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November Nine:

Players at poker’s Main Event final table bring diversity to big stage

WSOP Final Table

Associated Press

The final nine players who will go on to the final table wait with their chips following the World Series of Poker at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 15, 2009.

Q&A with Jeff Shulman

Final Table Chip Count

Showing Their Cards

With the final table set, ESPN's Norman Chad and Lon McEachern weigh in on life behind the scenes of the World Series of Poker.

There’s a logger from western Maryland, the world’s best poker player and a former Wall Street executive. There’s a magazine editor and a kid who just turned 21 years old. There’s also a professional from New York, a professional from South Florida, a professional from England and a professional France.

“You put all that together and it’s the best mix I could ask for,” ESPN poker commentator Norman Chad said.

Together, those nine make up the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event final table, which kicks off at noon Saturday at the Penn & Teller Theater in the Rio.

It’s a collection both rich in storylines and talent. Many consider it to be the best Main Event final table since poker burst into the mainstream five years ago.

“I have no basis for comparing it to other final tables,” said Steven Begleiter, who enters the final table in third place. “But I will tell you these are really good players — really, really good players. I’m real excited to go up against them.”

Begleiter worked as the head of corporate strategy for Bear Stearns before the global investment company collapsed in 2007 and was bought by JP Morgan.

The only players currently ahead of Begleiter are Darvin Moon and Eric Buchman. Moon is a pine logger from Oakland, Md., and won his spot in the Main Event through a satellite tournament in Wheeling, W.Va. Buchman is a poker professional from New York.

“Each player brings a different element to it,” Chad said. “They are all equally fascinating to me.”

Most of the pre-final table buzz, however, centers on Phil Ivey. At 33, Ivey has already won seven World Series of Poker events, which is the sixth most of any player.

Chad said if Ivey won, it would be monumental for poker. The rationale is if the world’s greatest player wins the world’s largest tournament, it would be a defining statement to how much skill is involved in a game many consider to be luck.

Even other players at the table are finding it hard to root against Ivey. Jeff Shulman, who is in fourth place and works as the editor of CardPlayer magazine, said Ivey was undoubtedly the most intimidating force still around.

“Phil Ivey is the greatest,” Joe Cada, currently in fifth place, said. “If I don’t win, I hope he wins.”

At 21, Cada is the youngest player at the final table. If he wins, he will be the youngest world champion ever.

Cada represents the new age of poker in that he plays mostly online and turned professional at a young age. At the other end of the spectrum is Kevin Schaffel, a 51-year old from Miami.

Schaffel is the oldest member of the final table and plays almost exclusively in live games. He turned professional after his kids grew up and he got tired of running his own printing company.

“It’s a good mix of people in this one,” Schaffel said. “Everybody’s playing well and has gotten their share of luck to get here. It’s going to be real interesting to see what happens.”

The last two members of the final tables are James Akenhead from London and Antoine Saout from Saint Martin Des Champs, France.

Although Saout and Akenhead are eighth and ninth in chips, respectively, they are far from easy outs. They both proved their mettle by making the final table in the World Series of Poker Europe Main Event in September.

Around the same time, Begleiter and Schaffel showed they were no one-hit wonders with final table appearances in the World Poker Tour’s Legends of Poker Tournament in Los Angeles.

The nine players have combined to win nearly $20 million in tournaments in their career. No one has it easy on this year’s final table.

“I’m just glad some of them don’t have more chips,” Begleiter said. “Because, then it would make it really hard to go against them.”

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