If you make the main event final table of the World Series of Poker you are, in the words of one of my favorite movie characters ever, Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal. The November Nine concept heightened that factor even more, as the players get to become household names before they take their seats to play that final table out. The nine players receive hundreds of interview requests from everywhere, and they join the fleeting poker spotlight for these four months and can soak everything in and happily oblige to speak their minds. Add in the financial and promotional incentives from sponsors and you can understand why the 10-handed final table bubble is so important, if a player wants to make a name for himself in the industry.
After the exhausting two weeks of play in Las Vegas in July, the players were tired and thankful for the hiatus. However, that grace period doesn't last long. Thoughts about every potential situation at the final table fill the minds of the players. Sleep becomes more difficult and focusing on the ordinary seems impossible. Now more than three months later and with the final table quickly approaching, it's about the time to finally put everything aside and focus on the major task at hand. There is one player out of the nine at that final table who, above the rest, wants no more prep time and is ready to just get the hype out of the way and get straight to the action. That player is John Dolan.
The 24-year-old Florida native is all business. He entered Day 8 with one of the shortest stacks in the field, 24 out of 27, but efficiently became one of the chip leaders, nearly doubling his stack during the 10-handed final table bubble. He ended the day with the second-largest stack heading into the final table and is one of two players that will enter the biggest night of his career with an above-average stack.
"I think it finally has [hit me] now, but for the first few months I don't think it had," said Dolan about his incredible accomplishment. "It almost feels like the tournament is over [in July], the way you get to finally breathe out once you get to nine people left. I think it has finally hit me, but I don't think it'll really hit me until we get to the Penn and Teller theater and we'll be like, 'wow, this is the final nine of the WSOP main event. This is every poker player's dream to be here. It's amazing.'"
If you've been watching Dolan on the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN every Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, you've seen the same thing from him each time he shares the frame. He's wearing a grey hoodie and sports an open-mouth stare that emits limited enthusiasm or excitement. At one point, he may have cracked a smile or said a word, but by constantly being quiet and reserved, he has built a character for himself thus far and it couldn't be further from the actual person that interacts with ease away from the felt.
In most of the hands on television at this point, Dolan has been one of the shorter stacks, looking for a key double up, but its noted that his attention to detail may be unrivaled, as hand-by-hand he simply tries to build his stack by making the best decision possible without anything external affecting his thought process. That aspect of his game has come from experience and is one of the best characteristics a player can have.
"I feel like [not letting the moment hit me is] real crucial in poker, and it's the way I play my best at all times," he said. "I almost separate emotion from every aspect in poker, and I try not to get too emotional, no matter what tournament I'm playing or how deep I get. I'm not saying I'm immune to it, but it's what I go for and it's how I play better."
Keeping himself collected and focused on the end goal has led Dolan to substantial success on the felt throughout his short career that began in the same way that the careers of many younger players have these days, in home games with friends. After enjoying the college life, he played extensive amounts online, first succeeding in sit-and-go tournaments, then moving on to multi-table tournaments. A couple of big scores later, Dolan had a bankroll which led him to a couple of major mistakes along his path to poker excellence.
"It was probably more success than I deserved," Dolan said of his first few tournament wins. "At the time I was just playing. I was extremely young, very naive about poker. I feel I have a lifetime of knowledge compared to what I had back then. I ran through a bunch of money, ran it back up a couple times and I don't think I was learning much more, I was just playing. I was down-swinging, taking shots, uneducated about bankroll management and ended up, through a friend that I played high school baseball with, meeting with Brian "SNo0oWMAN" Hawkins who was having a sick year and he ended up backing me. It was blind luck and perfect timing.
"He started helping me and that's when I started to learn and become a student of the game. I really owe so much to him. He helped me out with so many aspects of the game. Without him there's no way I'd be here today."
Hawkins, one of the most successful online poker players in the world, is thrilled to see one of his good friends at the final table and praised his chances, almost noting that it was luck that their paths should cross.
"We were friends of a friend and he lived in my area," Hawkins said. "We started talking about poker and and he picked my brain, and that's how it all started. I think he would probably have found a way [to poker success without me] to be honest, but I was fortunate enough to come along his path, and I definitely helped him a lot."
That help included studying hand histories, theories and general strategies of the game in addition to Hawkins' financial support. The only downside for Hawkins is that prior to this year's WSOP, he had all of Dolan's action, and now he has a third. In any case, he'll be there supporting his friend and student in Las Vegas.
"He has a great chance at the final table," Hawkins said. "He's a competitor. He always played sports and stuff and he'll be ready. He'll put everything aside and concentrate on the game. [He should remember to] not try to be a hero that night. Even with all the cameras on, [he needs to] just play his game."
That game will be the same one he's been playing professionally since the day he dropped out of college at Florida State after two years to pursue his new career path. His family didn't quite know how to respond at that time, but with his success a new point of view has emerged from the Dolan family.
"In the beginning [my parents] were, obviously, as every parent would be when you tell them you are dropping out of college to play poker for a living, they were very skeptical," Dolan said. "However, at the same time they never said, 'you can't do this.' They were still supportive. I remember my dad saying that I better go back to school and pick up a book or something like that a few months into doing it, but at the same time, he was always telling his friends. He was proud of it, but he always wanted me to have something to fall back on. My mom just wanted me to be happy in anything I did."
On Nov. 6 Dolan's family, mom (Kathy), dad (John), brother (Jason) and sister (Jessica), will be present at the Rio to share that support. The family is thrilled to see their oldest son in this spot, but Dolan admits he's trying to keep the rest of the family out of the poker world.
"I try to keep the rest of the family normal," Dolan said. "My parents had enough headaches with me dropping out of school and [my brother is] one semester away from graduating and maybe he'll get a real job. My family is probably happier about it all for me than I am. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled and very fortunate to be here, but I guess the general people get some much more thrilled about it than the players do. They've been very supportive."
The support will be necessary as Dolan faces some of the toughest players in the world where one night will change the lives of nine individuals. Dolan understands the logic, the math and everything that goes along with the game. Now, it's time to see if this 24-year-old is able to finish off the run of a lifetime and complete his dream of becoming the next WSOP main event champion.