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WPT at Bay 101 2011 TV Table
19 March 2011

Beauty, Brains, Chips, and Balls

This was one of the best WPT final tables we've railed. Current stars battled future stars, and the short stacks and big stacks showed us how you're supposed to play the short and big stacks. There were hero calls, fatal rivers, monster hands, and plenty of heart. Then there were the Royal Flush Girls. What more could you ask for?

Free booze, you say? We got that too. Last year, McLean Karr and Dan O'Brien bought us drinks. Two years ago, Kathy Leibert bought us drinks. This year, local player Pat Lyons was generous enough to buy the entire audience a round of drinks. His only condition was for one of the players to move in three times in a row. Alan Sternberg obliged and we ordered up.

The Royal Flush Girls and the TV six at the start of play

Cinder Who?

No Cinderella stories here. All of the last few dozen players showed serious skill (and were least a little lucky) to get that deep. But at this particular TV table, the short stacks fell as the big stacks grew. The way things turned out, players were eliminated almost in order of their stack sizes.

First out was the one and only Mike Sexton who struggled from the start with the shortest stack at the table. He fought bravely, but simply couldn't make anything happen for himself. He'd steal the blinds, then lose chips back in what looked like failed bluff attempts at the flop.

Sexton got it in with the best of it, no doubt his goal from the start. He held KQ, Mike Matusow held KJ, but the jack on the river sealed Sexton's fate. Tony Dunst was filling in for Mike in the booth with Vince Van Patten, so Sexton took the night off after busting. He cheerfully signed the "I Busted Mike Sexton" bounty shirt for Matusow and said he was heading for the bar.

Mike Sexton talks with Matt Savage after his elimination

The new short stack at the table, local Casey McCarrel, was the next to bust. He got it in good as well, with AQ vs. Steven Kelly's JT. A ten on the flop gave Kelly the advantage, McCarrel failed to pair up or backdoor a heart flush, and we were down to four.

Love him / hate him Phil Hellmuth was in the house railing his good buddy Mike Matusow. This would be his local casino if he wanted it to be, as he lives just up highway 101 in leafy suburban Palo Alto. (And in case you had been wondering, Bay 101 Casino gets its name from that highway, conveniently located just a few yards away.)

Mikey confers with Phil. Poker mindset guru Sam Chauhan lends his advice.

Attack of the Monster Hands

The phenomenal Vivek Rajkumar was playing his usual eerily strong game. But sitting directly between Sternberg and Kelly, he had been taking hits. He had dropped to last chip position, so when he looked down at pocket queens, he must have figured it was time to double up. He did, in spectacular fashion.

Sternberg held 66 and called Rajkumar's preflop raise. He asked how much Rajkumar had behind, and it was enough to mathematically justify a call and go set-mining. Sure enough, Sternberg spiked middle set on the flop of A65. He check-raised, probably hoping Rajkumar had AX and thought it was best.

The queen on the turn looked relatively harmless to Sternberg, so he bet out. Rajkumar called after about a minute's hesitation. In hindsight we see that this was the mildest form of Hollywooding (and the only form of Hollywooding Rajkumar apparently ever does.) Rajkumar was trying to induce a shove on the river by making it look like he was unsure of his hand. The river was the case queen, Sternberg had filled up, and he moved in after a short pause. He too was attempting to trap by not appearing too eager to get it all in. Rajkumar snap-called with his quad queens.

It's a great feeling to double up with the stone nuts, and even the hardened pro Rajkumar high-fived his buddies on the rail and whipped out his iPhone to take a photo of the board. On the flip side of the equation, Sternberg sat with head in hands for a moment. Crushed. He and Rajkumar had swapped chip positions. Sternberg was now last, and Rajkumar had leapfrogged into 2nd. You don't see coolers like that too often at WPT final tables.

Sternberg Strikes Back

True to form, Sternberg crawled out from under that bus and went straight back to work. He had played with constant controlled aggression throughout the tournament, and he showed enormous self-control to avoid steaming off his chips. Sternberg immediately began resurrecting himself like some kind of indestructible warrior monk. He won several small-to-medium pots in rapid succession to move past Matusow into 3rd place.

Then he extracted his revenge. And not just from Rajkumar. From everyone. First he bet Rajkumar off a 1.6 million chip pot on the turn. Then in the very next hand he took over a million off Matusow with pocket 4s against Matusow's AT. With a K99/63 board, Matusow bet 500k and Sternberg made the crying call. (We did say there were balls at this table, remember?)

This put Sternberg in the chip lead, just a few 100k plaques and change ahead of Steven Kelly. An amazing recovery from that soul-crushing quad queen hand, and he showed no signs of slowing down.

Matusow, of course, took a little ribbing from Rajkumar about the trademark "Mike Matusow blowup." Well-deserved, as Matusow had needled Rajkumar on the previous hand. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think there was a little heat behind those words. But away from the felt the two are good friends, and they hung out together on breaks throughout the tournament. On day 3, I overheard Matusow telling Rajkumar "I don't know what I was thinking. I just had a brain-fart."

We thought Sternberg would take a breather and let other players win some big pots. But no, he kept attacking and winning. Sternberg dragged another gigantic pile of plaques and chips. This one was from Steven Kelly, and there was no showdown. We are so curious about their hole cards it hurts.

Kelly was the bettor preflop and on the flop of T96, and Sternberg just smooth called. Sternberg check-raised Kelly when a king peeled on the turn. Kelly 3-bet, and Sternberg 4-bet shoved after about a minute of pondering. Kelly folded and gave the nearly 3 million chip pot to Sternberg. We eagerly await the broadcast of this particular episode.

Where's Mikey?

There was talk at Bay 101 of the "New Mike Matusow" and how he's more focused and more serious about playing. I spoke briefly with Matusow's charming Montréalais girlfriend Annie LePage about how Mike seemed far quieter and also seemed to be having less fun than in the past. She said that yes, he's taking poker seriously again, then pointed to the field and said "Really though, nobody is here to have fun. They're here to win money." She's right, of course.

The "Inner Mikey" could not be suppressed and did come out once in a while. Matusow steamed for a lengthy period after Sternberg blasted him off that 2 million chip pot, and he yelled a few profanities at his tablemates. He needled his friend Rajkumar a bit, and laughed his trademark laugh at the others' expense. But there was no relentless pestering, no maudlin self-pity. Matusow was easily the most colorful player at the table while more or less staying in line. And that makes him a better TV personality, which is great for him, great for poker in general, and great for WPT spectators and TV viewers. (And it seems that Sam Chauhan's coaching is really helping him and other poker pros.)

We have no doubt that the Inner Mikey would have fully re-emerged if he had manged to seriously chip up again. But it didn't happen. Matusow had a chance to double up when he and Sternberg got into a preflop raising war. They were all-in preflop and both showed pocket jacks. Two spades flopped, giving Matusow a slim chance to catch running spades for a flush with his jack of spades, but it ended up being a chop. He did bet Rajkumar off a fairly big pot later, promising to tell Rajkumar what he held. We keep saying it, but we are painfully curious about their holdings.

Matusow does a victory lap after doubling through Steven Kelly

Long Live King Vivek

Matusow's nickname for Vivek Rajkumar is "King Vivek" (possibly after an unwatchably bad Bollywood comedian.) But calling Rajkumar a king makes perfect sense from the perspective of his recent poker success. Rajkumar has recently been one of the hottest players, if not the hottest player in live tournament poker. We've seen him at many WPT and WSOP events, and he seems to always be in there chipping up and going deep. He had finished second at the previous WPT event at the Commerce Casino, making his deep run at Bay 101 even more impressive. But Rajkumar's run would end with a 4th place finish this time.

His stack had fallen to 750k, he shoved and Kelly moved in over the top. Matusow folded and showed KQ. Kelly showed KQ, thinking that Matusow's hand may have taken away some of his outs, but Rajkumar showed KJ. Same domination situation that Sexton and Matusow had found themselves in, but this time no jack peeled and Rajkumar was eliminated.

Live by the Steal, Die by the Steal

Now Matusow was low man, and he needed to get things rolling. Tough work against the likes of Sternberg and Kelly. Their job was to keep the pressure on Matusow while avoiding big pots against each other. And that's precisely what they did.

Matusow fought hard, moving in occasionally to steal the blinds. But his opponents didn't give him any breathing room. Their relentless pressure took its toll on Matusow's stack. He was forced to give up his blinds and antes more often than Sternberg and Kelly. And it certainly seemed like the latter got more than their share of walks.

On his last hand, Matusow 2-bet shoved against Sternberg. Sternberg asked how much the bet was (1.38 million) and quickly called with KQ, which seemed to be the hand of doom du jour. Matusow was forced to show 92 offsuit. The audience shouted encouragement at Matusow after a queen flopped, pairing up Sternberg. The turn gave Matusow a flush redraw, but the dealer didn't river him the miracle 4th diamond on the board. Matusow was out in 3rd place.

Hellmuth and Chauhan console Matusow after his bustout

Cue the Talent

Time for the money presentation! No more lion dance. And it's not just the local cocktail servers porting all that cash. It's the Royal Flush Girls, and we can't tell you how much we like that. We can't tell you how much Sternberg and Kelly like that either. Despite their being 20-something red-blooded males, their immediate objective was clear: take all of the other guy's chips or die trying.

The Royal Flush Girls posing after their money presentation. They did 2 takes. We wanted more.

Tournament Director Matt Savage announced the chip stacks before the start of heads-up play, and we all groaned. 6.205 million for Sternberg, 6.255 million for Kelly. Possibly the most closely matched stacks at the start of any heads-up WPT play. And with the blinds at just 40k/80k, we feared another marathon session like that between Steve Brecher and Kathy Liebert. In an interesting twist, the players asked Savage if they could play with no antes to speed things up a bit. Savage agreed.

We missed our chance at a record 1-hand heads-up victory. On the first hand of heads-up play, Sternberg gave up his small blind and Kelly showed pocked aces. (And thinking back over the past few days, we saw quite a few hands in which big blind got a walk and showed aces or kings.)

The inevitable long periods of walks and blind-swapping did happen. But neither Sternberg nor Kelly were afraid to move their plaques and chips around. The biggest pot heads-up came with surprisingly weak holdings. There was almost 1.5 million in the pot preflop after a 3-bet by Kelly and call by Sternberg. The flop came T85, Kelly bet 470k, and Sternberg called. The turn was a 5, Kelly bet 1.1 million, and Sternberg called after about half a minute of thinking. The river paired the ten, for tens and fives on the board. Check-check, Kelly rolled 97 for a busted straight draw. His best hand was tens and fives with his 9. Sternberg rolled 98 for a bigger two pair: tens and 8s. We gasped as we saw how weak their hands were for a 4+ million chip pot. That's a lot of plaques.

The Decline and Fall of the Kelly Empire

Sternberg had taken a significant but not insurmountable lead. Had Kelly doubled up again, or if he had managed to score enough wins against his opponent, he could have won this thing. But something happened. It may have been tilt, or maybe fatigue plus general frustration, or some combination of the above. But Kelly seemed to lose heart after that big pot. Sternberg won another 2+ million chip pot with an unimproved AK. Kelly said he had only a nine high.

Whether or not Kelly actually had nine high remains to be seen. Either way, Kelly, for the first time in days, found himself trailing significantly. He had been the biggest stack at the start of final table play, but now he was facing an uphill battle. Sternberg had roughly 3 times Kelly's stack.

And things just got worse for Kelly. Sternberg took another massive pot of over 2 million, leaving Kelly with just 2 million. Kelly folded to Sternberg's river bet, losing about 1 million of his chips. Sternberg had amassed a 5:1 chip advantage in a span of only ten hands.

The end was near for Kelly unless he could get chips quick. The blinds had increased to 60k/120k, giving him an M of barely over 10, and Sternberg simply kept attacking the way he had always done. Keeping the pressure on, never letting up on the aggression.

That aggression finally gave Kelly his chance to double. Kelly raised, Sternberg put him in, and Kelly snap-called with AQ. Sternberg showed the relatively modest T8 and had to improve. The flop came Q87 pairing both players' low card. The 7 on the turn gave both two pair, but Sternberg's ten was effectively dead since a ten on the river would only give him tens and 8s. Kelly already had queens and 7s, so Sternberg needed to hit a 2-outer to make 8s full to win.

And that's exactly what happened. He binked an 8 on the river and the house erupted. Because, although it was nearly 2:30am, the grandstands were still nearly full. Alan Sternberg had won the Bay 101 Shooting Stars, and he had earned it. His precise aggression had built his stack over the 4 days he played, and his heart and determination helped him rebound from the huge hit he took against Rajkumar's quad queens.

Here are the players' finishing places and winnings, courtesy of The World Poker Tour.

  Place Player Prize Money
  1st Alan Sternberg $1,039,000
  2nd Steven Kelly $595,300
  3rd Mike Matusow $369,800
  4th Vivek Rajkumar $295,800
  5th Casey McCarrel $221,800
  6th Mike Sexton $148,000

Vince Van Patten hands champ Sternberg his $25k entry to the WPT Championship

Mark Your Calendars

We like it when talented players, famous or not, make it to WPT final tables. And we absolutely love it when they get there through skill and determination instead of by putting beats on people. And that's why we loved railing this table. All the players earned the right to be there, and they showed real heart as they played.

We'll be waiting feverishly for this 2-part WPT episode to air, as we are aching to see all those mysterious hole cards. We witnessed plenty of high-level poker, but we haven't even see the half of it yet. It'll also be interesting to see Tony Dunst's play-by-play as he sat in for Mike Sexton.

Mark your calendars: June 13th and 20th are the air dates for these shows. In the meantime be sure to catch all the WPT episodes on FSN.

We might be able to make it to the WPT Championship at Bellagio in May. Depends on our release schedule, of course, but we have our fingers crossed...

Next: WPT Championship...

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