As fans of the classic poker movie “Rounders” (1998) remember, Mike McD – an Atlantic City grinder and aspiring pro – lovingly calls Las Vegas the “center of the poker universe.”
He even caps the epic climax by making good on a long-held dream: striking out for Sin City and competing in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event – a $10,000 buy-in no limit Texas holdem tournament that crowns poker’s World Champion.
We’ll never know if Mike McD made good on his Main Event journey, but for 2015 World Champ Joe McKeehen, the path to poker immortality was paved in Atlantic City.
Poker Prodigy Makes First Major Splash on Atlantic City Circuit
Born in 1991, Joe McKeehen was raised in North Wales, Pennsylvania, a small town that he still calls home to this day.
But after catching “poker fever” as a teenager during the industry’s boom era, the mathematically gifted McKeehen soon found himself connected to opponents worldwide thanks to his PokerStars account. Almost immediately, McKeehen’s underage play was parlayed into a burgeoning bankroll, despite the fact that he wasn’t yet a high schooler.
By the time he turned 18, McKeehen was making regular trips to New York, where the local gambling age gave him a chance to participate in his first live tournaments. His first six live tourney cashes came at Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York, with four final table runs foretelling the dominance to come.
As a fresh-faced 21-year old, McKeehen played his way into the winner’s circle for the first time grinding live. His victory in the 2012 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) $2,150 buy-in no limit Texas holdem Turbo event netted a cool $116,230, but the best was certainly yet to come.
Just a few months later, McKeehen recorded his first of what would become a long line of cashes at the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa. The 3rd-place finish in a $1,090 buy-in Borgata Winter Poker Open event was followed shortly afterward by a runner-up run in a $230 buy-in side event.
By the time the World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOP-C) arrived at Caesars Atlantic City for its annual stop, McKeehen was determined to taste an outright triumph in his adopted poker home. Facing off against 539 opponents in the stop’s $1,675 buy-in Main Event, McKeehen put on an absolute clinic in power poker while amassing almost half of all chips in play when the final table convened.
With a win in sight, McKeehen ousted his overwhelmed opponents one by one, refusing to relinquish his chip lead for even a single hand during the fastest final table of the WSOP-C season. In his winner’s interview with WSOP.com, a humble McKeehen – who just won his first WSOP-C gold ring – gave much of the glory to a run of hot cards and “coolers” that saw him holding monsters against second-best hands:
“I had everything go my way, that’s for sure. What really helped was when I would get pocket aces, someone else would get a hand almost as good, and that’s really critical because you need to get paid off when you get big hands. Fortunately for me, every time I had a big hand, it held up.”
He bagged another $174,147 in winnings as a result, but even then, McKeehen had a backup plan of sorts in his back pocket if a career as a poker pro failed to pan out:
“I enjoy math, I like to solve problems. I’m not sure what I will do, but I am going to keep playing poker as long as things go well. If not, I might get into statistics or something like that.”
McKeehen Proceeds to Dominate Borgata’s Seasonal Series
Flush with confidence and boasting a big enough bankroll to take repeated shots, McKeehen went on a sustained winning streak the likes of which live tournament pros seldom see.
Over a six-month span from November of 2013 through April of 2014, McKeehen added three trophies to his beloved mother’s china cabinet in three consecutive Borgata Open seasonal series. The trio of wins added another $135,000 to his Hendon Mob record for live tourney cashes, while cementing McKeehen’s status as a bona fide tournament closer.
Along with his Borgata wins, McKeehen bagged every chip in play an incredible seven times stretching from his first gold ring through the end of 2014.
Over the course of his full career to date, McKeehen counts 20 outright wins from his 178 career cashes – good for an absurd 1st-place rate of over 11 percent. In other words, for every 10 tournaments McKeehen makes the money cut in, he goes on to claim the lion’s share of the prize pool as the eventual champion.
Throw in another 17 runner-up runs, and McKeehen manages to turn an in-the-money finish into an appearance heads-up for the title more than 20 percent of the time.
Asked about his propensity for dominating final table play in an interview with PokerNews, McKeehen attributed the statistical outlier to his wealth of experience with poker’s endgame:
“When it gets shorthanded, maybe I’m better than the rest of the table. Because a lot of the people, they’re smaller tournaments, so maybe they don’t have any experience shorthanded. Like, they fold way too much, so I just raise and they fold, and before they know it they’re short. And then I get there and it’s over. I kind of pick on the players who don’t want to bust before a pay jump, the ones who play passively near the end.”
A stat whiz himself, McKeehen has likely noticed another cluster of positive results centered around Atlantic City.
Of his 178 career live cashes on the tournament circuit, 41 have had Atlantic City’s thriving casino scene as their backdrop.
But while Atlantic City has produced the most wins for McKeehen, one amazing week in Las Vegas would wind up generating by far his most meaningful win.
Reaching the Pinnacle of Poker at Just 24 Years Young
Sandwiched in between all of those Borgata Open conquests, McKeehen very nearly won his first career WSOP gold bracelet in Sin City.
That run in the 2014 WSOP Monster Stack event – a $1,500 buy-in no limit Texas holdem tournament that drew a whopping 7,862 entries – fell agonizingly short as McKeehen lost a heads-up chip lead to wind up in 2nd place.
Still, his performance at the World Series of Poker Monster Stack Event in 2020 netted him a massive $820,863 payday, his largest payout to that point by an order of magnitude.
Asked about the bittersweet feeling of winning so much money, while losing out on prize every poker pro covets most, McKeehen told ESPN that he had mixed feelings to say the least:
“It was so much money it was hard to be sad. I was very happy since up to that point it was the biggest moment in my career. But looking back, it was a little disappointing that I didn’t win.”
For many aspiring poker pros, coming up one spot short of winning their first WSOP gold bracelet could easily cause them to “tilt” and derail a promising career.
McKeehen isn’t built like most poker pros though, and he returned to the Rio casino in Las Vegas one year later to avenge the “loss.”
Having hoisted yet another Borgata Open trophy in September of 2014, McKeehen arrived at the Rio for the 2015 WSOP Main Event – the most prestigious and difficult poker tournament of them all – ready to roll.
And roll he did…
In the same ESPN interview, McKeehen revealed his game plan entering the granddaddy of all poker tournaments – one which attracted 6,420 unique entries:
“I went into this summer just seeing what happens. I figured that if I played my best, something good would happen.”
Something good happened almost immediately, as McKeehen finished Day 3 of the marathon 7-day event with the second-most chips out of 661 survivors. By the end of Day 4, he was the chip leader with only 237 remaining, and when the “November Nine” final table lineup was set, McKeehen held 63 million chips – or more than twice as much as his closest competitor.
En route to that dominant position, McKeehen even ended the WSOP Main Event dreams of legendary pro Daniel Negreanu, eliminating “Kid Poker” in cruel fashion on the final table bubble.
When the final table finally began after a lengthy hiatus, McKeehen needed only 183 hands – the previous year’s Main Event final table took 328 hands by comparison – to crush all comers.
In a wire-to-wire win, McKeehen never came close to relinquishing his chip lead – a performance eerily reminiscent of that breakthrough WSOP-C victory back in Atlantic City only two years earlier.
Asked about his emotional reaction to bagging the most important gold bracelet of them all – not to mention a ridiculous $7,683,346 in prize money – the 2015 World Champion finally let his fearsome poker face slide for just a moment:
“This is definitely the greatest accomplishment anyone can have in this game. I was always confident I could make money playing the game professionally, but to get this really proves something. It still hasn’t hit me just yet, but I suppose some time it will. Sharing this with my family and friends – for me, that’s the best part.”
Seemingly intent on proving that he’s no “one hit wonder,” McKeehen earned his second career WSOP gold bracelet in 2017 by winning the $10,000 buy-in limit holdem World Championship.
That score for $311,817 – plus a final table run in the $111,111 buy-in High Roller for One Drop WSOP event in 2016 for $829,792 more – helped propel McKeehen to more than $16.5 million in career live tournament earnings and counting.
Going from Atlantic City’s cramped poker rooms on the Boardwalk, to winning the WSOP Main Event in just two years’ time, is an amazing accomplishment to behold. But while watching Joe McKeehen play his brand of utterly fearless, yet mathematically precise, poker back in his Borgata heyday, anyone watching carefully could’ve expected as much.
As the most dominant force Borgata Poker Open opponents have ever seen, McKeehen never settled for holding “top dog” status at his home casino. Instead, he hit the poker industry’s big leagues and brought a World Championship title back to the East Coast in fine fashion.
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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