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Meet the November Nine

Part I

by Rebecca McAdam |  Published: Oct 01, 2009


There are two moments the poker world waits for every year. One is finding out who has made the final table at the World Series of Poker main event; the other is finding out who the champion is. This year sees a final table worth waiting for, a table which consists of huge chip stacks, huge stars, and of course, a huge prize pool. Anything can happen when they meet again in November, but for now this is what Card Player knows about our nine poker millionaires. This issue brings you interviews and profiles with five of the November Nine but check out next month’s for the remaining five.

Introducing this year’s November Nine …

Steven Begleiter
The pressure of the main event final table might get to some people, but one man who will likely be unfazed by it is Steven Begleiter, someone who has experienced the intense thrills of success and the deep pains of failure, and not only at the poker table.

Steve Begleiter

Begleiter witnessed firsthand the epic rise and fall of Bear Stearns, the global investment banks and securities trading and brokerage firms. The 47-year-old father of three from New York, admits that things didn’t end well. The giant firm collapsed last year after federal aid couldn’t keep it afloat, eventually being sold to JP Morgan in the midst of a looming economic crisis. Still, Begleiter remains an ardent supporter of his colleagues, saying that he has “nothing bad to say about anybody,” and that he “worked with a great group of people”.

Now, at the final table of the biggest poker tournament of the year, he hopes to make them proud.

“One of the real legacies we can create for the firm is that of all of us who spread out to do other things, people have really succeeded. Now, I don’t want to make a big deal out of making the final table, I mean, it’s just poker,” said Begleiter, “but I think it’s emblematic of what people from Bear Stearns will be doing in other areas over the next few years.”

Begleiter now works as a principal in a private equity firm, “a dream job” that he has had since last August. He said that his new colleagues had no idea he was going to play in the main event. Begleiter didn’t tell too many people because he thought he’d be in Las Vegas for the July 4 weekend, and then be back home in time for work.

Fortunately for him, that didn’t happen. “I basically disappeared. I wasn’t going to miss any work if I didn’t make it through day 1,” said Begleiter. “But I started showing up in blogs, and people were like, ‘Doesn’t this guy work with you?’”

Begleiter first learned how to play poker from his father as he watched over his shoulder when he was just a boy. He made his WSOP main event debut last year using $5,000 of his winnings from a local poker league and $5,000 of his own money to participate in the event. Although he didn’t cash in the event, he had a great time.

This year, he won $10,000 from the league and headed back to Vegas for a second try. With nine people left, Begleiter finds himself in a fantastic position for the world championship. He is third in chips with just under 30 million. The winner of the main event will receive more than $8.5 million for his efforts.
But more than the money, more than even a chance to be called a world champion, what Begleiter really wants to do is celebrate this accomplishment with his wife Karen and three children, aged between 11 and 16.

“You know, when you’re a teenager, you look at your parents like, ‘Who are these idiots?’ when they’re telling you what to do. I just want to see the look on their faces when it sinks in that their dad actually made the final table,” said Begleiter. “Of course, their dad is an idiot, but at least he made the final table.”

James Akenhead
James Akenhead is officially the November Nine’s short stack. But don’t expect that to rattle the talented Brit, who has been to a televised WSOP final table before and has said he’s seen all there is to see at a poker table.

In his first serious attempt for a bracelet, he played a masterful final table to eventually get heads up with Grant Hinkle in a $1,500 event in 2008 — at the time, the largest live tournament besides the main event with 3,929 players. Despite entering heads up at a huge disadvantage, he worked himself back to even after two hours of what he described as “perfect play”.

James Akenhead

Frustrated, Hinkle began to get uber-aggressive, starting to shove all in preflop on a more regular basis.

“He finally cracked. My plan worked perfectly,” said Akenhead. “I just had to wait for a hand.” That hand came soon enough as he was dealt A-K. When Hinkle pushed all in with 10-4, Akenhead snap-called and was on the verge of winning his first bracelet. But it wasn’t meant to be. Hinkle’s measly 10-4 flopped an unlikely full house and turned quads to leave Akenhead drawing dead.

“When the flop was dealt, it was a massive blow. On TV, I was smiling and laughing, but I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked,” said Akenhead. “But that has made me so much hungrier to win a bracelet.”

Akenhead, 26, turned pro three years ago — an impromptu decision he made after he earned more money playing online poker in a single night than he did in an entire year’s salary at his job as a train driver in England.

The son of two teachers, his parents weren’t happy when Akenhead dropped out of school. But he says that they were proud of him when he worked hard to get his train-driving job — at the time, he was the youngest train driver in England — and are proud of him now that he is successful in his career.

Akenhead had discovered poker a few years before while he was pursuing his other love — pool. At one point, Akenhead was ranked No. 15 in the UK in nine-ball. “I wanted to be the best, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t have enough natural ability.”

So, as he began to accept his limitations as a pool player, he started to play the game that many of his fellow competitors also enjoyed: poker.
With his poker background and his hunger, Akenhead likes his chances — even as a short stack.

“The payout structure is quite flat in the beginning (of the final nine payouts),” said Akenhead, hinting that he might not hold back just to try to inch up a spot or two in the money. “Hopefully, it goes well.”

Phil Ivey
The greatest ever? Plenty of people were saying it before this summer began, and plenty more are saying it now. With two more bracelets and his first main event final table appearance in 2009, Phil Ivey has secured himself a spot in the conversation — who is the best of all time?

At 33, Ivey already has seven bracelets — just four off Hellmuth’s leading 11 and the most ever of anyone that age. In fact, only five pros have ever won more World Series events.

Now, Ivey has the chance to win the main event, a task that no big-name pro has done since poker exploded in 2003 thanks to Chris Moneymaker and added ESPN coverage. With that accomplishment, he would further cement his legacy as one of the best ever to play the game.

Despite entering the final table seventh in chips, it’s hard to bet against Ivey. Ask anyone who has. By winning two bracelets this summer, Ivey raked in an untold amount in prop bets reportedly in the seven-figures.

Phil Ivey

After receiving $1.26 million for making the final table (equivalent to the ninth place payout), Ivey has moved into third on the all-time lifetime winnings list with $11.47 million. Only Daniel Negreanu ($11.50 million) and Jamie Gold ($12.18 million) have won more money in tournament poker, but Ivey can surpass them both with a fourth-place finish or better in November.

Even with the last level of blinds at 120,000-240,000, Ivey still held more than 40 big blinds — a stack comfortable enough that many people still make him one of the favorites to win the tournament despite being one of the short stacks at the table.

Card Player caught up with Ivey at a group press conference after the final table of the main event was set. He spoke about what it means to him to make the final table (and, more importantly, to win it), in addition to what the coming months hold for him.

Question: With all of the accomplishments you have, where does this stand?

Phil Ivey: So far, I’ve just made the final table, which is a pretty big accomplishment, and winning it would be the top of the line for me. This is definitely up there.

Q: All this year, you have been running back and forth from here to Bobby’s Room. What has that been like? Is it hectic for you?

PI: No, I love to play poker. I chose a profession that I love to do, so when the night’s over, I just rush over to Bobby’s Room and play some more. It just keeps me in a groove; I love it.

Q: Having come so close to making the final nine before, how badly did you want this?

PI: You have no idea; I can taste it now, and I’m here. Today was a very tough day for me; I lost a lot of tough hands early, I grinded back, and now I’m right in the hunt.

Q: How do the next four months change for you?

PI: Nothing changes over the next four months. I’m going to watch a couple of the hands that they’re going to show ahead of time before the final table. So, I guess I’m actually going to start watching some poker on TV. I don’t want to get into exactly what I’m going to do, but I will be doing a couple of things.

Q: Do you see the wait between now and November as an advantage for you or a drawback?

PI: I would say it’s a drawback, because I’m kind of in a groove with playing with all of these guys. When they come back in November, they might play a little differently. I know everything to do, but I will have to go back and replay hands in my mind come November. I think it’s a drawback … I would love to just finish this thing.

Q: What players who are still here have really impressed you?

PI: I played with the kid to my right James Akenhead the most, and he and the guy that got knocked out in 10th place Jordan Smith played very well. Everybody here knows what they’re doing, and they have good tournament strategy.

Q: You’re the most well-known player here, and I think you can acknowledge that. The media intensity focused on you is going to be like nothing we have seen yet. How do you view the next four months and the storm that is going to come your way?

PI: I’m just going to change my cell phone number and leave the country, so I’m not really worried about any of that. I’m serious too.

Q: There is a certain aura about you when you sit down and play in this tournament. How do you use that to your advantage?

PI: Well, you just have to try to figure out what each player is thinking. How they play certain hands, what they’re thinking about in the middle of hands. What their feelings are toward me as a player, and what they think they can get away with and what they can’t. And then you just try to take advantage of situations when they come up.

Q: You handle pressure better than any other player out there. How huge of an advantage is that going to be at the November final table where some of your opponents aren’t going to be able to handle it?

PI: I don’t know if all of the guys aren’t going to be able to handle it. To me, it’s a poker game, and I just love to play, so I’m going to do my best, trust my reads, and just perform the best I can.

Since 2002, Ivey has finished in the top 30 a record four times — including a 10th place finish in 2003. At this WSOP he proved to everyone that he is the most dominant player in the game today by winning not one, but two gold bracelets to give him seven for his career. The gold bracelets came in event No. 8 ($2,500 no-limit deuce-to-seven lowball) and event No. 25 ($2,500 Omaha eight-or-better/seven-card stud eight-or-better). He cashed five times in all during the 2009 WSOP to bring his lifetime winnings to more than $10 million, and that was before the main event began.

Ivey has gone on to make the second-ever November Nine out of a field of 6,494 players, and he is guaranteed to walk away with at least $1,263,602 in prize money when play recommences on Nov. 7.

Darvin Moon
Darvin Moon may be more comfortable with a chainsaw in his hands and work boots on his feet, but the small-town logger from Oakland, Maryland has more than held his own at the 2009 WSOP main event. As play suspended for the November Nine, Moon had established himself as the overwhelming chip leader with nearly 59 million in chips — more than 24 million ahead of his closest competitor.
But don’t think for one second that his enormous chip lead has gotten to his head.

“There were 6,494 players in (the main event) this year, and there were probably 6,300 people in it who are better than I am,” said Moon. In a time when many poker players proclaim their greatness and pat themselves on the back for their play, Moon says that he is just on the run of his life.

How He Got Here
Moon isn’t your typical main event entrant. He’s never had a lot of money to his name, and he genuinely doesn’t seem to care about earning any fame or notoriety. But the 45-year-old logger found himself with the opportunity to play in the biggest tournament of the year thanks to a satellite tournament he won in neighboring West Virginia.

He entered the $130 qualifier because he loves the competition of poker. Once he won it, he was faced with a decision. He could play or he could take the $10,000 buy-in and return home. His family was split on his choice. His dad told him to take the money and run, his wife Wendy said to do what he wanted, and his brother encouraged him to play.

Moon was thinking about investing the $10,000 into his small, three-man logging business that also employed his brother and his brother-in-law. “The timber industry is terrible right now,” said Moon. “I told my brother that I was just going to take the money because it’ll help us with the business.” His brother’s response was, “You’re a fool. Play. We don’t need that $10,000 in the business. We’ve never had it there, we don’t need it now.”

So, in the spirit of good competition, Moon decided to play. Two weeks later, he was guaranteed to win more than $1.26 million and with his immense lead, he will likely win much more. The winner of the 2009 main event will receive more than $8.5 million.

Incredibly, Moon seems almost indifferent to the sum of money and he’s expressed that sentiment throughout the main event. “I’ve always been poor. I can be poor after this,” said Moon, who likely will never have to face that reality again. Asked what he might buy with his new fortune, not too much comes to Moon’s mind. “My wife wants a lawnmower, but we don’t need a lawnmower,” said Moon. “But I told my dad if I win, I’m buying him a new pink Cadillac.”

The mild-mannered and quiet-spoken Moon clearly has a sense of humour. The idea of watching his dad, who has been in the sawmill business for 45 years, drive around in a pink car makes him smile. So does the look on his friends’ faces, who are die-hard National Football League Pittsburgh Steelers fans, every time he sports his New Orleans Saints cap.

His Start in Poker
Moon first started playing cards when he was just 12-years-old. “I played seven-card stud with my granddad years ago,” said Moon, but he admits it wasn’t exactly a profitable or a successful hobby. “He beat me like a dog, and got mad if I ever won.”

Darvin Moon

But he only picked up Texas hold’em three years ago. “Me, my oldest brother, and eight or 10 other guys, we used to play softball all the time but we got a little too old for softball. We had to find something else to do,” said Moon. “We started playing at fire halls about two or three times a week with 60 or 70 people in every tournament. We’d raise money for the fire halls and for charities and stuff.”

Most of the time, the tournaments feature just a $30 buy-in. Moon has never played poker online, preferring the company of his local competitors. “I’ve lived in Oakland, Maryland my whole life. It’s a real laid-back, small town. I know there are more rooms in this casino (the Rio) than in the city limits of Oakland,” said Moon.

His Chances in November
Moon has been telling anyone who interviews him that he is merely the product of an incredible run of cards. In a year in which skill and experience have shown their significance — players who identified themselves as “pros” or “semi-pros” won 46 of the 56 bracelets bestowed this summer — Moon is once again reminding everyone that anyone can win.

“It’s easy to play when you get pocket aces six times a day and flop [a set] three out of six times,” said Moon. “My run in this tournament is pure luck. I haven’t had to show no skill at all. I haven’t been down to the point where I had to fight to get my chip stack back up.”

But while he claims has simply been the luckiest player in Las Vegas, he remembers a hand he played with Antonio Esfandiari that might discredit his self-promoted “no-skill” reputation. Esfandiari, perhaps the most well known pro besides Phil Ivey still left in the tournament at the time, was eliminated in 24th place. Moon and Esfandiari tangled in a big pot on day seven, where Moon took more than half of Esfandiari’s stack without ever showing his cards.

In this particular hand, Moon raised from the small blind to see Esfandiari call from the big blind. On a Qd 3s 3c flop, Moon checked, Esfandiari bet, Moon then check-raised, only to see Esfandiari fire yet another bet. Within a few seconds, Moon pushed all in, prompting Esfandiari to throw his cards into the muck. The hand — with a pot of nearly 4.3 million — sent Moon’s stack up to 12 million, while it was a devastating blow for Esfandiari, as his stack dwindled to under 3 million at the time.

“I think he was trying to make a move on me and I made a move on him, and he had to lay it down,” said Moon. “You’ll see it on TV. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Don’t expect to see a whole lot of Moon in the months ahead, or even in the next year even if he wins the main event. “If I win it, that’ll be the last day they see me until next year, when I come back and play again,” said Moon, explaining that’s why he has yet to sign a sponsorship deal with any poker site. “They wanted to tie me up for a year with them. So if they want me to go somewhere, I had to go. When I get done here, I’m going back to work in my little town and I’m going to get away from everybody.”

Clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight, he says the only reason he accepts interviews with the media is because he thought it’d be rude if he didn’t. Still, Moon is thrilled that he decided to play the main event. “This is something I’ll never forget, but something I’ll probably never go through again. I can’t imagine going on tour and doing this every day,” said Moon. “I mean, I envy those guys. Those guys are at a level 10 times above me, because they can handle all that mental stuff. I couldn’t mentally handle this all the time. If I had to play two more days, I’d go down.”

Although the four month delay could end Moon’s hot streak, it’s obvious that the time off will help him recharge. In the months ahead, expect him to be back in the woods of Maryland, chainsaw in hand.

Check out next month’s issue to find out more about the five others anticipating this year’s exciting WSOP main event final table. Spade Suit