Mental Edge and the WSOP Final Table

November Nine BFF collage

As all poker fans know by now, the final table of the 2008 WSOP Main Event is going to be played in less than two weeks.

Harrah's radical decision to move it to November has been assaulted by many, praised by a few and viewed with a mixture of confusion and curiosity by the rest.

But, no matter. The day dawns, and it's time for me to think out loud about the psychological factors introduced by the four-month hiatus.

What follows are my speculations. I don't know any of the folks who've made the final table, and have no special insight into how each will handle the situation. But there are reasons for suspecting that this temporal lacuna will benefit some more than others.

Recovery from Fatigue

It took seven days and nearly 66 hours of play to get down to the final table. The break gives everyone the chance to recover.

Dennis Phillips
Breather helps the geezer.

Those who benefit the most will be those who were the most tired - most likely Dennis Phillips, 'cause geezers get tired faster than 20-somethings (trust me on this one).

What would have been a disadvantage has been removed. Phillips also gets a boost because he's older, more mature and, as he's put it, "I'm just having a blast." And, of course, he will be sitting behind a freakin' mountain of chips.

Gratification, Now or Later

Some react badly to being forced to wait for anticipated goodies - an effect that has been softened somewhat by everyone receiving ninth-place money (a shade over $900k) immediately after the final table participants were decided this summer.

Delaying the distribution of the remaining pool may impact some negatively and others not so much. Those who start to twitch when they have to sit at a dinner table waiting for everyone to be served may not have liked the time gap.

Those with a Zen-like calm about things will not be bothered. Keep in mind that whoever gets knocked out first will add exactly zero to his bankroll - and who wants to come back after four months, play one hand and get nothing but a bunch of handshakes and a TV moment?

Just contemplating this is depressing. The big stacks should be primed to take advantage.

Sharpening Your Game

I'm assuming all final-table participants took the time to analyze the play of their opponents, tease out patterns and tendencies they hadn't picked up on before and, importantly, worked on finding new ways to mix up their own games to neutralize such efforts on the part of their opponents.

Ivan Demidov
Demidov: He's a certified beast.

Several of the finalists have played in other tournaments, gaining experience and honing their skills.

If anyone got an edge on the field here, it was Ivan Demidov. Demidov has been busy, most recently in the WSOP Europe Main Event where, amazingly, he finished third.

This accomplishment certainly cements his reputation; the final table in London was heavy with talent, including Daniel Negreanu, Scott Fischman and John Juanda (who won). The "book" has Demidov as the one to beat.

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" or "Out of sight, out of mind"?

These two clichés are among my favorites as each seems so real when uttered, yet they are mutually contradictory. Which one will we see here? Will our nine survivors care as much about the final table as they would have without the delay?

You may think this sounds silly. How could they not? Nine million coconuts is a serious payday.

However, the latter cliché actually has the data behind it. As the weeks and months have dragged on, they all have lived their lives, bought clothes and cars, traveled, played in other venues, gone out to dinner, formed and reformed relationships

The significance of the final table may have psychologically diminished. For some, it may begin to look less special, more like a date marked on the calendar. Will they be able to "crank it back up?"

David 'Chino' Rheem
Advantage goes to Chino when it comes to WSOP final-table experience.

Probably, but some will get sharper, others not. If there's an advantage here I suspect it goes to the young and hungry, with Chino Rheem looking good here with two WSOP final tables to his credit.


In virtually any game, stopping play is unhelpful when things are going your way and a blessed relief if you're getting thumped. Those on a roll tend to be alert, focused and show little fatigue, while their opponents are down, distracted and exhausted.

This is why coaches call time-outs, and one reason why the second half of a game is often different from the first.

But momentum in poker is a different kind of beast. Because the luck factor is so large, momentum fluctuates more and for different reasons.

Cards are mere slips of plastic and paint. They don't "know" that they gave the same player three huge flops in a row.

The impact of momentum here, as opposed to a game like football, is largely mental, and it can shift without anyone doing anything. In football someone has to do something (interception, great run-back); in poker all it takes is the random turn of a card.

While all the players know, consciously, that each hand is independent of every other hand, the player who got hit in the head with the deck during the playdown to the final table isn't going to like this break.

Kelly Kim
But his chip stack is sooo low ...

The one who was mucking hand after hand and hanging on for dear life is breathing a sigh of relief - even though both know their feelings are based on a statistical illusion.

The lull will smooth out the momentum factor, which will benefit players who'd been card-dead. I'd give Kelly Kim an edge here, but his chip stack is sooo low ...


I could find a reason for picking any of the nine (well, if Kim takes it down, color me surprised). But, to tell the truth, the one who wins will be the one who gets lucky.

I know, I know; I'm not supposed to say that. But history is on my side. Rerun the tapes of Varkonyi, Moneymaker, Gold and Yang. What do you see?

Final Analysis

I think that a break was a good idea. But four months? Sheesh, the Super Bowl does fine with an extra week.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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