For the first time ever, the World Series of Poker came to California as the Harrah’s Rincon Casino and Resort hosted WSOP Circuit event number two. The luxurious coastal mountain resort was the second of five stops on this year’s national circuit, which began last month in Atlantic City.
At the finale of the $10,000 buy-in championship event, hundreds of spectators were treated to an epic marathon, a grueling slugfest of dexterity and willpower that lasted a whopping 13 hours. At tournament’s end there was but one man left standing — make that sitting at the final table. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson mercifully raked in the final pot of the night just a few ticks shy of 3 a.m., leaving even the most enthusiastic poker fans mentally and physically exhausted.
The tournament’s main event started three days earlier (actually four days earlier, considering the length of the final table). Day One started the previous Sunday with 209 players. The final 18 were paid, in amounts ranging from $19,855 up to $655,220 — the prize for first place. ESPN was on hand to film the championship event, which is expected to be broadcast in July.
After Tournament Director John Grooms introduced Harrah’s executives and the final ten participants, the players were eliminated in the following order:
10th Place: Naseem Salem arrived desperately low on chips with just 21,500 in his paltry stack and desperately needed to win his first confrontation. He managed to do exactly that and doubled up early to nearly 50,000, but then exited a short time later when he moved all-in with 7-7 and was called instantly by Alex Prendes, with 10-10. When a 10 flopped, Salem was all but eliminated. A 36-year-old Iraqi-born business owner from San Diego, Salem collected $27,795.
9th Place: Mark Hanna (a.k.a. "Big Daddy from Cincinnati") also arrived with a short stack. The big man managed to last a bit longer, nearly two hours into the finale. On his final hand, Big Daddy took a horrible beat when he was dealt pocket Kings, normally a terrific chance to double up and get back into contention. Trouble was, Hanna caught the Kings at the worst possible time as Robert Williamson III looked down and saw pocket aces. When an ace flopped, Big Daddy’s last vestige of hope vanished. Hanna, who has spent the last eight months doing what many poker players dream — traveling around North America in a motor coach playing poker along the way, accompanied by his wife and three pet terriers — made some extra gas money, $39,710.
8th Place: Lonnie Alexander hung around for three full hours, staying in the 100K-200K range most of the day. Then, Alexander lost most of his chips with A-Q when a Queen flopped as the high card. Alex Prendes was ”˜all in’ and happened to be holding A-A. Alexander called out for a Queen, hoping to put his version of a bad beat on Prendes. The poker Gods were not listening. Alexander watched helplessly as two blanks fell on the turn and river, which left the 47-year-old poker pro with only a few thousand in chips. Alexander went out on the next hand. This marked Alexander’s biggest tournament payday to date. He collected $59,565 for 8th place.
7th Place: Crowd favorite Robert Williamson III went out next on a hand that he is sure to remember and strategists will discuss. Williamson was dealt K-Q and was delighted to see the flop come Q-10-8 giving him top pair. Williamson bet out with about half of his 200K stack and was raised all in by the chip leader, Prahlad Friedman. On the hand, Friedman had 8-8 and flopped a set of 8s. The next three minutes of deliberation were grueling for Williamson. He knew he was very likely beat, and would have to commit his last 100K to make the call. Trouble for Williamson was, he had a vulnerable kicker and reasoned that Friedman probably had A-Q or better, making Williamson a significant dog. Up to that point, play at the final table had been very conservative, and Williamson knew Prahlad was not making a power play on a draw, or bluffing. Despite his worst fears, Williamson finally made a crying call and was caught drawing dead when a 2 fell on the turn. Williamson must have reasoned that he wouldn’t be able to come back from being down to just under 100,000 in chips (especially against the level of competition), and decided he had to gamble. Indeed, Williamson has a mentality that makes him focus on one thing only — first place. Any other disciplined player would have folded in that spot under the conditions, and in this case Williamson’s ambition cost him dearly. Robert Williamson, a former Dallas businessman turned tournament pro who won a Pot-Limit Omaha WSOP gold bracelet in 2002, received $79,420.
6th Place: Prahlad Friedman continued his reign of terror as he eliminated Keith Sexton a short time later. Sexton, a 45-year-old real state investor who is now a poker pro and sports bettor living in Las Vegas, came in low on chips, but did manage to leap up four spots in the prize money. On his final hand, Sexton had A-10 and raised before the flop. Friedman was in the blind and had enough chips to call. The final board showed 7-7-6-8-4 and Friedman with 8-5 made the straight. Sexton took home $99,275.
5th Place: At 7 pm, Prahlad Friedman became the first player to cross the million-dollar threshold. He dealt a crushing blow to Alex Prendes on one hand, making a Jack-high straight. After a dinner break, Chad Brown doubled up on a big hand when he had 9-9 against Chris Ferguson’s 4-4. When a Nine came on the turn, Brown was second in chips and Ferguson was staggered and on the ropes for the first time, with less than 200K. That would prove to be Ferguson’s low point at the final table. Prendes, however, was unable to recover from his low point. He was getting low on chips and made his final stand with A-6 against Ferguson’s K-Q. The flop came A-J-6 giving Ferguson two pair. Prendes had a chance to put a beat on Ferguson if a 10 fell, but it wasn’t to be. Alex B. Prendes, Jr. the youngest player at the final table (age 24) was the 5th place finisher, good for $119,130. Remarkably, Prendes has played in three major tournaments and has now made it into the money in all three.
4th Place: The "Krazy Kanuck" James Worth became a crowd favorite. Clearly the least known of the four finalists, the Canadian player mostly plays online and has not played in many live tournaments. He certainly played well over the four-day period. But in the end, Worth failed outfox or catch the final rush of cards it took to become a serious contender. He remained around the 250K mark most of the day, but was gradually blinded down and made his final stand with 4-4. Chris Ferguson was dealt 6-6, which held up — knocking out the crazy Canadian. James Worth, from Toronto, received $158,840 in prize money.
3rd Place: The final three players — Brown, Friedman, and Ferguson -- meant it was an ”˜All-California’ trio of finalists. Brown, from Los Angeles had about 250K. Friedman, originally from the Bay Area but now living in Los Angeles, had 875K. By knocking out Worth on the previous hand, Ferguson, from Pacific Palisades near LA, rocketed up into the chip lead with about 950K. Unfortunately, the final half hour was not a pleasant experience for Chad Brown. He ran card dead at the worst possible time of a tournament and was down to about 100K when he was dealt his final hand of a very long night. Just after midnight, Brown tried to make a stand with K-9 on a bluff, but Chris Ferguson had A-Q and decided to call Brown’s final bet with Ace-high. The board showed 7-6-2-5-10 giving neither player a pair. So, Ferguson’s Ace played as the high card. Chad Brown, who has worked as an actor and poker color commentator has many impressive tournament finishes on his poker resume. He could certainly be proud of this one, as well. Brown collected $198,550 for 3rd place.
The heads-up duel between Prahlad Friedman and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson started with the two players about even in chips. They went back and forth for over an hour, never deviating more than 200,000 or so from the chip lead. Then, the biggest hand of the tournament came out of nowhere.
After a long series of stealing antes and few showdowns, both players were dealt a hand, and after Ferguson raised and Friedman called pre-flop, there was about 150,000 in the pot. They both watched as the flop came A-A-K. Neither showed much of a reaction. The crowd, which by this point was emotionally drained, suddenly came to life. Both players checked. A third Ace fell on the turn. Again, both players checked. A King fell on the river — and the final board showed A-K-A-A-K. Friedman checked and Ferguson bet 345,000. From Friedman’s point of view, it appeared that with the large bet Ferguson was trying to push his opponent off the hand. Ferguson made a perfect play — overbetting the pot by just enough to cause doubts in Friedman’s mind that Ferguson had the dreaded Ace for four-of-a-kind. Expecting to play the board and split the pot, Friedman tabled his hand playing the board, and was horrified to see Ferguson roll over an Ace — good for quad Aces. That was a blast that not only ripped away half of Friedman’s stack, but perhaps more importantly it helped Ferguson to completely seize the momentum at the final table. With all due respect to Friedman who played remarkably well and demonstrated an intimidating and powerful table presence for the duration, the tournament was effectively over at that point.
Prahlad Friedman is one of the game’s most talented young players. He has already mastered high-limit poker, and plays $200-400 limit stakes and higher. He is also a terrific No-Limit player, whether in tournaments or live action. Friedman, a Cal-Berkeley dropout now living in Los Angeles can be counted on to appear at many more final tables and is likely to win his second WSOP gold bracelet before long. But on this night, he would have to settle for bridesmaid status. Second-place prize money of $361,365 helped to soften the sting of defeat.
Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, normally stoic and serious when playing, waved and took a victory lap around the final table. He was clearly ecstatic with his victory. Of all his poker accomplishments, this had to be among the most satisfying, as Ferguson consistently made the right moves at the right time, bet the right amounts, came back from a few beats, and ultimately triumphed against nine very tough competitors.
"I didn’t win any tournaments at last year’s World Series of Poker," Ferguson said afterward. "I did have a second, but now winning this one kinda’ makes up for that."