A few weeks ago during a break in the $10,000 main event at the WPT Legends of Poker tournament, Kelly Kim was asked about the upcoming WSOP final table. Upon returning from break, Dean Hamrick passed right by Kim and the interviewer completely unnoticed.
That's just one example of the chasm created by making the November Nine and just barely missing out. The two players were heavily intertwined for seven days at the main event in July, but they were separated by the here and now at the Legends of Poker tournament because Kim advanced and Hamrick did not.
On April 30, commissioner Jeffrey Pollack announced the most radical and innovative change in the history of the WSOP: The main event final table would be delayed for four months (117 days, to be exact). The final nine players, dubbed the "November Nine," would take four months off and return on Nov. 9 to compete for the WSOP bracelet and the top prize of more than $9.1 million. Pollack said that fans then would pose the question, "Who will win?" instead of "Who won?"
Eleven days after the main event began and 6,834 eliminations later, Kim was in the toughest position of all with the legacy of the greatest bubble boy ever in waiting. The main event was down to its final 10 players, and only one more elimination remained until the poker world would have its "November Nine."
As the final table began, all eyes were focused on Kim, the short stack at the table. The bull's-eye on his forehead was getting bigger, and the target on his back was as large as the pile of cash for first prize. Kim had about $4.5 million in front of him while every other player had more than double his stack. The chips leader, Dennis Phillips, had almost five times his stack at $21.5 million.
Up to this point, this 31-year-old poker professional from Whittier, Calif., had had a fairly smooth ride. During Day 6, he reached his peak at about $9 million. Sitting in the top five in chips, it was the first time he allowed himself to imagine making the final table, and it definitely weighed heavily on his mind.
"It actually affected a lot of my decisions," Kim said. "I did not want to get involved. My objective midway through Day 6 was to maintain my status. I focused on preserving my chips, not accumulating chips."
But on Day 7, his luck seemed to change.
"I ran pretty bad," Kim said. "Every hand I played, someone had a bigger hand or put pressure on me. I started bleeding chips."
Nevertheless, Kim remained sharply focused on his goal: to make the November Nine.
"I never lost track of the big picture," Kim said. "I was playing in the biggest tournament to date and still in position to make something happen. I buckled down and tried to squeak in.
"I definitely felt the most pressure out of everyone based on chips counts," Kim said about the action when 10 players remained. "Everyone was looking at my stack to see if I'm going to make a mistake or move in and get called. The pressure was incredible since this was the biggest bubble in tournament history, and I knew I was the favorite to finish 10th."
This dubious honor was definitely not one he wanted to carry entering the final table. But when play commenced, Kim realized these players wouldn't be passive. Big pots were played repeatedly, and three hours later, Hamrick was eliminated when his A-J lost to Craig Marquis' Q-Q. Kim achieved his goal: He was a member of the soon-to-be-famous November Nine.
"My whole objective was to get to the final nine," Kim said. "I did not gamble at all. I did not play any mediocre hands and was blinded down by $2 million. I only played two hands: pocket jacks and A-K. I moved all-in with both and was not called. But in the end, it was worth it!"
Although Kim comes into the November Nine as the short stack, what is it actually worth? Let's take a look:
Prize money: Well, this is the obvious one. At a minimum, Kim already has received more than $900,000, which is almost $310,000 more than what a 10th-place finish would have earned him. Of course, he could win as much as $9.1 million.
Sponsorship: Kim has received a sponsorship deal (details undisclosed) with Full Tilt Poker. He also may have been presented with other opportunities depending on his finish.
Media: Kim has performed numerous interviews and had many columns written about him. Anywhere you turn, you can find information about each member of the final table, including Kim. Overall, he always will be linked a member of the first November Nine, whereas Hamrick will forever have his name associated with other WSOP final-table bubble boys such as Steve Garfinkle (2007) and Ayhan Alsancak (2005).
As Kim prepares for Nov. 9, he is realistic about his chances but confident in his ability.
"I am certainly not going to give up," Kim said. "I will play to the best of my ability. I just need to survive, and I'm looking to find a 60:40 or 70:30 to get my money in good. If I get to the 7-8 million range, you never know."
Although Kim enters the final table as the short stack, anything is possible. Last year, Jerry Yang was eighth in chips entering the final table last year and, well, things worked out pretty good for him.
Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume 1." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard from 6-7 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.