The Champion of Champions Invitational
Sat June 20, 2009, 4:06 pm
The World Series of Poker at the Rio in Las Vegas decided to celebrate their 40th anniversary of the WSOP with a special tournament. The 25 living main event champions were all invited to compete for the title of ‘Champion of Champions’, with the winner receiving a vintage 1971 bright, cherry red, corvette fully restored. In addition, the champion received the first ever awarded Binion’s Cup. The cup was named for the Binion family which founded the World Series of Poker, first held in 1970. Jack Binion, son of the founder Benny Binion, was invited to award the cup to the winner.
The tournament began on May 31st, with the final table the next day. Of the 25 past living champions, 20 showed up to participate. A historic photograph was taken of the Champions, and you could literally feel the electricity in the air. Several of us were wearing Stetsons, including me. It reminded me of the earlier tournaments which were dominated by players from Texas. Everyone wanted to win the title, the cup, the car and not least of all the bragging rights. I cannot remember facing a tougher line-up in my entire poker career (which spans over 30 years).
The tournament started with three tables. After two players were eliminated we went down to two nine handed tables. Jamie Gold, the 2006 champion, had the unfortunate distinction by going broke very early in the first level of play. After that one by one the remaining players went broke until we got down to one final table of ten. That final table would come back to play the next day in front of the t.v. cameras. ESPN is scheduled to air the show on August 4th.
The World Series of Poker started out as a winner take-all event with $10,000 in chips. This Champion of Champions event followed the tradition. The opening blinds were $25 & $50 with one hour rounds. We battled for almost six hours the first day, finally getting down to the final ten when the blinds were $200 & $400 with a $25 Ante. Phil Hellmuth was determined to make the t.v. table and after 2005 champion, Joe Hachem went broke with slightly more chips than Phil, the poker brat got his wish. Of course he was down to less than $1500 in chips, and Doyle made a very humorous remark before play started the next day. He told Phil that this confirmed what he knew all along—Phil would do anything to make the t.v. table—lol. I wonder if the mike’s picked up Doyle ‘s remark—I guess we will have to wait and see. Doyle was in a humorous mood that day, he also said “Where are all the internet players—oh there he is.” He was referring to Peter Eastgate the youngest player at the table, and the reigning World Champion.
As luck would have it, Phil, by far the shortest stack, drew the big blind the very first hand. Carlos Mortensen who busted Phil when he won the 2001 championship did it again by raising on the first hand dealt, putting Phil all-in if he chose to call. Everyone passed to Phil who hemmed and hawed for a minute then said, (heck) he would have to call with practically any two cards and then did so with a suited Ten, Five. Surprisingly, Phil was not in that bad of shape as he was up against Carlos’s pocket deuces. However, as luck would have it the poker brat did not improve and was out on the first hand dealt. He was very gracious as he left the table, shaking everyone’s hand and wishing us all good luck.
Peter Eastgate went out a few hands later. He raised preflop with the 8,7 of spades and got reraised by 1995 champion Dan Harrington. Peter thought about it for awhile then made a play I would definitely not have made against Dan. He pushed all-in. Now Dan would not have reraised, in my opinion this early at the final table without a big hand, so this was definitely not the time to make this kind of move. Dan, rather humorously said, “Well everybody has to take a stand sometime,” and then called—with pocket Aces. He also said he wished he was up against a different type of hand before the flop and was proven right when the flop came down 8,6,5. Peter flopped a pair with an open ended straight draw and two cards to come. Yikes! Dan sweated it out and Peter got no help and went out in 9th place.
The tournament took a long time to finish, finally ending around 1:00 am in the 12th round of play with the blinds at $1000 & $2000 and a $300 ante. Along the way I eliminated Doyle in 8th place. Later on 1986 Champion Barry Johnson, short-stacked to begin with finally went broke to Carlos, soon followed by 1996 champion Huck Seed.
I was fortunate to win a few pots early against Carlos and knock his stack down considerably and became co-chip leader with Harrington. Carlos finally made top two pair against 1993 champion Jim Bechtel, but Jim had flopped a set and our opening chip leader went out in 5th place. Down to four players now, Robert Varkoni , the 2002 Champion, was the shortest stack and raised the pot to $3000, I was on the button with A,K offsuit and reraised to $9000. Bechtel in the Big Blind then pushed in for about $34,000, Varkoni quickly folded and it was up to me. In another article I will explain what went through my mind when I finally decided to make the call, but sometimes you make the wrong play at the right time and get lucky. Jim had pocket Kings and Robert said he had folded a suited Ace—Oops, I was in worse shape than I thought. However I admit the poker gods smiled on me this day, and the flop revealed one of the two remaining Aces in the deck. My hand held up and I now had over $100,000 of the $200,000 chips in play. I was in the lead the rest of the way, but Harrington and Varkoni were only one double up from taking the lead.
We played almost 3 hours 3 handed before I broke Dan Harrington with K,Q of diamonds vs his pocket nines. I called his all-in bet on an Ace, Queen flop, hoping he didn’t have an Ace. This time I was right and my pair held up.
If players were betting on Varkoni’s chances of making it to the finals and I would be his opponent, it would have been a very long shot indeed, but what our colleagues didn’t know was our mindset. I told the ESPN crew in my pre-tournament interview that nobody was more determined to win this event than me. I wanted to re-establish myself as a top notch player that could still compete against the toughest competition. I also felt that Robert Varkoni who played excellent the entire tournament had something to prove. He is a much underrated champion and he too wanted to gain some respect from his peers and I knew he would be tough to beat.
After I got heads up with Robert, I had almost a 3 to 1 lead, and I took nothing for granted and didn’t think I had it locked up. I was proved all too right as he won a whole series of pots right off the bat with his aggressive play and almost got even with me in the chip count. I started to battle back, and then we played a huge pot which put him all in. He was basically on a semi-bluff with a straight flush draw, but I had the top end of it blocked and had already made the nut straight, so he only had one out when he went all-in. My hand held up and I was the Champion of Champions. That is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. The older players clearly dominated the final table, and I have one last thing to say. “Old School Rocks!”