Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mixed Emotions: Sweating the WSOP Final Table

I love watching championship moments. I'll watch the finals of a sport I don't even like, only to get bored and stop paying attention. But I'll always watch the last few seconds on the clock, or the game-winning score, or however it is the game ends. I love watching the absolute unbridled joy of the winner when he realizes his dream. He can't believe it's happening. It's not real...but it is! It's such a great moment and I always get a little bit choked up, even when I have no emotional investment in the player or the team (or even the sport).

Poker is no exception. From what I've heard, Pius Heinz is a really nice, humble kid who is a deserving winner, and so it was great to see him over the moon and jumping into his rail when the harmless river card fell. I love watching moments like that. But in some sense it's harder in poker. I've known for pretty much my entire life that I will never hoist the Stanley Cup or win an NBA title or a World Cup, or even a UFC title. But I am a poker player. I've been playing poker for over 12 years; it's been my entire adult life. It's what I do. I'm pretty good at it, I've achieved a lot of success in it, and made lots of money doing it. Yet I know that realistically, when it comes to the WSOP main event all I can really do is daydream about winning it. Even if I play great and run tremendously good, it almost certainly won't happen. I'll never know what that final river card hitting feels like; I can only imagine it.

And that kind of leaves me with a sad feeling inside. I think most of the time I'm at peace with the thought of never winning the main event (ever since the 2004 WSOP, this has been obvious to anyone who can do basic math). Maybe I'm a little extra emotionally vulnerable since I bricked yet another big buy-in live tournament today. Or maybe it was even the fact that I watched the Heinz-Martin Staszko heads-up battle with nine other top-notch, highly successful poker pros, analyzing their every move and talking about how much better we could have played those hands. To be sure, we have egos, and our comments were borne of a genuine belief that we could play certain hands better than they did. But not a single one of us wasn't at least a little bit jealous, hoping against hope that we'll have the chance to be there one day.

I guess that's what keeps people coming back to poker. It's what puts 6,865 people putting up $10,000 in the wake of both Black Friday and the big economic recession of the late 2000s. Because even the most cynical of poker pros who say we "have to play the main" because "it's sooooo much value" are, at least a little bit, dreamers too.

Congrats to Pius Heinz, the new world champion of our game. I hope you enjoy every bit of it, Pius, because 6,864 of us wish it were us.


  1. This is well written and quite true. It should be noted that there are probably 100,000 poker players in the world who have a genuine shot at the big one, and you're on that list. Given enough time, you would win it... but 100,000 / 50 = pretty long odds.

    I'm not sure the answer is to wish you were a worse poker player so you'd have no shot... but to reflect upon the fact that poker is 20% skill and 80% luck... and there are some 100,000 people with that same 20% skill base.

    When you play hand after hand and trend that 80% to infinity, as we can see, anything and anyone can happen.

  2. Well, that's not really the right way to do the math on that. It's much better to just say that I am maybe 1/2000 to win the main in any given year, so if I play it for the next 15 years I have a 1-(1999/2000)^15=0.74% chance of winning it in one of those 15 years.

  3. Interesting that the math winds up in the same place, though for different reasons. My only premise was that there are 100,000 potential winners, and all of them have one shot as of today... for the next 50 years. Which reduces to 1 in 2,000, just like you said. You don't think you'll be playing the big one in 50 years? :)

    By the way, 0.74% is pretty close to 7 straight coin tosses... and I watched Robberto Luongo do exactly that last night. In his own charity tournament, in which he impressively made the final table (out of 150+ players) I saw him win coin toss after coin toss... which is what that tournament turned into... 150 players, 7,500 in starting chips and it had to be wrapped up in less than 4 hours. 10 minute levels. Very quickly it turned into both blinds being all-in hand after hand... and Lou just kept making it through.

    Try to take a coin seven for seven... try it 50 times. Maybe we'll see you with THE bracelet one of these days.