Michigan has become progressively known as the home of poker champions. In 1983, Tom McEvoy, from Grand Rapids, was the first from the state to win the World Series of Poker Main Event. Eleven years later, Russ Hamilton, originally from Detroit, was the next to win poker’s most coveted title. Then, Joe Cada, from suburban Detroit won the 2009 crown. Not to be outdone, Ryan Riess, a Michigan State University graduate from Clarkston, won last year’s Main Event.
Question is, could yet another Michigan native be in line to become poker’s next World Champion?Jason Johnson certainly hopes so. He’s in the upper third of the field with about 60 players still remaining in the 2014 championship. Johnson, a 33-year-old poker pro from Pontiac, has already demonstrated the ability to outlast huge fields. He finished seventh in this year’s Millionaire Maker tournament, which drew 7,977 entrants. He also took third place in a $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em event, which had 1,914 players. If that wasn’t enough to brag about, Johnson also cashed in the inaugural Monster Stack tournament, which attracted 7,862 entries.The fact that this year’s Main Event drew 6,683 and Johnson is very much in contention on Day 6 means that among the tens of thousands of poker players who participated in any of the 65 gold bracelet events, Johnson has very likely outlasted the largest number of opponents overall. Moreover, Johnson isn’t finished yet. He’s hoping to go much deeper, including taking a seat in what will become the 2014 version of the November Nine.“It’s way too early to think about that right now,” Johnson said during a break in the tournament. “When you start looking that far ahead, you lose sight on what’s just ahead of you and I’m not going to let that happen.”Johnson’s chances are increased by having friends in high places. Consider his friendship with Ryan Riess, the defending champion. Remarkably, Johnson was the more experienced player when the two first met, which happened at a poker game, where Riess was dealing.“Ryan used to deal cards to me when I started playing more live cash games right after Black Friday,” Johnson said. “We became friends and started hanging out together. Then, he came out here last year and shipped the Main Event. I was like, 'wow, I know that guy. If he can ship the Main Event, I know I can do it [laughs].”Johnson watched last year’s November Nine at his home in Michigan, and cheered his victory.“I bet $100 on him at 5 to 1,” Johnson said. “So, I collected $500.”The Main Event is the seventh event Johnson has entered at this year’s WSOP. He’s now guaranteed to cash for what will be a fourth time, worth a combined total of at least half a million dollars. “It’s not so much about the money,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s more about the competition.”During his winning run last fall, Riess represented his hometown at the final table by wearing a Detroit Lions jersey. The reigning champion is expected to show up on the rail this evening and cheer for Johnson. When asked if Johnson plans to wear something special to honor his hometown or native state, Johnson wasn’t quite ready to commit to anything, just yet.“We’ll see what happens,” he said, while furrowing through his longish red beard. “I do promise I’m going to shave, though.”