In the end, the amateur who had been catching every card he needed since last July couldn't catch one more and the $8.5 million first-place prize in the World Series of Poker's main event went to a pro who became the youngest winner ever of this Texas-hold-'em showcase.
On the final hand, Darvin Moon, 45, called an all-in bet from Joe Cada, 21, and with $150 million in chips in the pot 70% of the chips in play none of the last five cards paired Moon's queen-jack; Cada's pair of nines held up, and he had outlasted 6,494 participants who began play more than four months ago at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
Moon, of Oakland, Md., was one of two closely watched amateurs to make the final table; the other was investment banker Steven Begleiter, 47, of Chappaqua, N.Y., who went out of this tournament early Sunday in sixth place. Both came to Las Vegas with a compelling backstory and made it to Saturday's "November Nine" final table with commanding chip stacks.
Moon is a real-life logger and self-described hillbilly who's never owned a computer or carried a credit card. Before his flight to Las Vegas last July, he had never flown, and his 1,100-sq.-ft. complimentary suite at the Rio was larger than his home. Begleiter's longtime employer, the investment house Bear Stearns, collapsed in the financial panic last year. He embodies a new breed of recreational player with keen math and risk skills honed at day jobs and attracted by poker's rising stakes.
No one argues that this game isn't part luck and part skill only how much of each is involved. So the heads-up play that started at 1 a.m. E.T. on Tuesday and pitted the unassuming Moon against the calculating Cada was apropos. Cada, from the Detroit area, risked alienation from his parents to participate. He cut his poker teeth in online play as a teenager; against his parents' will, he quit college to play cards for a living. But he soon won enough to pay cash for his house and managed to reconcile with Mom and Dad, who were in Las Vegas to cheer him on.
This was Cada's first full year being age eligible in Vegas, and he ended up bringing a mountain of chips to the heads-up finale in front of a large and raucous crowd that had waited in line up to six hours: $136 million in chips to Moon's $59 million. He had survived numerous flings with elimination to get that far, at one point running dead last at the table of nine. "He looked like he was about to cry," says Jonathan Little, a poker pro who had a table-side seat. But Cada inched back with a series of unchallenged bets, then doubled his stack with a dramatic all-in showdown in which he showed three threes, and he was on his way.
Moon made it to the heads-up finale with a string of improbable TKOs, including one of highly touted pro Phil Ivey, who went out in seventh place, and then Begleiter. Those two knockouts came in rapid succession, and both times Moon held ace-queen, was behind at the start and then got just the card he needed. In Ivey's case, Moon faced an ace-king but won when he paired his queen. In Begleiter's case, Moon faced a pair of queens and won when he paired his ace. Says Little: "He was getting better-than-average distribution throughout the tournament," which is pro-speak for landing killer cards.
Moon's run of good cards may have unnerved some at the table. Bloggers reported bad blood after the logger eliminated Begleiter, who seemed to be a marked man at the table of nine the way his raises were consistently met with big reraises that prompted him to fold. But Begleiter says he has no issues with Moon: "He's a gentlemen and very good poker player. I shook his hand before the flop on the last hand and again after he knocked me out." You never know: they may meet again next year.
Dan is co-author of With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life (HarperCollins, spring 2009). He writes "The Boom Years" column for Money magazine and is a regular contributor to TIME magazine and Time.com. Visit his website, dankadlec.com, to view his latest work and see what he's up to next.