In a tournament that began with 7,874 players — representing nearly 100 countries and all 50 states — two Michigan men will play at the final, nine-man table of the 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event.
After a thrilling, 12-hour poker session that stretched from noon Las Vegas time Wednesday till nearly midnight, Muskegon's Nic Manion and Shelby Township's Joe Cada were among the last players standing.
And what a finish it was to the evening, with Manion riding pocket aces to a massive pot that vaulted him into the chip lead when play resumes Thursday afternoon at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.
Both Manion, 35, and Cada, 30, now are guaranteed seven-figure paydays — and have their sights set on first prize, which is $8.8 million.
Manion, playing in his first Main Event, began the day's play with a mid-size stack of nearly 18 million chips — after he preserved his chances in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, at the tail end of Day 6, by folding pocket kings when he thought his opponent had aces. He was right.
His opponents late Wednesday night might've been wise to taken the same route. Manion, who played rather conservative most of the day Wednesday, looked down at pocket aces shortly before midnight. First to act, he raised, got called by the pocket kings of Antoine Labat, and then a third player, Yueqi Zhu, moved all in — also, and amazingly, with pocket kings. Manion made the easy all-in, and Labat, after thinking it over for a bit, committed the chips, as well.
With the two pairs of kings practically cancelling each other out, Manion was all but guaranteed to win the hand — that's what's known, in the poker world, as the ultimate "cooler."
The board ran out no flush opportunities for his opponents, Zhu was eliminated in 10th place, and Labat, who had both players covered, was left as the short stack entering play Thursday. The monster hand bumped Manion to 112,775,000 chips entering Day 8, meaning he has nearly 30 percent of all the remaining chips in play.
"That's sick," Cada said of the hand, afterward, on ESPN — while sporting a smirk.
Both Manion and Cada were extremely short-stacked way back on Day 2 —Manion was down to about 11,000 in chips, and Cada to about 9,000, but, against all odds, rallied all the way to the final table.
Manion has been in more comfortable position the last several days, rallying quicker from his Day 2 low.
Cada has been short-stacked most of the tournament, but has somehow found a way to survive, and now can become the first man ever to win multiple Main Events in the poker-boom era — or, since the player entries ballooned into the several thousands in the early 2000s. Cada beat out 6,494 in 2009 to win the Main Event and $8.5 million.
He's already made history by becoming the first Main Event champion in the poker-boom era to make a second final table. The best encore performance prior was by 2008 Peter Eastgate, the winner in 2008 who finished 78th in 2009.
Cada showed his poker chops on multiple occasions on Day 7 on Wednesday, sitting under the hot, bright lights of the feature table aired on PokerGo and ESPN. He seemed to make all the right folds, all the right bets — and one outstanding bluff.
Just before midnight Eastern, Cada bet the flop and the turn, and then shoved all his chips in the middle against Alex Lynskey, who thought it over for a while before folding. Cada had zilch, but his big bet got Lynskey off his kings. (He later told Lynskey, "You had me sweating my ass off.")
In another hand, all in before the flop and his ace-queen of hearts dominated by his opponent's ace-10 off, Cada hit a flush on the river to survive.
"We have seen a champion's heart from him more than once," ESPN analyst Norman Chad said on the broadcast. "'The Kid' could become 'The Legend.'"
The other ESPN analyst, Lon McEachern, picked Cada to win the tournament before it even started.
Cada, who won his third WSOP bracelet this year and whose 2018 Main Event finish will push him over $11 million in career tournament earnings, will start play Thursday with 23,675,000 chips, fourth-fewest. In 2009, he began the final table with the fifth-fewest chips.
Clarkston's Ryan Riess (2013), Cada (2009) and Grand Rapids' Tom McEvoy (1983) are the Michigan men who have won the Main Event.
Here's how the chip stacks will start Thursday: Manion (112,775,000)m, Michael Dyer (109,175,000), Tony Miles (42,750,000), John Cynn (37,075,000), Lynskey (25,925,000), Cada (23,675,000), Aram Zobian (18,875,000), Artem Metalidi (15,475,000) and Labat (8,050,000).
After first place ($8.8 million), second pays $5 million, third $3.75 million, fourth $2.825 million, fifth $2.15 million, sixth $1.8 million, seventh $1.5 million, eighth $1.25 million and ninth $1 million.
Play resumes Thursday, Day 8, at 2:30 Eastern time, with coverage first on the PokerGo app and then on ESPN, and they'll play down to the final six. On Friday, they'll play to the final three. And on Saturday or Sunday, depending how long it goes, a champion will be crowned.
And Michcigan has better odds than most.