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WPT Championship VII TV Table
CEO "Rocket Boy" 04.27.2009

I was ninth in line and got a front row seat this time, since some seats reserved for a player weren't filled. And this time, the player I was behind didn't bust out first, so I should be in the background of several hands.

Bellagio at night

Before the start of play, WPT founder and head honcho Steve Lipscomb came out and gave an end-of-season pep talk. He introduced several executives behind the scenes at WPT and indicated his hope for 7 more seasons and beyond. So far they've only announced events in Venice, Spain, and Cyprus for season 8. And only the Cyprus event will be televised. Locally. The WPT has also issued a press release announcing a 3-year Morocco WPT event deal, but no scheduling details have been officially announced yet. And no other details on season 8 WPT events have been released yet either. But I'm still hopeful that the WPT will prosper.

Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten also made an appearance before the start of play. Neither one would be doing live commentary during the event, instead doing all their commentary as voiceover in the studio. I talked with one of the producers before the show and she said that there really isn't any need for Mike and Vince to do any live commentary. The one thing that is really missing is Mike's toast to the winners at the end. It's been replaced by the adorable Amanda Leatherman's interview of the winner, which I think is a good thing.

Some Crazy Speculation
It all feels like the WPT is getting ready for a big change, possibly under new ownership and/or management. I may be totally wrong about this, but I have seen companies cut costs to make themselves more attractive buyout candidates. The international events that have already been announced may indicate that some kind of merger between the WPT and a non-U.S. entity is pending. And the lack of a 2009-2010 schedule may mean that the WPT will be leaving the casino deal-making and event scheduling open to the potential new owners.

Televised poker tournaments are booming in Europe, and the WSOP is still the world's premiere poker event. So maybe, after seven seasons, it's time for the WPT to get an extreme makeover. My silly wild-ass guess is that either a competing tournament series will merge with the WPT to expand its reach, or an online poker site will buy the rights to the WPT and use the show for promotional purposes. Just my $0.02. I have no inside information whatsoever, but the WPT just has that pending-takeover vibe.

Going for History
Two of the six TV table players had a chance to make history. Scotty Nguyen, if he won, would become only the second player to win a WSOP Main Event and a WPT World Championship. (Carlos Mortensen being the first, of course.) Scotty is already the only person to win the WSOP Main Event and the WSOP $50K HORSE event. A victory here would make him the only person ever to win those two plus the WPT World Championship event, a feat that might never be achieved again. And if that wasn't already enough pressure, he has vowed to quit playing poker if he doesn't win $4 million U.S. by the end of the WSOP this year.

ElkY needed to finish fourth or better to surpass John Phan and clinch WPT Player of the Year honors. Both he and Phan have had incredible runs in the past year, and each would benefit from being POY. There is no POY cash award, but the prestige and image boost would no doubt benefit their "branding" and thus their bankrolls.

Seat Player Stack
1 Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier 5,955,000
2 Scotty Nguyen 3,275,000
3 Shannon Shorr 1,330,000
4 Yevgeniy Timoshenko 13,300,000
5 Christian Harder 7,425,000
6 Ran Azor 2,525,000

"Shuffle up and steal!"

Scotty Busts out in Sixth Place
The "Prince of Poker" has been under a little more intense scrutiny than usual during the past year. His behavior at last year's WSOP $50K HORSE event was, frankly, disgraceful. So a high-profile final table like this one gave him a chance to show the world that he can act with grace under fire. But could he? The first thing he did after he was introduced was call the cocktail waitress over to order a beer.

Scotty showed amazing discipline, folding hand after hand on round after round. He was probably waiting out Shannon Shorr, but ended up doubling Shannon up and crippling himself. Ran raised, Scotty called, and Shannon shoved. When play began, Shannon was the short stack with about 1/10th of chip leader Yevgeniy's stack. He had been shoving frequently, almost every other hand in one stretch, and had increased his stack dramatically.

So maybe Scotty thought he might be running a squeeze play. Or perhaps Scotty thought he was trying to double up with two high cards in a race. Either way, Scotty called and showed sixes, Shannon showed tens, and when all the cards were out, neither player's hand had improved. Scotty had just 400k after that. Less than one round of blinds and antes.

Two hands later, Scotty shoved and both Shannon and Christian called. They checked it down to the river, Christian bet about half the pot, and Shannon folded. The board read AK2/A7 and Scotty showed A4 for trip aces no kicker. But Chistian showed A9 for trip aces with a kicker that played, and Scotty's chance to add more glory to his legendary career was over. He waved to the crowd and shook everyone's hand. There was more than just a little disappointment in his face, but he took it like a man as he crowd cheered him.

Scotty sweating his all-in

Shannon's Run Ends in Fifth
As I watched Shannon play, I kept thinking "This is perfect short-stack play." He desperately needed chips from the start. So he started stealing blinds early and often. Not just blindly shoving on every hand. He'd read his opponents and pick spots, then move in. Everyone in the room knew what he was doing, but nobody wanted to risk doubling up such a tough player.

Doubling through Scotty gave him 3rd chip position, which allowed him to slow down a bit. Until he lost about 1/3 of his stack to Yevgeniy. Shannon called Yevgeniy's preflop raise with pocket eights, then bet out on the queen-high flop. They checked the board-pairing turn, and the ace on the river gave Shannon a scare card. He bet but Yevgeniy was going nowhere. He'd flopped top-top with AQ and the ace on the river gave him aces up. He just called, perhaps worried that Shannon had made trips or a boat. But no, three pair was good and Shannon was again short stack at the table.

On his last hand, he asked tournament director Jack McClelland how many minutes were left in the level. Not very many. So he moved in with 76, Yevgeniy asked for a count, and called with 44. But really, how could he fold? At this point he had nearly 60% of the chips in play, and it would make little difference if he doubled up Shannon now. The board came A93/JK and we were down to four players. ElkY had officially become WPT Player of the Year, having locked up 4th or better.

Shannon's brilliant short stack play moved him up in chips and payout

Double Knockout
Now Ran started shoving. He moved in often, snapping off one of ElkY's preflop raises once, and was never called. It had become a competition for 2nd best since Yevgeniy now had over 22 million in chips. And I'm sure Ran never thought he'd get this deep anyway. He had won a $2k NLH event at the 2008 Bellagio Cup and that gave him a seat here. He had already parlayed that freeroll into a guaranteed $572k even if he busted out in fourth.

And all that shoving paid off: he had nearly doubled his stack to about 6 million, or 1/4 of Yevgeniy's stack. ElkY and Christian each had less than 3 million, and the blinds were at 100k / 200k with a 20k ante. To have any chance of winning, they needed to double immediately.

They didn't. ElkY and Christian were knocked out together on a pretty sick beat. Christian moved all-in on the button, Ran called in the small blind, and ElkY re-raised all-in covering in the big blind. Ran thought for a while and called. Great news for Yevgeniy, who walked away and enjoyed the moment from a distance.

ElkY showed the best hand: AJ suited. Christian had the next best: A8 suited. Ran had the worst hand: A7 offsuit. There was still a reasonable chance for a chopped pot. Until he spiked his kicker when a 7 flopped. No re-suck happened, and suddenly we were down to two players. ElkY had more chips before the hand, so he was given 3rd place and Christian 4th. Show us the money, ladies!

Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier: your 2009 WPT Player of the Year

A whole lotta cash and a whole lotta womanhood

Heads-Up For the Win
Really now. Who would you bet on to win this thing? Baby-face killer with 27 million chips, or amateur Kojak with 7 million chips? Well let's see: Yevgeniy is only 21 years old, but he's got far more experience live and online than Ran, despite the fact that Ran is more than twice his age at 45. Just watching Yevgeniy casually shuffling 20 chips should tell you that. With his vast experience edge plus the massive chip lead, my money would be on the kid.

Except for one thing: the suit. Yevgeniy had evidently never heard of "the Curse of the Suit." You buy a suit on the day of the TV table taping, you bust out. It seems to be bad luck to buy a new suit on the day and wear it on the show. We'd soon find out if the poker gods like a sharp-dressed man.

Despite his youth, Yevgeniy played as tough as sun-baked Mojave roadkill. He rarely made more than the min-raise preflop unless Ran had raised. Usually a preflop min-raise on the button took it down. Ran sat there and folded to most of Yevgeniy's raises, giving up his big blind and getting ground down in the hopes of somehow making a big hand and doubling up. This is the exact opposite of the earlier aggressive shoving that had gotten him to heads-up play in the first place. Playing that tight heads-up is fatal.

Ran got grumpier on each hand. He was overmatched, he knew it, and he couldn't do much about it. He frequently muttered to his friends in the stands. The four of them had flown in from Tel Aviv, only one of them said anything (mostly in Hebrew), and they weren't very excitable. A WPT cameraman focused on them, hoping for a good reaction shot when Ran won a hand. He gave up and sat down off set after a few hours.

Steve Lipscomb himself came over and asked them to cheer Ran on more, to "keep him in the game." Twice! But no, they rarely did more than stand up and clap. And how can you blame them? That has to be one of the most grueling flights on the planet, and they had done it on short notice. They've probably never even seen a WPT episode, so how could they know how to act?

Yevgeniy's supporters filled up most of a grandstand and they were far more vocal. They were 20-somethings in Vegas, which is already exciting. And their buddy had a near-lock on $2.1 million in cold hard cash. Partaaaaaaayyyyyyy!!!!

A Dominating Victory
But there was still the small matter of $700k to fight over. Things could have been tense between the two players, yet they remained fairly friendly throughout. They frequently showed each other one card after winning a pot. And they'd occasionally chat, but sometimes Ran wouldn't respond to Yevgeniy's questions, instead clamming up and quietly steaming.

But Ran never tilted. He managed to double up and gain new life after folding away so many chips. Yevgeniy moved in, Ran snap-called with KK, and Yevgeniy showed 22. The board came A96/55 (ace magnets struck again!) and Ran increased his M from about 6 to about 12. This was one of the few hands on which he won more than just the blinds. He still had a lot of work to do if he were to have any chance at winning.

It simply wasn't meant to be. On the final hand, Ran did have a real shot at doubling up and getting back in it again. He raised, Yevgeniy moved in, and Ran called with QT. Yevgeniy showed A3 and had a roughly 55/45 advantage. Ran hit top pair when the flop came QJ7. But Yevgeniy caught miracle runners to make Broadway and win the WPT World Championship. He was clearly the better player, and to make things even more one-sided, he caught cards when he needed to. Yevgeniy had been fated by the poker gods to win this thing. So win it he did.

Ran Azor waves to the crowd. $1.45 million for 2nd place makes him Israel's top poker tourney money winner.

At 21 years 2 months, Yevgeniy became the second youngest WPT event winner and the youngest WPT World Championship winner. But he had played like a grizzled veteran, never making a serious mistake, never recklessly dumping chips off to any of his opponents, and always maintaining pressure on the shorter stacks with minimal risk.

Yevgeniy Timoshenko with his buddies and a little of the $2.1 million first place cash

Season 7 of the World Poker Tour ended on a high note in that a living legend, several solid young legends-in-waiting, and one amateur made the TV table. That's what the WPT was designed to do: to bring together pros and amateurs and show the world that anyone can win. But it's clear that the WPT needs to change things to stay fresh, and it appears that they are doing that. More and better live updates via www.worldpokertour.com and Twitter, increased international presence, and new talent like Amanda Leatherman are steps in the right direction. I can't wait for season 8.

I walked out into Bellagio's casino after the last photos had been snapped and the last interview was wrapped. The Fontana lounge had morphed back to what it was built to be: a nightclub overlooking the spectacular Lake Bellagio. A blonde singer was doing a pretty good cover of Madonna's "Holiday". And it reminded me that after all the millions are won at WPT events, after all the bluffs, beats, value bets and tactical folds, life goes on. The world keeps on turning, and tomorrow is a new day.

Next tournament blogs: WSOP 2009...

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