Growing Michigan poker contingent hits Vegas

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Joe Cada.

Some poker players chase the prestigious World Series of Poker bracelets.

Others — like Joe Cada — just chase the cash.

“I try to look at it as a business,” Cada said Tuesday over the phone from Las Vegas. “If it was a big focus for me, I think I would take a lot of my time learning the mixed games. That’s really the easiest way to win a bracelet — dealer’s choice, seven-card stud, there’s 86 players in it.

“The chances of winning with 86 players versus a $1,500 no-limit or $500 no-limit, they have 3,000, 4,000 players, 5,000. To win in those fields is really tough, winning that bracelet is tough. But the amount of time I’ve put into Hold’em and PLO (pot-limit Omaha) is so many hours, I feel like that’s my biggest edge, in those fields.”

Cada made a name for himself in 2009, when, at age 21, he won the WSOP’s signature tournament, the No-Limit Hold‘em Main Event, becoming a multi-millionaire in the process. He then validated that victory with a second No-Limit Texas Hold’em bracelet — and a cool $670,000 — in 2014. A third bracelet would put him in some extremely elite company.

And don’t get Cada wrong — the Shelby Township native is going for it this month and next, with the WSOP holding its summer circuit of 69 events, most of which are Hold’em, at the Rio All-Suite Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, just off the famous strip.

But, unlike the legendary “Poker Brat” Phil Hellmuth, with a record 14 bracelets, it’s simply not Cada’s obsession.

“If I don’t think the game is good or an advantage,” said Cada, “then I probably won’t play.”

Cada and 2013 Main Event champion Ryan Riess, of Clarkston, headline Michigan’s strong contingent of poker players set to grind it out on the tables at the Rio over the next six weeks.

Every year, it seems more and more players from Michigan seem to make their presence known.

“I’m always seeing people with Detroit hats,” said Adam Lamphere, of East Lansing. “I’ve already seen over 20 people with Detroit hats. There’s obviously a lot more.”

Cada was Michigan’s last bracelet winner; Lamphere hopes to be the next, though he’s got plenty of company, including Ann Arbor's Jeff Gross and Pontiac’s Jason Johnson, who had several close calls a couple years ago.

Johnson is staying at the Vegas home of Riess during the WSOP circuit. Cada might be a housemate later on, but is staying at the Rio for now, out of convenience.

Johnson had high hopes last year, after pocketing more than $500,000 in 2014. But it was a struggle.

“I understand there’s gonna be ups and downs with it,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of variance.”

Another to watch is West Bloomfield's Xiu Deng, who advanced to Tuesday's final table in the massive Colossus II Hold'em tournament. First place was to pay out $1 million, but Deng was the first to get eliminated, with her ace-jack losing a race to her opponent's pocket nines. Still, she won $92,291.

Xiu Deng

Mount Pleasant’s Ben Lindemulder was the chip leader with about 30 players remaining — out of 21,613 entrants at $565 a pop — but had a crushing blow when his pocket fives ran into ace-jack, with the flop delivering an ace for the opponent. Lindemulder finished 27th in the Colossus, for a $35,584 payday.

“Almost every poker player’s dream is to get a bracelet,” Lamphere said. “That’d be a successful summer.”

Lamphere and Cada both had small cashes in the Colossus, but are looking for much bigger things. Lamphere figures to play eight-10 WSOP events; Cada and Riess, with the larger bankrolls because of their WSOP Main Event fortunes, figure to play many more.

Cada, who makes a living playing online poker in Canada when he’s not in Vegas, said he had a very good offseason — enough that, for the first time, he’s going to put up the $111,111 entry fee to play in the High Roller for One Drop No-Limit Hold’em tournament, which starts July 8.

Last year, the One Drop had 135 entries, and paid first place nearly $4 million. Jonathan Duhamel, who won the Main Event the year after Cada, won the One Drop last season.

“I’ve been doing really, really well,” said Cada, who started play in the $10,000 buy-in Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em tournament Tuesday afternoon. “In the past, $111,111 seemed too much, but I’m feeling really confident lately, so I decided to give it a go.”

Cada also decided to play some high-stakes cash games over the last week, as part of the TV show, “Poker Night in America,” filmed at the Golden Nugget. The episode’s airdate remains TBA.

At his table were Hellmuth, Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari and other big names.

And there were some not-so-big names, too — including one that got the best of Cada.

“I flopped top set against some billionaire,” Cada said, laughing now. “He hit runner-runner flush, for $15K, $18K, I’m not sure.”

Hey, that’s poker.

Or, as Cada would say, that’s business.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984