The battle to reach the final table of the World Series of Poker main event is a seven-day journey requiring a dynamic set of skills that can adapt to any situation.
By and large (though not exclusively), the first three days are a matter of survive and advance, positioning oneself for an opportunity for something truly special. The 2017 WSOP main event was no exception, and with Thursday's Day 3 action getting things down to the exact money bubble at 1,084, Friday's early stages set the stage well for moving day -- one of the more crucial points for players trying to position themselves for a run at the final table.
When all was said and done, a clean 297 players -- the exact capacity of the Brasilia Room, which will house the remainder of the next three days of play -- was all that remained in the hunt for the 2017 WSOP main event title.
Damian Salas of Buenos Aires, Argentina, ended Friday night with the chip lead at 4.678 million, followed by Sebastien Comel of France at 4.198 million.
Kenny Hallaert, a member of the 2016 edition of the November Nine, sits in third place with 4.145 million. The Belgian pro managed to make his third WSOP main event Day 5 in as many years, a virtually unmatched precedent in the history of this tournament.
Though the bright lights of one of the featured stages surely lie ahead -- and Hallaert's got a level of experience at this stage that many of his opponents won't after finishing sixth in this event last year -- he relished an opportunity to cruise in relative anonymity for the most part, to this point.
"The table where I was sitting here was perfect," Hallaert said. "I'm in a corner, looking at a wall. It's so relaxing. There's no cameras, no lights ... sometimes the ESPN cameras do come by, but there's no distractions hanging around and you can focus on your game."
At this point in the tournament, through more than 40 hours of play, the mental strain of focusing so intensely at any given moment is a burden for most players, including Hallaert himself this time last year. But with the third-largest stack, and a good pace and patience to this point, he's ready to be in it for the long haul once again.
"I'm full of energy at the moment," Hallaert said. "I wouldn't have minded if we played for four more hours. I still was sharp."
He'll certainly have his hands full, with a well-balanced distribution of chips to this point. The top counts have a heavy international flavor with just one American among the top 11 stacks. Ben Lamb, who's in 14th, has made something of a comeback thus far in this tournament after just one WSOP cash since his 2011 WSOP main event final table. He's not the only former November Nine member in the mix for a repeat final table appearance; Hallaert, Antoine Saout, Michael Ruane, Jake Balsiger, Eoghan O'Dea, Chino Rheem, Tom Cannuli and Matt Giannetti all still fit that bill, too.
Day 3 ended with the bursting of the money bubble, setting the stage for a crazy, chaotic start to Day 4, as nearly 200 players went out in the first hour.
The last three former main event champions in the 2017 field -- Scotty Nguyen (549th), Joe Cada (948th) and Carlos Mortensen (984th) -- each fell out during the first half of the day, guaranteeing a brand new world champion of poker.
The repetitively named James James (1,046th) and Morten Mortensen (969th) each failed to make it out of the first 30 minutes. Liv Boeree (314th), Jeff Lisandro (383rd), Faraz Jaka (399th), Matt Glantz (433rd), JJ Liu (442nd), Christoph Vogelsang (444th), Bernard Lee (500th), Gavin Smith (612th), Allen Cunningham (643rd), Nam Le (736th), Scott Seiver (939th), Dutch Boyd (956th) and Barry Greenstein (1,012th) are just a handful of the many notables who fell on Day 4.
Jacob Zalewski, who finished 374th, put together a pretty special run in his first career main event cash. For those who have attended a World Series of Poker for as little as a day or multiple full summers, Zalewski, 34 has been one of the most consistent and friendly presences at the World Series of Poker for more than a decade.
Despite having cerebral palsy and having to fight tooth and nail for everything he's got, as ESPN first detailed in 2014, there's little hope in trying to wipe the smile off his face as he consistently zips around in his motorized scooter. Zalewski's love of poker dates back to a time before he was even technically supposed to be entering casinos, when he'd go to the WSOP at its former home.
"When I was 16 years old," recalled Zalewski, of his first journey. "My dad is a professional poker player, so I've been coming to the WSOP since back when it was at Binions. To be able to potentially get close, making Day 5, it's pretty unbelievable."
The kind of support that the poker community has offered Zalewski -- a group he affectionately calls his "big dysfunctional family" -- is stunning. Through sheer willpower, a couple of fortunate breaks and that support, Zalewski established the One Step Closer Foundation. Through 10 years of celebrity-fueled charity poker events and donations, the organization has raised over $1 million to support those who suffer from cerebral palsy and other devastating diseases.
"That event that started out of nothing but an idea, the poker community really took it on their shoulders and still support it today," said Zalewski. "It's very humbling. All of the money goes towards helping the less fortunate, and making the world a better place."
Zalewski's cash in this event is the largest of his career, and his first in four attempts at the main event. His doggedness in driving himself to play and in raising awareness for cerebral palsy has attracted the attention of sponsors like PokerGo, RUNGOOD and others, and despite Zalewski's disappointment in being eliminated, his efforts in the fight against cerebral palsy make his story one to remember from the 2017 WSOP main event.
A view from Friday:
The giant Amazon ballroom at the Rio is nearly devoid of WSOP main event players. As the blinds climb to 10,000/20,000 with a 3,000 ante, there are just 324 players left -- and by the end of the night, all remaining players will be in the same room for the first time. Everyone still in is currently guaranteed to win at least $35,267.
End of Day 4 chip counts
1. Damian Salas - 4.678 million
2. Sebastien Comel - 4.198 million
3. Kenny Hallaert - 4.145 million
4. JP Kelly - 3.973 million
5. Richard Gryko - 3.559 million
6. Cosmin Joldis - 3.5 million
7. Colin Moffatt - 3.086 million
8. Jonas Mackoff - 3.076 million
9. Eyal Maaravi - 3.03 million
10. Valentin Messina - 2.979 million