When Joe Cada shocked the poker world back in 2009, winning the World Series Main Event at the age of 21, you couldn't fill a phone booth with the number of professionals who were impressed by his game.
His run to the championship and an $8.5-million payday was widely considered, in the industry, far more lucky than skill-based.
At that 2009 final table, two hands stand out in particular.
The first, he had pocket threes and shoved all-in — only to get called by pocket jacks. He hit a three on the flop. The second, he had pocket twos and, again, found himself all-in pre-flop — and was up against queens. He found himself a miracle two.
Boy, has the perception about Cada, the Shelby Township resident, changed in the past decade, as he could become the first man in the post-poker boom era to win a second Main Event championship. He already is the first champion to make another Main Event final table since the early 2000s, when the tournament's player entries skyrocketed into the several thousands.
"This guy's incredible," Phil Hellmuth, who not-so-humbly considers himself the best No-Limit Texas Hold 'em player on the planet and who won his record 15th WSOP bracelet Wednesday night, said on the ESPN broadcast late Wednesday. "I don't think he played great then (in 2009), but he's gotten better and better and better and better.
"He's become a superstar."
Cada, now 30 and scruffy rather than 21 and whiskerless when he last won the Main Event, is among the final nine players at this year's Main Event, which continues at 8:30 Eastern on Thursday night. He is joined at the final table by Muskegon's Nic Manion, 35, who became chip leader with the most incredible hand you'll see outside of the movies — aces up against two opponents, both holding pocket kings.
While many poker professionals have egos the size of the Stratosphere and can't handle the slightest bit of criticism regarding their game, Cada has never much cared about the perception.
He's not a self-promoter. He's not flashy. He doesn't travel the world like many of today's poker stars, including Clarkston's Ryan Riess, the 2013 Main Event champion. Years after he won his first millions, Cada actually still was wearing the same clothes he wore in high school. His only major investment was a condo in Canada, so he could play online poker after it was banned in Michigan.
"I know, just from anything, there's going to be people that are gonna talk and say things," Cada told The News recently. "That's just the way it is in any public sport or public venue.
"You're going to get criticized. It comes with the territory.
"I've proved it to myself since I was a teenager and first started."
Really, Cada prefers to let his game doing the talking, and it has spoken volumes in the years since his Main Event championship.
Cada picked up a second-place finish at a WSOP tournament in 2012, for $412,424. There were two fourths in 2013, for $161,652 and $83,558. Then, in 2014, he won his second bracelet — a first place in a $10,000 buy-in tournament that netted him $670,041.
That was the first indicator Cada, nicknamed "The Kid" for becoming the youngest player ever to win the Main Event, was for real.
Then, after final tabling the first open tournament of this year's WSOP, he won the second for bracelet No. 3, and $226,218. (This came after an emotionally tough "offseason" home in Michigan, as his father, Jerry, suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.)
Less than 100 poker players have won three bracelets sanctioned by the WSOP, founded at the old Binion's Horseshoe in Vegas in 1970. (It's now held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino.) Only 43 ever have won a fourth, which Cada is trying to accomplish this week. In short, he's putting together a Poker Hall-of-Fame resume, even though he's 10 years from even being eligible to be on the ballot.
"(Nine) years ago I called you the luckiest player in poker history!" poker legend — and notorious grump — Mike Matusow wrote on Twitter early Thursday morning. "(Nine) years later you have all my respect!"
Those all-in shoves back in 2009, with low pocket pairs, were considered anywhere from loose (nice) to reckless (not so nice).
His play at this year's Main Event has garnered him a ton of respect, especially considering he was down to 9,000 chips — from a 50,000 starting stack — all the way back on Day 2, and has kept steadily climbing, all the way to a seven-figure payday.
At the feature table Wednesday, he folded several pocket pairs preflop, including nines (which, coincidentally, is a hand that holds special meaning, given that was what he was holding in the final hand of the 2009 Main Event — hence his Twitter handle, @cada99). In another, he dumped ace-queen.
Two hands, though, really stood out, including one all-in bluff — he had nothing and his opponent had a pair of kings but folded.
"You had me sweating my ass off," Cada later told that opponent, Australia's Alex Lynskey.
That hand showed some serious skill and moxie from Cada.
Another huge hand was the result of a bit of luck — but hey, that's poker. Cada was all-in pre-flop with ace-six of hearts, to his opponent's ace-10 off-suit. Cada hit the flush on the river.
"We have seen a champion's heart from him more than once," ESPN analyst Norman Chad said on Wednesday's broadcast.
Cada, amazingly, was the pick of another ESPN analyst, Lon McEachern, to win the Main Event. That pick was made before the tournament started, and McEachern and Chad joked how bad the pick was on Day 2, when Cada was running on fumes. Now, it looks like a potential brilliant prediction.
Only four men have won two Main Events — Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar. The largest field anyone of them beat out was 312. The smallest was six.
Cada beat out 6,494 in 2009, and there are 7,874 entrants this year, with first place paying $8.8 million. All things being equal — they aren't, of course, as Cada's poker skills clearly are superior to most of the Main Event players — the odds of winning two Main Events in this era are anywhere from more than 100,000-1 to several million to 1, depending on whose math analytics you want to go by.
Every final table member this year is guaranteed at least $1 million, pushing Cada's career tournament earnings past $11 million, eighth all-time. Another Main Event title would put him second, all-time, in earnings, behind only Antonio Esfandiari, whose over $21 million, with $18 million from one win.
The Main Event will go from nine players to six on Thursday, six to three on Friday, with a champion Saturday.
"'The Kid,'" said Chad, of ESPN, "could become 'The Legend.'"