On the evening of Nov. 8, nine men will confront one another across a card table in Las Vegas. They will be competing for the largest sum of money awarded in any competition—including the US Open, the Masters, and the Indy 500 combined. The winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event will go home with $7,680,021.
Culled from a starting field of 6,420 (all of whom paid $10,000 to enter), they’ll play until just a single contender remains. Once cards are in the air, spectators and players will focus on a sullen, monotone, bearded young man from North Wales, Pennsylvania.
With more than 63 million in chips—twice that of his nearest competitor—24-year-old Joe McKeehen is a serious favorite to take down the poker tournament, make history, and receive a life-changing sum of money.
To have watched him reach this coveted point, however, you’d never know that it was much of a big deal. You’d think he has hell of a poker face, and he does. But he insists that his blank-slate of a face is not part of an elaborate mind game.
“I tend not to wear my emotions as much as other people,” he told The Daily Beast.
When he got to the November Nine and snagged a seven-figure paycheck (everyone who makes the final table leaves with at least $1-million), McKeehan did not necessarily look joyful, and he knows it.
“It felt good to make the final table and there are some pictures of me smiling. But, for a lot of the tournament, I had been thinking that I would make it anyway. I just went about things in a business-like way.”
Flush with a fresh million, he had his own style of celebrating his final-table position.
“I went to Subway, ate a sandwich, and went to bed,” he said. “The next day I flew home to Pennsylvania.”
How did he spend the nearly four months between making the final table and actually playing it?
“Just relaxing,” he says. “I live a pretty low key life. I like to watch football games on TV. I prefer that to seeing the games in person.”
The next closest stack is Zvi Stern’s 29 million. Chip trailer at the final table is Federico Butteroni. A buoyant Italian with just 6 million, his temperament at the table starkly contrasts McKeehen’s.
“A beautiful thing happens to Joe and he says nothing?” said Butteroni, marveling at a hand that launched McKeehen’s ascent. “I’m not saying he’s wrong, but I want people to see my feelings.”
If Butteroni has a preservation plan that will keep him from tangling with the chip leader and busting out in ninth place, he may be out of luck.
McKeehen began playing online at age 16, won a Risk championship five years ago, and accrued $250,000 in winnings before graduating college with a math degree. And on Sunday, he plans on showing no mercy.
“Certain people will try to avoid me, but I will play against everyone,” McKeehen warns. “It’s tough to play a big stack if he knows what he is doing. He’ll put a lot of pressure on you. And if you’re not comfortable with your reads and the spots you pick, you’ll throw away hundreds of thousands in chips. My job will be to put people into difficult situations. I will do that.”
Certainly McKeehen knows how to do it. He’s made dozens of final tables, closed 13 of them, and managed to win a cool $90,000 soon after returning to Vegas earlier this week.
His latest first-place tournament finish transpired at the Wynn.
“It was extremely valuable to play a final table while I am waiting to play the final table. The experience was very welcoming, and I don’t think I played differently because the $90,000 is less meaningful than it would have been [before making the Main Event’s final table],” McKeehan said.
“When I am in the zone, I am a very good player. Unfortunately, I don’t bring my A-game 100-percent of the time. I wish I could.”
When he sits down on Nov. 8, McKeehan is hoping that A-game will be present. One thing is for sure: He won’t be distracted by the gargantuan payoff and publicity that comes to whoever wins the thing.
“I don’t care about fame and I’m not thinking about the money,” McKeehen says. “If I win, I probably won’t do much with it anyway. My life won’t change.”
No doubt, though, he will never want for a Subway sandwich.