Last week, Caesars Palace hosted the 2005 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Tournament of Champions. When it got down to the end, it was, quite simply, one of the greatest final tables of all time. It had everything — drama, tragedy, humor, passion, laughter, tears, a fight, a downfall, a comeback, and an ending no one could possibly have predicted.
Moreover, it was a final table which had nine compelling stories: The second place finisher in the Main Event at this year’s WSOP; a player who arrived at the final table as chip leader at his last big tournament, busted out a disappointing fifth; a player who has grinded out a living for 10 years on the tournament trail but who has yet to earn a televised breakthrough victory; a poker megalomaniac who finished second in the Tournament of Champions last year; a player who has enjoyed tremendous success in poker recently, but who had not won a WSOP-related event in 13 long years; a professional poker player who has yet to win a major poker tournament. although he has made it to several final tables; a player from New Orleans who barely qualified for the TOC and lost much in the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina; an Englishman who has won big overseas, but who has yet to make it big on the American poker scene; and finally, there was a fabulously-talented, admired by some, despised by others, poker pro who started off the year as far away from a table at Caesars Palace and ESPN television cameras as humanly possible. Whoever won, had a great story.
The nine finalists and their starting chip counts for the 2005 Tournament of Champions included:
Steve Dannenmann. $122,000
Grant Lang, $ 61,500
David Levi, $41,000
Phil Hellmuth, $281,500
Hoyt Corkins, $95,000
Keith Sexton, $95,500
Brandon Adams, $135,500 Tony Bloom, $130,00
Mike Matusow, $179,000
At a final table with so much at stake, and with so many combustible personalities, an explosion was foreseeable. What wasn’t expected was who would light the fuse.
Bothered by Phil Hellmuth’s constant toying with his chips, and not stacking them in a conventional manner which allowed them to be easily counted by opponents, Steve Dannenmann had enough and insisted that Hellmuth cease his covert chip activities.
Hellmuth refused. That brought about a barrage of insults that made for great television, but which certainly detracted from the jovial spirit that had characterized the final table up to that point.
"I don’t understand why you can’t stack your chips like everyone else," the normally reserved Dannenmann declared. "You are disrespecting the game."
Still, Hellmuth refused to comply.
"I’m here playing as an amateur, and I know I’m up against professionals," Dannenmann continued. "You above everyone else should know the rules ”¦ you sell all those books and products. But you aren’t a professional — you’re a punk!"
Coming from someone like Matusow, the insult might have been expected. But delivered by the normally soft-spoken Dannenmann, the words stung the crowd like diving into a wasps’ nest. Half of the audience had their mouths open in disbelief. The other half was bent over in hysterical laughter.
Unfortunately, the casualty of the verbal barrage would ultimately be Steve Dannenmann himself. He lost two critical pots, which destroyed what might have one of poker’s greatest soap operas.
After he was eliminated and with the ESPN cameras rolling, Dannenmann blasted Hellmuth. "We don’t need players like that in the sport," Dannenmann said, raising a few eyebrows. Adding insult to injury, Dannenmann stated unequivocally, "Mike Matusow is the best player I have ever played with."
It was interesting that the three players who had dominated the Tournament of Champions from Day One ended up as the final trio of combatants. Hellmuth and Matusow had the chip lead during most of the tournament. Meanwhile, Hoyt Corkins (third after Day One to Hellmuth who was first, and Matusow who was second) vacillated up and down in the chip count before catching lightning early at the final table and stealing the chip-lead away from the two chatterboxes.
For the most part, the stoic Corkins stayed out of the war of words during the entire day. Perhaps it was opponents’ respect for the stone faced Alabama cowboy or the simple acknowledgment that no amount of chatter would induce a tilt factor, that persuaded supermouths Hellmuth and Matusow to leave Corkins out of the toxic exchange of insults that continued over 10 full hours.
Corkins won a series of small pots, which increased his chip stack to the point where he regained the chip lead. After the merry trio had played for an hour, hour, Corkins had $460,000 to $330,000 for Matusow, and $310,000 for Hellmuth.
Corkins made things interesting when he caught a four on the flop, but two successive blanks gave Matusow the biggest pot of the night to that point, and a 3-2 chip lead over his rival Hellmuth.
Just when it looked like Corkins was about to exit, he outfoxed his two opponents and climbed back into contention. It was an amazing display. It took him another hour to regain those lost chips and retake the chip lead.
Just as the clock struck midnight, another electrifying moment occurred when Matusow foiled poker’s grim reaper. Holding A-Q, Matusow moved all-in with a re-raise. Corkins, holding A-K called instantly. With a sword at Matusow’s neck, it appeared The Mouth would finally be silenced.
Yet another miracle happened in a night filled with jokers. A Queen fell for Matusow on the turn and the crowd went ballistic. All poor Corkins could do was smile and shake his head. That pot lifted Matusow into a decisive chip lead with $700,000. Hellmuth and Corkins were left to battle for the scraps that were left.
Hellmuth sensed the crowd heavily favored Matusow. In a bold public relations move, Hellmuth pledged to buy 30 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne if he won the tournament. At $150 a bottle, that amounted to a $4,500 prize for the audience. So much for poker player allegiances. Suddenly, the crowd started whooping it up for Hellmuth, chanting "Phil! Phil! Phil!" leaving Matusow mystified. Score one for Hellmuth.
After getting punched twice, Corkins was down to his last $150,000. With blinds up to $6,000-$12,000 Corkins had plenty of time left to make his stand. But with Hellmuth and Matusow steadily pounding away, Corkins knew he desperately needed to catch a big hand and double up. He did exactly that. Then, Corkins shifted into overdrive and essentially raised 12 out of the next 15 hands. "I call him ”˜Mr. All-In," Hellmuth described earlier. "Just when I wanted to be the aggressor, Hoyt would move in his chips and I had to (fold)."
The final confrontation almost everyone in the audience had been expecting, anticipating, perhaps even hoping for never materialized. Arguably, no two opponents had more to prove to themselves and the poker world by achieving victory. Mike Matusow hoped to make the TOC triumph the final chapter in what has been the comeback story of the year.
Phil Hellmuth, the runner up in this event last year, not only hoped, but expected to return and earn a victory. If that wasn’t enough, the parents were in attendance. Matusow’s mother and Hellmuth’s father sat proudly in the audience.
Add the individual theatrics, that Matusow and Hellmuth are probably the two most controversial personalities in poker, and the final stage was nearly set for a bloody duel that would have left one player with perhaps his most personally satisfying victory, and the other emotionally crushed, crying, and cursing off in a dark corner.
Hoyt Corkins wouldn’t let it happen. Demonstrating an uncanny fortitude for tournament hold’em and raw courage, Corkins regained those lost chips and lots more. When Hellmuth looked down and saw A-Q, he assumed this was the gauntlet hand that would put an end to Corkins’ relentless all-in moves. Hellmuth called Corkins raise instantly and was horrified to see the Dixie cowboy flip over two red Aces. Corkins doubled up on the hand and Hellmuth was left with just over $100,000.
Hellmuth began jumping around the table, declaring that he would "never give up." Like a kamikaze warrior trapped on a desert island fighting a lost cause, Hellmuth made one last desperate dash to win the poker war. But he was ultimately defeated, thus extinguishing the tempestuous nine-time gold bracelet winner’s final flicker of hope. Hellmuth went out with 10-8 suited against Corkins’ K-5. Neither player caught a pair, and the King-high played.
"I come here to win. Third-place is unacceptable," Hellmuth declared in a post-tournament interview. "No one remembers who finishes second or third, except for my swearing tirades afterward."
Hellmuth, the former world champion and nine-time gold bracelet winner collected $250,000 for third place.
The heads-up duel between Matusow and Corkins started off with Matusow holding a decisive three-to-one chip advantage. But Corkins would prove to be an incessant thorn in Matusow’s backside.
The final hand came out of nowhere. After a series of hands where one player tried to steal with a big raise and the other player moving all-in (resulting in a fold), Corkins decided to make his final stand on a semi-bluff.
Corkins was dealt Q-10. Matusow was dealt K-9. The flop came K-J-4. Matusow made a large bet and Corkins moved all-in. Matusow called. Corkins was on an outside straight draw. Matusow had top pair. Two blanks fell on the turn and river and Matusow won the $1,110,000 pot with a pair of Kings.
There’s no question that Corkins got lucky a few times early at the final table. As it turns out, Corkins had to settle for $325,000 and runner-up status.
Matusow’s win might very well be the greatest comeback story in poker history. It’s certainly the greatest story since the late Stu Ungar’s stunning victory at the 1997 World Series of Poker, after a 16-year hiatus.
Matusow was broke and isolated from the poker world last January. Surrounded by only a few close friends and family, Matusow never gave up on himself. When afforded an opportunity to enter the 2005 World Series of Poker, Matusow registered and nearly eliminated himself on the first day.
Remarkably, Matusow survived amongst a record-field of 5,618 other players and went on to make it all the way to the final table. He busted out ninth, but managed to earn $1 million. The money was gone shortly thereafter.
But, at least for now, he’s back in the chips.