Johnny "the Orient Express" Chan won his all-time record tenth World Series of Poker gold bracelet in the $2,500 buy-in Pot-Limit Hold’em event last week.
After a two-year epoch during which poker’s three most famous players remained locked in a virtual dead heat with nine gold bracelets each, Chan finally broke through and became the first player to win number 10.
It would be hard to decide which was more exciting — the final duel between Chan and Phil "the Unibomber" Laak — or the fanfare of media and well-wishers swarming around Chan afterwards.
Neither of these would have happened had it not been for one dazzling hand which took place when play was four-handed.
Chan was dealt Q-Q. His opponent, Frank Kassela, was dealt A-A. The former world champion was ”˜all in.’ Chan, not accustomed to needing help from the deck, was in serious trouble.
Almost as though his fate was pre-ordained, the flop brought a queen. The jam-packed crowd went ballistic. In mere seconds, Chan went from one step away from the rail to the chip lead. Indeed, pocket queens would prove to be a lucky hand for Johnny Chan.
The tournament began with 425 entrants. Finalists included three former gold bracelet winners — Chan (9), Jerri Thomas (1), and Humberto Brenes (1). The chip leader was formidable poker pro, Tony Hartman. At the final table, players and chip counts were as follows:
Seat 1, Jerri Thomas — 65,000 in chips
Seat 2, Tony Hartman — 200,000 in chips
Seat 3, Richard Osborne — 55,000 in chips
Seat 4, Johnny Chan — 70,000 in chips
Seat 5, Ivo Donev — 50,000 in chips
Seat 6, Frank Kassela — 170,000 in chips
Seat 7, Richard Harrich — 75,000 in chips
Seat 8, Humberto Brenes — 125,000 in chips
Seat 9, Phil Laak — 85,000 in chips
Seat 10, Ashok Surapaneni — 175,000 in chips
Tony Hartman had a disappointing final table. He arrived as chip leader, but watched helplessly as his chips moved in the wrong direction. Hartman’s bad run was summed up in his final hand — pocket queens versus Phil Laak’s pocket 10s. Wham! A 10 on the flop booted Hartman out in 6th place — good for $48,875.
The final duel was so compelling that ESPN cameras were turned on for an event which was not originally scheduled to be televised.
Phil Laak versus Johnny Chan was as great poker theatre as there ever has been in the history of the World Series. Chan may have seen everything in his 23 years as a pro, but he had certainly not witnessed the equivalent of Phil ”˜Unabomber’ Laak playing the role of circus clown, crazed lunatic, and grand shaman all wrapped up in a single, seemingly disturbed, poker player.
Chan sat stoically while Laak bounced around the final table like Jackson Pollack painting a canvas. He darted back and forth around Chan, the dealer, and the tournament director — often in the middle of hands.
When he folded a hand, he pleaded with the dealer to rabbit hunt cards, seemingly more interested in a hypothetical outcome than reality. Like a deranged madman, Laak had the audience (and occasionally Chan, too) in stitches. No one would have thought that there was about 150 grand riding on the outcome (the difference in prize money between first place and second).
It would be safe to say that although it was past 3 a.m., no one — the players, the audience, the staff — wanted this match to end. The final curtain came down on the Chan-Laak when the Unabomber was dealt K-J. Chan was dealt Q-Q. The flop came J-5-5. Laak was trapped. He was ”˜all in’ with top pair and Chan had an overpair. Two blanks fell and Chan had delivered the final knockout punch.
Laak took $156,400 for second place.
Chan won the world poker championship in 1987 and 1988. He came within one card of wining the 1989 WSOP, as well. His win in this event amounted to $303,025.