If Joe Cada rode smooth sailing all the way to the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event final table, then he’s encountered much stormier seas this time around.
En route to winning poker’s $10,000 buy-in world championship event nine years ago, Cada was never all-in before the final table and often ranked among the chip leaders. He’s rarely if ever had above an average chip stack through the first seven days of play this year, and has lost count of how many times he’s had to risk it all.
But the 30-year-old Shelby Township, Mich., native has persevered to stay afloat longer than 7,865 players, and made the final nine shortly after Midnight Thursday morning at the Rio.
“It was a lot more of a grind this time,” Cada said before adding he didn’t think he would have been capable of reaching the final table as a 21-year-old with this year’s run of cards.
“I don’t know if I would have been as patient back then.”
The focus will be on Cada, who sits in sixth with approximately 23.7 million chips, when this year’s final table begins at 5:30 tonight at the Rio and airs starting at 6 p.m. on ESPN. The tournament will play down to six players, with sessions scheduled for Friday and Saturday to follow.
Cada will be looking to claim the $8.8 million first-place prize and join Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar and Johnny Chan as the only repeat champions ever in the Main Event.
It would go down as the greatest accomplishment in the history of the tournament. Ungar is the lone three-time tournament winner, but the combined fields of his wins in 1980, 1981 and 1997 were 460 players.
The two fields Cada would have to beat out total 14,368 players.
“My game from nine years ago to today is totally different,” Cada said.
Some may argue his game is better, especially those who caught ESPN’s coverage on Wednesday night, which included a bluff for the ages. Down to 7 million chips with 11 players remaining, Cada shoved all-in on the river with nothing but Ace high after betting on every street of a 10-King-5-Jack-3 board.
The aggression forced Australian pro Alex Lynskey, who held a King for top pair, to fold after much deliberation. Cada played down praises of the hand.
“It was just situational,” he said. “I was lucky enough for a Jack or a Queen to come off because that was the only way I was going to continue with the bluff just because that board is my range. I’m playing tight, I’m raising into two chip leaders and there’s no reason why I can’t have a straight or two-pair there.”
Luck was on Cada’s side a little earlier when he went all-in with Ace-6 suited pre-flop, and got called by an opponent who held a dominant Ace-10. Cada had a 28 percent chance to survive before hitting a flush on the river to scoop the 14 million chip pot.
He never found that good of fortune in any massive spots, like the highlight hand that ended Thursday’s session. Players are notoriously tight with a Main Event final table berth on the line, so it was a surprise when Nicolas Manion, Antoine Labat and Yueqi Zhu all went all-in pre-flop with decent-sized stacks.
It all made sense when the hands were flipped over. Labat and Zhu each had pocket Kings, the second-best starting hand, but faced the misfortune of running them into Manion’s superior pocket Aces.
Manion’s hand held up to win the biggest pot of the tournament so far — around 113 million chips.
“Somehow, this is real life,” Manion said afterwards.
Manion is a small-stakes cash game player from Muskogen, Mich., who had never finished in the money in a live tournament before the Main Event. He bought in after winning a pair of $2,175 buy-in mega satellites that a friend paid for him to enter.
He’s now guaranteed at least $1 million, and likely to earn much more as the leader going into the final table with nearly 113 million chips. He edges out Michael Dyer, a Houston professional who holds more than 109 million chips.
Like Manion, Dyer was an unknown grinder before the Main Event. He hadn’t cashed in a tournament in two years and had only one in-the-money finish for five figures — a $65,905 score at the 2009 WSOP.
Together, Manion and Dyer hold 56 percent of the chips in play.
Cada, who’s gone on to win two more WSOP events since his Main Event triumph, won’t be intimidated. At one point of the 2009 final table, he was down to 2 million chips — less than 1 percent of the total in play — and fought his way back up.
He’s navigated these waters before.
“We’ll see how it turns out,” Cada said. “It’s cards — you never know.”