Was the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event Final Table the Greatest in History?

by Nolan Dalla

The most exciting thing about any World Series of Poker final table is -- no one knows who’s going to win. Unlike championships in other sports, where superior teams and legendary athletes often distance themselves from lesser competition making the outcome foreseeable long before game’s end, WSOP final tables remain volatile until the very last hand is dealt and final chip is stacked. Alas, in poker -- anything can happen. Sometimes, the game’s greatest players win – be it Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, and Johnny Chan just to name a few. Other years, unknown amateurs have pulled off shocking upsets – such as Hal Fowler, Robert Varkonyi, and Jerry Yang.

So where does Joe Cada’s thrilling victory which occurred on November 9th fit into poker history? How will the 2009 final table ultimately be judged – both in its composition and order of finish? Will we look back upon the new world champion and agree that Cada played masterful poker, or instead conclude that he just got very lucky at critical moments? What about the possibility of alternative outcomes had just one or two hands turned out differently along the way?

First and foremost, let’s agree on one thing: Joe Cada deserves our admiration, no matter what your perspective. He was the last player standing – make that sitting – out of 6,494 total entries this year. That’s the third largest field of any live poker tournament in history.  But perhaps more important when it comes to passing judgment is examining precisely how Cada managed to win poker’s richest and most prestigious prize, and the dramatic series of improbable consequences which led to his ultimate celebration. By any definition, this was one of the most exciting final tables in poker history, for several reasons:

1. The Age Factor: Joe Cada became the youngest player in the WSOP’s 40-year history to make it to a Main Event final table. That feat alone merits praise. For Cada then, to actually win the championship becomes an entirely different plateau of achievement. It might be difficult for those in their 30s, 40s, and older to appreciate Cada’s consistent composure under pressure over the duration of the tournament, unless perhaps you think back to your own life at the age of 21. What were you doing at that age? Attending college? Partying every night? Working at a minimum-wage job?  Consider that Cada had been playing poker professionally for three years before he made it to the finale, and had already won considerable sums of money competing online. Cada’s grace under fire in this, his first real live tournament finale, was as impressive as that of any player who has ever played in any televised event. His table presence, his strategic decisions, and his verbal comments both at the table and afterwards were those of a true pro, which any more experienced player would envy.

2. Being the Ultimate Underdog: Prior to the start of the final table, not many people gave Cada much of a chance. Poker superstar Phil Ivey received unprecedented global media attention and achieved near idolatry status in the public eye, certainly more than the remaining eight players combined. Broad speculation was Ivey posed the biggest challenge to early chip leader Darvin Moon. Eric Buchman and Steven Begleiter also attracted considerable support. Jeff Shulman deserved serious consideration as a contender as well, as did Kevin Schaffel. Then, there were two outstanding Europeans – James Akenhead and Antoine Saout, both of whom demonstrated their rightful place among the final nine, since both players also made it to the WSOP Europe championship final table held one month earlier. If Cada was not the ultimate underdog by chip count (he actually began play ranked fifth out of nine), he most certainly was the long shot according to public sentiment.

3. A Miraculous and Memorable Comeback: All sports legends must prove their ability to overcome adversity. They must overcome the odds against them. It didn’t ever really matter that Tiger Woods, Joe Montana, or Michael Jordan were behind on the scoreboard. That’s when they were at their best. In a similar fashion, Joe Cada managed to pull off one of the greatest final table comebacks in WSOP history. His feat most certainly rivals Joe Hachem’s return from the dead in the 2005 finale (he was ranked dead last when play was nine handed), and was the most unlikely world champion since Jack Straus’ near-mythical victory in 1982. When play was seven-handed this year, Cada took a tough beat and lost most of his chips. He was down to just a few rounds of blinds and antes. Some members of the press (including yours truly) began writing Cada’s early obituary, as the seventh-place finisher. But somehow, Cada managed to double up again and again over several hours until he was back in contention. Then, Cada won several key hands late in the tournament which sealed his victory.

4. A Great Finish:
Great moments in sports often include fantastic finishes. Consider that Cada started heads-up play with more than a 2 to 1 chip lead over Darvin Moon, who had been the dominant player dating all the way back to Day Five of the Main Event (back in July). Then, Cada lost his advantage and Darvin Moon became the chip leader. At one point, Cada was down by nearly 3 to 1. In fact, he was just one card away from elimination at one point. Incredibly, Cada managed to draw back to even in chips and then gradually retook the lead. He finally defeated his noble adversary in a classic Hold’em race – an underpair versus two overcards. The final outcome of the tournament was never really known to anyone until the final fateful card was dealt at nearly 3 am on the second of two very long days. By any definition, a finish that could have gone either way made for a great victory and a memorable final table.

5. The Tragic Hero: All great dramas include tragic figures. In sports, some losing teams and players actually become more beloved by the public for the way they compete and the courage they display in defeat. Consider the old Brooklyn Dodgers who always played in the shadows of the New York Yankees or the Buffalo Bills who lost four straight Super Bowl games. While Darvin Moon might qualify as a tragic hero to some, the real tragic figure from 2009 was undoubtedly Antoine Saout, from France. Consider that Saout was given almost no chance to win from the start, as one of the smallest stacks. He then quietly battled for 14 hours and eventually took the chip lead when play became three-handed. The heartbreaking moment for Saout came when he had Cada all-in very late on the first day holding pocket queens, which absolutely strangled Cada’s pocket deuces. Cada was all in and drawing slim. But somehow a miracle deuce flopped, giving Cada the huge pot and the chip lead for the first time. Minutes later, Saout lost his remaining chips with A-K to Cada’s 8-8 and was eliminated. One can make a convincing case that had Cada not caught his miracle deuce when play was three-handed, the WSOP might have later crowned its first French poker champion ever. Instead, Saout suffered two beats and had to settle for third place. Later, watching a bitterly disappointed Saout stand before the press and answer question after question in broken English, doing everything in his power to act like a true champion despite the heartrending defeat was as memorable as anything which took place at this year’s WSOP.  

6. Many Amazing Hands: Listing all the key hands of this year’s final table is nearly impossible, given there were so many chip lead changes and incredible moments. But it’s fair to say that this final table had more suckouts and improbable outcomes than the last six years of Main Event final tables combined. Unlike previous years when perhaps one or two players were eliminated by bad beats, just about every player of this year’s November Nine was on both the good and bad end of at least one amazing hand.

7. A Valiant Runner Up: It’s impossible not to like Darvin Moon, who finished in second place. Moon never took the final table very seriously. That’s not to say he didn’t make a determined effort to win or he was not prepared in every way possible. To the contrary. Moon even admitted that after he made some obvious strategic errors on the first day, he would play much better on day two. And he did, seizing the chip lead versus Cada, who is known to be a heads-up specialist. But Moon was determined to enjoy his experience above all else, and share his glory with family and friends. He never willingly stepped into the spotlight and preferred to remain exactly who he was – an outdoorsman, a logger, and a small-stakes recreational poker player from Western Maryland. Moon deserves a lot of credit for playing as well as he did, and for proving his many critics wrong by coming very close to becoming the world champion.

8. Time and the Test of Endurance: The final table clocked in at more than 17 hours, which makes it the second-longest finale in history and the lengthiest final table of any Main Event ever. And that’s exactly the way it should be. A final table with as much human drama and thrilling moments should not end quickly. In addition to skill, achieving victory should also require stamina. After all, great prizefights don’t end after a few rounds. They usually go the distance. And this heavyweight poker battle went more than 15 rounds. The first day lasted 14 hours and ended at nearly 6 am. Then, Joe Cada and Darvin Moon returned the next night and played heads up for more than three hours. This was the longest heads-up match in nine years and was a fitting final chapter to a thrilling Main Event.

9. Big Crowds and Television:
Any lingering suggestion that the November Nine final table delay is not a great idea and in the best interest of the game should be erased this year by a capacity crowd packed inside the Penn and Teller Theatre at the Rio (where the final table was played) and ESPN’s television ratings which were nearly as high as last year’s record figures. The November Nine is here to stay.

10. The Aftermath: When the final table ends, it’s the start of a whole new life for the winner. Eight other competitors pretty much return to their former lives, albeit each more than $1 million richer. But the WSOP Main Event champion takes on an entirely new role, similar to that of a Miss America or Nobel Prize winner. The champion becomes the face of poker to a global audience for an entire year. Fortunately, Joe Cada appears to be the perfect representation of a new champion and the face of a new generation. Within minutes of his victory, Cada was already discussing plans to become more involved in advancing the rights of poker players. In short, we can expect to see a lot more of Cada in the public eye over the next year. And that’s just the way it should be.

It’s hard to imagine that when the nine players at this year’s final table was determined nearly four months ago, some critics were quietly calling this potentially one of the worst final tables in history. Those who prioritize poker’s celebrity component were actually saying that without Ivey present, this final table would have been utterly uninteresting and unwatchable. And to think, what those critics would have missed.

The great lesson here for us all is that poker is not just about the past or the present. It is very much about the future. Each and every year, the WSOP gives poker players all over the world the opportunity to become the new story, to be crowned the new champion, and assume the supreme role of the game’s universal ambassador. While the WSOP has traditions and history which remain unrivaled by any other gaming event, it is how this prestigious poker tour de force will impact those in the future which is now the biggest story.

Indeed, Joe Cada was not the only winner on November 9th. Far more important to the rest of us – the game of poker won. Poker players everywhere have reason to celebrate.