There are people who cannot succeed without adversity. They need pressure. They require potential disaster to force them beyond even their own expectations. The poker world is just getting to know Joe Cada, but it's clear the new World Series of Poker champion thrives on the edge. In a heads-up battle versus Maryland logger Darvin Moon that lasted nearly three hours, Cada started ahead, teetered on the brink of elimination, and once again came back.
Now Cada has no one else to beat. With a tear in the corner of his eye and his lips pursed to hold back obvious emotion, Cada lifted his new bracelet above his head and accepted his role of ambassador to the poker world.
In 1989, Phil Hellmuth surprised both opponent Johnny Chan and the poker world when at 24 years old he became the youngest-ever WSOP Main Event champion. There were people (chiefly Hellmuth) who thought the record would never be broken. That changed after 24 years when the then 22-year-old Peter Eastgate stepped into the Rio's Penn and Teller Theater and won the 2008 WSOP.
Then came this year's Main Event and the battle between 6,494 people from all over the world. The two-week fight led us to the Penn and Teller Theater where only one player was young enough to break Eastgate's record. Cada is 340 days younger than Eastgate and has proven to be no ordinary kid. By the time the Michigan native was 19 years old, he had enough money to buy his first home--in cash. An online whizkid, Cada went to his first WSOP and cashed in two events before sitting down for the big one. Then he went and made the final table.
Still, when he started November Nine play, Cada was fifth in chips. Making his odds even longer, at one point during the final table Cada held only 1% of the chips in play. It would've been tough to find a bettor anywhere in Vegas who would've put much money down on Cada walking away with the bracelet.
But this is Las Vegas. This is the World Series of Poker. This is a place where the unlikely is expected and the longshots prove reason for hope. This is the place where Joe Cada came back from the brink of an early finish and won the biggest and most coveted prize in the world.
Coming into heads-up play tonight, Cada had a 2.3-1 chip lead on Darvin Moon and a boatload more tournament experience. Moon doesn't play online, doesn't own a credit card, and had never been on a plane before the WSOP. Cada, meanwhile, probably plays more hands a year online than Moon has played in his life. Team PokerStars Pro Barry Greenstein predicted a 28-hand heads-up battle, and there were a lot of smart people willing to take the under.
On the very first hand of play, however, Moon took a nice chunk out of Cada's stack in a pocket queens versus pocket nines battle (read about the hand HERE). Those pocket nines would come back around again, but not before Cada found himself in an unenviable position.
Within a few minutes of play and a couple more big hands, Moon had taken over the chip lead. Suddenly, all the people who were ready to simply give the bracelet to Cada before the event began were shifting in their seats.
Was it possible that the Maryland logger under the New Orleans Saints ball cap would find a way to deny Cada his place in history? Would conventional wisdom be as worthless as it had been through most of the final table play? Cada would have none of that. It took him less than 15 minutes to come back and reclaim the exact same lead he'd had at the start of play. And then, again, he lost most of it back.
Cada had been down in chips before. This was the place he knew. This was like home. And he knew just what to do.
When Cada raised to three million, he got a call from Moon. The flop came out T♣5♠9♥. Both players checked to the T♦ turn. That's when Cada came in for three million again. He had to be a little surprised to see Moon push all-in, well enough to cover Cada and well enough to put on the rail in second place. This was the place where the younger man simply had to be right. Wrong, and he's gone.
Finally, Cada announced call and turned over J♥9♦ for second pair. He was right.
Moon held 7♠8♠ for the open-ended straight draw. Moon had seven outs to the river and none of them came. Suddenly, Cada held the chip lead again. And this time he wouldn't give it up.
Just a few hands later, Cada made it his standard three million and Moon raised to eight million. This time Cada pounced and put it all-in. Moon barely thought at all before waving his hand and saying, "Call." The hands?
There were those nines again for Cada. On the first hand of heads-up play, they cost him a huge pot. On the last hand? Well, on the last hand, the board ran out 8♣2♣7♠K♥7♣ and made Joe Cada a champion.
When it was over, the young man was gracious. He congratulated Moon, saying his opponent played "absolutely great." He thanked his friends and fans who made up a big percentage of the crowd. "I'd like to think all my fans for coming out and supporting me. A lot of them took off school and work to come here. I really appreciate that."
But in front of the assembled crowd, that was about all Cada could choke out. Unlike a lot of the young ones who came up on the internet, for Cada this was not a ho-hum-ship-it moment. This was real. That was a dream come true before before Cada got old enough to realize that it was an impossible dream. At 21 years old, he was the envy of the poker world, a great deal wealthier, and free to dream even bigger.
When Joe Cada's fans walked into the Rio two days ago, they all wore bright shirts that bore the legend "The Kid." They all now need new shirts, because henceforth, Joe Cada will be called "The Comeback Kid."
He will also answer to "2009 World Series of Poker champion."
Watch WSOP 2009 November Nine - Joe Cada WSOP Champion on PokerStars.tv