By Jason Lake
In the fog of retrospect, of course Martin Jacobson won last year's World Series of Poker Main Event. He was the best player at the table, a veteran of the European Poker Tour with impeccable skills and a solid work ethic. But Jacobson wasn't the favorite going into the first day of the November Nine. He was an 8/1 underdog with one of the shortest stacks at the table. Jacobson needed plenty of “run-good” to navigate that stack all the way to first place.
Imagine if Jacobson had been the big stack at the final table. That's pretty much where Joe McKeehen finds himself this Sunday (8:30 PM ET, ESPN) as the 2015 WSOP Main Event resumes in Las Vegas. It's a little less clear whether or not McKeehen is the best player at the table; that honor may go to Max Steinberg, the only player in the November Nine with a WSOP bracelet to his name. But there's no question who the favorite is. McKeehen and his pile of chips are +175 at press time to take down this year's top prize of $8 million.
Fish and Chips
There's enough luck involved in poker that the big stack is almost always favored to win, unless the player behind that stack is a total donkey, and everyone else is Daniel Negreanu. McKeehen is no donkey. He's got a math degree from Arcadia University in his native Pennsylvania, and he's already earned just a shade under $2 million in prize money playing live tournaments. McKeehen doesn't own a bracelet, but he does have a WSOP Circuit ring from winning the 2012-13 Main Event at Caesars Atlantic City.
Most importantly, McKeehen has a stack of chips totaling 63.1 million, or 158 big blinds. That's more than twice as many chips as his nearest competitor, Israel's Ofer Zvi Stern (+450), who has 29.8 million chips for nearly 75 big blinds. If you saw any of the lead-up WSOP coverage on ESPN, you saw McKeehen use that stack to bully his opponents on Day 7, opening virtually any two cards and getting people to fold. Leverage is everything.
We'll probably see the same dynamic play out at the final table. The pay jumps in this tournament make survival much more important than accumulating chips; short stacks like Patrick Chan (+2200) and Federico Butteroni (+2800) have little chance of winning the Main Event, but hanging on to finish eighth instead of ninth is worth an additional $100,000 in prize money.
Having said that, Jacobson was down to eight big blinds at one point in the 2014 Main Event, and he was able to win after going all-in 19 times during the first day of the final table. If Chan or Butteroni experience that kind of run-good, or if McKeehen gets dealt napkins every hand instead of bullets, who knows. The cards will decide who wins, and however strong a player McKeehen may be, he's still +175.