Tournament of Champions XV: From 128 to 4
Heads-up is the most torturous and skilful form of No Limit Hold ‘Em poker. It’s a game not for the feint of heart, but the strong of will. After an online poll conducted on Pokerclips.ca, 59% of those who responded wished to make it the format for the Red Hot Poker Tour’s 15th Tournament of Champions. So instead of the traditional freezeout format, the lucky 128 who qualified would have to successfully run the heads-up gauntlet. On November 28, 2009, at Norma Jeane’s Restaurant and Bar, heads, most-decidedly, did roll.
Players were divided into two Groups, A and B, and then seeded according to how many points they accumulated throughout the season. Sal Villaluz, Bill Bawden, George Kuzmanovic, and Larry Fedoruk were given the #1 seeds, just as powerhouse NCAA schools like Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky are during the March Madness tournament. The winner of each group would get a seat into a World Series of Poker Tournament next year, courtesy of PartyPoker. They would then play one final match, and the winner would earn an additional WSOP package, which you can put a price on, and the title of Tournament of Champions Winner XV, which you can’t.
Before play began, the Season 15 superlatives were introduced. Seumas McCluskey played over 100 live Red Hot tournaments this season, earning him Hardcore Champion status. Lisa Clayton paced the Ladies Leaderboard once again. And Sal Villaluz, a tireless grinder and fierce competitor, became the first player to ever amass more than 60,000 points in one Red Hot season.
With members of all regions present and seated (including the KWC, who, according to Tournament Director Dan Mountford, had been practicing heads-up strategy for the last three weeks), it was time once again, for the Tournament of Champions, to shuffle up and deal.
The first two rounds, where the field quickly shrunk from 128 to 64 and then 32, featured an overwhelming sea of Red Hot’s finest.
After about 3 hours, only a quarter of them were left (most bided their time upstairs, playing in one of the first regular season tournaments of Season 16). Action was easier to follow; many spectators hung out in front of the huge and colourful bracket board at the front of the room, while others took advantage of some unprecedented access, to watch the action from close-up.
A number of intriguing matches took shape, beginning with…
**ROUND 3: THE THUNDEROUS THIRTY-TWO**
In the third round, where players started with 16,000 in chips and blinds of 100/200, there were several matches that featured a couple of marquee names. Bill Bawden matched up with Shaun Goddard, both players in the all-time top 25 of points (the former at #1, natch). Play started friendly, but Bill slowly got ground down and frustrated, and wound up falling to Shaun. George Kuzmanovic played Z. Kaye, in a match that I am dubbing “The Battle of the Zzzzzz’s” for reasons that have nothing to do with somnolence. The latter Mark of Zorro outlasted the former, when both flopped top pair. And in a slugfest featuring two of the GTA’s more unpredictable long-term players, Sean Powell couldn’t withstand Adam Chiarello’s barrage of bluffs, finally losing with A3 to AJ.
“I’m all-in first hand!” yelled Maggie Maher before her opponent folded on the river. She had turned two pair, and used this early momentum to snatch a victory. “I feel bad!” she said, displaying a disregard for the cutthroat instinct needed to win at heads-up. It would not be the last time this tournament that one player was all-in on the first hand of the match. But more on that later. Meanwhile, James Arseneault also finished off his opponent quickly, when, about 5 minutes into their match, he reraised all-in preflop with AK, only to get a pretty quick call from his opponent who held… J4s! James didn’t feel as badly as Maggie, taking the gift with glee.
**ROUND 4: THE SKILLFUL SIXTEEN**
With sixteen players left, stacks started at 32,000 chips and blinds were 200/400. Bob Clemmer and James played off in a battle of two Tournament of Champions titans. James final-tabled the Season 5 event and could count this as the third time in the row he’s made the final 16 of the tournament, having bubbled the final table last season. Bob was looking to become only the second player, besides James Reinhart, to make 3 “top 10” finishes in Tournament of Champions history. He’d do just that by beating James’ pocket fives with A6 on a 9-6-4 board.
Russ Bursey and Jenna Mischuk battled in a long match that was decided on an improbable suckout. Holding Q9 to Jenna’s Q8 on a 9-8-x board, Russ could only watch helplessly as the river 8 gave Jenna the win. Later, overhearing others talking about that hand, Jenna stuck the needle in by saying, “Russ won’t wanna read about that… and that’ll make it all the more enjoyable!” Now there’s the heads-up cutthroat instinct I was talking about!
In the last hand before dinner break, Jason Acton took a crushing blow. He flopped a straight with KT on an A-Q-J board. Adam Chiarello led out with a 7-high diamond draw, and Jason slow-played with just a call. The diamond on the turn completed Adam’s flush, and he lead out again. Jason just called. The river was a blank, and here is where Jason came alive, raising all-in after Adam’s bet. Only it was too late, and he was left with just 3000 chips, to his opponent’s 61,000.
And with that, the remaining players, and the interested onlookers, headed upstairs for a dinner break, to indulge in the bountiful spread provided by Red Hot.
When play resumed, Jason, as expected, was forced all-in blind and lost to Adam. Kevin Galley, also nursing a short stack going into the break, fared much better in his post-dinner comeback attempt. Down 3:1 in chips to Maggie, he used good cards, and lots of aggression, to win almost every pot. He also used good humour: after folding 32o from the button, he announced to a friend in the crowd, “Karim, I had your hand!” (“What does that say about your hand?” chirped Bob.) On the very next deal, he got a walk in the big blind, and looked down to find… 32o! “That’s how you play it, explained Karim.
Kevin finished off Maggie by calling her short-all-in with A3. Her pocket kings were good until an ace hit the turn. “I was getting a sick run of cards,” noted Kevin afterwards, partially explaining his comeback victory.
On one of the outer tables Tom Brennand’s slowplayed aces preflop caught Jim Mannell’s bluff, and propelled the feathered folksman to the next round.
**ROUND 5: THE ABLE EIGHT**
The final 8 players took their seats spread out over the final two tables, behind stacks of 64,000 chips and blinds of 300/600. On one table, Chris Jensen locked horns with Tom Brennand, while Kevin Galley and Bob Clemmer bantered amiably. On the other, Bernice Donovan and Jenna Mischuk squared off for the title of Last Lady Standing, while Z. Kaye and Adam Chiarello traded bluffs and big stacks of chips.
Tom took the early lead in his match against Chris, and even managed to pull out a monster suckout when he shoved all-in with top pair of jacks and ran into Chris’ straight. But an 8 on the river put a straight on the board, and Tom survived the big blow with a chop. After that near miss, he’d double Chris up 2 hands later, though, when his Q8 was no good against Chris’ QJ on a queen-high board. Chris took the lead with that hand, and never looked back; at one point he even won a nice-sized pot with a straight flush. “Been a while since I’ve seen one of those!” noted Tom with a grin. The final hand of the match found Tom moving in with QJ only to be called by 99. The pocket pair held – just like it did in the same matchup that won Joe Cada the recently-decided World Series of Poker Main Event – and Chris was the first to advance to the semi-final round.
Kevin and Bob’s matchup was notable more for their spirited table talk than the hands they were playing. “Do you hit every river?” asked Kevin with a smile, after a big bet by Bob. “I don’t play river poker,” came the gruff reply. Moments later, Kevin would get his turn to make a big river bet, to take down a 30k-chip pot. Several hands later, he bet 2k on one flop, but announced, “Dos huevos, por favour!” Hoping for clarification, I asked, “Did you just bet ‘two eggs’?” “It’s the only Spanish I know!” he replied, cryptically. Kevin’s good-nature ground Bob down (“Another nice hand, Gruesome,” repeated Bob, as he pulled down his black PartyPoker hat, calling Kevin by the nickname emblazoned on the back of the red hockey jersey he was wearing), until finally Bob shoved with tens, and Kevin woke up with jacks, which held to make Kevin the second member of the final four.
As one table wrapped-up, the assembled throng of railbirds could now focus their attention on the last two matches being played.
Bernice and Jenna played a see-saw battle, each taking a big lead before relinquishing a lot of chips to the other. Jenna was the first to make a big dent, betting and raising aggressively on a Jh9h8h board, and then a 6c turn, taking down a 30k-chip pot after Bernice tanked for a good long while before folding. But she gave that lead away after first folding to a Bernice reshove preflop, and then getting coolered in a straight-over-straight pot, which gave Bernice the double-up she needed. Bernice used that momentum to build up a nearly 4:1 chiplead. But Jenna came back in style, first reraising all-in on a 9-7-6 flop, and getting Bernice to fold, and then using a timely pair of pocket Queens to double up after Bernice had flopped top pair. On the most decisive hand, of the match, with blinds rocketing sky-high, all the money went into the middle preflop, with Bernice holding KJ but behind Jenna’s AT. The QKQ flop bailed Bernice out, as Jenna’s rail boisterously called for a jack. The turn was a ten, giving Jenna some more outs, and the river was indeed a friendly jack, giving Jenna the Broadway straight and knocking Bernice down to only 800 chips! Jenna shook her head in disbelief, as this was just another in a series of suckouts she’d been putting on her opponents all day long. Bernice went fully-broke two hands later, and Jenna advanced to the final table.
The last semi-final match saw Z. and Adam engaged in friendly but focused competition. Z. took the early lead. “You’re steamrolling me!” Adam mock-complained. But he came back to even things out, and the middle stages of the match featured slow and steady back and forth action. Z. looked to take some momentum from Adam when he called a big river bet holding only 2nd pair with a 2-kicker, when all kinds of flushes and straight were possible. Luckily Adam was bluffing with only queen-high. This blow put Adam into desperation mode, which explains his all-in bet with K8. Z. woke up with AQ and called, but couldn’t put Adam away when an 8 hit the flop. (Of further note: this hand happened AT THE EXACT SAME TIME Bernice and Jenna were playing their KJ vs. AT hand; the railbirds crowded around the table were all a-twitter, trying to watch both massive pots at once!) Following close on the heels of this pot, the two played another monster all-in preflop. Z. raised the button, and Adam reshoved. “Do you have AT?” Z. asked. “I can beat AT,” Adam replied, seeming relaxed. Z. seemed to have all the information he needed, and only had to build up the nerve to call. He finally did. Adam’s AQ had AT beat, for sure, but not Z.’s pocket sevens. Until, that is, he got a friendly A-Q-x flop. That pot had 110k+ in it, and it all but sealed Z.’s fate. It also made Adam the last of the four contestants at the final table.