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November 13, 2015

Who was that guy that won the poker championship and why was he wearing a Sixers jersey?

Poker World Series of Poker
111315_WorldseriesofPoker_JayneFurman Jayne Furman/WSOP/888poker

Joe McKeehen celebrates after winning the 2015 World Series of Poker championship last week in Las Vegas.

Joe McKeehen doesn’t rattle easily. He wears a stoic expression, speaks in a monotone voice, never too high or too low, and watches for those little things. It could be a raised eyebrow, a tapping finger on the green poker table felt, or how quickly someone will move their hands.

The ability to see what no one else sees has come through practice, patience and time.

On Tuesday at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in the Penn & Teller theatre, the soft-spoken, red-bearded McKeehen saw through everyone.

The La Salle High School and Arcadia University graduate did something no one thought he could do — maybe not even himself — when he captured the 2015 World Series of Poker championship, collecting a hefty $7.68 million in first-place prize money.

And he won it wearing an Allen Iverson jersey. 

"I grew up a huge Philly sports fan; you can call me a 4-for-4 guy," McKeehen said. "I wanted to wear something representing Philly. That was important to me."

The 24-year-old North Wales, Montgomery County resident who still lives at home with his parents outlasted the 6,420 entrants that began the tournament back on July 5, anting up a $10,000 entry fee.

"I grew up a huge Philly sports fan; you can call me a 4-for-4 guy," McKeehen said. "I wanted to wear something representing Philly. That was important to me."

Josh Beckley, 24, of Evesham Township, Burlington County, took home $4.47 million for second, and Neil Blumenfield, 61, of San Francisco, grabbed $3.39 million for finishing third.

For McKeehen, winning the World Series of Poker (WOP) was the apex of a journey that started when he was 15, following a passion that began channel hopping one night and coming across a poker tournament on TV.

It spurred an interest in McKeehen, who began dabbling with online poker winning some change here and there. By 18, a vision formed of playing more poker.

By 20, he was on a plane flying to the Bahamas to compete in the Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure (PCA). That’s what launched him. He took home $116,230 in winnings in a side tournament. It beat pulling down $150 for working 30 odd hours a week bagging groceries.

“That was the first time I ever went to the Bahamas, it was the biggest event I ever competed in and it’s one of the biggest poker events there is,” said. McKeehen, who’s sponsored by 888poker. “I started to think that I could really do this. I remember that tournament. I wasn’t at risk very often, but the one time I was at risk, where I was behind, I wound up getting lucky and won.

“After that moment, I thought to myself, ‘I have a second chance in this tournament and I’m going to make the most of it.’ I think what makes a good poker player is obviously playing a lot and gaining a lot of experience, but I also pay attention to a lot of little details that other players might not. You can pick up reads on some players, because they’re giving up a lot of stuff. There are a lot of timing tells, when they’ll act faster than they usually do.”

Joe McKeehen with a big pile of chips and an even bigger pile of cash. (Jayne Furman/WSOP/888poker)

McKeehen admits that when he first started playing in tournaments he wasn’t very adept at reading people. He would see things across the table and shrug them off. The more he played, the more he noticed.

“Your reading ability begins to improve, it’s what happened to me,” McKeehen said.

Can McKeehen become a a Phil Ivey, a Chris Moneymaker or Daniel Negreanu (who finished 11th in the 2015 WOP)? McKeehen himself says he doesn’t think he’ll ever be as big on the international scale as them. He calls himself a byproduct of their success.

But winning the WOP is a nice start.

“Poker is unusual in term of the way stars emerge, and the winner in events like the World Series of Poker emerge, because it’s such a massive field,” said Eric Raskin, the Editor and Chief of ALL IN Magazine. “There were 6,400-plus players that entered this year and the final tables are always filled with really good players that you never heard of.

“Joe’s a professional poker player, but in a world where there are maybe 50 to 100 well-known names and faces you see on TV a lot, Joe was way outside that bubble. He was basically an unknown until he made this final table over the summer.

"I guess you can say there is a parallel of a 6,000-team national high school basketball tournament and one team emerging. But poker has such a huge field. Poker is different from any other game, because there is a combination of skill and luck involved. The best player in the world can go down in flames a half-hour into a tournament and a mediocre amateur can sometimes get on a hot run and go really deep. It’s just an unpredictable thing.

“Some poker pros have sponsors and they’re on TV with patches of online poker sites. That stuff is harder to come by these days. The guy who wins the World Series of Poker main event has those opportunities if he wants them. There are opportunities out there. From what I know of Joe, he likes life in the slow lane. This win gives him freedom to do what he wants. I’m guessing, but he might decide to grow the game and grow his brand. The money changes his life without question, but in terms of how big he wants to become in the poker world, that’s up to him.”

Follow Joe on Twitter @jsantoliquito