Image source: https://www.cardschat.com/
Caption: Joe McKeehen in action at the 2015 WSOP Main Event
It’s been five years since the rise to stardom of Pennsylvanian poker pro Joseph McKeehen. Although he may now have three World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, his first will always be his most treasured possession of all. The North Wales resident entered the $10,000-entry 2015 WSOP Main Event, staged at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, as a relative unknown. By the end of it, he would become the new face of the poker world.
The 29-year-old graduated from Arcadia University with a maths degree and his methodical, analytical brain led him down the path of playing mind sports such as the board game Risk. In 2010, he entered the Risk Annual Classic – widely considered the world championship for Risk players – and took it down. Just two years later, McKeehen started to enter some of the major land-based poker tournaments, having learnt how to play poker simply by watching it on television. He bagged a cool $116,230 in a side event, before taking home a WSOP Circuit tournament in Atlantic City the following year. It was a big deal for a Pennsylvanian to be making waves in poker, considering that much of the state thinks of the annual powerboat event first rather than the classic card game whenever the word poker crops up.
In 2013, McKeehen demonstrated his potential in the WSOP Main Event by cashing in his debut appearance. He finished in 489th place, but although this was a tremendous achievement to outlast over 90% of the field, the result was nowhere near enough to capture the headlines. McKeehen would save those headlines for two years later at the 2015 Main Event.
A multi-millionaire at the tender age of 24
McKeehen was just 24 years of age when he entered the 2015 WSOP Main Event. Young players have dominated the tournament more recently, with their stamina and dynamism giving them a clear edge over their more experienced and established counterparts. One of McKeehen’s most important moments in the tournament came on the cusp of the final table, removing Canadian poker icon Daniel Negreanu in 11th place. Buoyed by his play against Negreanu, McKeehen would go on and remove the “bubble” player in tenth place to accumulate a sizable chip advantage heading into the “November Nine” final table.
In fact, McKeehen had a third of all the chips remaining at the final table. It was little surprise that the media glare was suddenly placed on the Pennsylvanian, who was in pole position to take the coveted first prize. Despite putting himself on a pedestal as the player to be shot at, the reality was that McKeehen was rarely tested in the final table. He was able to use his big stack to corner many of his more vulnerable final table opponents, knocking out the vast majority of those remaining.
The 2015 Main Event final table was something of an anti-climax
Caption: The drama of the “November Nine” final table in the Penn and Teller Theater
The final table took a mere 183 hands to settle the tournament – the fastest “November Nine” final table since the adoption of this format in 2008. As the final table continued to be whittled down, McKeehen continued to maintain his three-to-one chip lead. With just three players remaining, McKeehen found himself up against 61-year-old Neil Blumenfield, who was bidding to become the oldest winner of the Main Event since Noel Furlong in 1999.
Unfortunately for Blumenfield, it wasn’t fate to go on and win the tournament as he went all-in with pocket deuces against McKeehen’s unexpected pocket queens, with the overpair winning the heads-up duel. A $3.3m pay-day will have been sweet consolation for Blumenfield, while runner-up Josh Buckley ended up taking home $4.47m. McKeehen’s big stack gameplay was impressive against Buckley in the heads-up stage, consistently applying pressure and forcing Buckley to make difficult lay downs throughout.
McKeehen also created a little piece of poker history by becoming the first person to win the WSOP Main Event sporting an 888poker patch. The 29-year-old was sponsored by 888poker for the “November Nine” final table, eventually outlasting his eight opponents to scoop the $7.68m first prize and the highly coveted gold bracelet. 888poker has become an increasingly influential brand in the US, since securing an initial gaming license to operate online in New Jersey. With over ten million registered players, it’s one of the biggest poker communities, spanning cash games, tournaments and even play money tables.
Joe McKeehen: A hugely likeable poker personality
McKeehen certainly appeared ice-cold throughout the event and even after winning his first WSOP gold bracelet, with thousands of fans chanting his name in the Penn and Teller Theater. When asked what he planned to do with his $7.7m winnings, the softly-spoken Pennsylvanian admitted that the prospect of “sharing this with family and friends” was something that excited him most. A humble response after winning poker’s most prestigious prize.
Such is McKeehen’s love for poker and problem-solving that he has continued to play and win in major WSOP tournaments since his Main Event success. In 2017, he took part in the $10,000-entry Limit Hold’em Championship and went on to take down the entire event to bag the second WSOP bracelet of his poker career and a cool $311,000 in prize money. Earlier this year, McKeehen was back in the money again at the 2020 WSOP, bagging the No Limit Hold’em High Roller online event for another $352,985.
In total, McKeehen’s combined winnings from live poker tournaments now exceeds $16.6m. A staggering amount for a young man from a modest suburb of Philadelphia. The WSOP itself has been exceptionally fruitful for McKeehen, with all 43 of his live and online WSOP cashes equating to well over half of his live earnings ($10.85m). Although he may not be as bold and brash as some of his professional poker contemporaries, McKeehen is cool, calm and calculated on and off the tables.