Things are getting very real for the 85 players still in contention for the 2017 World Series of Poker main event title. The top stacks are edging up toward 10 million, though it's closely bunched together, and two days of poker stand between those fortunate souls and a moment most have dreamed of their entire careers.
The race for the overall chip lead was tight in the final moments of play on Saturday night, but it would ultimately be Germany's Robin Hegele coming out on top with 9.99 million, just edging out Joshua Horton (9.36 million). With less than $50,000 in career tournament cashes, he has already secured the biggest result of his career -- but as the chip leader, Hegele is in position for a lot more.
"It's kind of weird, because it's a tournament and I know how long it takes," said Hegele, who added he's focusing on not letting the moment overwhelm him. "We're halfway through to the end of the tournament, and obviously fighting to win the tournament in the end."
The main event has been a savior for two straight summers for Hegele, who finished 124th in the event last year. Despite playing quite a bit, it took a deep run each time to make up for tough luck elsewhere.
"I'll just skip the whole summer from now on," Hegele said with a laugh.
Horton, whose only tournament cash to this point was a third-place finish in the WSOP Circuit main event in Cherokee, North Carolina, says this could mark a change in his career.
"I'm so excited right now. It's a life-changing event," said Horton. "I was in Cherokee and won $146,000, and that's how I got here. And then now I'm at where I'm at now. My goal is to make the final table. That's my No. 1 goal right now. Then we'll see where I go from there. Hopefully, this can be my job."
Horton made a big move toward the top after flopping quad nines while his opponent turned and rivered the top full house (kings over nines) in one of the most memorable hands of Day 5.
Just behind them is Max Silver, the lone remaining 2017 WSOP bracelet winner left in the field, who bagged 8.665 million after a late charge. Antoine Saout, one of four remaining November Nine alumni left in the field, sits in eighth with 8.26 million.
Saout joins Ben Lamb (4.725 million), Kenny Hallaert (4.37 million) and Michael Ruane (3.045 million) among those who hope to become the first player to make a return main event final table appearance since Mark Newhouse went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014.
Other notables to keep an eye on going into Sunday include Bryan Piccioli, Brandon Meyers, Jake Bazeley, Chris Wallace, Dario Sammartino, Marcel Luske and Martin Finger.
The journey from 297 down to 85 was not without its casualties, including the last three women in the field; Yuan Li (105th) was this year's last woman standing, going out shortly after Jessica Ngu (108th) and Tracy Nguyen (145th).
Former November Niners Matt Giannetti (294th), Chino Rheem (284th), Tom Cannuli (285th), Eoghan O'Dea (172nd) and Jake Balsiger (107th) were also eliminated.
For Balsiger, it was a bit bittersweet. He made a short stack last for quite a while, picking his spots, but simply couldn't get enough momentum rolling to make another run to the final table.
"It was an interesting day, the whole day felt like it was 30 minutes long. It was surreal," said Balsiger. "The other days felt very, very long, but when you're playing a short stack, it's a lot simpler."
No one appreciates going out of the main event, especially this late in the game, but having had that moment in his life makes it a little easier to stomach.
"I think that having been there softens the blow a lot," said Balsiger. "If it was my first time, I probably would've been quite a bit sadder. I'm of course not thrilled, but I'm certainly sad."
Other notable Day 5 eliminations include Vitaly Lunkin (87th), Charlie Carrel (88th), Tom Middleton (95th), JP Kelly (109th), Andrey Pateychuk (111th), Max Pescatori (148th), Randy Lew (159th), Sam Stein (166th), Greg Mueller (191st), Dominik Nitsche (195th), Aaron Massey (209th), Davidi Kitai (223rd), David Pham (231st), Isaac Haxton (241st), Kathy Liebert (251st) and Mark Radoja (296th).
Day 6 kicks off at 11 a.m. local time (2 p.m. ET) with two hours of live coverage on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.
A view from Saturday:
Whether it's a source of inspiration, a call for attention or both, Jonathan Dwek went for a heroic look for Day 5 of the WSOP main event -- and so far it's been working, as he's chipped up early.
End of Day 5 chip counts
1. Robin Hegele, 9.99 million
2. Joshua Horton, 9.36 million
3. Max Silver, 8.665 million
4. Frank Crivello, 8.5 million
5. Damian Salas, 8.4 million
6. Daniel Ott, 8.32 million
7. Karen Sarkisyan, 8.27 million
8. Antoine Saout, 8.26 million
9. Randy Pisane, 8.105 million
10. Joseph Dipascale, 7.45 million