Poker legend TJ Cloutier shares tales from the poker trail.
In comparison to some of the final tables over the past few years, the 2009 November Nine is a strong final table stocked with quality players all the way down the line. This yearís final nine isnít like some other years when pure luck got them there. Sure, Darvin Moon, the chip leader, was dealt some big hands, but he also played them well.
Moon is probably the least known player at the final table. Heís a super nice guy with a big, big chip lead. Iíve watched Darvin enough on TV footage to pick up on his play a little bit, and once or twice Iíve seen him call big raises with hands like A-10. But if he doesnít marry A-10 or A-J at the championship table, he has a very good chance to win.
Moon has such a huge lead, he can afford to just sit back and let the play come to him. I think that if heís smart, heíll let the other guys pick each other off before he makes any moves. He admits that heís been catching the deck, sure, but thereís no way I see him either not winning the whole enchilada or coming in second if he just plays good poker. And it looks to me as though he knows a little more about the game than what he lets on that he knows. I give him creditóheís my favorite. With his huge chip lead (58.9 million), I donít see anybody at the table whoís going to catch up with him.
Eric Buchman, in second place with 34.8 million in chips, seems to be a very good player. I havenít seen him make any big mistakes, and further, heís accustomed to playing for real money. I donít think the ambience of the situation will take over, I think heíll be able to handle all of the outside stuff and just play poker. A lot of people become dazzled by the money and the bright lights, but I donít think thatíll bother Ericóand Darvin Moon is so laid back, I donít think itíll get to him either. I give Eric quite a chance to win it.
Next up is Steve Begleiter in third with 29.9 million in chips. Iíve seen him play quite a few hands on TV, and Iíve noticed one real hole in his game: He likes to get all his chips in play with little pairs like nines, tens and jacks. Two or three times heís lost big, big pots with those kinds of hands. He could definitely be the chip leader if he hadnít played those pots, because he lost a lot of money in them, but he always seems to come back from them. Steve used to work for Bear Stearns on Wall Street, so heís accustomed to handling big money. He appears to be a very smart man, but I think he has to stop trying to satisfy his fansóhe gets up from the table and runs over to themóand worry more about just winning the damn tournament.
Jeff Shulman is sitting in fourth place with 19.6 million in chips. Jeff was at the final table with me in 2000 when he came in seventh. Admittedly, heís a much better player today than he was then because he has more experience. But one thing he has not yet mastered is the art of the bluff. Jeff has a tendency to make big-money bluffsótiming is everything in poker and big bluffs must be timed correctly. If he just plays poker, though, he has a good chance of finishing on top. He hired Phil Hellmuth as a coach, but I donít see any way that anybody can play Philís style other than Phil himself. He plays the olí ďI raise and then as soon as the flop comes down, I automatically check.Ē That might not be the best thing to do at the final tableóand believe me, Iím very good at the final table. Win Ďem or lose Ďem, Iím on Ďem.
Next in line is the young kid among them, Joseph Cada, with 13.2 million. But Cada is only young in age. Nowadays, these kids have played so many hands on line, itís incredible. I admit that playing online is different from looking somebody in the eye, but if Joe can tune into the little nuances of playing at the final table, he might get there. He seems to be a pretty sharp kid. I havenít seen him play enough to make many comments about him, but itís a sure thing that he wouldnít be there if he couldnít play poker.
Kevin Schaffel is in sixth place with 12.4 million in chips. Kevin just might be the dark horse in this yearís race. He has chip position over two very experienced players, Phil Ivey and James Akenhead, who are both short-stacked and probably will have to make some moves to stay in it. Kevin has made some big scores in tournaments, taking home $60K in the 2004 WSOP main event, and $471K for finishing second at the WPT Legends of Poker this year just after making it to the November Nine.
Now we get to Phil Ivey, sitting in seventh place. He is absolutely brilliant when it comes to learning everything about poker and working out what his opponents are doing. Iím talking about his ability to add things to his own game, not about picking up on bluffs (which might be his weakest link) or similar things. Other than Doyle Brunsonówho is still the king of pokeróif I had to pick the best all-around player since Chip Reese died, it would be Phil Ivey. But even with all his experience in the Big Game and his tournament victories, Phil has quite a bit to overcome at this final table. He only has 9.8 million in chips against the chip leaderís 58.9 and second spotís 34.8 million, so he has a long way to go.
Also, I donít know whether any of his opponents have noticed, but when I watched him on TV, I saw a few betting patterns that people could pick up on when Phil had a hand or when he didnít have a hand. I wonít go into them any further, but he can review the tapes and see what Iím talking about. All the finalists can get the tapes and study them, so they should know all the quirks that every player has. Itís not like it was when we used to play the final tableóthese guys have had four months to prepare.
I donít think holdíem is Philís number-one game; I believe stud and the split-pot games are his strongest. Still, heís a very good holdíem player, and if I had to pick one player over the other at even chips, Iíd choose him every time. But thatís with even chips. I just wonder if heís gonna have to make some moves early, plus if youíve seen him play over the years, youíve noticed that he doesnít seem to be able to lay down two jacks before the flop. Iím sure he knows this so Iím not telling anything out of school. If he lets the other guys knock themselves out for a while, and gathers a few chips and works his way along, maybe heíll get there. If he makes it to the final two, heís won it as far as Iím concerned. But first heís gotta get thereóand thatís gonna be hard to do with so few chips. Of course I never rule Phil out of anything.
Now comes Antoine Saout, the Frenchman, in eighth place with 9.5 million in chips. France had three players who made the final two tables, and all of them played pretty damned good. Of the final nine, he and Joe Cada have the least experience, but if the cards run good for them, who knows what could happen? Antoine made a good showing in London a few months ago, finishing seventh behind Barry Shulman at the WSOP Europe championship for $188 K. He has a good attitude, too, figuring that the 35 big blinds he has in his stack are ďdefinitely enough to play.Ē
Last in line is James Akenhead from London, with $6.8 million in chips. Along with Saout, Akenhead made the final table at the WSOP Europe, finishing ninth for $105K. I thought he played super poker along the way to the November Nine. He got his money in greatóthere mayíve been a few times when he didnít have the best hand, but that happens. I think heís a very accomplished player. Other than Ivey, among the players who arenít near the top in chips, Iíd say watch out for this man. He has the farthest to go, but if the cards hit him a little bit, watch out. If he gets to the point where he has half the chips the leaders have, I think heís going to be very dangerous.
What Will Make the Difference?
So, what will it take to win it? The main thing these guys have to escape is the big bluff. I remember that last year, when it got to six-handed, four players went broke on the bluff before the play got down to heads up. The bluff is a definite part of the game, but you have to know when to try it. You must pick your spots carefully.
Phil Ivey is such an accomplished player, that if heís in a multiway pot, there will be no showdowns on the end. He will win them. In a three-way pot that looks like thereís going to be a showdown, there will be no showdown for the real prosóthe pros are going to take that pot every time. Where other players will check it, Phil will bet those potsóand it wonít be poker to call him. And believe me, that will be the edge that the real players have over the others. Itís always been my edge, thatís for sure.
Tune in next week to see how my assessment of the November Nine plays out. Till then, this is T.J. signing off to the world from Texas.
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