Wednesday, July 15, 2015

WSOP “Play Down” Day: The Might-Have-Beens Begin

Well, that was exciting.

Everyone’s still reeling from Daniel Negreanu’s suspense-filled near-miss of the World Series of Poker Main Event final table, incredibly matching his best-ever finish from 2001 after getting knocked out in 11th.

The “Twitter rail” was tremendous last night, with Negreanu’s agent, Brian Balsbaugh, tweeting every hand Negreanu played and even every street at times, right up through the fateful knockout hand when Joe McKeehen spiked a needed card on the river. See the sequence at left, which I’ve turned upside down from earliest to latest to recreate the tension (click pic to embiggen).

After winning the first couple of hands yesterday to boost his stack well above average, Negreanu slipped back soon thereafter and was more or less just outside of or squarely within the danger zone most of the night as they played down from 27 to 11. Just before dinner he survived an all-in versus chip leader McKeehen that produced a lot of drama, but later on couldn’t fade his opponent’s many outs... and he was out.

There’s a lot worth discussing regarding what happened last night as well as what’s to come in November. I like McKeehen, whom I mentioned on Monday I first encountered when covering his victory in the WSOP Circuit Main Event at Caesars Atlantic City in early 2013.

From that tournament I recall he also experienced some run good near the end of the penultimate day, picking up pocket aces a couple of times to earn knockouts and carry a big lead to the final day. I remember him clearly being a solid tournament player, seemingly comfortable in every situation and especially well-suited to play with the lead (I don’t recall him being challenged much at all at that final table).

I also recall McKeehen being very social at the table and even supportive of others, including some obvious amateurs who made it relatively deep in the event. I’m not talking about Negreanu-level good will -- no one has that -- but enough for me to have banked it as one of my impressions of the guy at the time, and to make it nice to have seen him win the sucker. With more than twice the chips of his nearest challenger (the Israeli, Zvi Stern) heading into the final table, McKeehen is certainly a big favorite, and again I wouldn’t mind seeing him get there at the end.

Pierre Neuville (in fourth position) making it to the final table is another very cool story. The amiable Belgian is 72 years old -- the oldest November Niner ever -- and last night I enjoyed chatting with my Dad who also happens to be 72. Here’s hoping the hashtag “#NeuvemberNine” picks up again as the final table nears.

Meanwhile the 61-year-old Neil Blumfield (in third) also significantly skews the average age of this year’s ME final table. Max Steinberg (in fifth) is the only bracelet-winner of the bunch, and is a fun, talented player to watch. The others -- Thomas Cannuli (sixth), Joshua Beckley (seventh), Patrick Chan (eighth), and Federico Butteroni (ninth) -- we’ll get to know eventually, too.

My thoughts this morning, though, were mostly taken up with two takeaways from last night. One was the lamentable lack of any live stream for what was easily the most exciting night of the summer at the Rio. If you were on Twitter, you saw the frequent references by many to the fact that because of the ESPN contractual obligations our game’s “Super Bowl” must be necessarily experienced piecemeal when it is happening live -- via updates and other “coverage” such as Balsbaugh and others were providing -- and then only in an edited, spaced-out form months later.

It’s bad, and like others I wish it weren’t so. But clearly there was nothing the WSOP could do about that last night. The other focus of my thoughts, though, concerns something the WSOP did have control over.

After George McDonald got his queens cracked by Stern’s 10-8-suited to go out in 12th, they were six-handed at the outer table and five-handed at the feature. At the latter were seated McKeehen and four short stacks, Negreanu among them. A huge pay jump had arrived as well, as the next player out in 11th would earn $526,778 while the 10th-place finisher was due $756,897 -- a more than $230K jump which oddly was greater than the jumps from 9th to 8th, 8th to 7th, and 7th to 6th.

From that point forward, reading the updates on makes it glaringly apparent the pace of play at the feature table was much, much faster than on the outer table, with several hands being reported for the former in each post versus just a couple per post in reports from the latter.

With one less player and with players generally acting more quickly, the main feature table was blitzing along while the outer table inched slowly from hand to hand. If I’m counting correctly, by the time they reached the next break they had played 48 hands on the feature table and just 26 on the outer table.

After about an hour-and-a-half of this, with the start of a new level tournament officials finally decided to have the tournament played hand-for-hand. This was something I’d anticipated they’d do as soon as they’d gotten to 11 players, as I mentioned at the end of a PokerNews article yesterday titled “From 27 to 9: How Might the New Payouts Affect Play on Day 7 of the WSOP Main Event?

In that article I talk about how the pace of play differed between the last few tables on “play down” day at the WSOP ME over the last couple of years. With such a huge pay difference, it seemed to me a trivial decision to go to hand-for-hand at 11 this year, but somehow they didn’t.

For a decent part of that sequence, McKeehen was the overwhelming chip leader and the other four players at his table were 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th in the counts. McKeehen hammered away at them throughout, and they had to play nearly twice the hands as those at the feature table did during the same 90 minutes. A quick skim through those 48 hands shows McKeehen predictably involved in the great majority of them, and winning 26.

It only took four more hands before Negreanu’s bust at the start of the new level. The fact that they did at last go hand-for-hand shows they could have done it earlier. And they should have, because not doing so introduced unfairness into what was the most crucial period of the tournament up to that point.

Those are the thoughts I’m mulling over this morning. I suppose I’ll eventually get around to thinking about what might have been had Negreanu made it. But for now I’m distracted by this other “might have been” having to do with the decision not to go hand-for-hand immediately after McDonald’s knockout.

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