LAS VEGAS -- Ben Keeline couldn’t hold his poker face any more.
Keeline had just won Colossus II at the World Series of Poker on Tuesday night at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino. He had hugged and kissed his girlfriend, Corrine, and celebrated with his friends, who then joined him around the final table for the obligatory staged photo with his tournament-winning hand -- pocket jacks.
After the cameras went away, he was cornered by four media members and asked the obvious question: “What’s it like to be a millionaire?”
And that’s when Keeline lost it.
“I can’t believe it, it’s an awesome feeling,” he barely got out, in between sobs while tears rolled down his face. “I was ready to quit. I almost didn’t come. I’ve had a rough time lately, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills if I didn’t have a winning Series.”
Keeline is a 30-year-old professional poker player, but he admitted that he recently had to become an Uber driver to make ends meet, and had to borrow money and get backers in order for him to play in this year’s WSOP.
He had four previous WSOP cashes, 16 cashes on the WSOP Circuit and a Circuit ring, which he won in 2013 at Harrah’s Horseshoe in Hammond, Ind. shortly after he lost his job as a short order cook (another tournament in which he needed a backer). But he’s only had moderate success in recent years, while playing a fairly extensive schedule all over the country.
His greatest claim to fame before Tuesday was probably that he had been commissioner of several “last longer” pools in which a group of players -- mostly friends -- put up money outside of the tournament buy-in, with the person lasting the longest in the event taking the pot. In addition to holding a $500 contest for last year’s WSOP main event that paid the winner $38,000, he also held a $250 last longer for the inaugural Colossus that attracted 92 entrants -- a contest in which three participating players cut through more than 22,000 entries to make the final table, with the eventual winner being Colossus I champion Cord Garcia.
This year, he was only able to get 30 entries at $250 apiece for Colossus II. Keeline would have won his own pool in following in Garcia’s footsteps, but he earlier agreed to chop with two other entrants who also made deep runs: David Gutfreund, who hails from Chicago (and is someone I know from covering major horse racing tournaments over the years), finished 50th and added his $2,500 to his regular winnings of $18,592; and Jonathan Borenstein of Teaneck, New Jersey, who finished eighth and earned $118,937.
That’s pretty incredible, statistically speaking, to have two years back-to-back, in tourneys with more than 20,000 entries, and to have multiple players make the final table each year (and the champ both times).
“Maybe we can get more to enter now,” Keeline said.
But instead of being known as the guy that runs those pools, he’ll now be known as the winner of the second-largest live poker tournament ever. Colossus II, which cost only $565 to enter and allowed players to enter up to six times, drew 21,613 entries this year, falling short of last year’s record-setting field of 22,374. It started Thursday, with Day 1 running through Saturday as six starting flights were split over three days. The number of places paid was increased from the top-10 percent to the top-15 percent, so players made the money before the end of Day 1 and a record 3,245 entries cashed.
A total of 846 players advanced to Day 2 on Sunday, with the field cut to just 78 by the end of that day and then those played down to the final table of nine by the end of Monday’s action.
Tuesday’s final table started with Xiu Deng of Las Vegas being eliminated on only the sixth hand of the day, after play resumed just after 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday. She was the last woman standing, and notched quite an accomplishment to hang her hat on (women made up just 5.9 percent of the overall field) as she finished in the top .04 percent and earned $92,291.
It took more than two hours before Borenstein went out in eighth, but the next 2.5 hours saw a steady pace, as the five more players hit the rail -- culminating with Farhad Davoudzadeh of Palmdale, California going out in third place, winning $462,749.
That left Keeline, a native of Oswego, Illinois (but now living in Colorado), against Jiri Horak of Troubelice, Czech Republic. In more amazing stats news: while it’s not surprising that seven U.S. players were at the final table (after all, 18,704 entrants, or nearly 90 percent of the field, were from the U.S.), it’s incredible that the Czech Republic had two players at the final table in Horak and Marek Ohnisko.
It was an epic heads-up battle. Horak, who entered the final table as the chip leader, had 63 million of the chips in play when he went heads-up with Keeline, who had 45 million to start. The pair then battled for 78 hands over the next two-and-a-half hours before agreeing to take a 45-minute dinner break around 10 p.m. PT. Shortly after played resumed, Keeline, who had fallen further behind in the lead-up to dinner, doubled up to cut Horak’s lead to 58 million to 50 million -- and within a few hands, they were essentially tied. Keeline moved slightly ahead before the 234th hand of the final table (and the 123rd hand of heads-up play).
Blinds were at 1,000,000/2,000,000 with a 300,000 ante by this point. Horak raised to 5 million and Keeline re-raised all-in. Horak called.
Keeline showed his Jc-Js while Horak flipped over Ad-9c. The flop came down 9s-7h-3s to give Horak a pair of nines and a few more outs to hit, but he still trailed Keeline’s pair of jacks. The turn was the 6s, which didn’t help Horak and gave Keeline a flush draw -- and that would become a big deal momentarily.
The river was the As and both players’ galleries cheered. Horak sprinted across the stage and did a Lambeau Leap into the crowd, as he and his entourage mistakenly thought the ace gave him the win. Keeline’s group knew immediately that his spade flush was the winner. Horak finally realized what had happened and walked over to congratulate Keeline, who had long since dropped to the floor after the winning hand.
Keeline had won the tournament and its guaranteed $1 million first-place prize, while Horak had to settle for second and $618,000. It was clear the bracelet meant a lot; “It’s been a goal of mine since I tried explaining cards to my dad, after watching the old WSOP programs when I was a kid,” he said.
But you could tell the money actually meant more -- especially in light of his earlier comments. While reporting on the WSOP, many of the tournaments are won by players whose financial future doesn’t ride on the result of the event -- players who say the bracelet means more, and truly feel that way.
When a player completely alters the course of their life outside of poker -- a real life dream come true, or rags-to-riches story -- the story resonates far beyond the realm of the poker world.