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WPT Championship at Bellagio, Part 2
CEO "Rocket Boy" 05.04.2010


The TV table taping hit me with equal parts déjà vu and first-time surprise. Same bleachers, stage, and table, but in the Fontana Bar instead of deep in Bellagio's Spa Tower ballroom labyrinth. Better in every way for us spectators, but it caused problems for the TV cameras with mixed natural and artificial light as the sun set. I could see the Fountains of Bellagio and the Strip from the bleachers. Sweet.

Some familiar faces made this year's Championship TV table. Four had already played a WPT TV table, and two of them (Buchanan and Benyamine) had already won a WPT event. And mad props to Ran Azor, last year's runner-up, but this year there were no amateur Cinderella stories.

At near-opposite ends of the age and experience spectrums were old school Billy Baxter and new wave David Williams. Both have been on TV numerous times, Baxter has won seven WSOP bracelets, and Williams won his first in the 2006 $1,500 seven card stud event. And none of their WSOP wins were in hold'em events. I heard from numerous people that Baxter destroys all types of lowball games, and I believe it.

The only WPT final table rookies were Eric "basebaldy" Baldwin and John O'Shea. Baldwin is simultaneously Card Player 2009 Player of the Year and Card Player 2009 Online Player of the Year, he's won a WSOP bracelet, and he's made several deep runs in previous WPT events. O'Shea, a young pro from Dublin Ireland, is this year's relative unknown. He won a $2500 satellite to gain entry to the main event, and this was his first WPT event. And, unfortunately for him, he sat down at this all-star table as the short stack.

Shawn Buchanan chats with two-time WSOP bracelet winner Greg "FBT" Mueller

Shawn Buchanan's all-Canadian rooting section. That's Adam Schwartz of the Two Plus Two Pokercast on the right.

O'Shea got things rolling by shoving on the first hand and taking the blinds. He managed to hang on for about half an hour, but his last move was shoving with 63 offsuit. Baxter snapped that off with A10. O'Shea had fought hard and well, but he really needed to make something happen after starting 6-handed play with just 12 big blinds. Didn't quite work out.

Williams started TV table play with a big stack and seemed unstoppable at first. He added all of Billy Baxter's chips to his stack in two hands. Williams ran very good at this table, and Baxter fell victim first.

First hand - Williams held AK, flopped a king, and filled up with running aces on turn and river. Baxter was out of position and chose to check-call all the way. By the end, the pot had over 4 million chips, Baxter had lost more than half his chips, and had become the short stack. I can't wait to see what Baxter held, since he mucked when Williams showed aces full.

Second hand - with an M of about 4, Baxter was forced to shove to steal blinds and/or try to double up. He shoved with AJ, and Williams called with KT only to flop the nuts. The board came AQJ, giving Baxter a chance to catch 6-outs to fill up, but he didn't. Still, it was a pretty good sweat.

At this point, Williams had roughly half of the 19.5 million chips on the table, and the other three players were nearly even in chips. None of them was critically short stacked, but the blinds + antes were over 200K at this point, so all of them were shallow.

Buchanan (A5) sweats Benyamine's (QJ) all-in. Benyamine busted in 4th on this hand.

David Benyamine, of all people, should be completely at home sitting at a high-profile big-money final table. He certainly seemed to be taking it all in stride. One of Buchanan's buddies called him "No Hollywood Benyamine" due to his zen-like calmness. And yet I heard him say "losing confidence" to someone on his cell phone as he walked past on a break.

Benyamine busted out in 4th when he shoved with QJ. Buchanan agonized for quite a long time before making the call with A5. And to crank up the suspense, the tournament director (can't remember if it was McLelland) took forever to call for the flop, turn, and river. It must have seemed like hours to the players. Eventually, all five board cards came out, Buchanan improved slighly by hitting his kicker, and Benyamine made his exit.

At the start of 3-handed play, all of the players had won and lost major pots, and Baldwin had doubled through Williams twice. Baldwin had less than 800K at one point earlier on, but he had picked his spots well and was back in the game. Williams' dominant chip lead had been whittled away and although he still led, it was anyone's game now. Williams had just under 8 million, Buchanan just under 7 million, and Baldwin had just under 5 million.

Buchanan busted in 3rd, but hey, he got some quality time with Kara Scott!

Shawn Buchanan has shown repeatedly that he's no one-hit wonder. If he hadn't been 2-outed, he might have won his second WPT title. He got it in good with QQ against Williams' 99, but Williams spiked a 9 on the flop. Long term, we'd all take QQ vs. 99, but tournament final table play is the very definition of "short term".

This was unfortunate for Buchanan in more ways than one. He lost his chance to win the $1.5 million first place prize, of course. But he also lost his chance to win the WPT Player of the Year title. Had he won this event, Buchanan would have been WPT POY.

Instead, Buchanan's 3rd place finish locked in Faraz Jaka as WPT Player of the Year. We've seen Jaka's high-variance style, and although he hasn't won a WPT event yet, his deep finishes gave him enough points to take WPT POY honors.

Hello ladies! Hello bricks 'o cash!

And just like that, the Fontana Bar got about 50% quieter. Buchanan's rooting section and Williams' rooting section had been trying to out-yell one another. But when Buchanan busted, he left with all of his buddies, no doubt heading off to even more massive partying. They had been drinking pretty heavily, right up until the WPT stage manager dropped the bombshell. There would be no more consumption of alcohol at any WPT TV table tapings. Final call came at only 8:30PM!

Heads-up, the volume alternated between grim silence at the table and an ear-splitting roar from Williams' and Baldwin's supporters. The two rarely said much more than the occasional "Nice hand". They were both completely focused on winning, like two chess masters deep in thought.

Baldwin has that unnerving kind of intensely focused calmness. It's as though he's asked his opponent a serious question and is silently expecting an answer. He stares through his opponents like a scientist examining a specimen in the lab. He had many fans in the crowd too, not quite as many as Williams, but they were almost as loud.

Williams has changed a lot since 2004, and he's said publicly that some life coaching has changed his attitude about winning and losing in poker. He's not as brash, he seems to think longer and better about each action, and at this event he was nearly as inscrutable as Baldwin. So between him and Baldwin, there wasn't a whole lot of excitement at the table. The two grandstands full of screaming friends, family, and fans made it a lot easier to stay awake.

Nieznanski, Dalton, McLelland, Scott, Williams, Baldwin, Sexton, Van Patten, et al rehearse the winner ceremony.

Williams had a roughly 3.5:1 chip lead at the start of heads-up play, but Baldwin fought the good fight. He had been the short stack for quite a while earlier, but managed to double up and chop out to stay alive. And his record proves that he's not the kind to give up easily and settle for 2nd.

At first, it looked like the heads-up battle might last for many hours. There were quite a few walks, check-to-river, and min-raise-and-take-it hands. I wouldn't expect too many heads-up hands to make the final edit.

Then suddenly it came down to a race: Baldwin shoved with A5, Williams called with 22. What??? Baldwin wasn't particularly short stacked, and Williams had about 3x Baldwin's stack. Shoving with A5 is a great move, since it's probably the best hand anyway. But the call with ducks was surprising. Williams knew that he could survive a big hit and still be in it, and he also knew that Baldwin's open-shove range could include many non-pairs.

An ace hit the flop, and it looked like Baldwin would double up to about even in chips. But Williams rivered his 2-outer to make a set of deuces and his cheering section exploded into a 120+ dB blast of joy. Williams was genuinely happy to win it, and Baldwin honorably conceded defeat.

During the ceremony Williams could barely smile. It was only about 10:30PM, but Williams was visibly exhausted. He'd given 100% over seven days of play, and it showed. It needs to be said that Williams got extremely lucky on several occasions during the WPT Championship. But hey, that's poker.

Next: Random Vegas pix...

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