World Series' winning hand: experienced, skilled players

ON GAMBLING

The Kickoff

July 11, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

The debate over whether winning poker is more a result of skill or luck will probably never be completely settled. But for those who subscribe to the philosophy that being good really is better than being lucky, the current World Series of Poker being held at the Rio All-Suites casino in Las Vegas is providing convincing evidence.

Even with record-setting numbers of players competing for the 45 gold bracelets that are up for grabs through the seven weeks of competition, famous names - some already with championship bracelets on their wrists - continue to hack their way through the massive fields to final tables and even win some tournaments outright. The WSOP culminates with the main event July 28 through Aug. 10.

Through the first dozen or so of the 45 tournaments that will be played, the roll call of many winners will be familiar to both avid and casual poker fans.

The suave Sammy Farha, runner-up to Chris Moneymaker in the famous 2003 main event that launched the poker craze, took a WSOP Omaha tournament Friday and nearly $400,000, out-dueling perhaps the most dangerous player in the game, Phil Ivey.

Another player who became a famous main event runner-up, David Williams, who finished second to Greg Raymer in 2004, won his first bracelet ($163,118) last week in a seven-card stud tournament that included three-time main event champion Johnny Chan at the final table. Chan finished seventh.

In one of the earlier events, Dutch Boyd, considered the leader of the 20-something poker brat pack called The Crew, outlasted 823 other players and a faceoff with last year's main event winner, Australian Joe Hachem, in the so-called short-handed No-limit Hold 'em tournament. The game is called short-handed because there are six players rather than 10 per table. Boyd won more than $475,000 to Hachem's $256,800 on a dramatic final hand in which Boyd came from far behind.

After two hours of heads-up play, Hachem was poised to take the chip lead when he went all-in with the dominant hand, ace-queen, against Boyd's ace-five. The flop came ace-king-nine and the turn was a jack, but Boyd spiked a five at the river for two pair and crushed Hachem's hope of another championship. Indicative of how top-flight players continue to persevere in the face of the large fields, Daniel Negreanu finished eighth in the same tournament.

Still another TV face-time pro who snatched a bracelet was Max "The Italian Pirate" Pescatori, a native of Milan whose $682,389 payday in a $2,500 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold 'em event came Sunday just after Italy won soccer's World Cup. Pescatori's final table included Mike "The Mouth" Matusow (seventh, $89,010), whose frequent cash-ins and final table appearances show that his play often matches his cocky chirping.

But perhaps the most spellbinding performance by a high-profile pro was put on by Phil Hellmuth, the game's enfant terrible. Hellmuth went heads-up for the championship of the $5,000 buy-in No-limit Hold 'em event against little-known pro Jeff Cabanillas. Hellmuth was going for his 10th gold bracelet; only Chan and the legendary Doyle Brunson have reached double digits in WSOP titles.

After a seesaw struggle, Cabanillas outlasted Hellmuth with a flush on the final hand to win more than $818,000 last week. Even though the Poker Brat took down nearly $424,000, losing the bracelet - especially with Brunson and Chan keeping track of the game - certainly stung. Despite being known for his tantrums, Hellmuth reportedly comported himself in exemplary fashion after losing to Cabanillas.

Two other name pros at the Cabanillas-Hellmuth final table were international stars Marcel "The Flying Dutchman" Luske (fourth, $204,638) of the Netherlands and French-Canadian Isabelle "No Mercy" Mercier (fifth, $175,404).

Obviously, there's no way of telling whether any top pros will make the final table of this year's main event, and in retrospect, it's incredible that last year, Raymer, Ivey and Matusow all went to the final three tables in the 5,619-player field. Certainly more likely is that the pros will continue to shine in the events that are now becoming specialties - Omaha, stud and the upcoming newly installed HORSE tournament that will require a $50,000 buy-in and feature five varieties of poker.

Still, that the superstars can regularly fend off the waves of amateur Internet, low-stakes casino and home game players who make the trek to the sauna that's Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker stands as testament that even in the face of long odds, talent and experience remain two pretty good hole cards.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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