Just a dollar and a dream.
Growing up in New York, that motto for the N.Y. state lottery was plastered just about everywhere. Talk about perfect marketing. Everyone has a dream. And a dollar. To be able to make that dream come true is motivation enough for millions to be willing to part with that dollar. Or two. Or 10.
I've often called making the World Series of Poker main event final table a winning lottery ticket. Instead of a buck for a ticket, the field pays a $10,000 entry fee to play the game, and instead of millions of participants with blind hopes, all that stands in your way are a few thousands other hopefuls, all of whom truly believe they can win. They aren't relying on the lottery TV host and those air-filled numbered ball dispensers to make their dreams come true. It's all about the level of their game, honed over thousands of hours at the felt or online. And if you make it to the final table, you've already beaten the odds. You're a November Niner. The worst you can walk away with is $733,224.
That's a reality for our nine remaining players. At stake for the winner of this final showdown: $8.3 million, the most coveted bracelet in the poker universe, and the title of WSOP main event champion. That's the dream.
The event, which began in July, featured 6,352 runners who each put down $10,000 for a chance to become the next world champion. Play was halted once the final nine remained and that group, the November Nine, will take their seats at the most coveted final table of the year on Monday night, live on ESPN2 (8 p.m. ET). Action will continue until either two or three players remain and the final battle will take place Tuesday night (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
Each of the remaining nine players has demonstrated a great deal of skill to reach this point in the tournament. The level of ability in poker has increased so greatly over the past decade that the seldom-playing amateur just can't win anymore. It is highly unlike that there will ever be another amateur story like Chris Moneymaker's. The game has simply evolved, and while luck will always play a role in who gets to the final table, these nine survivors wouldn't be in the position they are in if they weren't some of the best poker players in the world.
From chip leader JC Tran to short stack David Benefield, each of the nine boasts accomplishments in the game of one kind or another. They've had four months to think about this final table appearance and many of them have done everything they can to prepare; working with coaches, watching film, refining their strategy. Each of them understands the potential of one nine-handed table. This is their night. This is their chance. This is their winning ticket.
Here's who you will be watching Monday night (in order of chip count):
JC Tran – The chip leader is by far the most decorated player at this final table. Tran was one of poker's hottest stars during the peak of the boom a few years ago, but life priorities changed. Instead of being a constant grinder, spending 75 percent of the year on the road, Tran stayed closer to his wife and son and played only a few key events over the past few years. Well, the two-time WSOP bracelet winner, World Championship of Online Poker champion and WPT champion is in command of this final table. If there's one certainty on Monday, it's that the bright lights won't intimidate him at all. Been there, done that.
Amir Lehavot – The Israeli-born pro was an engineer with no interests in poker until 2007. He took a year hiatus from his career, stumbled upon online poker and, in spite of himself, found that he had a passion for the game. He has been dominant ever since. Lehavot is already a WSOP bracelet winner with heavy roots in online poker tournament strategy. The father of a 1-year-old is constantly yearning to conquer the next big challenge. This final table fits into that category.
Marc-Etienne McLaughlin – While the commentary about McLaughlin sometimes revolves around the similarities between him and his friend, 2010 WSOP main event champion Jonathan Duhamel, McLaughlin's resume speaks for himself. The entrepreneur has a heavy cash game background to go along with his three top-86 finishes in the WSOP main event since 2009. Similar to David Benefield (ninth), McLaughlin is thorough in making each and every decision.
Jay Farber –Farber, a nightclub promoter, has always had a passion for poker and finally was able to take some time away from work to play in the main event this year. He may not have the most experience at the final table, but his decision-making is excellent and his rail will be filled with many of the game's most familiar faces, including 2011's third-place finisher Ben Lamb. All of Vegas is salivating over a Farber victory after-party.
Ryan Riess – The youngest player at the final table is the 23-year-old kid from Michigan. In less than 14 months, Riess has gone from being a dealer at a casino in Michigan to taking his seat at the biggest final table in the world. Some may question his ability to change gears at the right time, but "Riess the Beast" is ready and thrilled to have this opportunity.
Sylvain Loosli – Listen, if you're roommates with Bertrand Grospellier, you probably know what you're doing at the felt. Loosli has only a few tournament cashes to his record, but has established himself as a force at the table through unique play and a stone-faced stare. Inspired by the third-place finisher in 2009, Antoine Saout, Loosli is looking to bring the bracelet back to Europe and become the new face of French poker.
Michiel Brummelhuis – Constantly overlooked leading up to the final table, Brummelhuis is looking to become the first Dutch WSOP main event champion. His poker background is extensive, with a dual focus on cash games and tournament play. Even though he hasn't received the most hype here in the U.S., in Europe, in the words of Ron Burgundy, he's kind of a big deal. Just like Lehavot and Tran, Brummelhuis also just became a father and realizes he's playing for more than just himself.
Mark Newhouse – What does the final table mean to Newhouse? Freedom. After rising to the top of the poker world in 2006 thanks to a great run at the cash games and a surprising victory at the WPT Borgata main event, Newhouse's career took a rough turn and left him in bad shape. The money may mean more to him than any other player on Monday night, but his abilities are top tier and he has already proven that he knows how to be patient when the pressure is on.
David Benefield – When those in the industry think of the early online legends, they think of the name "Raptor." Benefield found passion in poker and built an impressive bankroll at an early age. He was on top of the online game when he decided to reduce his focus on poker and headed back to school. Well, his East Asian Studies major at Columbia led him to Macau and back to poker. He has been on an incredible run over the past few months and all he needs is one double-up to keep that roll going.
Each of these nine players has already received $733,224, the prize for a ninth-place finish, and one of them will leave the Rio with nothing more to show for their four-month wait. The other eight will continue to fight for the victory, which would mean not only a life-changing cash prize, but will also see them become the next icon of the game.
Every call, every fold, every bluff can alter the course of poker history and mean the difference between a dream shattered and a dream fulfilled. There's no moment in poker like the final table.
Welcome to our World Series.