Monday, July 15, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Like a pair of predators crossing paths in the wild, Hossein Ensan and Garry Gates proceeded cautiously.
The two chip leaders in the World Series of Poker Main Event spent a few extra seconds analyzing each other in their lone one-on-one encounter in a hand Sunday night at the Rio. They even lightly threatened each other in the form of a couple bets after the dealer spread the first three community cards.
But they paused from there, passing on any further action to leave their chip stacks almost fully intact. There was no need for the apexes to tangle heavily with other more vulnerable prey still readily available.
“At some stage, we’re going to get involved in some pots,” Gates said afterward. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. It’s not something I need to think of too much right now. I’ve been picking my spots well.”
Ensan, a 55-year-old Iranian-German poker pro, and Gates, a 37-year-old local poker industry veteran, came into the first night of the final table with about a combined 54% of the chips in play. Their collective advantage only became more pronounced after a four-hour, 56-hand session, as they now hold roughly 74% of the chips.
Ensan ran his stack up to 207.7 million chips from a 177 million start on Sunday, with Gates gaining on him by going from 99.3 million to 171.7 million.
Poker is an intrinsically volatile game, but odds are now heavily skewed in favor of either Ensan or Gates becoming poker’s world champion and winning the $10 million first-place prize on Tuesday night. The tournament will resume at 6:30 tonight with plans to play down from five players to three, and the final round is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. ESPN will air the entirety of the final table.
“I like Garry Gates’ chances,” said Nick Marchington, who was eliminated in seventh place on Sunday. “He really gets in the mix. He isn’t afraid to go for it — Hossein as well.”
Gates claimed the first tournament life of the final table, using an Ace-Queen starting hand to send out short-stacked Serbian pro Milos Skrbic, who held a dominated Ace-Jack, in the third pot of the night. A few minutes later, Ensan busted out a foe of his own with Ace-Jack outraced Boston software engineer Timothy Su’s pocket 3s.
The fast start set a standard for the rest of the night, as the table seemed at the mercy of the two chip leaders — and they showed little.
“I felt like everyone played pretty snug for the most part,” Gates said. “I didn’t see anyone get out of line, and that was probably partially due to the top two stacks being as big as they are.”
That doesn’t mean there’s no potential danger lurking. The consensus best player at the table, Italian pro Dario Sammartino, can be stealthy.
The high-stakes regular with just short of $3.5 million in previous WSOP cashes didn’t pull off anything spectacular Sunday, but sometimes self-preservation takes precedence. Sammartino entered the final table in sixth, so he’s already snuck up at least one spot in the payouts — all five players are now guaranteed at least $2.2 million — even though he’s left with a short stack of 23.1 million chips.
“If he doubles up,” Skrbic said, “I can see him winning.”
The other two players still in contention shouldn’t be discounted either, even though they’re taking heat from the poker community. Chicago IT professional Kevin Maahs, in third place, was criticized throughout Sunday's action for incessant tanking — taking longer than necessary to make decisions and holding up the game.
Some of the social-media scorn eventually shifted to fourth-place Alex Livingston, a Canadian professional, when he cowered to Gates in one of the final hands of the night. Livingston held the third-best starting hand, pocket Queens, but folded to a pre-flop re-raise from Gates, who had pocket 10s.
It looked like a perfect, and standard, spot for Livingston to secure a double-up and shake up the leaderboard. Instead, Maahs made a leap a few hands later when his pocket 9s held up to beat Zhen Chai’s Ace-King and knock out the Florida pro in fifth place.
“In a way, just having a hand every single time, you get that respect, I guess,” Gates said of Livingston’s scrutinized fold. “You need those kinds of hands and you need them to work in your favor to get through this thing. I was fortunate in that spot.”
He also may have been fortunate that there weren’t many predestined meetings with Ensan. Even if the chip leaders wanted to mix it up more aggressively, they didn’t have much of a chance on the first night, as their biggest starting hands never seemed to align.
But the avoidance can only last so long. With the smaller stacks going extinct at a near-record pace — the plan was to play down to six players on Sunday but that happened so fast that ESPN opted to keep going until another elimination — the kings of the Rio jungle will soon have nowhere else to turn but toward each other.
“To think that Hossein and I have what we have, I think the bottom three guys are a little strapped in that way,” Gates said. “The dynamic is definitely interesting.”