Unlikely champ in a tournament of stars


Editor's note: This event will be broadcast July 28 on ESPN.

LAS VEGAS -- When the idea of the 2009 World Series of Poker's Event 3, $40,000 no-limit hold 'em, was conceived, the belief was that it would shine the spotlight on the best-known players in the game. That's why the final result of a star-studded final table proved such a surprise in the early hours of Monday morning.

With a final table cast that included 2004 WSOP main event champion Greg Raymer, five-time bracelet winner Ted Forrest and a host of online poker's brightest young stars, it was Russian Vitaly Lunkin who emerged victorious. Lunkin, who won a $1,500 no-limit hold 'em bracelet in his first event of 2008, managed again to win the first time out in 2009, surviving a war of attrition to take the title.

"It was the toughest tournament of my life," said Lunkin through a translator, still looking shaken after achieving victory. "It wasn't a war. It was a game, but also a very hard job."

Lunkin defeated American Isaac Haxton in a see-saw battle that's going to make for memorable television. Haxton entered heads-up with the chip lead, but lost it three times before running into a remarkable Lunkin run of cards that included pocket aces twice. Lunkin took home $1,891,012 for his efforts while Haxton received $1,168,566 for second.

Of course, there was drama. The first time Lunkin picked up aces, Haxton got all-in for his tournament life with Ks-10s on a board of Kc-5c-3h. With the crowd chanting "One time!" Haxton admitted, "This would be a good time for me to use my 'one time.'" He got his wish, rivering the 10 to hit two pair and avoid elimination. Haxton wouldn't be as lucky the next time Lunkin picked up aces … which was the final hand of the tournament.

"Right after that 10 peeled off, I was pretty sure I was going to win the tournament," Haxton said, then chuckled at the memory. "'One time Ike' sounds like a name for someone who's never going to get lucky ever again. I'd like to have the chance to do it a few more times."

It was right before the memorable heads-up match that the tournament lost its marquee name. The prospect of a Greg Raymer victory was an appealing one for those who value what's deemed 'good for poker' (Editor's note: Me). Raymer was eliminated by Haxton on a radical all-in shove when the three players were essentially equal in chips.

"I just knew I was playing well," said Raymer in the aftermath. "I haven't been running good for the last couple of years and that was creating a negative mindset and I wasn't enjoying myself. I'd come into tournaments wondering what the bad beat would be this time. I really decided that any tournament I played at this WSOP I'd have a good time no matter what, and that meant that even if I lost it would be worth playing."

The renewed outlook paid off in the form of a $774,927 payout, his highest since his deep run in the main event in 2005.

Raymer's elimination started a remarkable chain of events in which he went from near-chip leader to elimination in two events. After his pocket fives were outlasted by Haxton's pocket nines, Raymer conducted postgame interviews and then made his way to his seat in the WSOP Champions event, an invitation-only tournament composed entirely of WSOP world champions. He sat down, played his first hand and was promptly eliminated by 2001 champion Carlos Mortensen. Ever the gentleman, Raymer shook all interested hands and waved to the respective crowds upon his dual departures.

His third-place finish fell just short, but Raymer's experience at the table was enjoyable, as reflected by the complimentary comments he made about the young players he'd faced off with throughout the $40,000 final table.

"There were lots of young guys in this tournament," he said. "I was impressed with Isaac and with [fourth-place finisher] Dani Stern, neither of whom I'd played before. I was already impressed with [fifth-place finisher] Justin Bonomo and [sixth-place finisher] Alec Torelli, all these kids I played with. The thing I liked the most is that all the young Internet guys I played with at the final table are all apparently really nice guys. There are some online players out there who are arrogant and cocky, but none of these kids seem like that type. All of them seemed like nice young men who I'd be happy to call my friend. I'm glad it's the nice guys who made it to the end. Even Vitaly played as a gentleman. The fans can certainly take some pleasure in knowing that about the guys that came out on top."

In the aftermath, it seemed unanimous amongst the players that this event was not defined by the ongoing live versus online debate.

"I don't have pride for being a live poker player," said Dani Stern. "We're all just people playing poker. Some of us play live more, some play online more. I think the whole debate of who's better is inane and dumb. Some live players are better than some online players, some online players are better than some live players. It's just poker one way or another, on the computer or on the felt."

Players also agreed that the $40,000 event would not devalue or overshadow the main event, an opinion shared by WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack who continues to Twitter through the WSOP.

"The event is a success and we're going to look at brining it back at $41,000, then $42,000 and so on," Pollack said. "It doesn't do anything to the main event. Everyone can have an opinion on which event is the world championship. That's ok. I think the $50,000 HORSE has a unique place. So does the $40,000. They don't detract from the main event. Each bracelet event is an opportunity to walk away with the story of a lifetime and a gold bracelet, a chance to do something special. Each one is unique and has meaning. We know that because so many people come and play."

With Event 4, the $1,000 "Stimulus Special," selling out a day early at 6,012 players, the point was only reinforced. For Vitaly Lunkin, that story of a lifetime had come true. Now, like so many of his final table counterparts, the former backgammon pro is a star.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to espn.com. You can hear more of his poker musings on The Poker Beat at Poker Road.