After more than three months of anticipation, the final nine players standing in the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event are finally ready to jump back into the action and play for poker’s greatest prize - $8 million and the coveted WSOP Main Event bracelet.
When the bright lights of the Penn & Teller Theater come on and the ESPN cameras go live, three of those players will also be fortunate enough to represent 888 poker - including chip leader Joe McKeehen. He’ll be joined by Thomas Cannuli and Neil Blumenfield, and all three will sport the blue 888 patch for the live broadcast - each hoping to wear it from Sunday, November 8 through the conclusion on November 10.
This weekend’s action is the culmination of a journey that started the first week of July and led to a place where all nine hoped to be but could hardly outright expect to be, considering just .1 percent of the 6,420 players who started are still in the running for the title.
The dream becomes reality
“From July, at first it took a little bit of time just for it to settle in that it was real,” said Blumenfield of his first few weeks after clinching a spot in the November Nine. “It was almost kind of like being in a dreamland. It took, probably, a good week, maybe more, before I stopped thinking that I was going to wake up from the dream and realize that I really had been knocked out on Day 2 when I ran into aces.”
Blumenfield’s first instinct was to follow plans he made before he started his Main Event run, and it ended up being a nice break after an intense couple of weeks of high-stakes poker.
“Right after the Main [ended], I went to France with my girlfriend Pascal for three weeks of vacation,” said Blumenfield, “So really, I did some reading, but basically no poker for a few weeks.”
Blumenfield didn’t sit idle for very long, though, and both he and McKeehen were fairly active in their layoff, in fact. Each of them cashed three times and found significant success; Blumenfield final tabled an HPT event in Reno, while McKeehen won a $1,500 event during the Wynn Classic in October.
Both players seem to be comfortable and as prepared as they could hope to be for the spectacle ahead, but the light’s been shining particularly brightly on McKeehen. That’s thanks in large part to his holding a significant chip advantage, but part of that can also be attributed to his elimination of Daniel Negreanu just two spots away from the November Nine.
Negreanu, one of the most popular poker players in the world, had a lot of people cheering him on at that point in the tournament, and it would have been easy for McKeehen to be painted as something of a villain in that respect - though that wasn’t the case once the footage was aired recently on ESPN.
“I think I am generating the most interest because of my position. So the experiences have been different,” said McKeehen. “I didn't care how I was portrayed - I knew I was going to come off reasonably well, that's all that matters.”
Fortune favors the brave!
Even though some would feel some serious pressure on their shoulders as the chip leader and the most experienced player at the table (with the possible exception of Max Steinberg, the only one of the final nine who has a WSOP bracelet), McKeehen is set upon doing things the exact same way he did to make the November Nine
“I don't care what people think,” said McKeehen. “I'm playing my game, and I've never been short of confidence.”
Though Blumenfield doesn’t have the same kind of experience as McKeehen, Steinberg or most of the other players at this final table, he doesn’t seem daunted in the least by the circumstances that he’s facing.
While he’s likely the biggest amateur of the final nine, seemingly unfortunate circumstances that happened just before the Main Event began have actually worked in Blumenfield’s favor in the lead-up to the final table.
“I was laid off from my job two weeks before the Main Event, so I don't have that stress anymore,” said Blumenfield. “It has allowed me to spend a lot more time than I probably otherwise would have been able to, just working on poker.”
Things have been fairly normal for the members of the November Nine, though their appearances on national television has made each of them popular targets on social media.
“I've got a lot of requests for Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections from people I either didn't know, or haven't heard from in forever,” said Blumenfield. He saw quite a few familiar faces on the tournament circuit, but even there he enjoyed a quieter experience than he expected. I was playing in the HPT Tournament in Reno, and people knew me because I play in Reno a lot, but in Florida, I was kind of surprised - I was pretty much anonymous. I thought people would know who I am, but mostly they didn't.”
Blumenfield did get to enjoy an unusual moment during a trip out for some food, running into an all-too-familiar face on the screen.
“It is kind of amusing to see yourself on television,” said Blumenfield. “I was in a pizza joint a couple weeks ago. I just got a piece of pizza, sat down at a table, looked up at the TV and, oh cool, there’s poker. 10 seconds later my mug comes up on the screen. That was a little unusual.”
That wasn’t the only time Blumenfield caught the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN, though - he made sure he was well-prepared for the task at hand.
“Yeah, I watched all the coverage,” said Blumenfield. “I have also gone through all the hand histories, just to do a little bit of research on all the players. I think I am pretty up to speed with everything that happened in July that is available to know.”
McKeehen similarly familiarized himself with everything that was broadcast and made available to the public, and gleaned some information that he didn’t quite expect to find.
“I've seen it all,” said McKeehen. “Some of the folds people made, especially when I was in the pot, were surprising.”
It’s a Small-World Series of Poker!
The members of the 2015 November Nine are forever bonded in this singular experience, just as every such group has been since the advent of the concept in 2008. As fate would have it, several of the players in this particular November Nine knew each other from their time playing on the East Coast and various other venues in their careers.
“A lot of us were friends before the Main and we will stay friends after the Main,” said McKeehen. He also had the opportunity to consult with another member of the distinguished fraternity of November Niners. “I played with Dennis Phillips in that Wynn tournament, and we talked about what it was like seven years ago.”
Blumenfield ran into a few of his fellow final table members during a trip to Hollywood, Florida in August.
“At the Seminole Hard Rock, Joe McKeehen and Patrick Chan were both there,” said Blumenfield. “I spent a little bit of time with them. I know Josh played there earlier, but I don't know if he played the Main Event there.”
While we haven’t been privy to the content of the chats among the final nine players, Blumenfield has talked plenty with other friends within the world of poker and realizes just how incredible this opportunity is.
“I have certainly had that discussion with other poker players, you know, who all realize how incredibly unique the experience is and how fortunate I am to be there,” said Blumenfield. “I have had the same conversations with friends and family who understand a little bit but maybe not quite as well as my poker friends understand.”
“For me, especially, it is incredibly fortunate because I pretty much was a recreational player,” continued Blumenfield, “And certainly not in the top nine players in the tournament. Even for a great player, it takes incredible things to get there so I feel very very fortunate to be where I am.”
With the final table of the 2015 WSOP Main Event easily countable in hours instead of days or weeks at this point, the time for final preparation is upon all nine remaining players. Almost all of them have arrived in Las Vegas at this point, but actually playing poker doesn’t seem like much of a priority to either McKeehen or Blumenfield at this point.
“None,” said McKeehen of his plans for how many hands he’ll play before Sunday. “I've been here [in Las Vegas] a while, but I haven't played since that Wynn win.”
Blumenfield didn’t have much to adjust to as far as time changes, but he’s intent on getting his schedule synched up with what he’ll have to deal with for as long as he’s still alive in the Main Event.
“In terms of time zone, yeah I am in the same time zone so that is good,” said Blumenfield. “The tournament starts at 5:00 pm, not noon or 11:00 am or whenever the tournaments typically start. I do want to adjust my sleeping schedule a little bit which will be much easier to do there then it is [in Los Angeles] just because I am here with my girlfriend and she gets up early, and [while] I would like to sleep till noon it is not happening.”
Even though he’s settling into his Las Vegas accommodations, the draw of spending any time at the poker table is virtually non-existent for Blumenfield too.
“I swore off cash games for three months in July - I am certainly not going to play cash games now,” said Blumenfield. “I think I am in a pretty good spot with my game now, so even smaller tournaments are probably non-beneficial and possibly detrimental. I have been working hard through the end of last week and I will do a little bit of work in the next couple days, but not much. It’s really just coasting in and feeling really good about where I am right now.”
Once the final preparations are made, it’ll be time for the action at the table. Unlike any other tournament over the course of a given year, the Main Event brings together a tremendous crowd. It’s a mix of the friends and families of the final nine and poker fans from around the world, but for McKeehen this opportunity is all about getting down to business.
“Might be the smallest of them all,” said McKeehen of his rail. “People on the rail will be working for me with iPads and laptops in hand, watching the coverage and telling me things I might not be seeing.”
As for altering his strategy to adjust for the unique format, which will spread the final table action across three days, McKeehen insists that little to nothing will change once the cards go into the air.
“I’ve never been a part of this before,” said McKeehen. “I don't have an approach to begin with - I just play.”