San Francisco’s Neil Blumenfield navigated his way through a field of 6,240 entries in the 2015 World Series of Poker’s Main Event to be one of the elite nine players to play for the world championship in November.
Each of the contestants paid $10,000 to enter the tournament, creating a prize pool of $60,348,000. After seven long days of play Blumenfield began the hiatus in third position with 22 million chips. At the top of the list is Joseph McKeehen with just over 63 million and in ninth is Italy’s Federico Butteroni with a little more than 6 million.
Ninth place pays $1,001,020 but the big money ($7,680,021) and the bracelet go to first when the final table concludes on Nov. 10.
The Cardroom recently caught up with Blumenfield as he was in between engagements:
The Cardroom: First of all tell us a little bit about yourself. You live in San Francisco, is that right?
B: That is.
TC: Are you a longtime Bay Area resident or originally from somewhere else?
B: I moved to California to go to school at Cal a long, long time ago–forty years ago–and never left. That’s not quite true, I left for two years for Denver and then came back.
TC: Originally you were from where?
TC: Does your poker playing go way, way back to or is that a relatively recent thing?
B: Poker playing goes way back when I was in junior high school. In high school, we had regular weekly games. Totally different games then, we were playing Seven Card Stud, we were playing Lowball, we were playing Follow the Queen and Baseball. It ended every evening playing Guts, which made the whole previous part of the evening irrelevant with all the money that was in Guts.
I played a little bit of cash games when I first came out to California. I played a little bit in Vegas and Reno, but not very much and again that was all Seven Card Stud. Hold’em was not popular at all at the time. Those were low-stakes cash games. I didn’t really play the game very much. I played the occasional home games when I had friends to play, but not very much. About eight years ago, I started playing tournaments. I started playing tournaments locally to kind of prep because I decided to go play the Seniors Event at the World Series. I started playing at Lucky Chances a few weeks before the tournament and actually won a tournament the second or third week I played there, maybe it was even the first week, I don’t know. Early on I won a tournament. So, that’s kind of the background I have. I also started to read a lot about the game.
TC: You still play at Lucky Chances?
B: Until a month and a half ago I was working full time. I really didn’t have much time to play there, so I played once, maybe twice a week if I was really lucky. I was playing most Sundays and occasionally I’d take off during the week and play, but that was fairly rare. I was playing once a week at Lucky Chances and playing the bigger tournaments at Bay 101. When there were good tournaments in Reno or Thunder Valley I was playing there.
TC: You mentioned Bay 101. Have you been a regular at the Shooting Star?
B: Yeah. I play the Shooting Star, probably the last five, maybe six, and I play the Bay 101 Open pretty much every year. Occasionally, I go down there for the second Saturday where it’s the bigger tournaments.
TC: Let’s go ahead and jump forward then to the World Series this year. Did you play more than just the Main Event?
B: Yeah, I played three other events. I played a mixed max. I played I think a $1,500 buy-in Hold’em. I played Seniors, where I cashed, and then the Main. The Seniors is the first event I played there which was like eight years ago. I played seven or eight times since. That was always the event that I thought I’d cash in and thought I would go deep in and this is the first year I cashed with the Seniors. I played the three events. I was there for a week and a half, came home, and got laid off. I thought about whether or not I should even go back and play the Main and risk the $10K and said well, I’m all set up to go, I’ve been looking forward to playing, so I’m not going to bail on that.
TC: Had you played the Main Event before?
B: Yeah. I think this is the fourth time I’ve played. I’ve played every year except for one the last four or five and I cashed two years or three years ago. I got to the end of Day 4. So, my objective this year was to get to Day 5. I hit that and I was kind of free rolling from there. So, that was good.
TC: What was the experience like for you over the first several days in terms of how were you doing? How were you feeling about your chances of continuing?
B: It was as it usually is in any event that is nearly that long, it was a roller coaster. Day 1 I thought I was at a very soft table and I thought this is a great opportunity to really chip up and I played badly and wound up ending the day with like 36K, which probably should have been more like 50K. It wasn’t because the competition was tough, it was because I was playing a game that was not really the game that I play, just trying to chip up fast and take advantage of the table and that didn’t work out so well. So, Day 1 I would have had the low average and struggled and I wasn’t very happy with how I played.
Day 2 started off really well. I chipped up quickly. The rest of the tournament I was kind of up and down. I would get down to 12 big blinds and then chip up and fall back down. It was kind of like that, especially the last three days. It seemed like I was sitting on 12 big blinds half the time. So, it was a grind. There were a lot of shoves.
TC: You were all-in many times that you had to win the hand?
B: I was all-in many times, but mostly on a call. The times that I was all-in at risk that I recall, I think Day 2 I was all-in at risk twice, but both of those times I was well ahead, like kings versus queens. Day 6 I was all-in behind twice, both against Brian Hastings, and I got lucky both times. One of them I was pretty well behind and I won both of those hands, obviously. Then, most of the rest of time I was all-in I was not called. Then on Day 6 I chipped up and then was back down to 12 big blinds when we went on break. The very first hand after break I had pocket kings, shove, no calls. Next hand tens, shove, no calls. Third hand threes, saw a flop with two guys wanting to fling it down on the flop, took one hand off and got kings again and got it all in against ace-king and won. Then I got aces and went all-in again against the same guy, John Hines, who had tens and they held up again. So, that was pretty much the all-in history and I was in pretty good shape from that.
TC: Backing up just a little bit from that–that period of time when you know the money bubble is coming–what kind of position were you in then? Were you sitting comfortably and knowing you could cruise through that or was there tension there?
B: Actually, I was in an okay position there and not at all focused, not at all worried. I was open to exploiting the bubble at that point. I wasn’t worried about cashing for $15K. That was totally uninteresting.
What was interesting, I was playing next to a guy who I wound up having dinner with and it was right before the bubble burst and he was like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to play really conservative. I’m not going to risk the $15K.” I said, “You’re crazy you know. You got a chance to go deep in this tournament, why are you worrying about the $15K? Anyhow, I was in pretty solid shape at that time and like I said, not at all worried about the bursting of the bubble.
TC: So, when you started Day 7 about where were you?
B: I was 20 out of 27. So, again I was grinding the short stack a lot. When we were down to 39 players, I was 39 out of 39. When we were down to 69 I was 68 out of 69 I think. Then 20 out of 27, so a lot of comebacks.
TC: At some point, something switched for you. Let’s say you’re down to the final three tables and you were short stacked there, but obviously you won some hands to get back up because you finished the day quite strong.
B: Yeah, those two hands that I won back to back against John Hines, those were big. So, I doubled twice there. Then, when we got down to like 15 players I was sitting on about nine million which was not comfortable, kind of in the danger zone really, but that would have been twenty-something bigs. I got another double up when I turned a flush, so that got me up to 18 [million chips]. At that point I was comfortable that I was going to make the final table.
The stack was decent. I wasn’t looking for big confrontations, but I was in pretty good shape. The other thing is with the [payout] structure this year it’s obviously very flat down to the bottom. They paid a thousand [players] instead of the normal ten percent. Then, they also guaranteed a million for ninth. So the jumps from like 13 to 11 to 10 to 9 were really big. Then it flattened out from nine to eight, eight to seven, seven to six. So I was watching those changes and trying to make sure that I at least kept moving up one level and then to obviously make it to the last nine is a big deal.
TC: Any particular feeling or response to when that last guy got eliminated in tenth place and you knew you would get to come back in November?
B: Oh, it was somewhat euphoric. The way this played out was we were still at two tables, Joe McKeehen, who is the chip leader now, was at the other table and they were playing much faster than we were. Part of that was because of Zvi Stern, who was at my table, is very deliberate and so things went pretty slow. They played almost twice as many hands at the other table as we were. During that time, Joe was massively abusing the big stack on the bubble.
So, he chipped up from like 40 to 60 [million] during that time. When we got to ten players, he had guys all-in twice who survived–once in a race and the other when Joe was way ahead of him. It was ace-king against ace-jack and the board wound up double pairing so they chopped. It was almost over ten minutes into the last ten when we combined tables and then again a little bit later. It was kind of up and down because you’re obviously rooting for someone to get knocked out and get it over with. So, when the tenth guy got knocked out and that was the second time he was all in. That was obviously a huge relief.
TC: Were you actively playing when there were ten? What kind of strategy did you have when there were ten players?
B: Joe was re-betting a lot of pots so you wanted to stay out of his way unless you have a monster hand. So, I played three hands when we were ten. We went two or three orbits or so. It was not an unusually small number of hands. It was actually more hands than I had played the whole level previous or two levels previous when I was getting no cards at all.
TC: You weren’t going to be shy about mixing it up if you had a hand to play?
B: Oh, absolutely. I had three pocket pairs so I played them all.
TC: What was the ESPN experience like for you?
B: I was on the feature table a lot. That was interesting. I played with Negreanu a good chunk of two different days. The day I didn’t play with him was Day 7. I played with him a lot Day 5 and Day 6. So the feature table stuff was fun. People asked me about the pressure of going deep in that event and the pressure of being on the TV tables and my response is that it really didn’t faze me at all. I was there playing poker and it was obviously different from playing at Lucky Chances on Sunday, but not a world different. I was just playing my game and trying to focus and trying to make the right moves at the right time. I wasn’t really thinking about TV viewers seeing my hole cards or playing with Negreanu or playing with Esfandiari or anything like that.
TC: Looking forward do you have any big plans for getting ready or how you’re going to approach the situation when it comes?
B: I just got back from Florida. I played the Seminole Hard Rock for the first time and that was a good experience. I actually went pretty deep. I’ll spend a lot of time working on my game if I’m here until November.
TC: When you say working on your game are you like some of these guys who get coaches, do mock tables … do you think you’re going to get involved in that kind of thing or just play tournaments?
B: It will be more than playing tournaments. It will be a lot of reading, a lot of studying and we’ll see what else makes sense.
TC: Any predictions?
B: It’s hard to predict. I’m third in chips which is good. Unfortunately, the chip leader has 3X what I have which is not good. I kind of like my position at the table, but reality is in this game things change very, very, very quickly. So, I think all the guys that are talking are saying that Joe is kind of a shoe in, and I would not put it that way at all. He is certainly–if I was going to pick one–he would be the first one I would pick because he has a significant chip lead and is an incredibly strong player. So that combination is certainly dangerous. I think I’ll play well and I’ll need to get a break or two and avoid bad breaks. I avoided bad breaks for 70 hours so I think I can do it probably for another 15. If I play well, I’ll give myself a chance. It’s always a scenario where the cards got to go right, but if I get some breaks with the cards then I feel pretty good about my chances.