Glenn Pinkerton/Las Vegas News Bureau
Thursday, July 20, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Pedro Oliveira swaggered off to his dinner break from the World Series of Poker Main Event on Monday night.
With the field down to 14 players, the Portugal native and Brazil-based poker professional felt confident he would be one of the nine to guarantee himself a minimum $1 million payday by making the final table.
“With the competition that I play on a daily basis online and in high-stakes games, that competition is way, way harder,” Oliveira told Poker News. “I’m not saying there are not good players, there are a few good players, but there are a few amateurs in a $10,000 buy-in with $8.15 million for first — it’s sweet.”
Two hours later, one of those amateurs, 64-year-old John Hesp, jettisoned Oliveira from the tournament. With Oliveira going all-in with the worse hand — two-pair against Hesp’s flush — it sure looked like he committed the cardinal sin of the Main Event: Underestimating the unknown players.
It’s a lesson everyone should heed headed into the final table of this year’s world championship event, which plays out for the next three nights starting at 6 p.m. from the Rio. ESPN2 airs the Main Event tonight before coverage switches to ESPN on Friday and Saturday.
There’s a particularly wide gap between the most and least established players left in this year’s tournament, which started with 7,221 players who paid the $10,000 entry fee. Instantly recognizable names to poker fans like Ben Lamb, Antoine Saout and Bryan Piccioli contrast with the likes of Hesp and Dan Ott, two of the more anonymous players to ever advance this far.
Neither Hesp nor Ott had ever cashed in a World Series of Poker event before this summer. The same can be said for chip leader Scott Blumstein and table aggressor Jack Sinclair.
After four in-the-money finishes between the four of them in preliminary events, their combined WSOP earnings adds up to $7,744 — nearly a thousand times less than the $6.2 million Lamb has made at the Rio on his own.
“There’s some crazy people at the table,” Lamb said.
But those so-called crazies have controlled the modern Main Event, dating back long before local Qui Nguyen rose out of obscurity to claim the championship bracelet last year. Nguyen’s victory made it the fourth time in the last five years that an amateur finished in the top three of the Main Event.
It also gave amateur players eight wins since 2002, as compared with only seven by the professionals. Although they had never entered in the Main Event before, Blumstein and Sinclair wouldn’t count as amateurs as they’ve both made their livings in recent years by playing online and in small-stakes tournaments.
But Hesp and Ott would certainly qualify. Hesp specifically feels like the Nguyen of this year’s final table, his vibrantly colored and designed suit matching the inexplicable raccoon hat worn by last year’s champion.
Like Nguyen, Hesp comes into the final table second in chips riding an unorthodox playing style that has flummoxed the others.
“John is, some say odd, but I wouldn’t say odd,” Saout said. “He’s a very nice guy, and plays different from us, but he’s played great. He’s got a big stack.”
Saout has the right outlook, perhaps because he’s been through this before. He finished third in the 2009 Main Event, one spot behind Darvin Moon, a logger from rural Maryland whose story was reveled as one of the most unlikely in the history of the tournament.
Moon’s final-table berth is no more improbable than Hesp’s, though. The Bridlington, England native only began playing a couple years ago after, “semi-retiring,” from his business selling vacation caravan homes.
He became a regular in a weekly £10 — equivalent to about $13 — tournament near his home town, and only traveled to enter the Main Event to fulfill a bucket-list item.
But background doesn’t matter at this stage of the tournament. Not only do the lesser-known players hold most of the chips; they also have a history of uprooting the more decorated competition.