A betting preview of the WSOP Main Event final table
By Gary Trask
Explaining what I do for a living can be confusing sometimes, especially when the person asking the questions is a bit uneducated about the world of poker.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there who have no idea just how much the poker industry has grown over the last decade. They're stunned when you tell them millions and millions of people play poker online every day for millions and millions of dollars. They don't understand how any one would sit down and actually watch poker on TV. And when you tell them you're heading to Las Vegas to cover the World Series of Poker, the immediate response is typically, "Cover a poker tournament? How do you do that?"
Once again, for someone who isn't following or doesn't care about the poker industry, this is not only a legitimate question, but one that's also difficult to answer. Covering a poker tournament is unlike anything else. You spend hours upon hours – usually into the early morning – watching a group of people sit around a poker table playing cards. And when the stage gets as big as it will next week when the WSOP Main Event final table gets underway at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio in Las Vegas, it's difficult for the press to get a great vantage point of the action, unless, of course, we stare at the jumbo TV screen hanging from the rafters.
This may sound very boring. And to be frank sometimes it is. But I have found that the best way to liven things up is to give yourself a rooting interest. And by rooting interest, I mean wagering on the outcome. That's right: betting on poker.
Believe it or not, I have had some success with poker proposition bets. Last year, before the final table, I correctly picked Peter Eastgate to win the Main Event as a 5-to-1 shot. I also hit a couple of other prop bets that weekend, which led me to push my luck with this year's WSOP. In my 2009 WSOP preview, I picked up a profit of $1,085, thanks mostly to a selection of 19-to-1 shot Tom McEvoy to win the Champions Invitational.
Before the Main Event began in July, I played with danger and tried to win some more cash with five more prop bets. I didn't do as well with those bets, but my biggest wager (risking $500 to win $250 that a woman would not place in the Top 25) helped me escape without losing any money.
So here we go again. The WSOP Main Event final table is about to begin and as usual Bodog has posted some intriguing prop bets. Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, instead of taking the thousand bucks and running, I'm going to let it all ride once again. Go ahead, call me a degenerate if you like, but let's face it: I need something to keep me interested as I spend 15 to 20 hours of my life watching poker next weekend.
Now, on to the picks:
1. Which player will last longer at the Main Event?
Phil Ivey: +250
Darvin Moon: -275
Whenever I place a bet on anything, I like to find wagers that provide a lot "value." With that said, this may be the MVP of "value bets." Yeah, I know. Phil Ivey is the best player in the world. How could I not? I've read about it, I've heard about it and just in case I missed it, ESPN told me about it at least 10,000 times during the last few months as I watched their coverage of the WSOP.
I get it. Ivey is – hands down – the best poker player on the planet. And on an even playing field, Ivey would probably beat Darvin Moon – an amateur player from Maryland whose day job is as a logger – about 90% of the time. But take a look at the chip counts. This is not an even playing field. It's not even close. Moon comes in as the chip leader with 58,930,000, which accounts for an astounding 30% of the chips in play at the table. "The World's Best Poker Player" will have 9,765,000 in front of him when play gets underway Saturday at 12 p.m. Vegas time. With that kind of head start, how can Moon be less than a 3-to-1 favorite to outlast Ivey?
Math has never been my strong suit (maybe that's why I'm a poker writer, not a poker player), but as far as I can tell, Moon could stay in Baltimore with his New Orleans Saints hat on his head and a chainsaw in his hands until late Saturday night/early Sunday morning and still probably finish in the top four. He has said repeatedly during the break that if the other players want his chips, they're going to have to earn them because he's not going to give them away, which means he's not going to take many chances on Saturday unless he gets a hand he can't resist playing.
As great as Ivey is, he has some work to do beginning with the very first hand on Saturday. Yeah I know, "if anyone can do it, Phil can!" That's another popular line that's become cliché over the last few months, even though it's probably true.
As I mentioned above, when it comes to gambling, I am the ultimate bargain hunter. This is one of those bargains, so I'm going to make my biggest wager on the final table and risk half my profit from this summer right here and now.
Play Moon to outlast Ivey – Risk $550 to win $200
2. Which player will last longer at the Main Event?
Steven Begleiter: -140
Jeff Shulman: even
Let's stay with another "last longer" wager that I feel the line is a bit off the mark. Unlike the Moon-Ivey offering, this wager has been based solely on chip count and not on past experience or skill level.
In Steve Begleiter we have a terrific story. This is one of the guys at the table that really isn't playing for the cash. He made his money away from the table as a strategist for Bears Stearns and he's currently with another private equity firm. He plays in a 22-man poker league back in Chappaqua, New York where the winner of the league each year gets the $10,000 to buy into the Main Event, with the understanding that everyone else gets 20% of his winnings. So, needless to say, there will be 21 other guys from Chappaqua rooting hard for Begleiter this weekend. It's a great story.
But Begleiter would be the first to admit that he doesn't have a ton of experience playing in tournament poker. Sure, his ninth-place finish at The Legends tournament in Los Angeles was impressive a few months ago, but I have heard Begleiter admit that he doesn't get a ton of chances to play a lot of poker five or four-handed, never mind three-handed or heads up. Even more bad news for Begleiter is that he has two of the most experienced players remaining in the tournament (Eric Buchman and Joe Cada) sitting to his left.
Now let's take a look at Jeff Shulman's resume. He's basically grown up in the industry. He's the publisher of Card Player Magazine and the creator of SpadeClub.com along with his father Barry, who by the way is an accomplished player himself that just so happened to win year's WSOP Europe.
This is Shulman's second Main Event final table (he placed seventh in 2000, the year Chris "Jesus" Ferguson won it) and this marks his 14th WSOP cash. Nothing against the aforementioned poker league back in Chappaqua, but Shulman has more poker experience on a big stage than those guys combined.
I realize Begleiter has 10.3 million more chips than Shulman. I also realize that with Moon to his left, Shulman doesn't exactly have the best seat in the house. But even with all of that considered, Shulman is the more talented and experienced player. His tight style of play should help him stick around, while I think at some point Begleiter's inexperience will cost him dearly.
Play Shulman to outlast Begleiter – Risk $250 to win $250
3. Which position will Phil Ivey finish in the 2009 Main Event?
Win -- 4/1
2nd-3rd -- 23/10
4th-5th -- 7/4
6th-7th -- 3/2
8th-9th -- 3/1
You already know how I feel about this whole Phil Ivey story. I have to agree that he's the best player at the table (do I have a choice?), but I also feel he is being way overvalued in the betting market. Ivey comes into the final table with the seventh biggest chip stack. He's obviously more than capable of improving that position, but I don't think he'll be able to pull off what many people think he will and actually win the Main Event. My feeling is that the table is full of too many talented players to allow that to happen.
So where will he finish? Well, I like the fact that I can nearly double my money if I bet that he'll move up a little, but not all the way to the top.
Play Ivey to finish 4th-5th – Risk $100 to win $175
4. Which player will be the first eliminated from the 2009 WSOP Main Event?
Darvin Moon -- 33/1
James Akenhead -- 2/1
Phil Ivey -- 9/2
Kevin Schaffel -- 4/1
Steven Begleiter -- 10/1
Eric Buchman -- 10/1
Joe Cada -- 4/1
Antoine Saout -- 23/10
Jeff Shulman -- 10/1
Last year at the final table we saw Kelly Kim, the shortest stack of the short stacks, survive long enough to avoid coming in ninth place by carefully picking his spots. He went all-in on two occasions when there were still nine players at the table and he survived both showdowns before Craig Marquis suffered a brutal bad beat on a runner-runner straight and became the first victim at the table. Kim ended up going out in eighth place and picked up and extra $387,547 in the process.
This year's pay structure is much different. Last year the difference between 9th place and 6th place was around $1.5 million. So it was completely understandable for the players to be cautious at the start last year, and that's exactly what they were. In fact, we didn't even see a flop last year until the 13th hand of the night and Marquis wasn't eliminated until the 52nd hand of the evening.
This year the difference between 9th place and 6th place is only a little more than $300,000. That could lead to some more players taking chances sooner. Either way, I don't see how either of the shortest stacks – Saout (9.5 million chips) or Akenhead (6.8 million) – will be able to avoid being the first eliminated. Yes, they are both great players – as seen by the fact that they both made the final table in Europe this fall, an incredible accomplishment. But on Saturday they will both be in tough positions with Saout sitting in between the experienced Cada and Shulman and Akenhead sandwiched in between Ivey and the chipleader, Moon.
As far as deciding which player I think will get bounced first, I'm going to go with Saout over Akenhead. Saout is another great story. As my colleague Vin Narayanan pointed out in a column about the November Nine, the 25-year-old Frenchman could become the European version of Chris Moneymaker since he won his seat in the Main Event by playing in a $50 online satellite. But I have heard more than a few poker insiders say that Akenhead could be one of the more talented players at the table and if he wasn't so shortly stacked he'd be a threat to win it. The Brit proved that he knows how to play short-stacked when he went from one of the small stacks in the Amazon Room at the start of Day 7 of this year's Main Event and then made it all the way to the November Nine. I think he'll be savvy enough to overcome his tough position and outlast Saout, who I'm predicting will be the first player to go home.
Play Saout to be the first eliminated – Risk $100 to win $230
5. Which player will win the 2009 WSOP Main Event?
Darvin Moon -- 17/10
James Akenhead -- 22/1
Phil Ivey – 4/1
Kevin Schaffel -- 12/1
Steven Begleiter -- 4/1
Eric Buchman -- 3/1
Joe Cada -- 10/1
Antoine Saout -- 12/1
Jeff Shulman -- 4/1
Just like when handicapping a horse race, I think the best way to approach picking the winner of the Main Event is by process of elimination. I've already said that I think Saout and Akenhead will fall first, simply because they are the two shortest stacks. I'm taking Begleiter out of the mix because of his lack of experience and even if I did think Ivey was going to win, I would have difficult time putting money on it because the return (4-to-1) is so short for a guy who has the third-shortest stack from the get-go. It's the equivalent of betting on Tiger Woods to win the Masters at even money – the risk/reward is not in your favor.
By eliminating those four players, I am down to five to choose from. I see Kevin Schaffel -- who I interviewed last week -- as the wildcard here. I really have no idea what to make of him. He's got plenty of experience and he's running hot. He's got the kind of carefree attitude that could help him sneak into the final three. But at the same time I wouldn't be surprised to see him go card-dead and then be one of the first eliminated. With that said, I'm going to remove him from the discussion for winning the tournament and that leaves me with my final four – Moon, Shulman, Buchman and Cada.
I see Shulman making the final four, but because of his tough position at the table I think he'll be the shortest stack left and end up placing fourth. As for Moon, I mentioned above that he could fold his way into fourth place and while I don't think he'll have to do that, he'll be cautious enough to make sure he at the very least makes the Top 3. But that's when his tournament inexperience will really start to catch up to him. Poker becomes a different game when it's short-handed and if he's up against Buchman and Cada – as I predict – he'll be severely short-stacked in the experience category. I think his big stack will diminish and the big guy will go back to the East Coast with the third-place money of $3.4 million in his pocket.
That leaves us with Cada and Buchman. I understand I'm taking a major long shot with Cada, but I love his attitude, experience and, most importantly, his position at the table. So does he, as he told me last week. In the early going he'll be able to avoid both Ivey and Moon. And he'll have Buchman – the second-biggest stack – to his right.
Another thing I like about Cada is that he has a lot of Peter Eastgate in him. He's young. He's got a ton of experience, thanks to years of playing online. And he's a great heads-up player. My feeling – like last year when I picked Eastgate – is that if you can bet a long shot that is going to get more and more dangerous the longer he survives, it's a wager worth making. Oh, and by the way, if he does win he'll break Eastgate's record as the youngest winner of the Main Event at 21 years old.
Yes, I realize Cada comes into the final table a staggering 45.7 million chips off the leader (Eastgate, by the way, was just 8 million behind chip leader Dennis Phillips last year), but if Cada - who cashed in two other events at this summer at his first WSOP -- can double up a few times early on Saturday and make it to the four or five-handed stage of things he can win this thing.
And if he faces Buchman heads up, he'll have an advantage. Buchman has a ton of WSOP experience. This is his ninth cash at the WSOP and his third final table. But he has said in the past that he's not totally comfortable with his heads up game. You have to wonder if maybe that's why he has failed to close to deal in his previous final tables. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Cada, who relishes heads up play. Even if he's on the short end of the chip stack heading into Monday night, I would pick Cada over almost anyone else if he makes it to the heads up portion of the event.
So I'll make a move on Cada at 10-to-1 to shock the world and win the Main Event. I'll also hedge myself a little bit and put a small amount on both Buchman and Moon to win as well.
Play Cada to win the Main Event – Risk $100 to win $1,000
Play Buchman to win the Main Event – Risk $50 to win $150
Play Moon to win the Main Event – Risk $50 to win $85