LAS VEGAS -- Joe McKeehen had every reason to be proud of himself after winning the $7,683,346 first-place prize in the World Series of Poker’s main event Tuesday night at the Rio.
When the final table was set back in July, the 24-year-old poker pro from North Wales, Pennsylvania, was the chip leader, and he never relinquished that status from the time play resumed at 5:30 p.m. PT Sunday through the final elimination of Joshua Beckley, 25, of Marlton, New Jersey, at 8:01 p.m. PT Tuesday to claim the title and the coveted gold bracelet.
McKeehen used his big stack to perfection to put pressure on the rest of the players and avoided getting drawn into coin-flips or otherwise bleeding away chips. He was never really threatened. He was the first November Nine chip leader to go on to win the title since Jonathan Duhamel in 2010 (though Duhamel gave up his lead several times) and the most dominating final table performance since Jamie Gold in 2006 as McKeehen eliminated six of the other players himself, and eight of the last 10 overall going back to July when he was the one to eliminate Daniel Negreanu in 11th place.
“I’m very happy with myself,” he said, posing for pictures with his gold bracelet and the big pile of cash on the actual final table, as well as more photos with family, friends and dealers. “I played exactly how I wanted to from all my practice sessions with a big stack. I ran really good. Of course, I had a lot of those days.”
But there were two people watching the post-tournament festivities who were even more proud: his parents, Brent and Gina McKeehen.
“We’ve always been proud of him, but watching him do something like this is beyond our wildest dreams,” said his father, Brent, who was wearing an Arcadia University hooded sweatshirt.
The McKeehens raised Joe (who has a 10-year-old brother, Michael) in the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales and sent him to nearby Arcadia, where he officially majored in mathematics and unofficially had a second major in poker. Joe McKeehen said he first became interested in poker from watching it on TV while in high school.
“He started playing online with an account in my name, and then when he turned 18 he started going to Turning Stone [Casino in Verona, New York] on a lot of weekends,” his father said. “We questioned it a lot at the time. His mother and I both went to Penn State, and we weren’t sure it was best to have him playing poker all the time. This is a different world from anything we know.
“He gets his mindset from his mother. She’s a programmer, and logically they’re the same.”
Gina McKeehen said she also had her reservations, but she trusted her son and knew he was serious about being successful at any game he played.
“Joe has always loved games,” Gina said. “He has an incredible ability to learn. He taught himself everything: Monopoly, cribbage, canasta -- he even won a championship tournament in the game Risk. I knew he was onto something when the taught himself pinochle inside of a night.”
“I would say they were cautiously optimistic,” said Joe McKeehen, who still lives at home and is close with Michael despite their age gap. “Fortunately, I had success early.”
That’s an understatement
By the time he was senior at Arcadia in 2013, he already had four tournament wins, 18 final tables and 24 cashes. His mother said Joe worked as a cashier and a caddie while in college, but those were his only other jobs besides playing poker.
“He would make $100 during the week and $1,000 playing poker on the weekends,” his mother said. “It didn’t take him long to figure out what was the more lucrative career path.”
McKeehen’s biggest score by his senior year of college was $116,230 in a $2,150 buy-in no-limit turbo event at PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Then, while most typical college students were partying in exotic locales or working over spring break, he added a victory in the WSOP Circuit main event in Atlantic City in March 2013, worth $174,147. There was more success after college with 37 cashes, but his biggest score to date was actually a second-place finish in the inaugural WSOP Monster Stack in 2014 where he earned $820,863.
Many people have commented about McKeehen’s calm demeanor at the WSOP final table. He said that it’s a result of all the experience he’s had at final tables over the past couple of years. He’s incredibly comfortable in these situations. His parents said the main event final table was the first time watching Joe play live. His mother said they’ve often followed their son in tournaments where the action was streamed online.
“When he finished second in the Monster Stack, I stayed up all night even though I had to work in the morning,” said his father, who delivers coffee for Canteen Refreshments.
But after all those times following from a distance, there they were Tuesday night in the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. They had been content to stay in the background while their son had his picture taken over and over, that is until WSOP media director Nolan Dalla summoned them to have their picture taken with him, too.
They left the stage as media, friends and all sorts of strangers continued to congratulate their son, and as they looked back at their son in admiration, the obvious pride on their faces said more than all the other words being uttered in the theater.