Tuesday, July 18, 2017 | 4:29 a.m.
Part of the apprehension with the World Series of Poker ditching its “November Nine” format this year was that ESPN wouldn’t have adequate time to acquaint viewers with the players competing for the Main Event championship.
The final table that emerged this year after a 14-hour session concluding early Tuesday morning at the Rio minimized that problem. Two players ESPN has already documented in depth were among those to reach the group of nine that will vie for the $8.15 million first-place prize and world championship bracelet later this week.
Two former third-place finishers, 32-year-old local Ben Lamb and 33-year-old Parisian Antoine Saout, headline the final table, which will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Rio while airing on ESPN.
“It hasn’t really quite set in yet,” Lamb said in between sips of beer minutes after securing his seat. “I don’t care if you’re 10 times better than the second-best player in the world: The odds are staggering to get to the final table once, let alone twice in six years.”
In 2011, Lamb won $4,021,138 for his bronze showing in the event. That was two years after Saout cashed out for $3,479,669.
The odds are against either of them topping those finishes in this year’s tournament, which started with 7,221 players who paid the $10,000 entry fee. Lamb sits last on the leaderboard with 18 million chips, while Saout is in seventh with 21.75 million.
But they have a big experience edge over the pair of frontrunners that control more than half of the chips in play. Neither Scott Blumstein, a 25-year-old online professional from Philadelphia, nor John Hesp, a 64-year-old retiree from Bridlington, England, had ever played in the Main Event before.
“I played great, and I got some good cards at some good points,” Saout said. “It’s amazing. I don’t know what to say.”
From 2005 to 2014, the first 10 years that the Main Event drew at least 5,000 players, no one ever made the final table twice. Mark Newhouse notched poker history in 2014 and 2015 when he was twice part of the “November Nine”, coming in ninth on both occasions.
In addition to Lamb and Saout, the 2017 Main Event came extremely close to having someone join Newhouse in the back-to-back club. Michael Ruane, who finished fourth for $2,576,003 last year, was Tuesday’s final elimination, earning $825,001.
Ruane lost nearly all his chips when he called an all-in bet from Bryan Piccioli, who had the shortest stack and went all-in with pocket 10s. The pair held its narrow edge over Ruane’s Ace-King.
Piccioli was only an hour removed from a minor miracle to stay in the Main Event. He went all-in with pocket 8s, and had such a short chip stack that Saout was obligated to call out of his big blind with Ace-4.
Saout took a commanding lead when the dealer spread out two additional Aces on the flop to give him three of a kind, but Piccioli made a full-house with one of only two 8s left in the deck on the river.
“When you’re here this long, you need something like that to happen,” Piccioli said. “I’m lucky to still be here, to still be alive. That’s all you can ask for.”
Albeit to a lesser extent than Lamb and Saout, Piccioli is another recognizable face at the final table to poker fans. Online poker tracking sites have rated the 28-year-old from Allegany, N.Y. as one of the best players in the world for years.
He came in 84th for $67,855 in last year’s Main Event, and won a World Series of Poker bracelet four years ago in Australia. During ESPN’s coverage of the action on Tuesday, Lamb intimated that there was only one other player left in the field he feared.
He wouldn’t divulge his identity, but the odds would strongly favor that he was referring to Piccioli.
Lamb and Piccioli both have the chance to join Greg Merson, the 2012 champion, as the second player in the last 15 years to win the Main Event while already owning a WSOP bracelet.
“I’ve had a blast these last three, four days,” Lamb said. “When I got deep, obviously $8 million is huge but the (expletive) bracelet is huge....I kind of want it.”
Lamb was considered the Main Event favorite in 2011, when he was coming off of winning the WSOP’s pot-limit Omaha championship and the overall Player of the Year award. But he lost a big pot early in three-handed play, and could never recover as Pius Heinz went on to win.
Saout’s third-place exit in 2009 was more vicious. Saout, who had arguably outplayed everyone at the final table, managed to goad eventual champion Joe Cada into committing all his chips with pocket 2s against his own pocket Queens.
Saout had an 81 percent chance to win the hand and take a commanding lead into heads-up play against amateur Darvin Moon, but a 2 spiked on the flop to give Cada the pot.
Most assumed that would be the most memorable poker moment involving Saout. He set his mind on taking it further.
“Sometimes you just have something that happens for you, and it’s the Main Event for me,” Saout said. “It was my first big tournament and I went to the final, and last year I made it to 25, and this year, here I am in the final.”