Poker pros and media make their WSOP Main Event final table predictions
27 Oct 2016
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
That is the resounding opinion of Casino City's annual November Nine Poll of poker professionals and media members who were kind enough to offer their picks and analysis for the WSOP Main Event final table, which gets underway beginning Sunday night at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Of the 22 "experts" on our panel, 12 chose "JohnnyBax" to prevail, with Gordon Vayo getting four votes and Griffin Benger receiving three. Kenny Hallaert, Michael Ruane and Vojtech Ruzika received the support of one brave panelist each.
Good news for Josephy: Although only two chip leaders from the November Nine Era have prevailed at the WSOP Main Event final table, one of them was 2015 champ Joe McKeehen, who attracted similar overwhelming support from last year's group of prognosticators.
Below, please find the reasoning behind this year's picks, as well as some unprompted thoughts about the polarizing Will Kassouf's antics at the table before being eliminated in epic fashion during ESPN's coverage on Sunday night.
See you at the Rio!
Mike Sexton – Poker Hall of Famer, WPT commentator and author of the new book, Life's a Gamble
I've got to go with Cliff Josephy. He's the chip leader, he's the most experienced player, he's an online legend, and most importantly he's got position on Qui Nguyen, the guy with the second biggest stack who really loves to gamble.
But the real reason I know Cliff's going to win is that for the last six years I've found a taker to give me 10-to-1 odds for $10k that someone over the age of 40 would win the Main Event. Well, this year, nobody would take my action and, sure enough, we've got an old guy as the chip leader. Just my luck.
I would have to pick Vayo as the player with the second-best chance. He cashed eight times at this year's WSOP, so that tells you how good he's been running. But I think the guy all the casinos will be cheering for is Nguyen. I hear he loves to play baccarat more than poker, so all the joints will be rooting hard for that guy to have some cash in his pocket.
Kara Scott – 888 Poker pro and sideline reporter for ESPN's WSOP coverage
As always, it's so hard to pick the winner of the WSOP and this year is harder than usual. There are some amazing players at the table. I've got to go with Cliff Josephy, as he's both the chip leader AND a really talented player with the experience — both in life and in poker — and will not let the weight of the moment rattle him. For second place, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it'll be Griffin Benger. If he can manage to find some good spots to plump up his chip stack, he'll be dangerous at this final table.
Thomas McEvoy – 1984 WSOP Main Event Champion, four-time WSOP bracelet winner and member of the Poker Hall of Fame
I have to pick Cliff Josephy to win it. He not only has the chip lead, but is a high-stakes player and is used to pressure. He also has the most experience and the best all-around game; a tough combination to beat. If he loses it will not be because he made a big mistake, but because someone else got very lucky against him. For second place, I have to go with Qui Nguyen. He is smart and aggressive and is a solid second in the chip count. The next spots are up for grabs and anybody could move up in the standings.
Greg Raymer aka "Fossilman" – 2004 WSOP Main Event Champion
I don't know much about anybody but Cliff. But I know he's a smart, experienced, and a creative player, plus he has the chip lead. So I don't see any reason to predict anybody else as the winner. If we are talking odds, he might not be the best bet, as his price might be too low. But if we're just picking a winner, I don't see how we can pick anybody else as the favorite.
Max Steinberg – 2015 WSOP November Niner (finished fifth) and WSOP bracelet winner
If I had to pick someone, it would be the chip leader Cliff Josephy. He has a great seat and will definitely be well prepared. He's a very confident person and I think that's very important for the chip leader of the Main Event; there's an unbelievable amount of pressure there. That being said, anything can happen and I don't think anyone is really a big favorite at this final table. I would say Gordon Vayo will place second. Being to the left of Josephy and Nguyen is going to make his life easy, he can avoid the chip leaders and wait until someone makes a mistake. He seems like a skilled player.
Last year, the final table played extremely tight and conservative, but I think that had a lot to do with the inexperience of the final table as a whole. Players were very scared of making a big mistake. I don't think that will be true this year. There are many very experienced players at this table and I think there will actually be some fireworks early on. I could imagine guys like Vayo and Hallaert attacking Josephy and Nguyen from the start. And on a side note, I think the play will be much faster this year and the players will be a bit more talkative. It should be a better viewing experience as a whole. I'm very excited!
Neil Blumenfield – 2015 WSOP November Niner (finished third)
I think this is a very interesting, and very strong final table with six players with around $1 million or more in career live earnings. Compared to last year, when the general perception was that (eventual champ) Joe (McKeehen) and Max (Steinberg) were seen as significantly stronger tournament players than the other seven, this year, the strength is much more spread out.
Interesting that both last year and this year, play on Sunday will begin in level 35, but the change in structure makes the opening blinds 250-500K rather than 200-400K. And, of course, there are a lot more chips on the table this year with the bigger starting stack. That, combined with no big chip leader, suggests a much longer, more difficult road to a victory, and a lot harder to predict than last year.
Fernando is the only real short stack. Jerry (Wong), with 20 big blinds, is strong enough to make a move with just one break in the first few hours. I know these guys have all been working hard on their game and on the dynamics of this final table, so I think we will see some great poker. Also note that the payout structure, like last year, is very flat at the bottom, so there is no point in hanging around to finish 6th or 7th. So, it’s pretty likely that we see some early action and lose 1-2 or see the shortest stacks double in the first hour-plus.
As for predictions. Again, this is a really tough one to call because there are a lot of deep stacks in the hands of guys who have the skills to win, but I see it going like this:
1. Jerry doubles early and gets into contention.
2. Gordon and Cliff continue to play great poker and stay in contention to the final day, with Cliff, Gordon and Jerry making the last 3.
3. In a long heads-up battle, Gordon wins over Cliff.
I'm looking forward to this. Disappointed that Tom Marchese didn’t make it. He is such a great player and great guy, who I was privileged to work with and call a friend. And I think most of us are relieved that (Will) Kassouf will not be there this weekend to slow play and suck the air out of the event. This is likely to be a great and memorable final table.
Melanie Weisner – Finished 127th at this year's WSOP Main Event, her 24th career WSOP cash
I think the most likely person to win is Cliff Josephy. He is extremely experienced and has a big chip lead, which is of course a huge advantage at a final table when there are multiple talented players left in the field. Second could be anyone's game as ICM considerations will likely leave a huge disparity between first and the rest of the pack. I'd personally like to see Kenny (Hallaert) or Griffin (Benger) take second — or first! — as they are two of my friends.
I think it's a final table with a very high average caliber of player, more so than most WSOP final tables have seen. Because of this, I think it's going to make for a very high-level game and for me personally that will be extremely interesting to watch.
Sarah Herring – PokerNews presenter and producer
Vojtech Ruzika to win. Not a popular opinion because his chip stack is middle of the road. Very experienced tournament pro. Doesn't make a lot of mistakes. They are deep enough that the chip ladder will fluctuate a lot. Runner-up will be Cliff Josephy. He also doesn't make a lot of mistakes and plays a lot of small pots so he will likely not spew his massive stack.
The most aggressive player will be Griffin Benger. He is always going to push to be table captain and since many of the players see him as some hero he will be able to very subconsciously take advantage of that. Fernando Pons is obviously one of the least experienced players at the table and the pressure may ultimately allow him to make a "spew-y" decisions, and he doesn't have the chips to battle those kind of mistakes.
Lance Bradley – President and Editor-in-Chief at PocketFives.com
It's hard not to go with Cliff Josephy here. He's the big stack and the gap in poker experience between himself the player second in chips, Qui Nguyen, is pretty massive. That being said, I think Gordon Vayo has done all the right things during the break to help him navigate through this group of players. He was already a talented, respected player before he made the November Nine and is calm and cool enough to win. Outside of some ridiculous cooler, I can't see Josephy making the mistakes we've seen big stacks make in past November Nines and end up with a cringe-worthy finish. I really believe he's coming out of this with either the win or runner-up; nothing else makes sense to me.
Qui Nguyen might be the biggest wild card in November Nine history. The day after the final table was determined and all of the players spent time doing interviews with media, Nguyen seemed to want to talk mostly about how much he loved to gamble and that baccarat was his favorite game. I think the stage he's on might be just a little bit too big for him and if any one player is going to feel the pressure, it's him. Combine that with what most would politely describe as his loose-aggressive style, and I think we could see him suffer a meltdown for the ages.
Kevin "KevMath" Mathers – Community manager at PocketFives.com and WSOP "Social Media Czar"
I predict the WSOP Main Event winner is Cliff Josephy. Already a two-time bracelet winner, Josephy has plenty of live final table experience. He's also had the live November Nine experience when he railed Joe Cada to his 2009 WSOP Main Event win. Predicting 2nd place is a bit tougher, but I'm going with Gordon Vayo, one of many players with extensive live and online experience. Vayo also may the player most in form, with a win at The River Series Main Event at WinStar World Casino and Resort in September.
My prediction on the November Nine finish:
Adam Small – Partner at PocketFives.com
In addition to being one of the world's most talented poker players, Cliff Josephy has the chip lead and the most relevant experience. "Bax" has two WSOP bracelets already; none of the other players have any. He was also held the No. 1 ranking on PocketFives.com for more than a year at one point and has more than $4 million in online cashes. For second place, I'll go with Griffin Benger. He has also been ranked No. 1 on PocketFives and has around $10 million in online and live cashes combined. He doesn't come in with one of the bigger stacks, but he's got time to change that. Experience and pedigree are on his side. Expect Gordon Vayo to challenge everyone in a big way. He's another highly accomplished online player and has already won a big live tournament (The River Series Main Event at WinStar World Casino and Resort) since the WSOP for more than $500k. He's going to be one of the stars of the November 9.
Maria Ho – Professional poker player with 40 WSOP cashes, and co-host of Poker Night in America
I like Michael Ruane to win. Even though he doesn't come into the final table with the chip lead, anybody who makes a straight flush during the WSOP Main Event is probably running good enough to win! Kidding aside, from what I've seen form the coverage he's played a solid game and seems like a good guy . . . and I'm always rooting for the good guys to win.
I'm picking Cliff Josephy to finish second. He's been around poker for a long time. He's a veteran of the game, so I expect him to play well under pressure. That, combined with having chip lead, I think he's likely to finish in the top 3.
Seeing as last year's Main Event was a little predictable I'm hoping that this year the viewers get to see more fireworks. I predict that we'll see more shifts with the chip lead and hopefully the poker gods have a surprise or two in store to keep us all on the edge of our seats!
Grant Hinkle – WSOP bracelet winner
He doesn't have much equity in terms of chips in play, but I feel like Griffin Benger was playing the best based on the hands shown on TV and reported online. He will not be intimidated by the moment and will take the risks necessary to win. The top three chip stacks have been hit by the deck, but Griffin has the experience, temperament and the skill worthy of a WSOP Main Event Champion. For second place I will pick Cliff Josephy. He plays a little too conservative for my taste, but he has the chip lead, has experience and will probably play safe and lock up a top 3 finish.
I played with Gordon Vayo recently at the final table of the WinStar. I expect Gordon to play solid and also finish somewhere in the top 3. I don't expect him to play for the win, but he won't make any big mistakes which should keep him among the top of the chip counts.
I would pick Vojtech Ruzicka as a dark horse. I was impressed with his demeanor and play. Ruzicka and Benger seemed like the only two willing to mix it up. If you are looking to gamble on a couple of horses in Vegas, that is where I would place my money.
Chad Holloway – Media director of Mid-States Poker Tour; WSOP bracelet winner
There are many players capable of emerging victorious, but I think this year it'll be 27-year-old Gordon Vayo who etches his name in poker history. He's got WSOP final table experience and in between making the November Nine and November's finale, he won the 2016 River Poker Series Main Event for $587,120. He's got the skills and chip stack to take it down.
Cliff Josephy will begin the final table as the chip leader, but ultimately I think the online legend will come up just shy of capturing the title. He's got the patience and chips to wait out his opponents, but during that time I expect someone else to claim the chip lead. No matter where Josephy finishes though, it'll be a highlight of his already remarkable career and bolster his shot at a Poker Hall of Fame nomination.
This is perhaps the best all-around final table the WSOP has seen since the establishment of the November Nine. They are a group of accomplished and skilled players, all capable of winning the Main Event. Few mistakes will be made, and that usually means players will battle to a standstill until one of two things happen — either the blinds and antes force the action, or a cooler takes place. I expect the latter to happen — be it aces vs. kings, set over set, etc. — and to have a significant impact on the final table. Mark my words, what I believe to be an inevitable cooler will crush the dreams of one of the players.
Valentin Vornicu – Finished 23rd at this year's WSOP Main Event; 18 career WSOP cashes; eight-time WSOP gold ring winner
Josephy will win. He's got the chip lead and the experience to use it. Not sure who will finish second. I'd like to see Vojtech. It would be an interesting heads-up match because Vojtech has a very different style from Josephy, so it would be the classic clash of the young grinder versus older pro. Elsewhere, Pons will exit quickly. He's got the shortest stack by far nothing to lose anymore and should want to gamble.
Laura Cornelius – Global Poker League presenter
I am being purely biased at this WSOP final table. Griffin (Benger) is a friend of mine so I have to root for him, so I'm saying Benger to win. Obviously he's a great player, with a lot of experience so if his head's in the right place and the cards fall the right way, he can do it easily. This would mean the world to him as well. I also know Kenny Hallaert and he's a great guy, a real grinder, grafter with a great work ethic and good poker mind, so if Benger doesn't win, I'm routing for Kenny! It's a shame they can't share the 1st prize. I wish everyone there the best of luck, though.
I am a little saddened by the fact Will Kassouf isn't at the final table. Though the players seem to get incredibly irked by him, he is so entertaining to watch. He is a good guy deep down so I was a little saddened that some of the players didn't shake his hand when he busted. He could have really thrown some more fireworks at that final table when it may have needed livening up a little.
Eric Danis – Global Poker League analyst and Head of Content for Global Poker Index
I really have a feeling that Griffin Benger will find a way to get it done. Not because he's a GPL colleague and not because he's a fellow Canadian, but rather because he'll be surrounded by many of poker's most elite players at the final table. I really feel like those players will keep Griffin in check, and their input on the proceedings will be invaluable.
As for the runner-up, Cliff Josephy brings so much experience to the final table, that he should be a favorite to make it to heads-up . . . his big chip stack can't hurt, either!
I wonder how much of the coverage will be attributed to William Kassouf given that the final ESPN broadcast is so close to November Nine coverage. Can Kassouf actually steal the show without actually being AT the final table?
Robbie Strazynski – Cardplayerlifestyle.com
I'll join the chorus and have on the record that I feel like Cliff Josephy will win. While I haven't seen him play in person, everything I've seen of him on the ESPN broadcast radiates confidence. He seems the least likely to be off his A-game at any point in time. I feel that this will be the second year in a row where we see the chip leader in front from wire to wire.
I'm picking Griffin Benger as the runner-up. I feel like he's going to have tons of support from the live crowd at the Rio. That, along with his solid chip stack and poker game, is going to carry him far. Heck, if he can withstand a verbal onslaught from (Will) Kassouf, he can pretty much withstand almost anything the other players can possibly throw at him. For what it's worth, if he can find a way to best Josephy heads-up, he's probably best equipped to be the best ambassador for poker.
As for other thoughts, I'm getting the sense that most pros and fans feel that Pons, Wong, and Nguyen will be eliminated quickly. I don't know which of them it'll be, but one of those guys will likely surprise us, if not with a gutsy all-in move at some point, then with a gutsy hero call. Over the past few months (and on the ESPN broadcasts), there hasn't been much coverage of Ruzicka. I published an exclusive feature with him on my site, so I'm a bit biased, but I'm pegging him as the dark horse candidate. When nobody's paying too much attention to you, you have the potential to shock the world.
Nick Sortal – SouthFloridaGambling.com
After watching all the play on ESPN, my pick is Gordon Vayo. Sure, Cliff Josephy has the most chip and has to be considered the favorite. But watching Vayo's game, I don't see any chance of him making a losing play. (Sure, bad luck can come into play, but...) Vayo has plenty of WSOP experience (26 cashes) and ran especially well this year, with eight cashes. I don't think that's an accident, and WSOP somehow trends to the younger players. Usually 27 isn't the greenhorn at the table, but this year he's the youngest one.
Gary Trask – Casino City managing editor
While all signs point to Cliff Josephy, we pointed out earlier this week that having the chip lead, past experience and previous WSOP bracelets have not equaled success at the final table during the November Nine Era, so we're going to grab the 5-to-1 price and pick Kenny Hallaert to win.
We liked Hallaert's demeanor and style of play from what we saw both at the Rio over the summer and during the ESPN coverage of the Main Event. As Kenny pointed out during his interview with our Clare Fitzgerald, he's got the four biggest stacks on his right and we think he'll be able to use that advantageous position at the table to become the first Belgian player to win the WSOP Main Event.
We'll take Gordon Vayo to take second and wouldn't be surprised if he has the chip lead going into heads up play with Hallaert. Vayo is another player that told Casino City that he really likes his seat at the table, and we think he's dangerous enough to survive and advance to the point where three-way play against Hallaert and Josephy, which would be a boom for ESPN because it would involve three very likable and ultra-skilled players.
Either way, we think this year's final table will be much more enjoyable to watch as compared to last year, and not just because we don't expect the chip leader to steamroll his way to the bracelet. This year's group is not only the most skilled and accomplished in November Nine history, but it appears from afar that they all genuinely like each other, which should lead to some entertaining table talk, unlike last year when Joe McKeehen relished his role as the villain and Zvi Stern pissed everybody off with his incessant tanking.
Dan Podheiser – Former Casino City editor
The obvious choice to win is Cliff Josephy, who not only has the chip lead but also has the most experience at the table. He's probably the least likely to make a critical mistake, and he will consistently apply pressure to the less experienced and more risk-averse players at the table. It would be an upset if Josephy doesn't win this event, especially considering that the guy who's second in chips, Qui Nguyen, is among the least experienced players in the field, and the fact that Josephy has the advantage of having Nguyen seated to his direct right.
I like Kenny Hallaert's chances to ladder up and finish second. Hallaert is fourth in chips entering the final table with a whopping 87 big blinds, and he has the advantage of having the four shortest stacks lined up to his direct left. This gives him the opportunity to put extra pressure on these players, knowing that the four of them are likely to play passively and hope their fellow short stacks bust first. This won't be especially advantageous to Hallaert at the beginning of play, as the flat pay structure should encourage the short stacks to take more risks, but as the pay jumps begin to get more substantial, he'll be in a great spot to accumulate chips.
Much like last year, the deep-stacked nature of the Main Event final table is balanced by the ultra-flat payouts for the 9th-6th place finishers. This means that we should expect to see the short stacks take lots of risks early on in an attempt to double up and build a stack that can contend once the blinds go up. Last year, we saw short stack Patrick Chan bust on the second hand of the final table after calling a button shove from Joe McKeehen with just KQo, but it was a worthy gamble from Chan that he likely prepared for in the months leading up to the November Nine.
Likewise, Fernando Pons, who will have just 12 big blinds when play resumes, doesn't have much incentive to be patient, as the pay jump from 9th to 8th place is just $100,000. This is all to say that I think the final table action will be fast-paced early on, but once the field reaches seven, and especially six players, expect the pace of play to grind to a halt as most of the players will be fairly deep-stacked. That is when the real poker will start to be played, and that is when Josephy will begin to use his stack, experience and position on Nguyen to his advantage.
Vin Narayanan – Former Managing Editor at Casino City, who covered 10 WSOP Main Events
I know. I'm not exactly standing out on a limb saying the man with the most chips will win the Main Event. But I'm picking Cliff Josephy to win, and it has nothing to do with my confidence in his abilities, which is high. I think a Josephy victory would be televised poetic justice for online poker. Josephy, playing under the nom de guerre "JohnnyBax," is one of the original online poker legends. When Americans signed up to play poker online, he was the player they aspired to be. A Josephy victory on the 10-year anniversary of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act would deliver a powerful — and ironic — message on national television about the folly of America's online gaming policy.
Online poker has virtually disappeared in America since the passage of the UIGEA. And efforts to license and regulate the game in the U.S. have struggled to gain traction. A Josephy victory gives advocates for regulated online gaming a powerful mainstream symbol and chance to reset the debate in state legislatures. Why shouldn't there be more players like Josephy? Why shouldn't more people get the same chance Josephy did to play on national TV and win $8 million? The Main Event has gained American Dream status thanks to ESPN televising it. A victory by JohnnyBax should prompt legislators to reconsider why they want to deny that dream to others.
Gordon Vayo will finish second. The Main Event final table has been a young man's game for the most part since the November Nine era began. At 27, Vayo is youngest player remaining. He's also third in chips. Based on previous indicators, that's a good recipe for success at the final table.
I'm hoping the side effect of William Kassouf's obnoxious "speech play" is that more people will talk at the table in an effort to influence play. They don't have to be as annoying as Kassouf. But it's clear talking can work. Players talking to each other also makes an otherwise boring TV product much more interesting to watch. That makes it a win/win situation for players and fans. How often does that happen?
This article is part of Casino City's WSOP November Nine preview coverage. Other articles include:
- Cliff Josephy: Over the last 13 years, Cliff Josephy has gone from being the "fish" everyone wanted at their home game to having legendary status in the poker world.
- Kenny Hallaert: This poker pro played in Belgium's first live poker tournament back in 2005. Now he's after the coveted Main Event win.
- Gordon Vayo: This pro's online poker earnings were over $10,000 a month. . . when he was 17.
- Top 10 number you need to know about the WSOP November Nine: Casino City crunches the numbers from the November Nine Era and comes away with 10 compelling trends and numbers.