By outlasting more than 7,300 other competitors at the highest-profile poker event of the year, Minnesota poker professional Jason Senti has earned a slot at the final table at this year’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Now, after the biggest one-day score of his poker career, the waiting game begins.
Senti, a 28-year-old former electrical engineer and current poker professional who lives in St. Louis Park, plunked down the $10,000 entry fee this month along with 7,318 other hopefuls. After eight grueling days of play, all but eight other players and Senti had lost all of their chips and were eliminated. The remaining few — the “November Nine” — will return to Las Vegas in the year’s penultimate month to play for the title of World Series of Poker Main Event champion.
By making the final table, Senti guarantees himself a payout of at least $811,823. Nearly $70 million in total prize money will be paid out among the top 747 finishers, with nearly $9 million going to the eventual winner.
With all that capital infusion, has he bought anything interesting yet?
“Not really,” said Senti, as if surprised by the question. “My wife bought an iPad. That’s about it.”
Three months of study coming up
Senti plays the game more for its intellectual challenge and independent lifestyle than the (admittedly nice) huge stacks of cash his status as a top-tier high-stakes player affords him. That’s why he’ll spend the next three months studying his own play and that of his opponents rather than buying fancy cars or a boat the size of the average house.
“Having extra money allows me to protect the freedom I have now, to set my own schedule and be my own boss,” he said. “Now I don’t have to worry about the money as much, at least for a while. … From a day-to-day standpoint, I don’t see it changing my life all that much.”
For every player Senti outlasts, he will move up a step in prize money, with the next step taking him over the million-dollar mark. But he’s not thinking about the modest increases in winnings he’d earn by waiting for another player or two to bust out: He’s thinking about winning it all.
“Now that I’m here, I fully plan to play to win this thing,” said Senti.
Jason Senti talks about being one of the “November Nine” at PokerStars.tv.
Getting to this point isn’t too bad for a cash-game specialist who only plays tournament poker a few days a year. Senti makes his yearly salary playing cash poker — both the No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em and Pot Limit Omaha variants of the game — so playing tournament Texas Hold ‘Em, which is how the World Series main event is decided, requires some adjustments.
Unlike cash poker, where the player can reload so long as his or her wallet will allow it, a tournament like the World Series is a “freezeout” — a set buy-in amount gets you a certain amount of tournament chips. Once those chips are gone, no amount of cash can get you back into the field.
Any hand can be your last
A premium is placed on surviving dangerous spots — especially in a game like No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em, where a player can bet any amount at any point during a hand. Any hand can be the one that ends your tournament.
One such spot occurred midway through the tournament on day four of play. Senti had built up his chip stack to well above the tournament average, and right after he was moved to a new table, he got into a showdown with an unknown but very aggressive opponent that could have changed the whole course of his tournament.
In Texas Hold ‘Em, each player is dealt two cards. After a round of betting, the dealer reveals a series of cards that both players can use to make the best five-card poker hand. The best possible starting hand is a pair of aces.
It is this most profitable of hands that Senti found himself dealt in one of the World Series’ most pivotal hands.
Senti made a raise, causing all but one opponent — the aggressive player he’d seen raising a lot with powerful hands — to fold. This is a standard situation. Where it got interesting was when his opponent accidentally made a raise. He’d tried to call, but threw in too many chips by mistake.
Gauging an unfamiliar opponent
Naturally, holding the goods, Senti re-raised, creating a huge pot when his opponent called. The first batch of community cards — the “flop” in poker parlance — contained a queen, a four, and a two, all hearts.
At this point, Senti made a bet. His opponent raised. Given the amount of chips in the pot and the amount of chips each player had remaining in his stack, the math told Senti he had one choice: push all-in if he believed his aces were still the best hand, or fold, sacrificing claim to the vast amount of chips already in the pot.
“I felt really strongly that he really wanted me to get the money in,” Senti said. Going through the information available to him, Senti reasoned that his opponent was probably holding two hearts for a small flush or a pocket pair that had just made three-of-a-kind.
In large measure because he didn’t have a great deal of information on the other player’s tendencies, Senti made the tough fold.
Was it the right move?
As it turned out, the opponent has a reputation as overly aggressive, meaning if he hadn’t been an unknown to Senti at the time, the Minnesotan might have chosen differently. And the reasoning might have been correct, but the outcome would have been much worse — Senti later found out his opponent had indeed made a flush, beating his aces.
“If I had the information then that I have on him now, I probably would have gone all in,” says Senti now. “I didn’t realize how big a deal it was at the time, but that was a spot that could have easily changed the outcome of the tournament.”
As it stood, though, Senti nursed his chip stack to a spot at the final table, and potentially poker history. Though he has the fewest chips of anyone at the final table, he has enough to be a threat despite his short stack.
Strategy will change from player to player
Delaying the final table for three months ensures that Senti won’t be in the spot he was in when he had the aces. No player will be a virtual unknown to him.
“I always play based on how I think my opponents are playing, and how my opponents perceive me, so my strategy will change from player-to-player at the table,” he said.
He’ll do some studying on smaller-stack play in tournaments to make sure he’s making the right plays at the right times.
“I will certainly research my opponents, too,” he said, “but if they have any big leaks in their games, I assume they will have fixed those by November.”
The real work will come in examining his own game. Senti rarely plays live, only occasionally making the trip to Canterbury Park, so he’ll particularly pay attention to the aspect of live play that differs most from online — giving off information through mannerisms that poker players call “tells.”
He’ll talk strategy with high-stakes friends and have them watch footage of him playing to see if they can spot anything he’s giving away. Every small edge is important if Senti is going to realize the dream of taking down the world’s highest-profile event.
“I certainly have a shot,” he said.
Short stack aside, it would be a mistake to bet against him.
Jeff Shaw is a freelance writer and former web editor of City Pages. He wrote two previous MinnPost stories about Minnesota poker players, here and here.