July 12, 2014 at 10:44 pm

Pontiac's Jason Johnson making big move at World Series of Poker Main Event

Jason Johnson, 33, of Pontiac, has already guaranteed himself more than $50,000 in this event. (Jayne Furman / World Series of Poker)

Ryan Riess used to deal cards to Jason Johnson.

So when Riess went on to win the World Series of Poker Main Event – and $8.3 million – last November, it was rather eye-opening for Johnson.

“If he can do it,” said Johnson, “then I’m gonna do it too.”

Little did Johnson know he’d be in position to possibly succeed Riess as poker’s top champion.

Johnson, 33, of Pontiac worked his way well up the chip leaderboard Saturday night, reaching 23rd place out of the remaining 131 players at the end of play for the day.

Already, Johnson has guaranteed himself more than $50,000 in prize money for this tournament – a five-times investment of his $10,000 buy-in. Of course, his sights are set much higher than that. Say he actually finishes 23rd, he would earn nearly $300,000. First place, meanwhile, pays $10 million.

His Main Event showing continues a strong summer of poker for Johnson, who already has a runner-up finish and a seventh-place in earlier World Series of Poker events, at the Rio in Las Vegas. That earned him $400,000-plus entering the series finale, the Main Event.

It’s Johnson’s first year playing in the World Series of Poker, and his trip was inspired by Riess.

“It’s a blast, really fun,” said Johnson, who used to play cards at since-closed Card Sharks in Waterford, where Riess was a dealer. “I don’t think about the money. I’m just playing to win.”

Johnson has played all the World Series of Poker Main Event tournaments this summer with a buy-in of $3,000 or less. The Main Event was his lone exception, and turning out to be a wise one.

Johnson started play Saturday afternoon with around 800,000 chips, not one of the bigger stacks. But he played smart – and also ran into some good fortune.

He picked up a 650,000-chip pot early in the day when his pocket queens were up against an opponent’s ace-king. His opponent picked up an ace, but Johnson got himself a queen for the win.

Johnson won another 600,000 late Saturday, getting a bit fortunate. With ace-queen, he called an opponent’s all in. The opponent had pocket nines, but the flop included an ace and a queen.

“I’ve chipped up pretty easy,” Johnson told The Detroit News by phone on dinner break. “The chip leader of the tournament is directly on my left. We’ve stayed out of each other’s way, for the most part.”

The chip leader is Brazil’s Bruno Politano, who has 6.2 million chips – for a lead more than a million better than second place, and nearly 4 million more than Johnson. That doesn’t mean much, however; in poker, things can change in a hurry.

Lansing’s Adam Lamphere remains alive in the Main Event field, as does Tom Midena of Brooklyn, Mich.

Johnson, Lamphere and Midena all are looking to give Michigan its third Main Event champion in six years, following Shelby Township’s Joe Cada in 2009 and Clarkston’s Riess in 2013.

Play will continue Sunday. The Main Event field, which began with nearly 7,000 players, is working its way down to the final nine. At that point, the tournament will be halted and resumed in November, for the purposes of ESPN.