Best hands from first two days of World Series of Poker

WSOP final table down to three players after Ruane elimination (3:37)

Qui Nguyen eliminates Michael Ruane to leave three players contesting for the $8 million top prize at the WSOP main event. (3:37)

Over the last two nights, the 2016 November Nine reassembled at the Penn and Teller theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. With the diamond-encrusted bracelet looming large, as well as the $8 million first prize, all nine players were vying to become the next World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event champion.

During the penultimate night in October, 97 hands were played in which four players were eliminated:

9th place: the short stack Fernando Pons on hand 16

8th place: Jerry Wong, wearing a Kristaps Porzingis jersey, on hand 60

7th place: Toronto’s Griffin Benger on hand 68, and

6th place: Belgium’s Kenny Hallaert on the final hand of the night.

In the end, Qui Nguyen almost doubled his starting chip stack to enter Day 2 with a significant chip lead over the Czech Republic’s Vojtech Ruzicka.

Last night, on Halloween, Nguyen became even scarier, as he eliminated both players (Ruzicka on hand 8 of Day 2, 105 overall and New Jersey’s son Michael Ruane on hand 58 of Day 2, 155 overall). After playing 11 more hands, the WSOP called it a wrap for the night, with Nguyen holding almost 60 percent of the chips in play (197.6 million), over San Francisco native Gordon Vayo (89 million) and the original 2016 November Nine chip leader Cliff “JohnnyBax” Josephy (49 million).

However, with blinds at only 600,000/1,200,000 with 200,000 antes, even Johnny Bax still has over 40 big blinds. The bracelet is still up for grabs.

With 166 hands having been played over two nights, many twists and turns have occurred at the 2016 WSOP main event final table. Here are the 10 most critical hands (in chronological order) that brought us to the final three players.

Day 1 (Sunday):

Nguyen won’t be “Baxed” down (Hand 11)

The WSOP main event final table often starts out like a prizefight where the competitors throw multiple jabs in order to feel each other out. However, this year, fireworks exploded from the stage on the very first hand and amazingly between the two top chip leaders.

With blinds at 250,000/500,000 with a 75,000 ante, the action was folded around to Nguyen who was sitting in the hijack seat. Looking down at Ah-4d, the “wild card” at the table was raised to 1.2 million. Josephy, sitting directly to his left in the cutoff, decided to establish his dominance early by three-betting to 3.2 million. After the button and blinds folded, Nguyen took an immediate stand and four-bet to 8.25 million, exciting the crowd and shocking Josephy. After a moment, Josephy could no longer continue his rouse with Qh-9s and folded to the delight of Nguyen rail.

This hand set the tone immediately at this final table as Josephy and Nguyen traded the chip lead several times in the first 21 hands. During this stretch, short stack Pons was eliminated when he shoved with Ad-6c and was called by Josephy’s Kh-Jc. Pons was officially eliminated when Josephy both flopped and rivered a king. However the first significant cooler of the night led to our second elimination.

Ruzicka’s ladies hook Wong for final time (Hand 160):

While entering the final table the second shortest stack, Wong knew he needed to double up to get back into contention. On hand 129, Hallaert obliged when his Ks-10h couldn't outduel Wong’s Ad-3h.

However, on hand 160, Wong was excited to look down at Js-Jh. After a Ruzicka raise and a Vayo three-bet, Wong committed to his hand and four-bet. Eventually, Ruzicka five-bet, effectively putting Wong all-in (and Vayo folded). Unfortunately, Wong was blindsided when his jacks were up against Ruzicka’s queens. With a board of 9c-8c-6s-4h-Qc, Wong was eliminated in eighth place ($1.1 million) and Ruzicka became the new chip leader.

Benger’s card dead night finally ends (Hand 168):

When Griffin Benger prepared for the 2016 WSOP main event final table, being thoroughly card dead was not what he had hoped for. Through the first 58 hands, Benger played only six hands, not winning a single one. Finally, on hand 159, Benger broke the ice by shoving all-in and was not called. Sarcastically, he screamed in excitement with his first win of the night. Sadly, this victory would be his only one of the night.

After Vayo raised from the button, Benger committed the rest of his chips from the big blind with As-9s. Vayo called the short stack with 10s-10h and with the dealer revealing 9d-8d-8h-2h-6h, Benger would be eliminated in seventh place, taking home $1.25 million.

Nguyen’s bullets shoot down Hallaert (Hand 197)

The original plan was to play down to six players on Day 1. However, with the relatively quick eliminations of Pons, Wong and Benger in just 68 hands, the WSOP officials decided to play two more hours or one more elimination. The play slowed down a bit and 26 hands later, the blinds increased to 500,000/1,000,000 with a 150,000 ante. During the third hand of the new level, Day 1 would come to an end.

Sitting under the gun, the Belgian tournament director peered down at Ac-Qc and raised to 2.3 million. Nguyen raised to 5.7 million from the cutoff and the button and blinds folded. With the action back on the original raiser, Benger decided to risk his tournament life and announced, “all-in.” Nguyen snap-called, flipping over As-Ad. After the board ran clean (Qs-5h-4s-7d-4h), Hallaert was our sixth-place finisher ($1.46 million) and Nguyen catapulted into a massive chip lead heading into Day 2.

Day 2 (Monday):

The remaining five players did not wait before getting heavily involved. Four of the first seven hands saw significant pots, including a much needed double-up and disastrous three-barrel bluff. Coincidentally, pocket eights won three of these four hands.

Ruane gets back into contention (Hand 101)

Entering Day 2 as the short stack with only 23 big blinds, Ruane knew he needed an early double-up to have a chance at becoming the 2016 WSOP main event champion. On the fourth hand of the night, he got his opportunity.

Nguyen raised 2.35 million from the button and Ruane looked down at 8h-8c and shoved all-in. After asking for a count, Nguyen made a questionable call with 6h-6d. After the dealer revealed a harmless Ah-9c-7s-Qc-Kh board, Ruane excitedly high-fived his rail, knowing that he had completed his first goal of the night.

Vayo’s set of eights trips up Ruzicka’s big slick (Hand 104)

Ruzicka was one of the brightest stars from Day 1. At times, he dominated and, after eliminating Wong, he was the chip leader for 18 hands. After beating Nguyen on hand 2 of Day 2 when he rivered a full house, the future looked bright after he closed the gap between him and the chip leader.

However, when Ruzicka missed his nut flush draw to Josephy’s flopped set of eights on the fifth hand of Day 2, he had fallen back down to third. Two hands later, Ruzicka would fall to another set of eight’s, this time against Vayo.

After Vayo raised 2.3 million from the button, the Czech pro three-bet to 8.1 million with As-Kd. After a moment, Vayo called and the dealer flipped over Qc-8d-3c. Ruzicka’s continuation bet of 6.15 million was called by Vayo. After the dealer turned the 7h, Ruzicka fired again, this time for 11.4 million. Once again, Vayo just called. When the dealer revealed the 5s on the river, Ruzicka emptied his clip and barreled for the third time by shoving all-in. Vayo snap-called, revealing his set of eights (8s-8c), skyrocking him into the chip lead for the first time at the WSOP main event final table and leaving Ruzicka with less than one big blind.

One hand later, Ruzikca’s downward spiral was complete when Nguyen’s Ah-Qh finished off Ruzicka and his Ad-7s, eliminating him in fifth place.

Nguyen’s small pocket pair comes up big (Hand 109)

Nguyen became a force at the final table through his unpredictability and aggressiveness. This hand and hand 122 both illuminated these characteristics clearly.

After Vayo initially raised to 2.3 million from the button with 6d-6c, Nguyen decided to just call from the small blind with his smaller pocket pair (4s-4c). However, Josephy tried to pick up a sizable pot without seeing a flop by raising to 9 million. After a moment, Vayo decided to fold, but Nguyen had other plans and announced all-in, putting Josephy to the test. This risky four-bet worked as Bax readily folded Ah-Qs. After a rough start to Day 2, Nguyen re-established himself as the chip leader after this hand.

“The Raccoon” chases away top pair with flush draw (Hand 122)

Nguyen once again exhibited his signature unpredictability and aggressiveness during this hand. After Vayo raised 2.3 million from the cutoff, Nguyen called from the button with Qh-Jh as did Ruane from the big blind. When the dealer revealed 10h-7d-3s on the flop, Vayo bet 2.8 million, which should have ended the hand. However, Nguyen did call with Ruane quickly folding. When the dealer turned the 4h, Vayo continued with a 7.7 million bet. Surprisingly, Nguyen answered with a raise of 24.4 million, just on a flush draw and two potential overs. After some thought, Vayo decided to fold his top pair-top kicker (Ah-10c) and wait for a better spot.

After this hand, Nguyen and his signature raccoon hat recaptured the chip lead, which he didn’t relinquish for the remainder of the night.

Three-way hand flops huge (Hand 125)

The action picked up as the play got to four-handed. However, we rarely saw three- or four-handed play. This hand was one of those rare instances and the flop did not disappoint, leading to a big pot.

After Ruane (holding Qd-8d) raised from the cutoff, Vayo (holding Kh-Qc on the button) and Josephy (holding Ad-Jc in the big blind) called. The dealer flopped Jd-10d-8s, giving every player a piece, prompting Josephy to bet out 4 million, which both opponents called. After the dealer turned the Jh, Josephy once again fired 8 million. This time, only Ruane decided to call. When the board completed with the 6h, Josephy this time announced that he was all-in. With the missed straight flush draw, Ruane had to give up his hand and was now dangerously low in chips.

Ruane’s main event ride comes to an end (Hand 155; Hand 58 of Day 2)

Ruane fought gallantly for two straight days. Although he doubled up early, he was unable to gain any significant momentum. After Nguyen raised to 2.7 million from the cutoff, he shoved with Kh-Qh and was called by Nguyen and his Ah-Js. When the dealer provided no additional help with a board of 9h-9s-2s-Jc-8d, Ruane was eliminated in fourth place, taking home over $2.6 million.

As the three remaining players return to the Penn and Teller stage, Nguyen, Vayo and Josephy all have only one goal in mind: To become the 2016 WSOP main event champion. Join us Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. EST (6:00 pm PST) on ESPN to witness which one of these players makes his ultimate poker dream a reality.