After eight hours of final table action, Jay Farber and Ryan Riess earned their way to heads-up and the final day of play in the 2013 World Series of Poker. Only 19 big blinds separate the two and when action resumes Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (on ESPN), fans will get to see two very unique styles and personalities who have the potential to shape the future of the game.
There were many highlights from the first day of the final table, but here are my biggest takeaways.
1. Play didn't exceed expectations
Many of us expected the final table to play out differently. Play in general was relatively tight, something that is rarely seen at this level of competition. The pay jumps are significant and the ability to hide your bluffs is essentially nonexistent and it seemed the players just reacted differently under these circumstances. The pressure was on and perhaps nobody was affected more than JC Tran, who went from being chip leader to completely card dead and simply struggled to get going.
"I definitely didn't expect this," Tran said. "Finishing fifth was possible, but not the way I imagined it. ... I'm not 100 percent happy with the way I played."
I guess that leads me to admit I was wrong. I tweeted last week about my perceived skill level of this final table, but after what we saw Monday night, I was clearly wrong on that. Looking at the final table as a whole before action began, we had nine players with established results, but seeing the big picture Monday night, there were spots of weakness and indecision that made many, both in attendance and on Twitter, confused. Other players may have taken and pushed their advantages in different spots, but again, under the lights with so much on the line, a typically standard decision may not be easy.
2. Coolers dominated the action
Over the past few years at the final table, the eliminations didn't come primarily from "setup" hands. The coolers during the final table (coolers are situations where big hands run into other big hands), really dominated the way everything played out. Even though Mark Newhouse doubled up with his Q-Q against Marc-Etienne McLaughlin's K-K, that hand set the tone for the evening.
The one hand that really changed the course of the event was McLaughlin's K-K against Farber's A-A for an 80-million chip pot. McLaughlin had done incredibly well getting back into contention after being the short stack for most of six-handed play, and just when everyone thought it would be a three-horse race, Farber picks up aces and happily knocks out McLaughlin. Farber also picked up aces against kings on Day 6 (versus Noah Schwartz) and that hand was pivotal to him reaching this point.
Michiel Brummelhuis and Amir Lehavot suffered similar fates in hands that just seemed to play themselves. After grinding for 8 days, a cooler is perhaps the least desirable way to be eliminated.
3. Poker can be a spectator event
Part of the intrigue about the WSOP final table is that family and friends are along for the ride. The support each of the nine players received was incredible and the emotions that these players shared during every quick break was priceless. The rails helped keep the players on even keel and the constant chants by the crowd kept the energy up. While those in attendance couldn't see the cards, the excitement in the room was palpable because of a dedicated group of friends hoping to see their player become the next world champion.
The best rail award of this year definitely goes to McLaughlin. The "Larry Walker" cheer, in reference to the former Montreal Expos star, really earned McLaughlin a few walks in the big blind. They made a difference.
There also were a number of costumes, including a few people in panda suits, who entertained everyone. Especially when a person in the aforementioned panda suit falls down in the stands, runs onto the stage and is escorted out of the Rio by security.
4. The underdogs
When you watch Tuesday night's coverage of the final table there's sure to be a lot of discussion of the backgrounds of Riess and Farber. Riess is less than two years into his poker career and already has ridden the roller coaster of emotions that comes with the pursuit. Farber really does have a day job (even though it's a night job), and that greatly limits his time playing poker. These are two players who aren't the most polished, but they play with heart and will earn the respect of all as a result.
After play and interviews concluded around 2 a.m. PT, both underdogs decided to do one more thing together Monday night -- go to the club. Farber was arranging tables before he even left the Penn and Teller Theater.
5. Sponsors are coming back
PokerStars, Full Tilt and other online sites were putting up six to seven figures for the sponsorship of players at the WSOP final table prior to Black Friday. Over the past two years, there wasn't a ton of additional sponsorship upside for the November Nine, but this year, we saw some new patches show up on the players.
From King Cobra (an Anheuser-Busch brand) to casinos to e-cigarettes to real-money daily fantasy sports sites, the majority of the nine had some interesting patchwork on their clothing. With the return of the online poker industry in the United States, more money will be invested in the future. This is a great sign for the industry and also helps to validate a reason to hold the delayed final table as it provides the players with an additional revenue stream not entirely dictated by their results on the felt.