Card Sharks Are All In For the World Series of Poker

The poker pros known as the “November Nine” are battling for a first prize of nearly $7.7 million.

This year’s World Series of Poker began with 6,420 Texas hold’ em fanatics risking $10,000 for a chance at fame, glory, and millions in prize money. But then the inevitable happened for nearly all of them. One by one, their stacks of chips diminished and they found themselves eliminated. They played down to a clutch of survivors known as the November Nine.

Those nine remaining poker powerhouses will battle for a first prize of $7,680,021 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from November 8-10. The winner will take his place in an elite pantheon of poker, joining the game’s greats — guys like high school basketball player turned prototypical poker genius Doyle Brunson, old-school hustler Amarillo Slim Preston, and dark horse champion Chris Moneymaker.

The latter card shark came from out of nowhere, won his entry into the 2003 World Series by risking just $39, and ignited an explosion of interest in poker. The aptly-named Moneymaker won $2.5 million for his trouble and launched a zillion poker careers, proving that any unknown with luck at his fingertips and desire in his heart can vanquish the biggest pros in the game.

Clearly, it takes all kinds to win the World Series of Poker. Stu Unger aced it while high on coke. Poker nobody Hal Fowler managed a win while snoozing on Valium. Doyle Brunson could have done it in 1973, but he threw the final table to Amarillo Slim because Brunson feared a tax audit. In a back-room deal, Brunson got the prize money and Slim got to go on Johnny Carson.

Years later, in 2006, Hollywood agent Jamie Gold loudmouthed his way to a World Series victory only to have some of his proceeds frozen in court while tussling with a backer who believed he was getting cut out of his share.  In 2013, when Las Vegas nightclub host Jay Farber finished second and won $5-million, with Instagram sensation Dan Bilzerian carving out a cool million for himself by buying a $2,000 stake in Farber’s gambit. Bilzarian showed his gratitude by buying Farber a fancy watch and throwing him a wild party in Mexico that was straight out of The Hangover, featuring 18 bikini babes, a monkey and a baby Bengal tiger.

“After winning I went to L.A. with Dan,” recalls Farber. “I partied with him there and he bought me an Audemars Piguet panda-edition watch [Farber had taken on a cartoonish Panda as his final-table trademark]. Then he took me to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta, on a private jet. It was me, Dan, two of our buddies, and 18 girls” – plus the aforementioned monkey and baby Bengal tiger. “We had three houses and partied for three nights straight before going to Miami. Dan had promised me an awesome party, and this was it.”

While this year’s frontrunner Joe McKeehen has a decisive lead over the field, with 63 million in chips, he will be going up against the big-stack jinx: Over the last six years, no player coming to the final table with the largest amount of chips has won the World Series. McKeehen, 24, of North Wales, Pa., shrugs this off and makes it clear that he is not going to let anything psych him out.

“The way I should approach the final table is that it’s just another day at the office,” McKeehen says. “I hear that things get crazy with the TV cameras and all. But it’s up to me to tune all of that out when the cards gets dealt. I will be pressuring everybody.”

Anyone looking for a stunner should keep an eye on Federico Butterino and Max Steinberg. Butterino is coming in with the smallest stack and the biggest attitude. On the nine-day slog to the final table, Rome-based Butterino stood out by exuberantly celebrating each hand and employing an annoying decision-making process that required interminable amounts of time spent mulling circumstance (in poker parlance: tanking).

Considering that he is flying in a posse of Italian fans to watch him play, is he worried about busting out in, say, two hours? “Maybe it will be two minutes,” Butterino says with a nervous laugh. “No matter what, we will enjoy our time in Vegas. Win or lose, we’ll be at the clubs after the final table. With a million-dollar win, I can’t feel like I lost.” No doubt, bottles of Dom will be waiting on ice.

If Steinberg aces the final table, his winning will be ironic at the very least. He’s a former professional poker player who traded his full-time card career for the lucrative world of daily fantasy sports. He won his seat in the World Series via a fantasy tournament and went further than anyone could have imagined.

“Having been away from poker for a little while, I was rusty,” he admits. “But there’s the other side of it: Being away from the game allowed me to get some perspective and made me less attached to winning. That probably helped me to think more clearly on my way to the final table.”

Now that he’s there, with the fifth highest chip stack and in sight of nearly $8 million, Steinberg has become obsessed with winning.

“I’ve been working with a sports psychologist to be mentally prepared,” he says. “And I’ve been playing simulations of the final table with friends of mine. They’re playing in the various styles of the other eight guys.”

How has he done against his ersatz opponents?

“It’s a little discouraging,” he admits. “The best I’ve done is fifth. Obviously, I have some work to do.”