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Championship Day Two

The Poker Mi#ion Championship Day Two: World Champions

THE ISLE OF MAN-Perhaps they should have played the national anthem, because God didn't save the Queens.

With 21 players remaining in the Poker Mi#ion, Ken "Skyhawk" Flaton, one of the few remaining Americans in this international poker happening, moved his remaining ,000 over an early position raise from London's Tony Bloom. Bloom, who had more than 0,000, called with the Jack-Five of hearts, and Flaton turned over Q-Q. The first two cards off the deck were harmless enough, but two running Jacks (Union Jacks, perhaps?) finished Flaton and set the final 20 "in the money" players in the run for the 000,000.

Flaton, who only moments before had suffered a tough beat in a 3-way action hand where he held K-K against players holding Q-Q and A-J, accepted defeat with his usual grace. The next few players out may be able to accept gracefully as well, because the serious money doesn't start until the final table is set, but there are likely to be 20 fitful attempts to sleep this evening.

Before we dealt a hand today, everyone knew 79 dreams of fame and fortune would be shattered, as 99 Day One Survivors were scheduled to play down to 20 hopefuls in Ladbroke's version of Who Wants to Be a Mi#ionaire.

What no one could have known or predicted was that all of the seven former World Series of Poker Champions in the field, including four who started the day among the chip leaders, would be among the fallen 79.

"JESUS" KNOCKED OUT EARLY

The first World Championship exit was a bit of a shocker, because it was Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the reigning Champion, who started the day in ninth chip position (,600) out of 99 overall. Despite this big stack, Ferguson wasn't in an enviable position: his stack only rated fourth at his chip-heavy table. He was also surrounded by tough players with big stacks, with '99 champ Noel Furlong a couple of seats to his right, and '99 third-place finisher Padraig Parkinson on his immediate left.

Pocket aces had been very kind to Ferguson this year: the hand won him a gigantic pot at the World Series and sent into the chip lead here yesterday. Today, the aces proved unkind ten minutes into the day. He found them in the big blind, and when the even more heavily stacked Henry "Nugget" Nowakowski (,500) limped in for 0, Ferguson decided not to get cute and raised it another 200. Nugget called.

The flop came K-Q-x, and Nugget led out for 000. Ferguson (sensing, he said later, a hand along the lines of K-J) flat called. A Nine hit on the turn, and Nugget led out for ,000. Ferguson moved in, and when Nugget called instantly, Chris knew the scare card hadn't been merely scary, but deadly. Nugget turned over J-10 for the nut straight, and just like that, the popular, likeable champion was out.

THE CONTINUING ADVENTURES OF JAMES McMANUS

Nugget didn't hold the chip lead for long, not because he blew his chips off, but because The Poker Miracle (if my pal doesn't mind this new sobriquet), Jim McManus, the writer (he's here covering the event for Playboy) who finished 5th at the WSOP and who had started the day in 6th chip position, charged past him when he found a pair of aces in his own big blind, got moved-in on by Aidan Bennett and his pocket tens, and didn't even have to sweat a bad beat when an ace hit the flop.

By the way, when a player is all-in here and there can't be any more betting action, the combatants must turn their cards face up, something US players are used to only once in the money. The request here is more elegant than the American "Turn 'em over, guys," though. "On their backs, please, gents," asks the dealer, a reference to turning the cards so that the cards' backs are on the felt, although most of the Yanks are used to the request meaning something just a bit different.

A PENCE SAVED IS A PENCE NOT FLIPPED

The day's next oddity came when Phil Hellmuth, who had started with ,900 (12th place) and who had added ,000 more within ten minutes, lost a gigantic pot at least partially because his friend Andy Glazer wasn't cheap enough to pick a coin up off the floor.

Yesterday, as I wandered around the room looking for interesting confrontations, I kept noticing a coin lying on the rug, far out in plain view. It sat there for at least three hours. I kept checking on it not because I hoped to make off with 20 pence the easy way, but because I found it amusing that in this room full of money-hungry players and spectators, no one would bother to pick up a coin. I doubt it would have stayed on the floor in America for more than a couple of minutes.

Trust me, this is still a story about Hellmuth losing a big pot.

I missed the early betting, but arrived at the table with a few thousand quid already in the center, and Hellmuth and Kevin Song looking at a flop of J-8-4 with two spades. Hellmuth led at the flop and Song called. Another four hit the turn, and Hellmuth led out for 000. Song hesitated briefly, and decided to call.

The river was a complete blank, an offsuit deuce, and Hellmuth moved in, a bet of about ,000, more than covering the ,000 Song had left. Song thought and thought and thought and thought. Literally five minutes went by, and Song finally said, "I have no idea, bluff or big hand, I flip a coin to decide, if it's heads I call."

He pulled a coin out of his pocket, launched it skyward, and when he caught it and slapped it on his wrist, it was heads, and Song immediately shoved his money in.

Hellmuth turned the K-Q of spades "onto their backs," an overcard flush draw that hadn't gotten there, and Song turned over pocket sevens, a pretty tough call for a big bet even on the turn, with two overcards on the board.

"Lucky coin," said Song, as he raked in the huge pot. "I found it on the floor over there (pointing to the exact spot I'd seen it lying around for three hours) yesterday."

There was no mistaking either the coin or the spot Song had pointed to, and I was left wondering if we would have had a different tournament if I or any of a hundred other people wandering by had decided to pocket the pence instead of Song.

Hellmuth eventually built his stack back up to the ,000 mark, check-raised Stewart Reuben (who had bet 000) all-in on the turn with the board showing A-4-7-10, and Reuben decided to call with A-6. Phil turned 7-10, two pair, onto their backs, and Reuben spiked a six on the river. Instead of ,000 and a firm spot back in the hunt, Hellmuth was short, and exited not long thereafter when he couldn't win, if you'll pardon the expression, a "coin flip" hand of A-Q vs. J-J.

AMARILLO SLIM, KING OF THE ONE-LINERS

The hunt for more superstition led me back to the McManus table, where Jim had his usual collection of family photos spread out for inspiration and luck. I told them about the coin flip hand, and Amarillo Slim Preston, wearing one of his trademark cowboy hats, drawled, "Well, it ain't so much the coin flip as he got caught runnin' without the ball," an appropriate enough remark for an event that will be shown on American TV on the second-biggest football watching day of the year.

Preston held the One seat, McManus the Nine, and shortly thereafter McManus, in the small blind, decided to study the legendary Preston to see if he could pick up a tell on him. Slim, who knows McManus's long suit is writing, not poker, said, "Son, if you can figure somethin' about my hand from starin' at me, I'll let you shit in this hat."

McManus looked at his K-7, decided to muck it, and Preston showed a hat-saving (and probably dinner-saving) 10-2 as he raked in the uncontested pot.

I hung around this table a lot, as the colorful Preston is usually worth a good line every couple of minutes, and he didn't fail to disappoint. Layne Flack moved in on him once and Preston folded explaining that "The only way I could'a called him was on the phone." When Jack McClelland announced to the players that Ladbrokes had requested they vote on playing down to six players today, rather than the scheduled 20, in order to allow for a day off tomorrow where the TV folks could interview the finalists, Preston decided to poor-mouth his chances of surviving.

At the time, the vote was supposed to take place once we had 20 players left, although eventually the idea was dropped when officials realized playing down to six would almost certainly mean the event would go later than the mandatory 4:00 a.m. casino closing time.

"I won't be around for the vote," Preston said. "These boys here is too good for me. The only place around here I can hold my own is when I go to the men's room."

SLIM'S JOKE PROVES PROPHETIC

The players who poor mouth their games are usually the ones who can really play, of course, and Slim can hold his own in any game around. But his humor proved to be a prophetic piece of a burst of action that rid the tournament of three of its more interesting stories in just a few minutes.

Slim hadn't held cards for a long time, and his stack had grown a bit short when he made a move with K-7 suited, only to run into Ian Dobson's pocket aces. Poker's popular ambassador exited 33rd.

When Slim got knocked out, someone mentioned that Johnny Chan was the only former World Champion left in the field. "Sounds like they're getting ready to make another announcement," joked Chan, implying that he was going to be next out, and like Preston's, Chan's humor foreshadowed the truth.

Chan had been short on chips the whole day, but had managed to hang in and gradually build a modest stack. He raised a pot ,000 before the flop and got called by the button. When the flop came 2-5-8, he moved in, and London's Ali Sarkeshik called. The cards went on their backs, A-J for Chan, A-K for Sarkeshik, and Johnny was out 32nd.

END OF AN ERA, OR JUST A CHAPTER?

McManus was the next story to go. He had been playing aggressively for most of the day, sitting in the Nine seat and raising Slim's blinds time and time again. "That boy has raised me 71 times in a row," Slim said at one point, "but he's playin' alright, offense wins a lot more than defense does."

McManus had finally lost some chips when some players played back at him and he decided to lay hands down. He had been hovering around the ,000 mark for much of the day and had gotten whittled down to about ,000 when he got involved in a big pot. He led out several times, got called, and then moved his final ,000 all-in on the river. His opponent considered for a while, and laid his hand down. McManus triumphantly threw his A-J of clubs down, exposing his complete bluff at a board full of high cards and possibilities. Suddenly he had ,000, and was growling like an early version of Mike Tyson. I almost started humming The Village People's "Macho Man" to him, but decided to leave him alone.

Ian Dobson didn't.

On the very next hand, Dobson, a Brit who had been on his way to buy in for 000 when he walked past one of the frenzied single-hand "flash satellites" yesterday and won it ("A nice way to save fifty four hundred quid," he told me), had been on fire, and was the tournament's chip leader. With the blinds at 0-1,000 and antes of 0, he raised the pot to 000 from early position. McManus flat called from the button.

The flop came A-J-2, and both players checked. A blank hit the turn, Dobson bet, McManus raised, Dobson moved in, and McManus called instantly, and rather forcefully turned his A-2 of hearts onto the board, placing each of them beneath its mate on the community board.

Dobson turned over J-J, leaving McManus dead to an ace on the river, and the miracle ended.

"Was that the very next hand?" a stunned McManus asked the crowd. Told that it was, he uttered, quietly, a couple of words that probably won't appear in his article, although one of them certainly is the subject of interest of many of the readers of the magazine he's here representing. He was crushed, and nearly inconsolable for an hour.

INEXPERIENCE AND IDIOCY ARE VERY DIFFERENT CONCEPTS

I tried to tell him his record was pretty impressive for someone who had played three tournaments in his life (he also entered the Tournament of Champions), but he wasn't buying it. A couple of hours later he had recovered his composure, but was still beating himself up by calling his plays idiotic. I tried once more to explain there is a difference between inexperience and idiocy, but Jim is a Type A and is going to need a while to let go of this. I imagine if I'd had 000,000 in my sights, I might not have been so calm myself.

After McManus exited, we gradually lost Asher Derei, Bob Skutelsky, and Chip Winton to reach 27 players and a redraw for new tables and seats. Roman Adams, Sigi Stockinger, Ben Akiva, Michael Harris, Thomas Chung, and Don O'Dea got knocked off before Flaton's tough beat left us with the following players and seat positions for Saturday's play, which will start at 11:00 a.m. instead of 1:00 p.m. (the originally announced time):

Player   Country                Chips     Table-Seat

Tony Bloom        London, England              176,000 2-2

Ian Dobson         Lapworth, England          151,900 1-1

Kevin Song          Hacienda Heights, CA-USA           131,000 2-1

Ali Sarkeshik       London, England              121,300 2-8

Kevin O'Connell                Burnley, England              103,100 1-8

Vic Rooney         Birmingham, England     88,700   1-5

Mohammed Barkatul     Birmingham, England     82,200   1-6

Barney Boatman              Hendon, England             82,100   1-9

John Duthie        London, England              72,700   2-10

Teddy Tuil           Tel Aviv, Israel   72,300   1-4

Peter Roche       Dublin, Ireland  69,500   1-2

Simon Trumper Guildford, England          67,400   1-7

Man IP  Blackpool, England          61,600   2-6

Brendan Elliott  Castleford, W. Yorkshire               55,100   2-3

Kevin Spillane    Cork, Ireland      51,300   2-5

Gary Lent            Los Angeles, CA, USA     44,900   2-7

Henry Nowakowski         Frankfurt, Germany        42,200   1-2

David Welch       London, England              34,900   1-10

Robin Keston     London, England              28,900   2-9

Joanne Bortner Palo Alto, CA, USA           23,500   2-4

If reading this list gives you the impression that Europe in general and England in particular has kicked the Yanks butts almost entirely out of this tournament, you've gotten a very accurate impression. General George Washington himself couldn't have saved the colonies from this impressive display (especially as the General would be very, very old by now).

In an odd reversal of form, it's likely that Ladbrokes and promoter Barry Hearn (who made it to the second day of the event himself) will be rooting heavily for at least one American to get through to the final table, to boost interest in the US for the Thanksgiving Day eve broadcast on the Fox Sports network.

Any of the Americans left can get there, of course, but 224 years later, the Motherland has certainly struck back for the Boston Tea Party, and made another strong case for Americans losing some of the attitude they bring with them when they travel abroad about the strength of American poker.

(OK, OK, we did save their bacon in WWII, but what have we done for them lately, other than provide them with a bundle of election jokes?)

In limit poker, there isn't any question but that the Yanks are still the strongest players around, but this tournament certainly opens questions about the Americans in no-limit when we're the ones traveling nine time zones from home, instead of being safely ensconced in familiar environs.

If you played a neutral site no-limit tournament with the top 20 players from America and Europe, I'd still favor the Yanks, but if you took the top 20 out from both camps, and held another tournament with the next best 80 from each battling it out, I think I'd give serious consideration to making the lads from this side of the pond the favourites. They play the no-limit and pot-limit games much more here, and it shows.

It wouldn't be the Poker Mi#ion without at least one change in the announced schedule, and tomorrow we will play down to six players rather than nine, in an effort to make the live Sunday broadcast a bit shorter.

One tournament neither settles nor proves anything, but me hat's off to the hosts for a fine showing.

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