London in the fall


Where to begin? Well, it all started at an opening drinks ceremony at the Empire in Leicester Square, with a surfeit of tequila and raspberry cocktails. Here we met Hoyt "The Alabama Cowboy" Corkins, who, despite his granite demeanor at the tables, was just about the nicest man we ever met. And while the Hellmuths and Devilfishes of this world repaired to the exclusive nightclub China White's to splash the cash and look flash, we kidnapped the Alabama Cowboy and took him to a Soho drinking den to show him a real slice of London life. Well, it's nice to start with a bang, isn't it?

The festivities, it seems, continued right into the first Day 1, when a tipsy Phil Hellmuth was moved to the TV table. We think someone spotted the opportunity for TV gold here. The TV table was situated in a room of its own in the top of the casino that doubles as a nightclub. With a flashing turquoise dance floor, it's going to look great on TV.

Phil, it seems, had been enjoying a little too much Cristal with rail-birding pals Johnny Chan and Scotty Nguyen, and probably won't look so good on TV. This didn't prevent him, however, from showboating for the cameras.

"My powers are very strong," he declared, squinting in the light and trying to focus on Thor Hansen across the table. (How much of this was a drunk act, it's hard to tell, but it seemed pretty convincing to us.) "You just laid down A-J suited," he explained to Hansen, raking in another pot.

Phil had reraised Hansen preflop and the Norwegian confessed that Phil's read had been good. "See, I even knew it was suited," marveled Phil, as though sometimes his poker prowess surprises even himself. Chan and Nguyen fell about laughing. "Come on guys, I'll give you a last-longer bet. Between me and Thor. $100,000. I can't lose this tournament. I know what they all have."

Hansen, who had been the object of Phil's needling for much of the evening, responded with silent unflappability, but the traces of a smile flickered at the corners of his mouth.

Phil's drunken performance was a master class in the bluffing and reading of his opponents. It put him among the chip leaders after Day 1 and it left us slightly in awe. More drunken Hellmuth performances, please. And don't try it at home, or more importantly, in the casinos.

Phil, however, was destined to sober up and crash out of the tournament on Day 3 when, his once mountainous stack now shrunk to a bowl of rice, he flung the rest of his chips in with 8-8. "Fire up the limo," he cried, as his opponent called with Q-Q. Hellmuth left in extremely good humor, perhaps ultimately because he wasn't sucked out on. We can't help feeling we're seeing a happier Poker Brat these days -– more at ease with the world and the game of poker.

But Hellmuth's conduct at the poker table reflected the sense of fun that persisted throughout the tournament. For example, we witnessed a group of wide-eyed railbirds sidling up to a 1 pound/2 pound cash game at the Empire, asking excitedly whether this was the final table of the World Series of Poker, only to be told that, yes, it was. No one could bear to disillusion the railbirds as they watched enchanted at what they thought was a game with millions at stake.

Doyle Brunson had less to be cheerful about, though: The great man was eliminated early on Day 1 and must have been left to reflect that he had come a long, long way for a very short game. Other big-name pros were having no such trouble, however. Gus Hansen, particularly, was making strides. He had the chip lead at the end of his Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3, and was closely followed by fellow Scandinavian and high-stakes tennis nemesis Patrik Antonius. We watched with bated breath.

Because of historical gaming regulations, there aren't any casinos in the UK that match the size of the casinos on the Vegas Strip. Consequently, the WSOPE can't fit the early stages of the tournament under one roof and had to spread play across three London Clubs properties: FIFTY, The Sportsman and The Empire. Thank God taxi fares are tax deductible. As we flipped between venues several times a day, we were building up a bill that could make you lose sleep at night.

No one seemed to be complaining, though. We heard nothing but gushing praise about the way the tournament was run, particularly from the big-name pros, who can sometimes be a little prickly. They do things slightly differently in Europe, you see, right down to the way the dealers deal the flop. But everyone we talked to just seemed to see this as part of the rich tapestry that is international poker.

"It's nice to see bigger buy-in events and concentrated, more pro-based field," Daniel Negreanu said. "The structure has been great, with two-hour levels, and I don't just say that because I made it deep. Having more professional players at each table actually changes the way the game is played completely. It's so different than the main event in Vegas, where you basically play A-B-C poker versus total new guys. It's much more sophisticated poker and much better for the viewer to watch.

"I'm liking London, by the way. I heard the food was supposed to be bad, but it's actually one of the best places in the world for food."

Thanks for exploding that myth, Daniel.

But Daniel was right, and not just about the food. The big names were making it deep. Besides Hansen, Antonious and Negreanu, on the penultimate day still in the running and heading straight for the final table were such luminaries as Jennifer Harman, Annie Duke, Hoyt Corkins, Marco Traniello, Jamie Gold and Erick Lindgren. Could it be the kind of star-studded, personality-driven final table we've been dreaming of, we wondered?

Alas, no. One by one on Day 4, the poker gods began to pick off the pros.

Antonius, notably, seemed to implode early in the day. Following an $18,000 raise from Hansen, Antonius, who had already taken a dent, moved his whole stack in from the button for $178,000. Magnus Persson, on the big blind, moved in behind him for $230,000. Antonious flipped over pocket threes while Persson showed A-K. "I can't win a race," muttered the Finn as a king came on the flop.

Elsewhere, Negreanu, now short-stacked, moved all-in with A-Q. His opponent thought for a while. "Poker gets easy when you're short-stacked," Negreanu quipped. "I don't care what you do." His opponent called and the 8-7-5-4 board was looking good for Negreanu, until the river: a king to take out Kid Poker. "I would have settled for a six and a chop," he said with a smile.

But there was still Hansen. Well, at least until the final table bubble.

Cruelly, Gus was denied his shot at the bracelet at the last moment, running queens slap bang into the kings of Matthew McCullough, the last American standing.

However, there's one player we haven't yet mentioned –- one player everyone was watching. A young woman, just 18, who started as a mere rumor on the Internet -– a teenage girl with poker skills so good, said the rumors, they were eerie.

Annette Obrestad, from a small town in Norway, has won over 20 major tournaments online and made over 100 final tables. Internet poker forums obsess about her –- some to the point of being a bit freaky. Thousands of railbirds watch her play online. But the rumors were true. She's real! And yes, Annette_15 had made the final table. Short-stacked, but she was there.

The only "name" joining her was Theo Jorgensen of Denmark, a man with an impressive tournament record that includes two fourth-place finishes in EPT main events. The chip leader and bookies' favorite, however, was Gus-buster Matthew McCullough, a nurse and anesthetist from New Jersey.

Also in the running with big stacks were Persson, the obligatory Swedish student found on any self-respecting final table these days, Johannes Korsar, a 20-year-old professional poker player, and John Tabatabai, a 22-year-old London fisherman. At least that's what it said in the press notes.

The first to fall was short-stacked James Keys, who moved in with Q-9 and was called by Persson with A-9 suited. No help for Keys and the young qualifier headed to the rail, 60,000 pounds better off. The experienced Jorgensen was next to go when he mistook Tabatabai's reraise for a squeeze play and came back over the top with pocket 10s. The alleged fisherman immediately called with his pocket kings, leaving Jorgensen to rue his judgment.

Persson had watched his big stack trickle down alarmingly over the course of the proceedings and decided it was time to move in with K-10, but it was bad timing. Tabatabai, again, woke up with kings and it was curtains for the Swede. Englishman Dominic Kay followed him to the rail just a few hands later.

Obrestad was surviving, picking her spots, slowly building up her stack. She caught a few slim-outers, too, which made you think the stars might just be perfectly aligned today for the young Norwegian.

By the time the table was three-handed, she had drawn level with her opponents, McCullough and Tabatabai, and while the cheers were loudest for the local London boy, the gentleman and ladies of the press were buzzing with excitement. Annette, after all, was the big story we all wanted to write about.

On a flop of J-6-3, with two clubs, McCullough got all his money in the middle with top pair and a flush draw, and Tabatabai, who had already claimed three scalps at the table, made a (slightly dubious) call with middle pair and the ace of clubs. An ace on the turn and the game was up for McCullough, who earned 381,910 pounds to help him get over his bad beat.

The money was carried in by some military-looking types, and here's the spoiler: No, it wasn't real. We saw them packing it up later, taking the real hundred-pound notes off the top and chucking the rest into cardboard boxes.

Down to heads up, we thought it would be quick. These two are both Internet specialists, after all. But no, both players played a careful, studied war of attrition -- and there was still a lot of play in those stacks. For several hours they tussled, each player only able to gain, and then lose, a marginal upper hand. But with similar stacks, it would only need both players to hit the flop hard for sparks to fly and for the game to be over. The inevitable moment came when they saw a flop of 6c-5c-7h. Annette led out, John raised, and Annette went all-in. John called, tabling 6-5, and found himself almost dead to Annette's 7-7.

Internet legend Annette_15, one day off her 19th birthday, had become the youngest person, and the only woman, to win a World Series main event. Annette, who had remained so irresolute throughout the tournament, was now overwhelmed with tears.

A Chat with Jeffrey Pollack

As we wound down toward a final table, we were able to get a quick chat with the commish.

Bluff: Tell us a little bit about how you think the first World Series of Poker Europe has fared this year.

Pollack: Well, I think it has been a smash hit, right out of the gate. You stage an event like this, and your worst fear is that no one shows, your best hopes are that the world's greatest players turn up, and that's exactly what happened. We've had incredible competition; we've had incredible participation from most of the world's top players. Operationally it's been really smooth. The media coverage has been outstanding. There is a nice buzz about us in London, so I think it's been very successful.

Bluff: What are some things that you guys have learned that you will be able to take with you to next year's WSOP Europe, or any other WSOP events in general?

Pollack: In terms of our own planning process, I think we probably would want to put folks on the ground earlier than we did this year. You can't underestimate the logistical and managerial challenges of staging an event half a world away from where you are based. I think that's one thing we will do. I also think we will look hard, at wherever we go, at the games we offer, the level of buy-ins. Each event that we create has its own tone and feel. What we do in Europe is very different from what we are doing in Las Vegas. I think that's a big plus. We don't want to simply mirror what we do in Las Vegas; we want to put a different spin on it, to make these events as meaningfully locally, as they are globally, and I think we have been able to do that so far.

Bluff: Is next year's World Series of Poker Europe going to take place in London as well? Or do you plan on moving the events around each year?

Pollack: There are two things we are looking at. One is moving the World Series of Poker Europe to different cities within Europe. We are probably two or three years away from doing that. The other thing we plan on doing is creating new World Series of Poker events around different regions of the world. Maybe Latin America, Asia. I think in the next 12-16 months we will make an announcement of where we are going to go next. We need to get this as right as we can first, but we are off to a good start.

Bluff: Talk to us a bit about the number of entrants in this year's World Series of Poker Europe; it seems the number was a bit lower than initially expected.

Pollack: Well, I set the expectation level when we announced the World Series of Poker Europe, and I made a mistake when I did that. If I remember that far back, I think I predicted sellouts. Honestly, I didn't know what I was talking about at the time. It was an ill-advised prediction on my part, and in retrospect I wish I hadn't said that. The turnout that we have had here, we are actually very satisfied with. Again, it's never about numbers, it's about quality. I lost my head a bit when we announced this tournament and focused on the numbers. I think that with the quality of the fields that we have had, we cannot be anything but pleased. The first event 105 entrants, 98 bracelets shared among them. That's got to be one of the most elite fields in poker history, and you gotta like that. So again, we are not about numbers, we are about the quality of the experience.

This event has been outstanding for players. I have heard 99 percent great feedback. I think that the intimacy of this tournament and the quality of the field have converged to create a very unique experience in poker. I think the players have enjoyed it, and that it has been relatively intimate and small, and very different from what we do at the Rio. Next year's goal is for everyone who joined us this year to join us again, and to add some folks as well. We are focused on building for the long term. Year 1 of the World Series of Poker Europe -– think back to the first-ever World Series of Poker table that had six players. So I think we have had a charmed event here, and I am confident that the charm will stick with us for the years to come.

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