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Is Joe McKeehen Poker’s Best Modern WSOP Main Event Champion?

“I’m Playing To Make A Living, Not Trying To Be Famous,” Says 29-Year-Old Tournament Crusher

by Erik Fast |  Published: May 19, 2021


Joe McKeehen has arguably built the strongest tournament résumé of any World Series of Poker main event champion in the modern era.

McKeehen’s crowning poker achievement, of course, is still when he outlasted a field of 6,420 entries, closing out the biggest and most prestigious poker event in the world in dominant fashion at just 24 years old. He eliminated six of his eight opponents at the final table, leading wire-to-wire to secure the championship bracelet and the $7,683,346 top prize.

But of the 17 players to win the big dance since it first drew over a thousand entries in 2004, McKeehen has accumulated the most live tournament earnings outside of that main event payday. The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native has cashed for more than $10 million in other events, adding two WSOP bracelets and numerous other impressive victories to his list of accomplishments.

McKeehen is not one to put too much stock in cherry-picked statistics and media-crafted narratives, however. He notoriously avoided the spotlight after his big win, and even today, would rather his achievements fly under the radar.

When asked what it meant to stand out among the list of modern world champions, he simply replied, “I don’t care.”

“I think it’s pretty stupid to compare myself to other people that won a specific tournament,” McKeehen said. “I’m just trying to make money and have fun along the way. Lots of people can be successful in different ways in this industry based on what they want to accomplish, and it’s ultimately up to them on how they want to base their success.”

(Editor’s Note: Joe may not care to compare himself to other WSOP main event champions, but that won’t stop us!)

No matter how you look at McKeehen’s body of work, it’s impressive. With more than $17.7 million in recorded tournament scores, he is currently the 37th ranked player on poker’s all-time money list, despite not turning 30 until this coming summer.

McKeehen has already added to his career totals considerably in the early months of 2021, with $725,443 earned across just five cashes. His hot start to the year includes a win in a $10,500 buy-in high roller event at the Wynn and a runner-up finish in a record-setting $5,000 buy-in World Poker Tour main event held at Venetian.

The upshot of those two big scores is that McKeehen has climbed into the top five in the Card Player Player of the Year race heading into the second quarter of 2021. We recently caught up with McKeehen to discuss his strong start to the year, his road from a grinder to becoming poker’s world champion, and much more.

Joe Goes Pro

McKeehen now has over 190 tournament scores to his name. His first live tournament cash came at just 19 years old, making the final two tables of the 2010 Empire State Hold’em Championships $2,500 main event at Turning Stone Resort Casino.

Like many top players of the past decade, McKeehen first discovered poker on TV. Online poker’s Black Friday took place when he was just 21, which led him to largely focus on playing the game live while working on a degree in mathematics at Arcadia University. He accumulated just shy of $185,000 in cashes before his 21st birthday, including winning a $2,000 buy-in preliminary event at the 2012 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $116,230. This early success led McKeehen to more seriously consider poker as a career as graduation approached.

“I didn’t feel like working a cashier job during college, and I didn’t feel like actually pursuing a real job afterward. I was way too lazy,” admitted McKeehen. “I won five figures a few times in eight hours, and compared to working months for that kind of money, that seemed like a better hourly.”

Of course, poker wasn’t helping his schooling either.

“I failed my first actuarial exam in college because I spent the week before it at Turning Stone playing live MTTs instead of studying,” he recalled. “I kind of knew I didn’t want to really be an actuary when I could fling chips instead.”

During spring break of his senior year, McKeehen won the 2013 WSOP Circuit Atlantic City main event for $174,147. The win also came with a $10,000 seat into that year’s WSOP Circuit National Championship. The poker tournament conflicted with his upcoming graduation later that spring, but there was no question in McKeehen’s mind as to which event he would attend.

“My parents couldn’t even argue with it, since $10,000 is a lot of money to give up for a small-time celebration that’s meaningless in the long run,” he stated. “I got destroyed in the National Championship, for the record.”

When he first told his family and friends that he decided to go pro, McKeehen didn’t find much support.

“They didn’t get it. Who would? It doesn’t really matter, and that’s all in the past. They gave me the [freedom to play] and that’s all I could ask for. I proved myself to them and they aren’t questioning it anymore.”

The early stages of his pro career saw McKeehen establish himself as a winning, mid-stakes live tournament player, focusing largely on $500-$1,500 buy-in events. He was initially backed or sold pieces, but he was able to build enough of a bankroll to eventually take on 100 percent of his action at those stakes, which he preferred to “traveling the world to play $10,000 buy-ins where I had just 25 percent of myself.”

McKeehen first played at the WSOP in 2012, having turned 21 toward the end of the series, logging a single cash that year in a smaller bracelet event. He doubled the mark in 2013, including an in-the-money finish in his second ever main event.

McKeehen followed that up with his best year yet on the live scene in 2014, winning four side event titles in the first six months of the year and then placing second in a $1,500 buy-in event at the WSOP for $820,863. By the end of the year, he had racked up more than $1.9 million in live tournament earnings, but he was far from satisfied.

“I wanted to win something instead of finishing second,” he admitted. “I had a little more money in my pocket to play more buy-ins, so that was cool. I traveled and felt a little more comfortable in some bigger buy-ins like World Poker Tour events.”

When asked if his achievements that year helped him feel like he belonged on the game’s biggest stages, he remained indifferent.

“There might be a sense that I belonged, in the fact that I was a winner, and I did it before so I can do it again, but all that is mental stuff that I never really struggled with.”

Crushing The WSOP Main Event

The first half of 2015 was more of a struggle, with less than $40,000 in total cashes through the first six months of the year. That slow start, however, was more than made up for when McKeehen blasted his way through the field of 6,420 entries to win that year’s WSOP main event for just shy of $7.7 million and his first gold bracelet.

McKeehen took his seat in only his fourth attempt at the main event. According to his recollections, day 1 of the big dance was filled with a lot of folding. He started day 2 with essentially the same stack, but finished the day in a much different manner.

“Day 2 I had really tough tables full of people putting pressure on me, and I just didn’t fold too many of them. I was fortunate they were bluffing every time,” said McKeehen, who was in 336th place among the 1,796 who survived. “Day 3 I bad beat my good pal Mark Herm for a massive pile, and then Craig Varnell tried to bluff it off to me, but again, I wasn’t really in the mood to fold.”

McKeehen called his way up to second place on the leaderboard heading into day 4 with just over ten percent of the field remaining. By the end of that night, he was in sole possession of the top spot.

“I tried to punt it [away] at the end of the day 5. Day 6 I struggled, then bad beat [Joshua] Beckley for my tournament life,” said McKeehen, who rivered a straight with A-Q when at risk against A-K. “Then I just won every hand after the fact. The deck chose me afterward.”

While many other players in the field were just trying to hang on, McKeehen went on the offensive, knowing that many of his opponents would put a lot of pressure on themselves to survive to the November Nine.

“Playing off the fact that everyone is dying to make the final table won me a lot of low-risk chips, especially with less than 18 players in the tournament,” said McKeehen.

Daniel Negreanu was the biggest name left in the field and had survived to within a couple of spots of the final table, but was ultimately sent packing by McKeehen. Negreanu called off his tournament life with top pair facing a flush and straight draw. The river completed McKeehen’s straight to eliminate ‘Kid Poker’ in 11th place, and the shock of the outcome literally sent Negreanu to the floor.

2015 was the second-to-last year that the main event used the November Nine format, which delayed the final table nearly four months in order to let the ESPN television coverage of the event catch fans up in time for a live final table.

“It was stupid at the time, but it all worked out. I didn’t realize that the opportunity you had in the months in between wasn’t what it used to be in say, 2010,” said McKeehen of the now-discontinued delayed final table. “It allowed me to get more sponsorships and do a small amount of studying. In the moment, I thought the break could only hurt me since I was running everyone over. I was likely wrong. Everyone got better and realized that folding up to make a few hundred thousand dollars and still have a shot to win is actually a really good strategy, instead of battling the guy who can end those chances on any given hand.”

McKeehen entered the final table with nearly one-third of the total chips in play, and scored the first three knockouts to enter six-handed action with nearly half of the chips. By the time the field was down to three, he had more than two-thirds of the chips in play. He secured the final two eliminations to close out an authoritative victory, marking one of the most dominant title runs in the modern era of the WSOP main event.

“That’s not for me to decide. I just showed up and took care of business. The deck helped a lot and made it easier on me. If a player doesn’t lose an all-in, they are going to be impossible to beat,” offered McKeehen.

The poker boom that followed Chris Moneymaker’s run to the main event title put an even brighter spotlight on the WSOP world champion. There is a notion that the winner of the big dance should be poker’s ambassador, responsible for being the face of the game to the public.

McKeehen has never agreed with the idea.

“It’s probably the actual dumbest thing in an industry full of incredibly dumb things,” he said bluntly.

It’s not quite Charles Barkley’s infamous, “I am not a role model,” but it carries a similar sentiment.

McKeehen has always been forthright on matters like this. In the years that have followed his main event victory, he has often spoken out on issues regarding the intersection of poker industry, media, and professional players. His often-deadpan demeanor in interviews and irreverent social media presence don’t fit the mold of a stereotypical ‘ambassador of the game.’

That’s not to say that he hasn’t experienced any external pressure to play along. “I’ve told them all to go f**k themselves. Feel free to paraphrase this if you want in the article.” (Editor’s Note: No paraphrase needed.)

No One-Hit Wonder

McKeehen backed up his win with a number of scores that other players would be proud to flaunt as their best. He finished as the runner-up in the $100,000 super high roller at the 2016 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for another $1.2 million payday. He also final tabled the $111,111 One Drop High Roller later that year, cashing for $829,792 in yet another strong performance facing high roller regulars.

“I wouldn’t have jumped in $100k events months later if I didn’t win the tournament. It was more the start of the journey, but I now had the financial freedom to path my journey exactly how I wanted to without any real restrictions. I also wasn’t pressured to go everywhere and grind to make money, I could pick and choose when, where, and what I wanted to play.”

By the end of 2016, McKeehen had accumulated more than $3 million in live tournament earnings. He backed up that top-20 POY finish with a 22nd-place showing in the 2017 race, adding another $900,000 and three titles to his record. One of those wins was for his second WSOP gold bracelet, which came in the $10,000 limit hold’em championship.
McKeehen kept up the consistency in 2018, as well, adding nine final-table finishes and over $1.6 million in earnings to finish 21st in the POY rankings for the year.

2019 brought another $750,000 in earnings, and 2020 saw him win his third gold bracelet during the WSOP Online series that filled the void left by the live tournament shutdown during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He defeated a field of 496 entries in a $3,200 buy-in no-limit hold’em event to become just the third main event winner from the post-Moneymaker era to win multiple bracelets after taking down the big one, joining Joe Cada and Jonathan Duhamel.

Has all of this post-main event success cemented McKeehen’s legacy as a top player? In the eyes of the poker community, the answer is likely yes. For McKeehen himself?

“My legacy is something I don’t give a shit about at all,” he said. “I’m here playing for myself to make a living. I’m not trying to be famous. I got my small circle of friends and people I enjoy being with and that’s enough for me.”

Live tournament poker began to return in the latter half of 2020, and the early months of this year have seen many large-field main events beat expectations due to the pent up demand for action.

McKeehen managed two huge scores in the month of March, starting with a second-place finish in the $5,000 buy-in World Poker Tour Venetian main event. The tournament drew 937 entries to become the largest ever WPT field at that price point. McKeehen entered his fifth career WPT final table with the chip lead and secured three of the first four eliminations to take a 2:1 chip lead into heads-up play. Qing Liu ultimately turned the tide and closed out the title, continuing the impressive run that has seen him build a strong lead in this year’s POY race.

McKeehen earned $491,960 as the runner-up, but didn’t have to wait long to get a second chance at closing out a big event. Just two days later, he battled his way through a tough field of 83 entries in the $10,000 high roller event at the Wynn Spring Classic. This time around he sealed the deal, earning $224,100 and his 21st recorded tournament title.

As a result of these two big scores, McKeehen now sits in third place on the POY race leaderboard. The strong start to 2021 doesn’t change too much for McKeehen and his plans for the year, though.

“I need more [tax] write offs,” he explained. “Winning earlier in the year is better than winning later for this fact alone. I got more time to do it and I’ll be showing up at places looking to play the highest tournament stakes offered now since I will have limited opportunities.”

In addition to playing, McKeehen has also been working with training site Chip Leader Coaching in recent years. That role likely helped McKeehen during the slower period that resulted from the live circuit shutdown in 2020.

“On these longer breaks, it can keep me thinking about the game and spots, even temporarily,” he said of his work with CLC. “It can’t hurt to see or hear other players and what they do and why they do it, either. Sometimes I think I have a way to do something, and they can present me with another one that I wouldn’t have thought about before, which is probably what I’m usually doing for my students as a coach. It’s good for everyone involved.”

Through playing and coaching, McKeehen feels that his game is currently at its highest level yet. “I’m better now than I was in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019. The more experience I get, the better I think I play.”

McKeehen is still just 29 years old, and has already accomplished many of the major feats available to tournament poker players. When it comes to goals he sets for himself in the game moving forward, he keeps things simple.

“I would like to play and win the most money I can.”

And even though he doesn’t care, when McKeehen wins, we’ll take notice. ♠

Ranking The Main Event Winners Since 2004

McKeehen may find it a fruitless exercise, but there is no doubt that the WSOP main event has produced some polarizing winners in the modern era, ranging from one-tournament wonders who are rarely seen again, to high roller crushers who continue to dominate the circuit even after securing their life-changing payday.

McKeehen’s eight-figures in earnings outside of his main event win tops the list, and displays a consistency that is missing with some of the other winners. He’s done well in the high rollers he has played, as evidenced by his runner-up finish in the $100,000 buy-in PokerStars Caribbean Adventure High Roller for $1,220,480 and his final table at the 2016 $111 High Roller For One Drop. But he’s also continued to do well in mid-stakes events, with his win in the 2017 $10,000 limit hold’em event, a third-place showing in the 2018 $1,500 Millionaire Maker, and his $3,200 WSOP Online victory in 2020. He’s also done quite well on the World Poker Tour, with five final tables including his most recent runner-up finish at The Venetian.

He is followed on the list by 2010 champion Jonathan Duhamel. The Canadian pro won nearly half of his additional $9 million when he took down the $111,111 buy-in High Roller For One Drop in 2015 for his second bracelet and $3,989,985. Later that year, he won his third bracelet, topping a tough field in the €25,000 buy-in WSOP Europe High Roller.

Martin Jacobson was the most accomplished player prior to his main event win, having already banked $5 million on the tournament circuit before taking home another $10 million in 2014. The Swedish pro has twice final tabled the $111,111 High Roller For One Drop, and also has numerous final tables on the European Poker Tour, including Deauville, Vilamoura, Berlin, Venice, Budapest, Monte Carlo, and London.

Both main event winners from Michigan, Ryan Riess and Joe Cada, have had continued success after their massive scores. Riess, who won it all in 2013, also took down the WPT Hard Rock Poker Showdown in 2017 and has many high roller final tables including scores at the US Poker Open, and EPT stops in Barcelona, Monte Carlo, and Prague. 2009 champ Cada not only added to his bracelet count in 2014, but in 2018 he came out on top in another two WSOP events, and nearly won the main event for a second time, settling for fifth place and $2.15 million.

Most of 2005 champion Joe Hachem’s other winnings come from his victory in the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic a year later for $2,207,575. Hossein Ensan already had a WSOP Circuit title and EPT Prague title under his belt before winning it all in 2019. 2004 winner and Card Player columnist Greg Raymer won his record fifth Heartland Poker Tour title in early 2020. Greg Merson won more than $1.1 million and his first bracelet just a couple weeks before the main event in 2012.

Player Main Event Year Payout Other Winnings
Joe McKeehen 2015 $7,683,346 $10,019,594
Jonathan Duhamel 2010 $8,944,138 $9,067,972
Martin Jacobson 2014 $10,000,000 $7,040,135
Ryan Riess 2013 $8,359,531 $6,640,130
Joe Cada 2009 $8,574,649 $5,680,747
Joe Hachem 2005 $7,500,000 $5,213,762
Hossein Ensan 2019 $10,000,000 $3,060,467
Greg Raymer 2004 $5,000,000 $3,027,286
Greg Merson 2012 $8,531,853 $2,896,506
Peter Eastgate 2008 $9,152,416 $1,979,034
John Cynn 2018 $8,800,000 $1,388,621
Damian Salas* 2020 $2,550,969 $1,136,995
Jamie Gold 2006 $12,000,000 $592,641
Scott Blumstein 2017 $8,150,000 $445,159
Pius Heinz 2011 $8,715,638 $355,729
Jerry Yang 2007 $8,250,000 $193,795
Qui Nguyen 2016 $8,005,310 $100,858

*Won the 2020 Hybrid Online/Live Main Event

*Photos courtesy of World Poker Tour.