LAS VEGAS (AP) — Call him the dream-slayer.
Joe McKeehen, the 24-year-old poker pro from Pennsylvania who held an enormous lead going into the final World Series of Poker matchup, ousted Italy's Federico Butteroni late Sunday leaving seven players left to battle for a $7.6 million top prize.
Three hours earlier, minutes into the no-limit Texas Hold 'em event's start, it was McKeehen going head-to-head with 26-year-old Patrick Chan from New York.
Neither Butteroni or Chan got lucky when the community cards were revealed and McKeehen held a stronger pair of cards each time.
It's been four months since nine players remained atop a field of 6,420 entries in the World Series of Poker's main event.
Butteroni, who came into Sunday night in last place, was able to at least outlast Chan and walk away with an extra $97,000 on top of the $1 million they all won in July. After McKeehen raised him 1 million chips before the flop of community cards, Butteroni went all-in with an ace-jack combo against McKeehen's ace-king.
Butteroni's fans chanted "jack, jack, jack" but none made an appearance.
"He is one of the most humblest, most modest people," said friend Denise Negrel, who works at the Aria casino-hotel in Las Vegas doing international marketing in Europe.
Chan, the professional poker player that came into the competition in 8th place, went all-in with just several million worth of chips and a king-queen combo. McKeehen, holding more than 10 times as many chips, showed an ace and a four, winning the hand after the five community cards were revealed and couldn't save Chan.
For Chan, it was simple math. Against McKeehen's massive stack of chips, he thought his king-queen combo would likely be a strong enough hand.
"I'm just glad I made it to this far. I appreciate the friends and family that came for me. I guess it just didn't work out today. But it's just poker."
The three-day poker-playing marathon began Sunday in Las Vegas as nine men battled for the annual World Series of Poker title and chance at $7.6 million.
They last matched wits in July for the series' Main Event and returned to the Rio All-Suites casino-hotel with their remaining chips for the final matchup after outlasting several thousand players, with each paying $10,000 for the chance to win the no limit Texas Hold 'em event.
Two of the "November Nine" nearly missed their own chance.
Neil Blumenfield of San Francisco was laid off from his tech job in the two weeks before the Main Event start and he weighed saving his $10,000 entry or playing. Israeli player Svi Stern entered a few Series events but flew home before the Main Event, changed his mind and flew back in time to give it a try. Now both are already $1 million richer and hoping for more.
The World Series of Poker tradition got its start in 1970 with casino owner Benny Binion as an invitation-only event so casual the ultimate winner was chosen by the other, usually older, guys at the table. The sport's popularity caught fire in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker, an accountant at the time, won it all, giving hope to amateur poker players. Caesars Entertainment Corp. bought the tournament in 2004.
The latest World Series of Poker tournament began in May and continued for 51 days with 68 events, culminating with the annual Main Event. It's a grueling multi-day marathon of poker-playing that whittled down the competition from 6,420 entries to nine players, all guaranteed at least $1 million each with the last man standing winning a total of $7.6 million.
The amount is lower than recent years because World Series of Poker organizers spread out the awards to the top 1,000 finishers after getting feedback from players. Last year, first-place winner Martin Jacobson won a guaranteed $10 million.
For 23-year-old Tom Cannuli, a man who has lost three young friends to car accidents and illness since 2012, more than money is at stake. With an eye on his own legacy, his World Series of Poker Main Event appearance is one step toward becoming part of poker's history.
"This is just the start of me," he said.
He'll be wearing three wristbands during the final days of the event with the names of each of his friends who died: Ryan "Pooh Bear" Cluss, Josh "Fitz" Fitzpatrick and Vito Trudente. And he'll have a coin sitting atop his cards that belonged to his father's friend "Mojo," who introduced him to poker when Cannuli was a teenager.
"They believed in me," he said.
Freelancer Dan Michalski in Las Vegas contributed to this report.