The Emotional Stages of the WSOP Main Event

The 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event is into its fifth day at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino and at the early evening break, there are fewer than 250 of the 8,569 players remaining. Things have gotten serious, with the next pay jump eclipsing the $50,000 mark. It is all very exciting, but each day presents a new emotional challenge for the players. Let’s take a look at the path the Main Event takes on that psychological thrill ride.

Day 1

The WSOP Main Event is an ocean of poker tables
Photo credit: WSOP Facebook page

The best poker day of the year, without question. On the first day of the Main Event (I’m referring to all three starting flights, but Day 1A is the ultimate, for obvious reasons), everybody is happy, everybody is excited. Amateurs are in awe of the atmosphere; for many, it is their first time at the World Series of Poker and playing the Main Event has been a lifelong dream. Lots of seasoned pros don’t let on that they are giddy that the Main Event is starting, but they are. They love it. Yes, it is another day at the office and they have been here before, but it’s not just another day at the office.

Plenty of pros make no secret of Day 1 of the WSOP Main Event being poker Christmas. It’s a celebration of poker and for many, a chance to reunite with their poker friends from around the world.

Day 1 is a holiday and while everybody wants to do well and make tons of money, everyone is “just happy to be there” to an extent. Stacks are very deep, as well, so players tend to be fairly relaxed despite the enormity of it all, since they know they have the chance to play a lot of poker.

That all said… as Day 1 nears its end, the tension increases, as for amateurs, in particular, getting past that first day is a major milestone. Nobody wants to travel to Las Vegas, plunk down $10,000, and get to play just a couple hours of poker. Surviving Day 1 is a goal for many, a psychological barrier, if you will.

Day 2

The beginning of Day 2 tends to be fairly relaxed. The players are very happy they made it past Day 1 – it’s an accomplishment. There is a bit of camaraderie among those at each table. “We all made it. We’re here together, the survivors. Congratulations to you all, now let’s have some fun.”

The players are still far from the money, so there’s not a ton of pressure yet. They have also played through a long first day, so the jitters have subsided, at least somewhat. While anxiety increases a little near the end of Day 2, it is not as significant as it is on some other days.

Day 3

The money is now in sight. The players know it is coming at the end of the night or maybe at the start of the next day. (This year, it was the end of Day 3.) There is still a long day ahead, so there is not a ton of tension early on, but as the day progresses, players get more and more serious. Nobody wants to go out after playing for more than two days (as many as five-plus calendar days), only to go home empty-handed. Being eliminated on Day 1 stinks, but at least you get it over with.

The bubble is one of the most tense periods of the Main Event. It’s hard to say that it is the most stressful, as there is the final-table bubble, three-handed, and heads-up to compete with, but boy, when you are in the poker room as the money bubble approaches, you can feel the jaws clenching.

The short stacks are holding on for dear life, looking to stall whenever possible without making it look obvious. The big stacks are trying to bully the short stacks, knowing they don’t want to go out on the bubble. Just about everyone who isn’t at the top of the leaderboard is listening intently for a shout of “All-in and call!” hoping that hand-for-hand ends as soon as possible.

And when that bubble boy is eliminated, it’s a party. Like after Day 1, there is a camaraderie among players, as they can celebrate a shared accomplishment together. Most pros aren’t all that excited about just making the money, but it is still exciting; they have profited and can now get down to the business of moving up the ladder.

Day 4

The outset of Day 4 (we’ll go with the assumption that the money bubble burst at the end of Day 3,as it did this week) is actually fairly relaxed, at least compared to what is to come. Because everyone knows they are getting paid, most of the short stacks, especially if they are recreational players, just start going all-in willy-nilly. Even though thousand-dollar pay jumps are significant for someone like me, they are nothing in the grand scheme of the World Series of Poker Main Event, so for most players, it isn’t worth it to try to hang onto a short stack when the benefit of lasting another hour or two isn’t really worth it.

As Day 4 moves along, it tends to become a day of positioning, a day of settling back in after the excitement of the money bubble.

Day 5 and beyond

It started on Day 4, but Day 5 is when things get really serious. Day 4 saw loads of players fall by the wayside and now, seemingly all of a sudden, the players can easily look around the room and count the players who remain. The pay jumps are steeper. And most of all, everyone still with chips can envision the final table. It may still only be on the horizon, but it is in sight.

Day 6 is similar, but tension keeps ratcheting up. Every elimination brings the final table into clearer view. Fewer and fewer eliminations are needed for larger and larger pay bumps. The only ones who are really having any fun are the recreational players who cannot believe how far they have gotten and are counting the pay increases in terms of cars and college tuition.

Day 7 is arguably the most pressure filled next to the last day of the tournament. It is wonderful to make it this far, to be at the closing few tables, but the final table is now right there. It’s right there. Make the Main Event final table, and there will always be that prefix next to your name for the rest of your poker life. And of course, as Antonio Esfandiari said during the ESPN telecast tonight, if you make the final table, you can win the Main Event. Everyone at the final table makes at least a million dollars, too, so even the pros might get a little nervous about those pay jumps.

Not much needs to be said about the WSOP Main Event final table. There isn’t much pressure on someone if they are a very short stack going in, as they aren’t expected to do anything, but this is life-changing stuff and while there is a celebration to be had and the nine players who make it will be linked forever, nobody will breathe freely until they hit the rail or hold up the bracelet.

Lead photo credit: WSOP Facebook page

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