How many recreational poker players could walk up to their spouses and say with a straight face, "I’m going to quit my job to play poker for a living"?
Pat Poels did.
About a year ago, Poels, a 37-year-old father of three from Mesa, AZ, received the approval and encouragement of his wife to leave a secure, good-paying job in order to pursue a dream. "She actually wanted me to become a pro poker player," Poels explained of the situation, as a confused poker audience scratched their collective heads and wondered if they were hearing voices. That faith paid off when Pat Poels crushed a record-field of 699 players in the $1,500 buy-in Omaha High-Low world championship and won a whopping $270,100 in prize money.
No one — sans Mrs. Poels who sat in the front row cheering on her husband — could have predicted that Poels would end up with his first gold bracelet. Consider what happened on Day One, when there were still about 200 players remaining and blinds were at 100-200. Poels lost a big pot and was down to just 300 in chips — barely enough to see a few more hands. Amazingly, Poels was just about to get up from his table and leave when he was all-in with an ace, and spiked an ace on the river — good for top pair. Those 700 in chips might not have seemed significant at the time. But a day and a half later, they would transform a previously-unknown middle-limit pro from the Phoenix area into the latest WSOP champion. In essence, hitting that ace netted Poels over a quarter-million dollars in prize money.
There were other obstacles, as well. The final table was comprised of four former gold bracelet winners (and two players with two wins each — Nguyen and Lukas). Furthermore, "Minneapolis Jim" Meehan was making his third straight final table appearance in this event (2003, 2004, and now 2005), a most impressive accomplishment considering the large fields and high level of competition.
Youngest winner ever
Last year, Gavin Griffin became the youngest player to ever win a World Series of Poker gold bracelet. With so many young people now turned on to poker, however, it seemed just a matter of time before a younger star would emerge and eclipse the record. That moment came at precisely 4 am Tuesday, after an all-night poker marathon lasting 16 hours. Eric Froehlich, a 21-year-old professional poker player, won the $1,500 buy in Limit Hold’em championship. At exactly 21 years, 3 months, and 3 days of age, "E-Fro" established a new all-time benchmark for the youngest poker champion.
The final table was a brutal exercise of patience, skill, and discipline. The chip lead changed several times and shifted back and forth when play was heads up. By the time the final hand was dealt, the standing-room-only crowd that had packed the Rio Pavilion had dissipated, leaving E-Fro to bask in his glory amidst a zonked out ESPN TV crew and hoarse-voiced Tournament Director John Grooms. Poker glory usually comes in fickle flashes. It didn’t seem to matter that E-Fro had climbed poker’s equivalent of Mt. Everest, and there wasn’t anyone around to witness the spectacle. The important thing was the view. For at least a little while, E-Fro will be the latest chapter in poker history.
This tournament was historic for at least one additional reason — 1989 world poker champion Phil Hellmuth, finished in 42nd place. That would not normally be newsworthy. But it so happened to be Mr. Hellmuth’s 47th time in the money at the WSOP — which distanced him by one notch over 1986 world poker champion Berry Johnston (with 46 cashes). The race is on to climb another poker mountain.
Largest Pot-Limit event in World Series history
Thom Werthman, a 35-year-old owner of a high-tech telecommunications company in Detroit, MI, staged a memorable comeback and won a stunning upset victory over one of poker’s most enigmatic personalities. When play became heads-up, Wertherman overcame a 3 to 1 chip deficit versus the always-unpredictable Layne Flack, who was shooting for his 6th WSOP gold bracelet.
But after a two-day, 26-hour poker marathon, it was the newcomer Werthmann who earned his first major tournament victory. The $1,500 buy-in Pot-Limit Hold’em championship started with 1,071 players, making it the largest pot-limit hold’em event in WSOP history. In fact, it was the third largest field ever to play in a WSOP event — a statistic expected to be short-lived since this year’s tournament is smashing records daily.
When the final ten players assembled around the final table, Layne Flack had an impressive chip lead. Other than Englishman Martin Green — no one seemed to pose a threat to the freewheeling poker enigma originally from Missoula, Montana — who has drawn comparisons to the late Stu Ungar. No one could possibly foresee that the mild-mannered, self-admitted recreational poker player in Seat 7 would be the last man sitting at the final table at 1:55 am.
Notching a fourth gold World Series bracelet
Poker entered a new age on June 5, 2005 when 2,305 players jammed into the Rio Pavilion to enter the first open event of this year’s World Series of Poker. The number of entries amounted to the second largest field in the 36-year history of the WSOP. Only last year’s world poker championship, with 2,576 entries, attracted more players. The total prize pool amounted to a whopping $3,180,900. To give this number some perspective, this was more money than was awarded in the main event of the 1998 world championship. Indeed, it’s a very good time to be a poker player.
The tournament attracted so many entries that the Rio (Harrah’s) and ESPN jointly decided that it would become a three-day event. All events with entries numbering 1,500 or more will now be three day events, as well as all televised events.
Considering the humongous fields and so many new poker faces, it was a surprise to see several familiar names at the final table. Four of the finalists were former gold bracelet winners — Allen Cunningham (with 3 wins), Scott Fischman (with 2 wins), and David "Devilfish" Ulliott as well as An "the Boss" Tran (with one win each). In fact, Fischman arrived as the defending champion in this event.
Based on the starting chip counts, it looked like the final table might end with a Cunningham-Fischman showdown - which is exactly what happened. The final nine players assembled in front of a standing-room-only crowd and ESPN television cameras.