They knew when to hold 'em, fold 'em, etc.

Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A $10 Million Poker Finale for the Ages

James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street" and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker." He has written about the game for the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Esquire and Grantland. He teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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The World Series of Poker Main Event recommenced at the Rio casino in Las Vegas this week, after a nearly four-month hiatus so ESPN could broadcast the finals almost live over two nights during the November sweeps. There was a 30-minute delay because the hole cards were shown to the television audience.

After 244 hands played over 12 hours, six of the nine finalists were eliminated, leaving Norway's Felix Stephensen, Stockholm native Martin Jacobson, and Dutchman Jorryt van Hoof to compete for the gold bracelet and $10 million first prize.

All three live most of the year in London, taking advantage of its almost limitless opportunities to play live or online. The fact is that poker's prime meridian is also the planet's these days. In the U.S., where poker was invented 200 years ago, our national card game is now aggressively restricted on land and online by conservative lawmakers, even as it continues to boom in most other market democracies.

The blond, bearded, 6-foot-7-inch van Hoof began the three-handed action with 89.63 million in chips. Also bearded and blond, Jacobson began play with 64.75 million, flaunting his athletic physique in a tight black T-shirt festooned with logos. Starting with 46.1 million, Stephensen layered himself in triple-black tell-protection: a hooded sweatshirt, baseball cap and sunglasses.

With the required blind-bets at 600,000 and 1,200,000, and antes of 200,000, the players had 74, 53 and 44 big blinds respectively, so each could be reasonably selective about which hands he raised with. It's only when stacks fall below 10 big blinds that the action becomes a series of relatively mindless pre-flop all-in races.

The first surprise came early. Van Hoof had been an intimidating table presence throughout the tournament, staring down with piercing blue eyes at whichever opponent was facing a decision. But just before hand 250, he suddenly donned black wraparound shades. Had he picked up a tell on a tell -- that Jacobson or Stephensen had learned to gauge his level of confidence from subtle variations in his stare-downs? Whatever the reason, the shades seemed to disrupt the mojo that had made him so imposing earlier in the tournament.

Jacobson had started the final table in eighth of nine places, but he pulled almost even with van Hoof when he perfectly manipulated a huge pot with Stephensen. The Norwegian, with king-jack, had floated -- that is, called a flop bet with no pair or draw, hoping to either improve on later cards or win the pot with a bluff -- the 7-10-5 flop and hit a king on the next card. Unfortunately for him, Jacobson held pocket aces, and he tempted Stephensen into calling a bet of 15 million on the following card, swelling the pot to 68 million chips.

By the end of the first level, the leader board had flipped, with Jacobson in first and van Hoof in third. All three were still within 20 million chips of each other, so it was anyone's title to win.

Jacobson kept the pressure on with well-timed check-raises. On the key hand of the night, number 293, Jacobson had ace-10 and re-raised van Hoof's opening raise, then called when van Hoof, who must've decided Jacobson looked weak, went all-in with ace-five. Although van Hoof paired his kicker on the flop, so did Jacobson, and that was that for the Dutchman. To take some of the edge off his disappointment in not winning the bracelet after starting the final table as the heavy favorite, he collected $3,807,753.

Jacobson began the heads-up duel with 142 million chips to Stephensen's 58.5 million. Both men continued their small-ball tactics, keeping their bets and raises small enough to control the size of the pot and avoid having to commit their whole stack without a big hand. Stephensen won the first three small pots, narrowing the gap to 65 million versus 135 million, but Jacobson steadily chopped him back down.

On hand 328, Stephensen opened for 3.5 million with the ace-nine of hearts. He couldn't have liked his hand very much when Jacobson re-raised him all-in, but his suited ace, his tiny remaining stack and the pot odds combined to make a call the right play. Once he saw Jacobson's pocket 10s, he realized only the three other aces or a miracle flush would save him. His boisterous railbirds, most sporting Viking helmets and horns, bellowed for an ace, but the 3-9-10 flop, with no hearts, gave Jacobson a set of 10s, effectively ending the hand and the tournament. It left him with a $5,147,911 consolation prize.

Jacobson became the first Swede to win the main event, and the seventh consecutive winner under 30. It's perhaps more remarkable that, at 27, he's old by recent standards. Today's young wizards have contested so many online hands by the time they turn 21 that they're ready to take down live tournaments the minute they're eligible.

Unlike some previous years, when inexperienced amateurs like Hal Fowler or Jerry Yang were dealt freakishly lucky runs of cards at the final table to beat vastly more talented opponents, the last few World Series have produced both outstanding play and eminently worthy champions.

Not that luck wasn’t a factor this year, but skill was clearly predominant. Sitting in eighth place two nights ago, Jacobson’s comment was, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

As Daniel Negreanu, poker's all-time leading money winner, put it last night: "The last 3 all deserve to be here. Some of the finest poker at a WSOP final table in history."

ESPN’s audience was fortunate to be able to witness and learn from the drama.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James McManus at arramc@msn.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net