An unforgettable moment for Tonking

The crowd roars, and everyone in attendance stands up. Cheering and chanting ensue with screams of thrill and excitement. All eyes are on you, anticipating the climax and temporary conclusion of a journey that began 10 days prior. The fans want to see the moment everyone at the Rio has been waiting for since the beginning of the 6,683-player tournament. They want to see the moment that will reduce the field to nine, one of whom will win $10 million in a matter of months.

It's a moment that players dream about, but the only problem is everyone is rooting against you. Everyone from the players to fans to exhausted Rio employees and media members who simply want to go home.


Welcome to Will Tonking's life during the early hours of July 15, 2014.

Tonking entered the bubble in the world's most prestigious tournament as the short stack. As the cards hit the air on the feature table set, the bull's-eye landed squarely on the New Jersey native, and all waited for him to make his final move so everyone could vacate the arena and start the celebration. Perhaps in the most unenviable position imaginable, Tonking knew he had to focus.

"I kept on making myself refer back to the scene in 'Hoosiers' when Gene Hackman took them into the big stadium, the small-town team, put the tape measure up to the rim and down to the floor and said, 'Still 10 feet, gentlemen,'" Tonking said.

On the sixth hand of the 10-handed unofficial final table, Martin Jacobson accidentally limped in from under the gun (he intended to raise). Tonking, in the small blind, limped as well, and Dan Sindelar checked his option. Tonking checked the flop of 10c-8h-7c, Sindelar bet 500,000, and Jacobson raised to 1.75 million.

Tonking moved all-in for 4.6 million. Jacobson called. Tonking stood up. The chanting began.

As his chips moved into the center of the table, all but three people in attendance were hoping for his downfall: Tonking and his only two friends left in town.

Tonking turned over the nuts, Jh-9c. Jacobson turned over Ac-Jc for a massive draw. Screams, yells, smirks from the other players and the sweat of a lifetime -- all the ingredients to the worst moment imaginable for Tonking -- had come together.

"It was me against the world and a feeling unlike any I've ever felt before," he said. "I literally had two friends in the entire building. Everyone else was rooting for me to lose.

"If he gets there, I'm out and move on with my life. If the next two cards turn out to be red, then I've got a good shot to go back in November and see what happens."

The 5d hit the turn. The sweat continued. The chanting got louder.

"Standing up there, I'm looking around. Everyone is just chanting, 'Club! Club! Club!' I'm like, wait a second! That's not right. We don't want a club."

"Be red," Tonking thought.

The 7d hit the river. The boos of the crowd filled the massive Amazon Room. Tonking survived. The final 10 would play on. The bull's-eye had shifted.

Tonking sat back down in front of his eighth-place stack, relieved and ready to keep going. He convinced himself that it was just another hand.

"Going into this, I always said that if I was ever fortunate enough to be in a position like that, I'd be someone who handled it appropriately and didn't embarrass myself. I'd set a good example for the guys like me who do this for a living," he said. "I tried to stay true to that once I was lucky enough to be in that position."

Eighteen hands later, Tonking was on the other end of the emotional roller coaster as he watched Luis Velador's elimination at the hands of Mark Newhouse. Tonking bagged his seventh-place stack, celebrated with his two friends and knew he had truly earned his ticket to November.

"I like to take pride in the fact that I have a pretty even-keeled demeanor when it comes to poker," he said. "I've been through the ups and downs of it before. I've been doing this for so long, to still get rattled would be callous and immature on my part."

Those words seem more likely to be spoken from a player like Daniel Negreanu than the 27-year-old Tonking. After falling in love with the game in friends' houses in Jersey during high school, Tonking has played the game professionally since his graduation from the University of South Carolina in 2010.

His focus has always been cash games, a November Nine trend that shines bright each year with former champions Joe Cada, Greg Merson, Peter Eastgate and Jonathan Duhamel cutting their chops in the cash games for a living instead of tournaments. Tonking's comfort level at the table is clear, a byproduct from a career that has encompassed extensive action both live and online.

The New Jersey native has also found great success at the online tables now available in his state, potentially owning the honor of being Jersey's largest winner to date. Earlier this year, he won $50,000 on WSOP.com after making a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter its signature tournament. He hasn't played online since making the final table but has worked on his game with some weekly live action.

While poker is a significant part of his life, it isn't everything. To get his mind away from the game, Tonking focuses on sports and a post-poker-life ambition of being part of the sports media industry. For now, poker is a fleeting and profitable hobby, but there has always been a backup plan. Whether it's using his economics degree or becoming the next host on WFAN, Tonking will approach it all with a level head and a desire to make the best decision possible.

For now, his decisions are centered on the felt. Although the year has been filled with great success thus far, Tonking isn't satisfied just yet.

"The most important part is still to come," he said. "It will soak in once this is over. I'm still looking at this as incomplete."

The conclusion will come next week at the Penn and Teller Theater in Las Vegas. Flanked by his parents Bill and Cathy, siblings Kelly and Ryan and over 100 friends, Tonking knows that, above everything else, when his chips are in the center, he won't be the only one hoping his hand holds up.