LAS VEGAS — If you read our “Top 10 Reasons Every Poker Fan Should Attend a World Series of Poker” article earlier this week, we interrupt this column with an important announcement. We’ve added a No. 11: Make sure you’re inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino when the WSOP Main Event money bubble bursts.
Now, having been a passionate sports fan my entire life, I’ve experienced plenty of tense moments in front of my TV or sitting at a stadium somewhere, nervously watching a game come down to its final moments, with either pure ecstasy or downright dejection hitting me depending on the outcome. Whether it’s because my team is playing or I had a financial interest in the outcome, my blood pressure has risen way, way too high way, way too many times as a result of a sporting event.
Having said all that, the final moments of WSOP Main Event money bubble is just as suspenseful and gripping as anything else you will witness in person as a spectator, never mind if you are actually sitting at a table as a participant.
That’s what happens when more than 1,000 people who have been toiling at poker table for 10 hours a day for three days are staring a $15,000 money swing straight in the face.
Here’s the deal: The entry fee for the WSOP Main Event is $10,000. This year 6,737 players — the fifth-largest field in the 47-year history of the tournament — ponied up the $10k. It was determined that a record 1,011 would cash, meaning if you finish inside that number, you earn a minimum of $15,000, securing a $5,000 profit. If you fall outside that number, you go home with nothing. Squat. Negative 10 grand.
So, as you can imagine, when the field dwindled down into the range of 1,200 players or so as Thursday night turned into Friday morning at the Rio, the tension started to build enormously, creating an electric atmosphere for players, fans, media, dealers and anyone else in the room. Heck, even the massage therapists, who typically seem to be oblivious of the action on the table as they work out the kinks of players, seemed roped in by the theatrics.
The players with small stacks were repeatedly looking at the multiple TV screens spread throughout the Amazon Room, staring at the area that said “Players Left.” As that number dropped to 1,050 and 1,025, it was time to just try to survive, rather than play poker.
At 11:56 p.m., we were 13 players away from the magic number. Tournament officials announced to the more than 100 dealers to finish the hand they were currently dealing and then, “Hold up and stand up!” The last thing the WSOP needs is two people getting eliminated at once, bringing into question who was 1,011 and who was 1,012.
The hands remaining continued to play, but the tanking was rampant. We watched one tournament supervisor go to three tables in a row that had called the clock on a player. He would count down from 10 and when he got to zero, the player had to surrender his hand, which at this point the short stacks didn’t mind doing. This was a waiting game, and better to have the guy two tables over bust than you. A miscalculation could cost you that $15,000 swing.
Players were asked to remain in their seats, but many didn’t listen, quickly darting over to other tables when they heard someone was “all in.” The fans — most of whom had adult beverages in their hands for the last few hours — crowded along the rail. They were shouting, laughing and enjoying the spectacle, unless it was a family member or dear friend who was sitting there short-stacked. Those were the people who looked like they were about to be sick — and not because of the booze.
In the past, the tournament would have to go to a hand-for-hand scenario, where each table plays a hand and then stops dealing until everyone else in the room was done. This year, it didn’t come to that. Six minutes after midnight, Tournament Director Jack Effel grabbed the microphone and made the announcement everyone — except one player — wanted to hear.
No need for hand-to-hand combat. We are officially in the money.
The room erupted in cheers. Players immediately started ordering rounds of drinks for their table. Some ran over to the rail to celebrate. Even the 2016 “Bubble Boy,” Adam Furgatch, the man who finished 1,012, couldn’t help but smile as Effel introduced him and declared, per tradition, he would get a comped entry into next year’s Main Event.
Furgatch, a dead-ringer for Will Ferrell, was enjoying the moment, immediately calling himself “Bubble Boy of the Decade.” He was quickly rushed away by ESPN TV producers who flashed the bright lights on him and stuck a camera in his face for a reaction.
“Wow, do I get to speak to Norman Chad?” he said jokingly.
— Casino City (@casinocity) July 15, 2016
Furgatch, who was playing in his second Main Event, explained that he was down to just 6,000 chips at that point, and decided to put his tournament life at stake with a queen-nine suited. The big stack at the table, George Zisimopoulos, called with ace-seven and a blank board ended the Main Event for the jovial investor from Hawaii, and put a smile on his fellow 1,011 competitors’ faces.
“I was going out soon, anyway,” he said. “They say the saddest day for a poker player is when you bust out of the Main Event. But this was only my second one and I did very well last year (finishing 387th and cashing for $24,622). And I had a profitable summer here.
“My friends will probably call me a sucker. I probably could have folded. But I thought I had better equity with queen-nine suited than a random hand.”
As play got back underway, you could see the joy on the faces and sense the liberation among the remaining players. The short stacks, now guaranteed a profit, began taking more chances and within 10 minutes the number of players left dropped into three digits. When Level 16 finally came to a close at 2 a.m. only 800 players were bagging chips.
For professional players who came close, but didn’t cash, it’s not as much the money that bothers them, but the lack of ROI for playing in a tournament for three days and not making a profit.
“Yeah, the end result is that I didn’t come away with a mini-cash, so that’s not really a big deal,” 13-year poker pro Brian Roberts, who has more than $1 million in WSOP earnings, told us after he got bounced about 15 minutes before the bursting of the money bubble. “So for me, it’s more annoying than anything. You play that long and don’t cash; it just kind of sucks. All you can do is move on to the next tournament.”
But for amateurs, cashing in the Main Event is a big deal. Just ask Mike Vik.
“Wow, what a relief,” the 53-year-old told us after bowing out in 963rd place and heading to the cage with a ticket worth $15,000 in his hand. “It’s nerve-wracking. You really don’t know what to do. I was just folding and folding, waiting to hear when we got in the money. I probably didn’t play a hand for a level and a half.
“Last year, I legitimately cashed in the Main Event my first time playing (408th finish for $28,530). That was a real cash. This one I folded my way into. But, hey, I’m 2-for-2 cashing in the Main Event. That’s what I came here to do.”