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WPT at Commerce L.A. Poker Classic
CEO "Rocket Boy" 03.11.2009

Is the WPT running out of steam? Are $10K buy-in events on the decline? Are the big tournaments overrun by big-name pros? No, no, and no. The World Poker Tour's Los Angeles Poker Classic roared into glamour-challenged Commerce, California, started with a bang, and just kept on banging. 695 players entered the $10K main event, second in number only to 2007's 791 players.

So, can you get lucky and win one of these things? Yup. But it ain't easy. Especially if you're up against a guy on the card rush of a lifetime...

Commerce Casino with the curved Crowne Plaza hotel rising above it

Day 5: 18 players down to the TV six
I rolled into Commerce in the early afternoon and saw no evidence of the WPT anywhere on the casino floor. Turns out that after the field has been thinned enough, they move the tournament to an upstairs room at the adjoining Crowne Plaza hotel. Looked almost like your local casino's weekend tournament except that there are a whole lot of name players slinging chips or sweating their horses, er, buddies. And two security guys with holstered Glocks.

Apparently I missed a bunch of suckouts on days 1 thru 4. But no worries: the beats just kept on coming. Speaking of which, here are just a few weird chops and straight suckouts that I was able to madly tap into my iPhone on day 4:

Peter Feldman (AK) doubles up Andrew CimpanĀ (A8): board K95/7/6 (Cimpan catches runners for straight)
AK vs KQ, one player all-in: three 10s and a king on the board (split pot)
Chris Ferguson (AJ) all-in vs. another player (87): flush on board (both play the board to split the pot)
Andrew Cimpan (AK) all-in vs. another player (AK): Cimpan makes the flush to win

Cimpan did something that made me instantly dislike him. He bluffed Chris Ferguson out of a large fraction of his stack, then stood up, waved his hole cards around and yelled "Ten high baby! Ten nine offsuit!" Now, if there's one guy in the poker world who you can't tilt by pulling that crap, it's "Jesus". And he certainly doesn't try to wind up his opponents in any way. I suppose Cimpan was just showing off to his buddies, and there were quite a few in the crowd. But man, that's just bad form. Ferguson just sat there quietly like he always does, probably simultaneously re-calculating the math on the hand and making a mental note of Cimpan's lack of emotional control.

Oddly, although Ferguson was clearly a crowd favorite, he didn't seem to have many friends around. Maybe he's not plugged in to the zany poker lifestyle like other players, or maybe his friends were there and they were just being really quiet. Either way, there were definitely two crazies loudly cheering him on. One had a "Go all in with Jesus" t-shirt, and the other had a "John 3:16" shirt, and they were both yelling pseudo-biblical slogans whenever "Jesus" won a pot. He didn't seem to acknowldge them in any way, but maybe that's because he had his game face on. I think I've seen these guys on TV before, and we'll probably see them when this episode is aired.

Chris Ferguson playing down to the final table on day 4

But the real crowd favorite was local hero Chris Karagulleyan, who had won the first WPT Legends of Poker at the Bicycle back in 2002. He's a genuinely cool guy, and he got the loudest reaction of the day when he busted Payman Arjang in 8th place. I didn't see all of it, but somehow Chris K put Payman all-in and Payman called dark. Chris K showed KK, Payman showed AJ (a freakishly good all-in-dark hand) and of course the ace magnets forced an ace out on the flop. Turn was a blank, but the river gave Chris K a set of kings to re-suck and bust Payman. The room exploded in a deafening, roaring cheer. Soon after that, Chris K busted Blake Cahail in 7th place as the TV bubble player, and the room went berzerk again. Chris K ran around the room, stood up on a chair and even cheered for himself! It was 11:30pm and we had the TV six. Done for the day.

Day 6: TV table taping
I got in line at about 2pm, an hour before he doors opened and about 2 hours before play started. The WPT folks gave me chip #11 this time, and was thankfully able to sit down in a nearby lounge. But not until after they put black tape over the Macworld 2005 logo on my polo shirt. My black Commerce Casino cap was cool, but they're much stricter about non-sponsor logos now, so be careful if you attend one of these things. When you see the show, you'll notice that Mike Sowers is wearing a familiar-looking green and yellow baseball cap. It's an Oakland A's cap, of course, and they actually put a green cloth panel over the A's logo. That wasn't just green masking tape. Crazy.

Matt Savage is the new tournament director of the LAPC and he's adjusted the blinds schedule. He's one of the best TDs in the world in my not-so-humble opinion, and it seems that the players think so too. They like the fact that his structures ramp up quickly in the early rounds, then level off towards the end to give the final players more play. So by the time the surviving players get to the TV table the average chip stack is pretty deep. This ain't your father's WPT.

There were all kinds of possibilities at the start of play. I wanted to see if Karagulleyan could keep his lead and win his 2nd WPT title. I wanted to see if Ferguson could come back from the short stack and win his first. Could relative unknowns Pat Walsh, Binh Nguyen, or Andrew Cimpan become famous overnight? Could online superstar Mike Sowers get his live tournament breakthrough? It was Chris K in the lead and Chris F trailing, and it would have been cool to see them playing heads-up at the end. Not to be.

The new downsized and streamlined WPT production setup

Karagulleyan played a little tighter than he probably could have and lost enough hands to blow the chip lead. He had over 4 million at the start to Ferguson's short stack of 1.5 million, but Karagulleyan didn't seem to put enough pressure on everyone like you're supposed to. Maybe it was because the blinds were so small relative to everyone's stacks. Maybe he was just totally card dead. We'll see when the show airs.

I also really want to see what hole cards Ferguson moved in with on two early hands. Was he bluffing, or was he hoping to double up? The other short stacks just kept doubling up until Ferguson was in really bad shape. He was finally forced to call all-in with AK against Cimpan on a TT8 board. Cimpan showed pocket 4s, busted Ferguson in sixth place, and became the chip leader. I guess I really do put a curse on players I sit behind. All five times I've attended a WPT event, the player nearest to where I first sit down has been the first to bust out...

Olé, olé-olé-olé! Chris K! Chris K!

Matt Savage commented over the PA that this could have been the quietest TV table in WPT history. The players rarely said a word. Their fans, on the other hand, got more and more noisy. It was like a battle of the rooting sections. Karagulleyan's rooters did a soccer-style chant: "Olé! olé-olé-olé! Chris K! Chris K!". And Nguyen's fans made some funny chants as well. Cimpans fans just yelled "Go Andrew!" Very clever. At one point Cimpan broke the silence. He open-shoved, everyone folded, and he proudly showed the ten-nine and yelled "Ten nine baby!" again. I think we know what his fave bluffing hand is by now.

Michael Mizrachi aka "The Grinder" reacting to a buddy lobbing f-bombs at him

Walsh busted out in fifth with what I would consider to be a bad call. Nguyen open-raised, and Walsh called all-in with A2. Oops. I think it's fine to attack with A2 short-handed. But not to defend. Why go broke with a bluff-catcher? Anyway, Nguyen showed AJ, nobody improved, and Walsh was out.

Karagulleyan was out next, in fourth place. Yes, it was another sick Cimpan beat. Karagulleyan had A9, Cimpan had Q8, and the board came AQX/Q/7. So sorry Chris, but top pair is no good against Cimpan. Karagulleyan's entourage, which filled up almost the entire grandstand behind him, left with him and things got pretty quiet. Better luck next time, Chris.

The nearly silent Mike Sowers had played really well, but he got cold decked a few times (notably with 44 vs. Nguyen's KK.) And he got snapped off for nearly a million when Cimpan called his 500K bet on the river. The board was mostly aces and faces, Sowers showed the 98 for the stone cold bluff, and Cimpan won it with pocket 7s. That was an unbelievable call. So in addition to all the suckouts in his favor, Cimpan can make the sick calls when he has to. Sowers, the victim of bad cards and unfortunately timed bluffs, busted in 3rd. Show us the money, ladies!


Going into heads-up, Nguyen had 8.45 milion and Cimpan had 5.45 million. Nguyen is a regular in the high-limit "mezzanine" at Bellagio, and Cimpan is a relative unknown from Texas. Combine the chip lead with Nguyen's talent and you'd have to give him the edge. But no, not even that edge was enough to beat Cimpan's card-catching. The beats were so frequent and brutal that Vince Van Patten actually said something about a "battle of the suckouts" or something like that to the cameras.

But it wasn't a slugfest. The players were so deep-stacked that there was no need to go to war over every blind. In fact, 90% of the time it was a festival of passivity. Nguyen usually raised his button, Cimpan would sometimes call. Cimpan usually limped on the button, Nguyen would sometimes raise Cimpan out. Over time this pattern gives Nguyen an even bigger edge. Nguyen did, in fact, methodically grind down Cimpan for most of the hands they played.

And boy did these suckers play! The entire match lasted 303 hands, a new WPT TV table record. Heads-up lasted 187 hands, another WPT TV table record. The passive play lasted until well after 1am, 9 hours after the start of play. Binh Nguyen yawned occasionally, and it was contagious. Some of the crowd started yelling things like "Call for the clock!" and "All-in!" Matt Savage responded with a warning. He said that if anyone in the audience made any more comments about the hand being played, he would have them thrown out. He didn't, but throughout the tournament Savage looked alternately bored and annoyed. I've seen him in far better moods at other tournaments, especially the Bay 101 events.

During heads-up play I could look straight at Nguyen, and noticed a definite acting tell. He visibly looked more relaxed and put his hand on his head in a slighly more casual way whenever he had a big pocket pair. I noticed this on the Sowers 44 hand and also on a hand where Nguyen had AA vs. Cimpan in heads-up play. I actually told a guy in front of me that I suspected Nguyen had aces. He limped on the button, and they checked it down to the river on a small rag board. I said "It's now or never to get value with those aces." Sure enough, Nguyen bet the river, Cimpan called and lost to Nguyen's pocket aces.

Cimpan is probably good enough to have sensed he was beat, so I think he called to see whether his read on Nguyen was correct. Why would you check it all the way to the river? Because 1. you have a monster and want to walk the dog, or 2. you know you're the dog and you refuse to be walked. I think it was both in this case, and Cimpan called the non-killer bet amount to verify his read. Come on, if I can sense Nguyen's strength from 50 feet, it must have pegged Cimpan's strength-o-meter.
Time for another gruesome beat, and this one was by far the most painful. Believe me, there were many in heads-up play (mostly delivered by Cimpan.) Nguyen held pocket 10s, Cimpan A4 of hearts. Cimpan is all-in for most of Nguyen's chips. Flop has one heart, Matt Savage ominously announces "Andrew needs an ace or running hearts to stay alive." And, of course, precisely as we all morbidly feared, the running hearts came. Cimpan made his flush and drastically crippled Nguyen.

Binh Nguyen absorbing the grotesque running-heart suckout

Despite being relentlessly kicked in the head for playing so well, Nguyen never blew his cool. He'd look sick for a moment, snap out of it, and quietly ship stacks and stacks of chips to Cimpan. (Phil Hellmuth would collapsed into a fetal position on the floor. Sucking his thumb.) I'm sure Nguyen realized that he'd already been guaranteed more than they were fighting over. He had locked in more than $900K and the winner would get just under $1.7 million. So they were playing for the $700K in cash and the tangible and intangible benefits of being a WPT champion. In terms of TV time it was equal. In terms of viewing audience sympathy, Nguyen will be the winner.

And despite that crippling beat, it still wasn't over. Nguyen never lost heart. He simply went back to work on the short stack and slowly began chopping out. He had dropped down to maybe 1 million vs. Cimpan's 13 million after the running-hearts suckout. At one point he did move in as a serious underdog. Nguyen got it all in with K5 vs. Cimpan's KQ. The flop had nothing for Nguyen so he grimly put on his backpack and got ready to congratulate Cimpan on the win. Turn blank, river 5! Everyone in the room except Cimpan and his buddies jumped up and yelled "YEAHHH!!!!" My ears were ringing after that. Nguyen had struck back by hitting a 3-outer. Now he had enough chips to actually play a little.

Eventually Nguyen got back up to 3.5 million at 2:15am. That's right. After two in the morning. The grandstands were emptying, it being a weeknight after all. So the WPT staff told us to move down to the front two rows so the cameras wouldn't see empty seats behind the players. I moved down, and I'll probably be in some of the final hand shots. I ended up near Glenn Morshower, who plays Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce on 24. Right behind Cimpan. I've been on screen briefly in WPT and WSOP broadcasts before (next to Doyle himself one time), so we'll see if it happens again.

The final hand came at 2:40am, more than 10.5 hours after the start of play. That's a whole lotta editing for the WPT post crew, and an endurance marathon for us railbirds. And yes, you guessed it, Nguyen got his money in good one last time and lost. This time Cimpan had the K5 and Nguyen had AQ. A 5 flopped, and Nguyen didn't improve. Game over.

You'd be happy too if you caught cards like Andrew Cimpan

Mike interviews the players (note the incredible Frederic Remington "Bucking Bronco" trophy)

Winner Andrew Cimpan and WPT's adorable Amanda Leatherman (Dude, you can take the shades off already!)

I overheard some of the interviews with Cimpan as he sat behind the pile of money he'd won. For some reason he kept the shades on until the press photographers said "And now we'll do a few without the sunglasses, OK?" Cimpan said that he'd buy a new house with some of the winnings. Good plan. Best to lock it into something tangible, no? I mean, you can't run this hot forever.

I saw Binh Nguyen downstairs on my way out. He looked really tired and a little depressed, but I approached him anyway. I shook his hand and told him that he played brilliantly and that I was rooting for him. He said that he appreciated the compliment and that he'll never be more disappointed to win a million dollars. But I could see in his eyes that under the fatigue and defeat, there was real pride in what he had accomplished. He had played a great game, got his money in good (mostly), and looked cool doing it. What more can you do?

Someone told me earlier that on day 4 he told his girlfriend "I just want to make it to the money so we can get out of here." I'm sure they're both glad he stayed those two extra days.

Next stop: WPT at Bay 101...

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