The final three players at the 2016 World Series of Poker main event final table came to play on Tuesday night.
Beginning with an amped up Cliff Josephy doubling through a willing to gamble Qui Nguyen, three-handed play was a whirlwind of comebacks, aggressive and care-free play, and even multiple appearances by Monty, the luckbox dog.
This wasn’t the deliberate, high-level, optimal play-only we’ve come to expect at the WSOP final table. It was visceral poker, and it was incredibly entertaining to watch.
Poker is fun again
I started to go down this path in yesterday’s column, but what Nguyen just did for the game of poker is immeasurable. Nguyen proved poker, even on its biggest stage, can actually be fun.
His play was called unconventional, unorthodox, baffling and any other superlative you can think up to describe someone doing something that goes against conventional wisdom. I call it contrarian, and it proved that there is a style of play capable of exploiting any other style of play people choose to adopt. There is no “game-theory optimal” strategy unless your opponent is also trying to play GTO.
Sure, Nguyen’s style is probably a long-term loser, but what people aren’t understanding is this is the style that gives amateur, less-skilled players the best shot at winning. And seeing it work is a good thing. All recreational players want is a chance to win, they don’t need to be +EV.
Qui made a number of missteps that could have cost him the tournament. But without millions of hands of practice, years of study, and months of serious coaching, what chance does he have of out-GTO’ing Gordon Vayo? There are two ways to outplay someone at a poker table: By being the better player, or by making a completely unorthodox move at the right time and having the heart to trust your instincts and make the play.
Chris Moneymaker’s bluff against Sammy Farha at the 2003 final table comes to mind, and in 2016 Nguyen made several such moves. You need to be a competent player, play fearlessly, have impeccable timing, and of course a bit of luck, but it can be done, you can make a “poker play” that puts pressure on your opponent and causes an error.
Nguyen did all of this. He proved you don’t need to know shove charts; you don’t need to play by the book; and you don’t need to be an online wizard to win the WSOP main event.
More importantly, you certainly don’t need to do any of those things to have fun at a poker table, whether it’s the WSOP main event or a $1/$2 no-limit game at the local card room.
On the broadcast, Antonio Esfandiari mentioned how Nguyen (with an assist from the other 2016 November Niners who all played relatively fast) was a breath of fresh air. Whenever Nguyen would take one of his unconventional lines Antonio would remark, “Mow we’re playing poker!” Meaning, Nguyen was making plays because he thought he could pull it off, not because conventional wisdom says you lead out here or value bet there.
In summary: Volatile poker is a fun style of poker to play and it’s a fun style of poker to watch.
Oh, and it’s also good for poker pros.
A 90-minute highlight reel
As good as the action was on Sunday and Monday night, the greatest 90 minutes of poker in television history happened on Tuesday. The first hour and a half of the ESPN coverage was amazing to watch.
It had everything:
- A huge double up by Josephy on the first hand when Qui Nguyen decided to gamble with an A4.
- The cooler of all coolers, when Josephy ran a set of 2’s into Gordon Vayo’s set of 3’s.
- A comeback by Josephy who won multiple all-in confrontations to grow his stack from under 10 million to over 40 million.
This all happened over the course of 10 hands.
Six hands later Josephy was eliminated, when he tried to move Nguyen off a hand, but his bluff failed. Josephy was eliminated by Vayo on the very next hand.
Josephy went from a starting stack of 46 million, to over 100 million, to under 10 million, to back over 40 million, to eliminated in third place in a span of 16 hands.
As I said in the opening, these guys came to play.[i15-table tableid=20717][i15-table tableid=19346]
Three yards and a cloud of dust
If the first 90 minutes was a highlight reel, the ensuing eight hours was like watching all 1,030 runs of LeGarrette Blount’s career. Sure, there are some exciting runs mixed in, but for the most part it’s a lot of three yards and a cloud of dust.
Nguyen applied unrelenting pressure on Vayo throughout the heads-up match, but Vayo also caught Nguyen’s hand in the cookie jar several times, and it seemed inevitable that Nguyen would eventually make a fatal misstep. Two-and-a-half hours into heads up play I called it a night, expecting to wake up in the morning and read about a Vayo victory.
I woke up and checked my phone to see who had won, only to discover the heads-up battle was still going (commentator Norman Chad quipped the 2016 final table would be up against Game 6 and Game 7 of baseball’s World Series). Nguyen was in firm control and eventually was able to finish off Vayo off.
Yesterday I remarked the WSOP needs to shorten the stacks at the final table in order to speed up play. This was on full display during the eight-hour heads-up battle between Vayo and Nguyen.
I don’t want to compromise the skillfulness of the tournament, but for the WSOP to continue to be a live event that works on TV, something has to be done. You can’t have 90 minutes of excitement followed by eight hours of deep-stack heads-up play.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but the general public isn’t interested in eight-hour heads-up grindfests, and we’ve had that twice in the past five years. Greg Merson won the 2012 main event after a 12-hour session.
Perhaps it’s simply shortening the stacks by removing a couple levels along the way. Or perhaps it’s something more unorthodox, such as raising the blinds every 10 hands during heads-up play.
The bottom line is this: If the WSOP is going to be used as a marketing tool for poker — the one poker tournament the general public might watch — it has to be watchable.
It’s not ideal for poker players playing for millions of dollars, but poker may have to tailor the main event structure to make sure it’s a viable TV product. Getting rid of the November Nine is a good starting point.
If the main event doesn’t adapt, I’m not sure we’ll be watching the WSOP on ESPN, or any other major network.