This time last year, Joseph Cada couldn’t legally order a cocktail. But today, the Shelby Township, Mich., native sits on top of the poker world as the champion of the World Series of Poker’s “Main Event.” Cada, who turns 22 next week, took home $8.5 million early Nov. 10 when he outlasted Maryland logger Darvin Moon (and 6,492 other competitors) at No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em to win the sport’s biggest prize. TIME contributor Matt Villano caught up with Cada in Las Vegas to talk about preparing for the final table, what he’s learned by playing poker online and what’s next for history’s youngest champ. (Read “21-Year-Old Wins World Series of Poker.”)
First off, how did you celebrate your monumental win last night?
Right after the match [at the Penn & Teller Theater inside the Rio Las Vegas] ended, there were like 2½ or 3 hours of interviews, photos, autographs and stuff like that. Then a bunch of us went back to our suite at the Palazzo. My family had come out to be with me, and I had about 100 friends who came out from Michigan to cheer me on too. We were up pretty late.
Starting today, how do you plan to represent poker as the new champion?
At this point, all I can say is that I’ll do my best. Poker has been my life for a while now, so obviously I want to see it grow. Whatever the community needs me to do, I’ll do. I’m psyched about the responsibility.
You’ve been playing professionally for six years. At what point in your career did you start thinking you could win the Main Event?
I had dreamed about it — I think every poker player does. But I always knew winning the Main Event was a big long shot. I mean, coming out on top of a field of 6,500 players is pretty rare. This summer [when the first eight days of the Main Event were played], once it got down to about 180 people, I started thinking that I might actually be able to do it. Then, when I made the final nine, I knew it was within reach.
With three months off before the final nine resumed play this weekend, how did you prepare?
I didn’t really do anything special. I just continued the same lifestyle that had gotten me into the final nine. I played a lot of live events, both in person and online. I went out with friends — stuff a typical 21-year-old would do. I also traveled a lot and visited London and Barcelona.
Any regrets from the final table?
I’m pretty critical of how I play, and I’m not afraid to admit when I think I’ve played badly. When it got down to two of us, I had $135 million in chips, but I think Darvin definitely outplayed me at first. There was a point where he had me down to $40 million in chips. Thankfully, I came back. I knew if I just made good decisions, I could turn things around.
You shared final-table felt with poker legend Phil Ivey. Which longtime pros do you consider to be your mentors? And after whom would you say you’ve modeled your game?
Definitely Ivey. Tom Dwan. Both of these guys are so unpredictable that it’s hard to put them on certain hands. What I’ve learned from them is that you have to play solid poker and keep people guessing at the same time. It’s a powerful combination.
Peter Eastgate, then age 22, won this tournament last year, and you’ve taken the bracelet this year. To what extent do you think the “old guard” has been displaced by young guns?
I wouldn’t say we’ve displaced them, but the Internet has certainly leveled the playing field. Playing cards is all about experience. Online, you can see 40 times as many hands in one hour as you would in a live game. Because of that, a 21-year-old could gain more experience in one year than someone who has been playing live for 25 years. You also don’t need to go to a physical place to play — you can wake up and open up your laptop.
Legislators have made online poker illegal in the U.S. As someone who’s played online for years, how do you see this issue being resolved?
I support the right to play poker online. Poker isn’t gambling. It’s a hobby, an activity, a game. It’s not about luck — it’s about logic, decision-making, math. We all should be able to play poker on the Web if we want to, and I believe that making it illegal strips us of our rights. This is an important issue, and hopefully we’ll see it resolved soon.
$8.5 million is a lot of money. Short of going to Disneyland, what do you plan to do with it?
I haven’t really thought about it yet. Since Saturday [when the field was winnowed down to two], I didn’t want to look past the heads-up match with Darvin. I’m sure at least some of those winnings will go back into my bankroll, though. There’s always another tournament to play.
HOW THE GAME WENT
In the end, the amateur who had been catching every card he needed since last July couldn’t catch one more — and the $8.5 million first-place prize in the World Series of Poker’s main event went to a pro who became the youngest winner ever of this Texas-hold-’em showcase.
On the final hand, Darvin Moon, 45, called an all-in bet from Joe Cada, 21, and with $150 million in chips in the pot — 70% of the chips in play — none of the last five cards paired Moon’s queen-jack; Cada’s pair of nines held up, and he had outlasted 6,494 participants who began play more than four months ago at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)
Moon, of Oakland, Md., was one of two closely watched amateurs to make the final table; the other was investment banker Steven Begleiter, 47, of Chappaqua, N.Y., who went out of this tournament early Sunday in sixth place. Both came to Las Vegas with a compelling backstory and made it to Saturday’s “November Nine” final table with commanding chip stacks.
Moon is a real-life logger and self-described hillbilly who’s never owned a computer or carried a credit card. Before his flight to Las Vegas last July, he had never flown, and his 1,100-sq.-ft. complimentary suite at the Rio was larger than his home. Begleiter’s longtime employer, the investment house Bear Stearns, collapsed in the financial panic last year. He embodies a new breed of recreational player with keen math and risk skills honed at day jobs and attracted by poker’s rising stakes. (See how to plan for retirement at any age.)
No one argues that this game isn’t part luck and part skill — only how much of each is involved. So the heads-up play that started at 1 a.m. E.T. on Tuesday and pitted the unassuming Moon against the calculating Cada was apropos. Cada, from the Detroit area, risked alienation from his parents to participate. He cut his poker teeth in online play as a teenager; against his parents’ will, he quit college to play cards for a living. But he soon won enough to pay cash for his house and managed to reconcile with Mom and Dad, who were in Las Vegas to cheer him on. (Read “Are People Gambling Less?”)
This was Cada’s first full year being age eligible in Vegas, and he ended up bringing a mountain of chips to the heads-up finale in front of a large and raucous crowd that had waited in line up to six hours: $136 million in chips to Moon’s $59 million. He had survived numerous flings with elimination to get that far, at one point running dead last at the table of nine. “He looked like he was about to cry,” says Jonathan Little, a poker pro who had a table-side seat. But Cada inched back with a series of unchallenged bets, then doubled his stack with a dramatic all-in showdown in which he showed three threes, and he was on his way. (Watch the video “Poker Comes to China.”)
Moon made it to the heads-up finale with a string of improbable TKOs, including one of highly touted pro Phil Ivey, who went out in seventh place, and then Begleiter. Those two knockouts came in rapid succession, and both times Moon held ace-queen, was behind at the start and then got just the card he needed. In Ivey’s case, Moon faced an ace-king but won when he paired his queen. In Begleiter’s case, Moon faced a pair of queens and won when he paired his ace. Says Little: “He was getting better-than-average distribution throughout the tournament,” which is pro-speak for landing killer cards.
Moon’s run of good cards may have unnerved some at the table. Bloggers reported bad blood after the logger eliminated Begleiter, who seemed to be a marked man at the table of nine the way his raises were consistently met with big reraises that prompted him to fold. But Begleiter says he has no issues with Moon: “He’s a gentlemen and very good poker player. I shook his hand before the flop on the last hand and again after he knocked me out.” You never know: they may meet again next year.
Dan is co-author of With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life (HarperCollins, spring 2009). He writes “The Boom Years” column for Money magazine and is a regular contributor to TIME magazine and Time.com. Visit his website, dankadlec.com, to view his latest work and see what he’s up to next.