Joe McKeehen Wins 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event Championship

24-year-old poker pro dominates November Nine finale, wins $7.68 million, and earns first WSOP gold bracelet

Josh Beckley finishes as runner up; Neil Blumenfield takes third place

The 46th annual World Series of Poker came to a thrilling conclusion on Tuesday night at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas with a decisive victory by Joseph McKeehen.  He's a 24-year-old professional poker player from the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales, PA.  McKeehen's towering achievement will be remembered as one of the most dominant final table performances in recent memory.

Not since Jamie Gold's magical run nine seemingly long years ago when he crushed the 2006 championship has a player overwhelmed his competitors in such convincing fashion at the later stages of a tourney of this magnitude.  McKeehen's command of the finale was so absolute and unwavering, his performance even drew rave comparisons to the late great three-time champion Stu Ungar, the iconic legend of unequalled stature who won his last victory in 1997.

With the first WSOP victory of his short career, McKeehen won poker’s world championship, an accomplishment which is symbolized by receiving the game’s most coveted prize – the gold and diamond bracelet, designed by Jostens.  McKeehen collected a staggering $7,683,346 in prize money for first place, the biggest payout of any poker event held this year.

McKeehen became only the 40th person ever to win the world poker championship since 1970, the first year the WSOP Main Event Championship was held at Binion’s Horseshoe, in downtown Las Vegas (four players in history have won the championship more than once).  This year’s $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em tournament took place at the Rio, which has hosted the annual poker festival since 2005.  Referred to frequently simply as “the Main Event,” the 68th and final tournament on the 2015 WSOP schedule was not only the richest, but also the most prestigious of any competition.

The Main Event began four months earlier in July, with 6,420 entrants representing 80 different nations.  It took nearly two weeks, hundreds of thousands of poker hands, and a hefty degree of skill combined with occasional luck to play down to the final table of nine players, otherwise known as the “November Nine,” since each member of the select group of finalists are destined to return to Las Vegas following a recess and play out the tournament to its long-awaited conclusion, and ultimately -- a winner and new world champion.

McKeehen arrived at the final table with a huge chip advantage and despite some shyness among the media during the off-time, came to recognize eventually the uniqueness of his situation.  At the start, he had his closest rivals covered by nearly a 3 to 1 margin.  Hence, it came as no surprise that McKeehen turned into the primary focus of attention, proving he would be the player to beat.  Yet, no one seriously threatened him as the dominant stack, nor ever came seriously close to usurping the chip lead away from McKeehen at any point during the final table.  The finale’s duration was played out in just 183 hands, a wickedly short pace that was the shortest of any table since the November Nine (delayed final table) concept was first adopted in 2008.  By contrast, it took 328 hands last year to determine the winner, which was Martin Jacobson, from Sweden.

One significant departure from years past was this November Nine being extended to three days of play, rather than the usual two.  The extra playing day allowed for an added night of nationally televised poker on ESPN, which provided nearly-live broadcast coverage on a 30-minute delay.  Note:  The delay was mandated due to television viewers being able to peak at the players’ hole cards.  Hence, a live telecast would be nearly impossible with a live audience of spectators and the easy availability of social media.

The final hand was dealt out at about 8 pm, just two hours into the third and final day of play.  Just as he’d been up by a 3 to 1 margin when play started, McKeehen came into day three with about the same lead, over his final two obstacles on the way to victory – Neil Blumenfield, who finished third, and Josh Beckley, who finished as the runner up.

Although each of the finalists enjoyed the support of rousing cheering sections, Blumenfield was one of the definite fan favorites by virtue of being the oldest player to make a deep run since Noel Furlong won the title in 1999.  Blumenfield, age 61, came into the final day ranked second in chips, but didn’t catch a break during his hour-long session, which came to seal his fate.  The only amateur player remaining, Blumenfield shoved with pocket deuces on what turned out to be his final hand, which ran into McKeehen’s pocket queens.  The royal overpair held up, moving the chip leader one step closer towards victory.  Meanwhile, Blumenfield was consoled by his wife, family, and dozens of friends, many of them wearing fedoras, which had become the San Francisco-based software designer’s personal trademark.

“Sure, I’m disappointed now, but if you had told me before this all started that I’d be standing here right now and ask me would I take third place – I certainly would have,” Blumenfield said afterward in a short press conference.  “This was as good as it gets for a poker player, and for an amateur like me to come here and be able to compete and make it to this far is a great feeling of accomplishment.”

Blumenfield earned $3,398,298 in prize money.  His elimination meant a whopping $1 million pay jump for Josh Beckley, who would ultimately earn $4,470,896 for coming in second.  But at the time, money was the last thing on Beckley’s mind.
“I came into today with the intention to win.  That’s all I was focusing on,” Beckley said afterward.  “I didn’t think at all about the increase in payout.  I just knew that once Neil (Blumenfield) was out, I had just one opponent to beat.”

McKeenen, of course, had other ideas about the final outcome.  Once heads-up play began, he continuously applied pressure, forcing Beckley into tough decisions to the point where he was forced to play for his entire stack with marginal cards.  Finally, Beckley found pocket fours, re-raised with the small pair, and was all in against McKeehen’s A-10 of suited diamonds.  A ten on the flop was the exclamation point of a final table where the final outcome never seemed to be in question.  The pair of tens held up as the final two cards of the 2015 WSOP were dealt out, and the championship belonged to McKeehen.

Beckley, age 25, from Cape May, NJ was most gracious in defeat.  “I’m close friends with Joe, so it was really great to see him get the win.  It was well deserved, no question, Beckley said.  “Looking back, I’m happy with the way I played.  That’s all you can do.  You just have to play what’s dealt and take it in stride.  I wouldn’t play anything differently.”

Victory assured, loud cheers, plenty of noisemakers, and colored confetti flew into the air as McKeehen’s supporters flooded onto the stage and embraced the new poker champion.  Normally low key, McKeehen flashed a huge smile as he received hugs from both his mother and father and grandparents, who were all in attendance. 

“This is definitely the greatest accomplishment anyone can have in this game,” McKeehen said to a packed makeshift onstage press conference.  “I was always confident I could make money playing the game professionally, but to get this really proves something.”

McKeehen was also quick to recognize that everything had essentially gone his way during the later stages of the tournament, which included a total of ten full playing days for those who survived until the ending.  He failed to lose a single hand of any consequence, highly unusual for a long event which normally requires many tough decisions being made against top competition. 

“It was very smooth.  Just the way the cards came out -- it wasn’t like I had many tough decisions.  It was definitely easier than facing adversity, or having to come back from behind,” he said.  

During the three day finale, the Penn and Teller Theater was bombarded with a constant chorus of chants, “Joe-y ice-cube.”  Those chants grew louder and consistently more frequent as McKeehen’s chip stacks steadily moved higher.  When asked about the origin of that moniker, McKeehen revealed that a few years before playing poker full time, he once had a job working on an ice cream truck.  He used to load up the ice each day, hence the unusual nickname.  Indeed, McKeehen enjoyed this moment to the fullest, a memory which shall remain frozen in time as the final crescendo of the 2015 WSOP.

As for now being the new world poker champion, McKeehen remained calm throughout the final scene, which unfolded in front of a few thousand witnesses as the arena was about to be emptied and taken down in preparation for next year.  Throughout the ordeal of interviews and questions as the WSOP chip leader, McKeehen has yet to spend much, if any of the prize money he’s earned.  When asked what plans he has for the nearly $7.7 million now in his bank account, the mild-manner and soft-spoken champ smiled and shook his head, as though none of that really mattered.

“It still hasn’t hit me just yet, but I suppose sometime it will,” McKeehen said.  “Sharing this with my family and friends – for me, that’s the best part.”