The most compelling moments -- in fiction and reality, no matter the medium -- typically require a hero, a villain and a conflict. If you’ve been watching the 2016 World Series of Poker broadcasts on ESPN over the last several weeks, you’re no doubt aware of the conflict and the issues stirred up by William Kassouf.
His style of “speech play,” in which Kassouf lobs a steady stream of questions, pokes and prods in an effort to get information out of his opponents, was one of the most polarizing stories toward the end of the 2016 WSOP main event. And the fact that the ESPN cameras picked up so much of it and featured it so prominently on the broadcast should come as little surprise.
There has been public support for both sides of the issue, as some feel Kassouf’s style of talking brings an energy the game has been sorely lacking in an age of boring, quiet and vanilla personalities. That camp often points to the earliest days of WSOP TV broadcasts, when players like Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth helped make their names by jawing with players at the table. The counter to that argument is that, with an $8 million first-place prize and everything else at stake, players who want to play their game quietly shouldn’t have to be constantly bombarded by an endless stream of verbal banter.
While Kassouf stretched the rules to their very limits and often danced on the line of tact, he did far more damage and incited far more anger with his incredibly slow pace of play than with his “speech play.” But he still didn’t deserve to be called a clown, or for the table to essentially cheer for his demise.
We’re here to lay out the scenario of a hand that will undoubtedly define the 2016 WSOP main event, so if you’d like to stay in suspense (and spoiler-free) until Sunday night’s broadcast, it’s time to bookmark this story and come back once you’ve watched the hand play out on ESPN airwaves. If you’d like to read all about the massive hand that happened between Kassouf and Griffin Benger, including their opinions on why things played out as they did, you’re in for a treat as they break it all down in their own words.
Let’s lay out the scenario. Seventeen players remained in the 2016 WSOP main event, with blinds at 200,000/400,000 and an ante of 50,000. Kassouf had just lost a significant chunk of his stack after flopping a set of aces, and after the board ran out with five diamonds, he failed to bet Gordon Vayo off the Ac-Jd.
Benger raised to 875,000 and the action folded around to Kassouf in the hijack, who three-bet to 2.3 million. Everyone else got out of the way, and the action returned to Benger.
It’s destined to get all-in, as Benger held [Ac]-[As] and Kassouf had [Kc]-[Ks], but it took quite some time to get there.
Kassouf’s comments come from an interview conducted shortly after his elimination, while Benger’s comments are from his appearance on The Bernard Lee Poker Show.
Will Kassouf: He was counting out chips, looking like he wanted to four-bet, and he was taking his time over it. I've got a big hand here and everything, I was looking at the TD and said, "You know how many miles from here to Hollywood?" I knew he was Hollywooding, like he's not really going to four-bet me or come over the top. He's only pretending that he hasn’t got a big hand, but he has it. I'm hoping he's got ace-king or queens, one of the two. If he's got aces, it's an absolute cooler.
Griffin Benger: In my head, especially just being on this journey in the main event, he was painted as this really villainous, obnoxious character -- someone who had brought a poor woman [poker player Stacy Matuson] to tears, and he was wasting everyone’s time. He was definitely represented to me in a light that, I think, was extreme when compared to what the reality was.
Benger eventually four-bets to 5.6 million, sending Kassouf into the tank. Eventually, Benger calls the clock.
Kassouf: Then he calls the clock, because I'm taking too long or whatever, so I said, "Oh, let's gamble. OK, I'm all-in." He snap-calls with double aces, and the rest is history.
The hands are on their backs, but as the board slowly plays out, there’s more conflict.
Kassouf: He flipped, he just flipped. He said, "You're being abusive. You're an idiot," and the rest of it, and I said, "I've done nothing wrong, why are you going on tilt?" "Because you're an idiot.” “You're verbally abusing me now. This is ridiculous."
He kept on saying I was being abusive. I was just doing my standard 'speech play' to get a read off of him, to give off tells for myself that I was weak, that I only had jacks or queens, which I want him to think I have, so if he's got ace-king, ace queen, he can shove on me, which I wanted him to do.
Benger: I definitely kind of just snapped because he was badgering me and badgering me, and I probably projected some things onto him.
The board runs out [Th]-[8h]-[3d]-[6c]-[Td], and when the river card hits, Benger and the crowd collectively rise to a fever pitch. At this point Kassouf is fairly even-tempered, but then the verbal abuse begins.
Kassouf: The rest of it, and he kept on repeating the same thing, and I think all of his supporters were agreeing with him. I got, “Go back to London," I got “Back to the U.K.,” and shouting things about Brexit which I think was completely out of order. I don't take it personally, I don't take anything personally. I'm a friendly kind of guy. People let me get under their skin and tell them the speech, with what I say and what I do. There's no malice, there's no malicious intent in what I say or do. I'm just playing my game, and it's a big part of my game, in terms of speech playing.
Benger: It’s weird -- I’m looking forward to seeing it, but I’m not particularly proud of the way that I reacted. I certainly felt proud at the time, especially with the other people at the table, like Gordon Vayo, who I think said, “You’re my hero for doing that.” I’m a huge superhero fan, and it kind of played into this superhero complex.
Kassouf had conflict with WSOP tournament director Jack Effel and the staff throughout the main event, and even he admits that he bent the rules as far as they could go at times. As for Benger, he readily acknowledges that hearsay and rumors, including talk of the Stacy Matuson situation, helped lead to his over-the-top reaction.
While Kassouf was steadfast in defending his actions (and continues to be on social media), Benger was apologetic and even somewhat complimentary of the effect Kassouf’s approach had on him personally.
Kassouf: I could've been arguably bending [the rules] to the max, and pushing it to the limit to a point where he would be forced to intervene, because I'm taking it to that extreme where people are getting really hacked off with me, they can't take it anymore. Then [Jack] has a duty to step in and say, "Hey, these guys have had enough, you gotta back off." So I appreciate that point, but in terms of the ruling, and in terms of the actual rules of the tournament, I've broken none of the rules, and [Jack] fessed up to that on camera and said that I didn't break any of the rules.
Benger: I think the fact that I did react the way I did is a testament to the stuff that he does, that it works in some ways.
Kassouf: This is how the game should play. It should be fun. You should be able to speak to your opponents. It’s the whole point of “speech play," the whole psychosocial aspect; it’s getting into your opponent's mind. Convince them that you got the nuts when you haven't. Convince them that you got nothing when you got it. That's the whole aspect of deception, and that’s where the skill comes in, really. Not the gambling, the, "Let's flip for a chance of $8 million with a pair of queens versus ace king and let's see who's lucky and wins the race." For me, that's not poker … so the way forward, I think, the rules have to change.
Benger: There’s not a lot of time to breathe and reflect when you’re playing the main event. You’re playing 10, 12 hours a day and you’re not getting a lot of sleep … you kind of hear things peripherally, and you have to make judgments about what’s going on. Based on the coverage I’ve seen, and upon reflection, he isn’t nearly as bad as I thought he was at the time.