  A masterful bluff which is successful becomes legendary, as was the case with Chris Moneymaker’s memorable heads-up play versus Sammy Farha in 2003.  Yet had that bluff failed (in other words, had Farha called Moneymaker’s bold all-in raise, and won the huge pot), history would probably charge Moneymaker with making one of the biggest blunders in WSOP history.  Such are the perils of playing poker at the very highest level.
Prediction:  When it’s least expected, a very good player will make a highly-suspect play and summarily lose most of his stack and be eliminated much earlier than expected.  Conversely, a player who may not be regarded among the best at the table will play way over his head and be quite successful.

#4 – Watch the final table’s most aggressive player….

Every final table has an ebb and flow.  Someone always tends to be in control of the table at various stages of play.  However, it’s also unlikely that any player is so strong or has enough chips to go wire-to-wire and remain aggressive throughout the entire finale.  This has only happened one time in recent memory, which took place in 2006 when Jamie Gold essentially enjoyed the rush of a lifetime in what turned out to the be the largest poker tournament in history.  But such occurrences are exceedingly rare.  All final tables include a changing series of dynamics. 
Prediction:  Look for one of the final nine to take early initiative.  Then, once he accumulates some chips, he’ll lay back and another player will take over.  This aggression will rotate around between players for several hours until one player is decidedly in chip command – which is expected to occur once the first session ends and the final table is down to three players.  Based on what’s been widely reported during the recess, it appears that Matt Giannetti could be one of the most aggressive players and will most certainly assume this role at some point during play.  It should be noted that when play was at ten-handed (July 19th), Giannetti ranked tenth (dead last) in chips.  A few hours later by the time nine players remained, Giannetti had catapulted himself up to third in chips.  Another aggressive player to watch out for is Pius Heinz, who showed no fear during the previous session leading up to the finale.  Should Heinz accumulate chips, he will become increasingly dangerous.

#5 – Watch how players who suffer the “card dead” syndrome react to adversity….

It always happens.  At least one player gets a terrible run of unplayable cards for what seems like the entire final table and is seemingly out of the course of events.  The player sits quietly and folds hand after hand.  In the recent past, this has happened to quite a few top players – most notably Jeff Shulman (2008) and Phil Ivey (2009).  Both very experienced players were dealt bad cards for several hours.  Every poker player understands the torture.  This year, some unfortunate player(s) will suffer the same fate.  What will be interesting to watch (since we get to see all hole cards) is how the player reacts to adversity.  Will the player wait patiently for things to turn around?  Or, will the player enduring a bad run finally break and decide to gamble in an effort to hold onto chips and stay at the table?
Prediction:  There’s nothing more frustrating to a poker player at this level than to come all this way and then not get a playable hand or be involved in a situation where he can use his skills.  No one knows who will suffer this year, but for the unlucky player there is reason to remain hopeful that things will turn around.  Given that this final table is expected to last at least 300-400 hands (on average), cards almost always inevitably turn around at some point and even out the longer the playing session lasts.  But that may not matter.  Look for one player to get fed up and exit after pushing his stack with a marginal hand that he might not have played otherwise.  Moreover, look for another player to wait out the bad run and go much deeper in the tournament that expected.

#6 – Watch how some players get energized by the crowd (and play better)….

Poker players may try and tune out distractions, but the bottom line is – we are all human.  Every poker player hears and sometimes observes what’s going on the audience.  Virtually every previous world champion has spoken afterward about being inspired by spectators.  Some players have specifically noted that the voices of their supporters gave them boosts at various points during the finale that were critical.  Some of the most memorable finalists who seemed to draw extra energy from the crowd were Joe Hachem (2005), Jerry Yang (2007), Dennis Phillips (2008), and others.  Now, things are even bigger and louder.  The November Nine has become such a circus that every player at this year’s final table is expected to have 100 or more close supporters sitting in the audience.  This is a far cry from earlier years when some players had no one supporting them.  This changes the dynamics of what would ordinarily be a routine poker game to a television game show or sporting event.
Prediction:  Joe Hachem started the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chants six years ago.  Then, Dennis Phillips set an unprecedented bar of audience enthusiasm a few years later when he brought nearly 200 supporters to the Penn and Teller Theatre.  This year, each finalist will be encouraged by a combination of Hachem-like enthusiasm and Phillips-like numbers.  The result will be one of the most exciting atmospheres for any poker game in history.  If there’s a single player who could enjoy a home-field advantage here it would probably be Phil Collins, who has a large number of close friends in the Las Vegas poker community.  He seemed to enjoy the most vocal crowd support in the stages leading up to the final table.

#7 – Watch the length of the playing session(s), and for possible fatigue to set in….

WSOP championship final tables pretty much constitute the longest tournament sessions ever played.  This is because the caliber of players tends to be exceedingly high and the playing structure allows for many hours of play.  Whether it was the 19-hour marathon at 2008 WSOP Europe (the longest final table in history) or the 16-hour Main Event epic won by Joe Hachem in 2005, the length of the match takes its toll on some players.  Add the preparation for coming into the finale and the usual adrenal rush experienced by all players, and the fact is – the finalists are subject to fatigue at some point.  fatigue can be dangerous.  All it takes is one mental lapse to be eliminated.  Perhaps the most memorable example of this took place when Steve Dannenmann pretty much capitulated during the 2005 finale.  By 6 am on the final day, Dannenmann had been playing 16 hours and was close to the chip lead when he surmised that his opponent deserved to win and the runner up position would be a satisfactory outcome.
Prediction:  Both playing sessions (Sunday and Tuesday) will probably last longer than expected.  Although some poker analysts forecast a shorter-than average final table due to the current playing level (high blinds and antes), other factors outweigh the likelihood of a speedy finale.  Based the last four final tables (since the November Nine format was instituted), the average final table duration in actual playing time has been about 14 hours.  However this year, for the first time ever, all player hold cards will be shown to viewers.  This could have a major impact on how players decide to play their cards.  After all, no player will want to look foolish in front of millions of viewers.  A highly questionable decision will have to be explained later to family, friends, and an increasingly inquisitive global poker community.  For this reason, we can probably expect a lot of caution and relatively little risk-taking until the blinds eventually force action.  That may not occur until very late during both playing sessions.  Furthermore, even the shortest-stacked player at the moment (Sam Holden) has 24 big blinds in his stack, which means he’s in no immediate danger of elimination.  The next two short-stacked players, Anton Makiievskyi and Pius Heinz have 28 and 33 big blinds respectively, and share Holden’s comfortable state of affairs.  All three of the short stacks could conceivably wait several hours and still be alive at the final table.  This means we are probably going to see a lot of poker being played, at least in terms of duration.  

#8 – Watch the table talk and how players behave amongst themselves….
In ESPN’s outstanding coverage leading up to the final table, there has been relatively little verbal bombast from players.  Whether in live coverage last summer or the packaged programming that has aired up to this week, viewers have seen few exchanges between players, particularly during the middle of action.  Perhaps it’s the Internet age and the reality that poker has gone through a major transformation during the past decade from a highly-social game to a far more introspective and analytical test of skills.  While each of this year’s final nine has demonstrated a friendly attitude away from the table, during battle each player has pretty much been all business.  This means that what table talk does occur could be even more revealing and meaningful.  In fact, lack of table conversation does not necessarily infer a boring finale.  To the contrary, this year’s final table could turn into a test of willpower between nine poker grandmasters.  Think Bobby Fisher-Boris Spassky times nine -- with eight times as much money at stake.  Since every poker hand is going to be shown to the universe, those who appreciate the game’s finer points are going to be in for the treat of their lives.
Prediction:  This year’s final table lacks personalities like Phil Hellmuth, Mike Matusow, and others who relish in entertaining the crowd.  Nonetheless, the real entertainment value from this year’s finale is expected to be superior play and perhaps the deepest-level thinking and analysis ever shown to viewers.  In short, the final two sessions of play could very well become the best tournament poker classrooms ever, for those who love to play the game and want to learn what championship poker is all about.

#9 – Watch how amateur and inexperienced players react to new surroundings….

Sitting at the WSOP Main Event final table is unlike anything any of these players have ever experienced before.  In fact, all nine players this year will be at the (Main Event) final table for the first time.  Even though each player may be accustomed to a big stage and television cameras, acquired during last summer’s coverage, the November Nine experience is totally unique.  One might expect Badih Bou-Nahra to be at a serious disadvantage under the circumstances, as the final table’s only true amateur.  But history has proven to the contrary:
2002:  Amateur Robert Varkonyi finished first
2003:  Amateur Chris Moneymaker finished first
2004:  Amateur Greg Raymer finished first
2005:  Amateur Steve Dannenmann finished second
2006:  Amateur Richard Lee finished sixth
2006:  Amateur Jamie Gold finished first
2007:  Amateur Jerry Yang finished first
2008:  Amateur Dennis Phillips finished third
2009:  Amateur Darvin Moon finished second
2010:  Amateur Jason Senti finished seventh
Prediction:  It would seem that players such as Ben Lamb (former WSOP gold bracelet winner and 2011 WSOP “Player of the Year”) and Eoghan O'Dea (numerous high finishes and family heritage) would have major advantages over at least two opponents -- Badih Bou-Nahra and Anton Makiievskyi.  Bou-Nahra is a self-described amateur player.  Makiievskyi, at age 21, is the youngest of the nine finalists and most certainly lacks the experience of many others.  Yet once again, as history has proven over and over, final table experience seems to count for very little in the final outcome.  Here's how some of the final table's most experienced players have fared:
2001:  Phil Hellmuth finished eighth
2003:  Dan Harrington finished sixth
2004:  Dan Harrington finished fourth
2005:  Make Matusow finished ninth
2006:  Allen Cunningham finished fourth
2007:  Lee Watkinson finished eighth
2008:  Phil Ivey finished seventh
2010:  Michael Mizrachi finished fifth
 
#10 – Watch, learn, and enjoy the show….
Almost every championship final table has been wildly unpredictable.  Arguably, the last time a finale went pretty much according to speculation was 14 years ago when poker legend Stu Ungar dominated a lightning-fast final session and was never in serious danger of elimination, en route to winning this third title and the 1997 world championship.  Since then, virtually nothing has gone according to prediction.  Whether it was Robert Varkonyi’s stunning victory in 2002, Chris Moneymaker’s earth-shattering win in 2003, or Joe Cada’s championship two years ago as the youngest winner in history, all that can be said about the final playing session of the biggest tournament of the year is – to expect the unexpected.
Prediction:  The 2011 WSOP Main Event Championship final table is going to provide an unprecedented amount of information and entertainment to millions of viewers around the world.  The championship is truly a must-see historical event.