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April 24, 2014

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THE INSIDE STRAIGHT:

‘A chip and a chair’ axiom proven again at World Series of Poker

Winner’s comeback recalls improbable 1982 win of Jack Straus

Image

Steve Marcus

Joe Cada, left, a 21-year-old poker professional from Michigan, competes against Darvin Moon, right, a 45-year-old logger from Maryland, during the World Series of Poker tournament at the Rio on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009. Cada beat Moon to win $8.5 million in prize money.

Joe Cada wins WSOP

Joe Cada celebrates after winning the 2009 World Series of Poker at The Rio. Launch slideshow »

The night before play began at the final table of the World Series of Poker, I spoke with Tony Shelton, seeking a vintage Las Vegas perspective on the tournament.

A semiretired poker insider, Shelton used to run the high-stakes cash games at the World Series for Jack and Benny Binion at the Horseshoe downtown.

Shelton likes to say he has no larceny in his heart, but he does have a good deal of hustle in there. That’s probably why he has been a confidant to the gambling world’s outlaws as well as its straight-laced corporate executives.

In Shelton’s experience, year after year veteran Las Vegas poker pros cheer for the same type of player in the World Series of Poker’s main event.

“They’re rooting for the guy they can beat for the most money after the tournament’s over, the guy who’s going to take his prize money and use it to test himself in the big cash games,” Shelton said.

Shelton was working the 1982 World Series won by Jack Straus, a tournament that lives on in Las Vegas lore and was invoked more than once during this year’s final table.

At one point in the 1982 event, Straus appeared to push all his chips in on a bluff and lost the pot. He was about to leave, but he had overlooked a single chip stuck between the table and the rail.

“There was a big discussion about whether they were going to let him keep playing,” Shelton said. “They finally said, what the (expletive), it’s only one chip. Jack took it and he never stopped moving all-in. He ended up coming all the way back.”

His victory gave poker the phrase, “a chip and a chair,” meaning as long as you have one of each you still have a chance in a tournament.

“When he won, all pandemonium broke loose,” Shelton said. “Everybody was rooting for Jack. He was good to everybody.”

•••

It’s too soon to call it a tradition, but the new format of the World Series of Poker, with a break in the action of nearly four months before the final table, has created one encouraging spinoff: The annual Poker Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony coincides with the final table, which in turn attracts a gathering of former champions and other legends of the game.

On Saturday, Doyle Brunson took center stage at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio to proclaim, “Shuffle up and deal.” Talk about pandemonium breaking loose.

I caught up with Brunson on Sunday at Blush nightclub at Wynn Las Vegas, where he was signing copies of his newly published autobiography, “The Godfather of Poker,” to find out what was going through his mind as he stood there on the slick set in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 1,500 fans in the theater.

“Just amazement,” Brunson said. “Thinking about how in the world something like that can happen. I thought it was a mistake to delay the final table, but obviously I was wrong. They’ve made such a big event out of it.”

They played poker through the night Saturday, stopping for a day’s break when the field was pared to its final two: 21-year-old Joe Cada of Shelby Township, Mich., and 46-year-old Darvin Moon, a logger from western Maryland.

At his lowest point at the final table, Cada held just 1 percent of the chips in play. The phrase “1 percent of the chips and a chair” doesn’t have quite the same ring, but it might have been the most unlikely comeback since Straus in ’82.

“It is similar,” Brunson said. “I was sitting right there with Straus when he did it that year. And not only that, but the year Sailor Roberts won it (1975), he had only a small stack of chips. So it certainly can be done.”

Brunson rode his motorized scooter Saturday night past the jumbo portraits of World Series of Poker winners that line the hallway at the Rio. The living champions besides Brunson appear in color. Those who are deceased are portrayed in black and white.

“When I went by, I saw Sailor, Straus, Johnny Moss,” Brunson said. “It brought back a lot of memories. It’s hard to believe they’re gone. Time marches on.”

•••

The Poker Hall of Fame added one new member this year: Mike Sexton, who has cashed in 47 World Series of Poker events and became one of the game’s most popular personalities as a TV analyst for the World Poker Tour.

I asked Sexton for his take on the heads-up match before Cada and Moon resumed play Monday night at the Rio.

“They say the one guy (Moon) might be next Chris Moneymaker, but if indeed he does what he says he’s going to do, and decides to go hibernate and stay out of the limelight, then honestly I’ll be pulling for the 21-year-old young man to win,” Sexton said. “I think it will bring more players into the game. I think this guy will be around the poker world and continue to promote poker.

“I’m always rooting for somebody to win the main event who’s going to give back to poker, to promote the game, do interviews, do seminars, go out and meet and greet people.”

For Sexton, the most satisfying aspect of his hall of fame induction is the impact it will have on his 1-year-old son, Ty Michael, later in his life.

“All those famous names we know about — Chip Reese, Stuey (Ungar), Moss, Doyle — to be associated with that group is pretty special,” Sexton said. “I also think of my son and how when he’s up in junior high or high school, the other kids will be coming up to him and saying, ‘Wow, Ty’s old man is in the Poker Hall of Fame. That’s pretty cool.’

“And it is.”

•••

Cada became the youngest player to win the World Series of Poker main event early Tuesday when his pocket 9s held up against Moon’s queen-jack. Cada won $8.55 million.

It looks as if Sexton was accurate in his assessment of Cada. When World Series commissioner Jeffrey Pollack handed him the microphone on stage, Cada’s first action was to call for a round of applause for Moon and the other finalists.

Cada said he looks forward to acting as an ambassador for poker.

“I’ll definitely embrace that,” he said. “I want to see poker grow.”

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