Joe Cada never thought he had anything to prove after stunning the poker world by winning the Main Event, and $8.5 million, in 2009, at the age of 21. (Isaac Brekken / Associated Press)
Joe Cada, per usual, is spending his summer in Las Vegas.
And while he’s having a blast, make no mistake: It’s a business trip — and business has been good.
Cada, “The Kid” from Chesterfield Township who burst onto the poker scene five years ago, recently validated his massive win in 2009 with his second World Series of Poker bracelet, plus a check for $670,041.
Cada’s victory came in a No Limit Texas Hold-‘Em event in mid-June — the 31st event of the WSOP’s 65-tournament summer circuit — and placed Cada in some elite company. He became the first player since to win another WSOP bracelet after winning the Main Event since Carlos Mortensen did it in 2003.
That just goes to show how tough the competition is out in Vegas.
And that’s why despite the whispers from fans, Cada never thought he had anything to prove after stunning the poker world by winning the Main Event, and $8.5 million, in 2009, at the age of 21.
“To win a second bracelet, I couldn’t be happier,” Cada said this week, on the phone from Las Vegas. “But I don’t really care about what anyone thinks. Those in the poker community, those people that play poker, they know if I’m good or not.
“It’s tough to win these major tournaments.”
And it doesn’t get any tougher than the Main Event, the World Series finale which kicks off Saturday, runs for more than a week, then will pick back up in November with the final table squaring off.
The defending champion is Clarkston’s Ryan Riess, giving Michigan two of the past five winners.
Don’t expect Cada or Riess to win again. Only four men have won multiple Main Event titles, but none of those have done it in the era of the poker boom — which, 10 years ago, turned a tournament of hundreds of annual entrants into one with thousands.
Last year, Riess beat out a field of 6,352 entrants, each plunking down a $10,000 buy-in. In 2009, when Cada emerged victorious, he outlasted a field of 6,494.
So it’s almost guaranteed this year’s winner will be another obscure name.
Not that Cada isn’t aiming to make history in a much more profound way. He just knows the reality of the situation.
“I taught a class out here a couple days ago,” said Cada, speaking of a seminar he ran for the World Series of Poker at Bally’s. “The biggest thing in poker, don’t really come in with goals or have a mindset that you want to get this done, or you want to get through the day. It’s all about trying to stay focused and playing good poker, compared to where the blinds are at.
“It’s looking at your table and adjusting to your table, exploiting the table. There are always different strategies. But more, it’s just taking your time and being mentally focused. These are such long days, people are bound to make mistakes.”
Cada isn’t kidding about the long days.
He estimates that while in Vegas for the month-and-a-half World Series, he probably plays 10 to 12 hours a day — some in sanctioned tournaments, and some in the cash games, where Cada acknowledged the action can be better and more profitable.
Cada, who is staying at the site of the World Series, the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino just off the strip, leaves some time to enjoy himself. But truth is, he enjoys poker, so that’s usually what he’s doing.
He came up through the ranks in the online game — he still plays a lot online, albeit from his condo in Canada, where it’s legal — before becoming a millionaire many times over from winning the big one in 2009.
He came close to winning another bracelet before, with a runner-up finish in 2012 and two fourth-place showings last year. Cada finally broke through in the six-handed No-Limit Texas Hold-‘Em tournament. He arrived at the final table a bit short on chips, but clawed his way to first with pocket aces, then took home the crown when his pocket queens outlasted Jeremy Ausmus’ pocket jacks on the final hand.
At first at that final table, Cada played cautious. While everyone wants to win, there were shorter stacks of chips at the table — and the jumps in prize money from one place to another were significant.
“There’s a business side to it,” said Cada, 26, who won his bracelet while sporting a blue University of Michigan T-shirt and a white Tigers cap. “It’s not smart to gamble when you have two shorter stacks.”
The strategy worked, and when it was all over, young Cada found himself seventh all-time in World Series of Poker earnings with just under $10 million. The names ahead of him are some of the sport’s legends, including Antonio Esfandiari, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth.
Cada’s win also gave the 2014 summer circuit another thrilling finish, with a big-name winner.
Already this summer, Phil Ivey, widely regarded as the greatest player ever, won his 10th bracelet. Hellmuth had a runner-up showing, finishing just shy of a record 14th bracelet. And Negreanu has had two runner-ups, including one Tuesday night, when he finished second in a tournament that required a $1 million buy-in.
Cada laughed when asked about skipping that tournament.
“That,” he said, “is a little bit too big for me.”
There are several other players from Michigan to watch as the Main Event gets set to kick off, including last year’s winner, Riess, who famously won his Main Event title wearing a Calvin Johnson Lions jersey. He’s only had one small cash-paying finish on the circuit this year.
Cada’s buddy, East Lansing’s Dean Hamrick, finished 10th in the Main Event in 2008. Despite playing part-time in Vegas, Hamrick has one cash-paying finish on the circuit this year, taking 24th a few days ago to win nearly $17,000. And Sterling Heights’ Tony Gargano, another Cada pal, has had a nice year, with four cashes in the World Series, including a third-place finish that won him more than $166,000.
Even in Vegas, the Michigan boys stick together. They cheer each other. And they hope to welcome one to the growing collection of Michigan Main Event champions.
“There are a lot of great players,” Cada said, circling back to why it’s taken him five years to win again. “And it’s still hard to beat amateurs or just recreational players and just keep winning first place.
“That’s why poker’s so great.”