“Time Is Relative” or “Was the 2016 November Nine Actually Faster?”

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

—quote attributed to Albert Einstein,
The New York Times, 1929 March 15

NOTE: There’s a cool (well, cool for a chart) chart that goes with this post, click here if you want to see it before we get around to it later in the article. -PM

After Qui Nguyen’s hat, one of the things commentators have noted about the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event November Nine was the speed of play (“people were acting insanely fast,’ said TwoPlusTwo PokerCast’s Adam Schwartz), particularly in comparison to the slow pace of last year’s final table, when Ofer Zvi Stern took heat (and time) from just about every onlooker.

That got me to wondering: just how much faster was this year? And when I started looking at the numbers from this year, last year, and 2014, there were some rather surprising details in the data.

First, a few caveats. This year’s Main Event used 50,000 chips as the starting stack for the first time, and even though the blind schedule was also adjusted, there’s no direct mapping to previous years. Then, because each poker tournament is a bit different (varying numbers of starting players with every hand at every table through seven days being unique), the events reached the November Nine at different points in the tournament, though, remarkably, not that different. They all reached nine players in Level 35, with a little over 90 minutes remaining in 2014, just short of an hour left in 2015, and with 32:50 remaining in the level in 2016.

Level 35 (Partial)

The players this year zipped through 12 hands in that first half hour; about 2:45 per hand on average. In 2015, Patrick Chan was eliminated on the second hand; the remaining eight players finished only 14 more hands in the level. The average time per hand in the level was over three-and-a-half minutes. In 2014, nobody was eliminated in the first level of the November Nine, but they got through 36 hands, at an average pace of 2:30.

Two minutes is about as fast as a live game hand ever plays, even if there are only two players. There are basic physical constraints, from handling the deck and dealing, to players looking at their cards. At a full table, players can be looking at their cards at the same time, so even if more cards have to be dealt, some of the decision-making is made while other action is happening. Even an auto-shuffler takes some time, and even if it’s working during another hand cards need to be gathered to put into the shuffler when action is over, and the shuffled deck needs to be removed. 60 hands per hour isn’t a maximum, but it’s pretty fast.

Level 36

The first full level of each of the three years was level 36, which saw the first eliminations of 2014 (Mark Newhouse) and 2016 (Fernando Pons), and the second elimination in 2015 (Federico Butteroni). 2015 was once again the slowest of the three 32 hands (3:45 average). The 2016 players got in a total of 40 hands (3:00 average), but once again the 2014 players had set a high bar of 46 hands in the two-hour level,.

Level 37

The stories of the three years diverge on this level, although all three lost two players. By the start of the level, the 2014 players had played for approximately four house including breaks, with only about three hours of play in the subsequent years. 82 hands were played before Level 37 in 2014, as opposed to 48 and 52 (respectively) in 2015 and 2016.

Bruno Politano was eliminated on Hand 100 in 2014, with Dan Sindelar going out six hands later. With a diminishing number of players, the table whips through 52 hands of play, at just over 2:15 per hand.

In 2015, Pierre Neuville was eliminated on hand 72, at which point play ended for the day. Thomas Cannuli busts on the second hand (74) of Day 9 in 2015. The time per hand is down to 2:40, with players getting in 45 hands despite Zvi Stern.

By comparison, even with the eliminations of Jerry Wong and Griffin Benger in the first half of the level, the 2016 players only played 42 hands. By this, the second full level of the November Nine, the speed of play in 2016 is actually slightly slower than in 2015.

Level 38

The first day of the 2014 November Nine continued through Level 38, the third full level of the night. It began with six players, but Adoni Larrabe was eliminated on the fifth hand of the level (the only player to leave the table in this level in 2014). The speed of play increased to just 2:06 per hand on average, with an amazing 57 hands played in the level, the most hands of any level at the final table of the three years we’re examining.

This is the level when Ofer Zvi Stern busted in 2015. Though he went out more than halfway through the level (in terms of the number of hands played), the speedup continued on this final table, as well, with 47 hands played at an average time of 2:33.

By contrast, the number of hands played in this level in 2016 stayed about the same, at 41. The first day of play ended on the third hand (number 97) of the level, with Kenny Hallaert’s elimination. Vojtech Ruzicka went out early on Day 9, on hand 104. The remaining four players played another 30 hands before the next break. Overall, the pace of play was just under three minutes per hand.

The purportedly fast 2016 table played fewer hands—with fewer people—than even a table with Zvi Stern (though folks did remark that he picked up his pace after the first level). What goes unmentioned is that while Level 38 ended with four players in 2015 and 2016, there were still five players at the end of level in 2014, and they played each hand in about 70% of the time it took in 2016. One difference in perception might be that Level 38 was played early in Day 9 in 2015 and 2016, but the decision in 2014 to play down to three players on Day 8 meant Level 38 didn’t begin until almost midnight that year.

Level 39

Despite being the Slowest Poker Tournament Evar™, 2015’s Day 9 ended just three hands into Level 39, with the elimination of MaxSteinberg. Neil Blumenfield went out after 26 hands of Day 10, with Joe McKeehan finishing off Joshua Beckley on Hand 184, not long before what would have been the end of the level. Counting the three hands from the end of Day 9, the level went 44 hands and just about 115 minutes, which is a little over two-and-a-half minutes per hand.

This year, Michael Ruane went out on Hand 155—almost halfway through the 46-hand level, then the end of day was called on Hand 166. Another 15 hands took place on Day 10, making it the fastest level of multi-player action this year.

And once again, the 2014 players, starting the level after 2am with five players (van Hoof, Jacobson, Pappas, Stephensen, and Tonking), were the ones who set the pace, with 53 more hands before the end of the level and the finish of play at 4:30 in the morning. Billy Pappas and William Tonking hit the wall before the end of the first day of play on Hand 244. By contrast, all three days of the 2015 contest had played out by then, and this year, Qui Nguyen and Gordon Vayo were three hours into their lengthy heads-up battle.

Level 40

Jorryt van Hoof, Felix Stephensen, and Martin Jacobson all played through level 40 in 2014, racking up 43 hands in the two hours, slowing the pace of play a bit as they jockeyed for the $10 million first place prize.

In 2016, this was the level where Cliff Josephy went out on the first hand, leaving Nguyen and Vayo to play for heads-up as in a battle as long as the rest of the final table. They played 40 hands this level.

Level 41

It was the last level for 2014. Van Hoof only made it five hands, going out on Hand 293, then Jacobson finally got the best of Stephensen on Hand 328. A total of 41 hands were played in about 100 minutes, at an average of less than 2:30 per hand.

It was another fast level for Nguyen and Vayo, with 45 hands in the two hours (2:40 per hand).

Levels 42 and 43

These were the only late-night levels played in the 2016 November Nine. The first level went much the same as the previous one, with Nguyen and Vayo putting in 43 hands, but the last stage of heads-up between the two was blisteringly fast, with 55 hands in about 90 minutes, about 1:40 per hand.

What Is Fast?

If you look at the accompanying chart (click to see the whole thing), each row represents a hand of that year’s November Nine. Each of boxes in a row represents a player, and the levels are color-coded. Hands where players were eliminated are noted, along with the ends of level and ends of days. Since levels are two hours long, the more rows in that level (i.e. the more hands that were played during the level) the taller the level will be. Individual hands may have taken longer, but the overall speed is visible.


Looking at Level 36, for instance, it’s easy to see that the pace of play in 2015 was slower than 2014 or 2016, as the stack is shorter. But it’s also evident that after Level 36, the speed of play in 2015 is not significantly different than 2016, and in some cases it was actually faster. Then again, neither year holds a candle to the pace set during the marathon Day 8 of the 2014 November Nine.

Why people feel this year’s contest was so much faster than previous year’s is an open question. It certainly wasn’t faster than 2014, and for the most part wasn’t appreciably faster than 2015. It lasted twice as long as last year’s November Nine—just this year’s heads-up lasted as long as the entire sweep by McKeehan—but people view the contest as having been more exciting than anything since Jamie Gold’s victory a decade ago.

Does the fact that much of the even-faster action in 2014 happened in the middle of the night influence the perception? Was it the fact that except for Billy Pappas the final five that year were hardened poker pros, with the last three being Europeans? That wouldn’t seem to be the explanation, since McKeehan, Beckley, Blumenfield, and Steinberg— the last four in 2015— are all from the US.

I’m not ready to call the reason for this one, but I’m open to suggestions!