Friday, July 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
So many chips were concentrated in the two seats directly to the dealer’s left at the beginning of play Thursday night at the Rio that it’s a surprise the World Series of Poker Main Event final table wasn’t tilted.
Scott Blumstein and John Hesp spent nearly the first four hours of play with more chips than all the other players combined, and acted with an accompanying confidence. They played more hands than anyone else, egged each other on to expose cards after winning pots and joked around when they faced off in small spots.
The celebration couldn’t last; they were on a collision course.
“Coming into today with how big our stacks were and how active he is, I kind of figured that would be the case,” Blumstein said.
The fateful moment came on the 43rd hand of the final table of poker’s world championship, which started with 7,221 players plunking down the $10,000 entry fee. Blumstein, who trailed Hesp by about 30 million chips, held pocket Aces against his new friend’s Ace-10.
The first four community cards came down Ace-7-5-10, a cruel turn of events for Hesp who had a usually dominant two-pair that stood no chance against Blumstein’s three of a kind. A raising war between the two players ensued that wound up with Blumstein all-in to create a tournament-high 156 million chip pot that he couldn’t lose regardless of the last community card.
Blumstein, a 25-year-old professional from Morristown, N.J., was able to add to his lead before the end of the first of three straight nights of poker. He’ll return to a stack of 178.3 million chips at 5:30 p.m. tonight at the Rio, more than double any of the other six finalists still alive competing for the $8.15 first-place prize and championship bracelet.
The plan was to get down to the final six on Thursday, but ESPN decided to halt at seven players because of all the short stacks. That should increase the odds of more play tonight, where the plan is for the final three to emerge.
“We didn’t even knock out the amount of people we were supposed to, so I’m not counting any chickens before they hatch,” Blumstein said. “You can’t in this game. Having a big stack, though, is obviously imperative and I’m just excited I can come back tomorrow, be pretty free and play my game.”
The only other time in recent history a player accumulated so many chips so early at the final table was two years ago, when Joe McKeehen turned his comparable advantage into an easy first-place victory. Hesp, a 64-year-old semi-retired vacation caravan home salesman from Bridlington, England, who had become a fan favorite, is down to 22.5 million chips.
The only player who could remotely threaten Blumstein at the moment is 34-year-old Benjamin Pollak, a 34-year-old from Paris with 77.5 million chips. Blumstein admitted to being wary of Pollak, who’s sitting in an advantageous position directly to the chip leader’s left.
“Once these short stacks start to bust,” Blumstein said, “I think it might be me and him going at it.”
With the other five players separated by a relatively small 21 million chips, action slowed to a crawl for the final hour and a half Thursday after Blumstein’s massive win over Hesp. The pay jump from seventh to fourth accounts for more than $2 million, leaving the closely bunched players unwilling to gamble with so much money on the line.
The Blumstein vs. Hesp encounter overshadowed two players busting as the biggest hand of the night. Jack Sinclair went out in eighth when he ran his last few chips into Bryan Piccioli’s pocket Aces.
Sinclair’s stack had dwindled ever since he ended local pro Ben Lamb’s quest to top a third-place finish six years ago on the fourth hand of the night. Lamb stuck to his plan to be aggressive, but ran his Ace-9 into Sinclair’s Ace-Queen.
“I had more time (in 2011) so quite a different experience, but I had a blast playing in this tournament for the last week,” Lamb said. “This tournament, it’s the most fun form of poker there is in the world.”
“Fun” was how many described the final table early in the night with the animated Hesp driving interaction between the players. He got a lot more silent after shipping so many chips over to Blumstein.
“He lost a big chunk of his stack, so I can obviously understand it’s not going to be all fun and games afterwards,” Blumstein said. “I hope he gets some sleep, comes back tomorrow. He’s still in and hopefully we’ll have more fun.”