One single poker hand can change a life. One poker hand can create a new star out of an unknown. One poker hand can validate a deeply personal decision made years earlier, against the well-intended advice of parents and peers. One poker hand can be riveting to behold, and even more extraordinary to analyze.
The poker hand of all poker hands took place last week on a Tuesday afternoon in Las Vegas. The loser of the hand was destined to walk away shell shocked in frustration as the fifth-place finisher.
The winner of the hand was to ultimately soar to victory in the World Series of Poker Circuit championship held at Bally’s-Paris — an event which will be nationally televised later by ESPN. The hand essentially cost one player $352,000. It was the hand of the year.
This final table promised to be a crowd-pleaser. Two World Series of Poker champions, including the reigning world champ Joe Hachem (chip leader) were present, in addition to former WSOP Circuit winners — Doug Lee and J.C. Tran. High-limit cash game player, Minh Ly was eliminated as the ninth-place finisher on the previous day.
Things started off horribly for Doug Lee. If the young Canadian remembers anything from his all-too-brief 10-minute stay at the final table, it will be the terrible curse of the King-Deuce. Lee’s first tough beat occurred when he moved all-in with two pair (Kings and Deuces) when the flop showed K-8-2. J.C. Tran called with A-5 of clubs. On the turn he caught a fifth club to make a flush. Lee failed to catch one of four remaining outs on the river and lost the 120,000 pot.
Three hands later, it was déjÃ vu all over again. Lee moved all-in holding K-2 after the flop showed K-Q-9. John Smith practically beat Lee into the pot with his chips. Smith had Jack-Ten and had flopped the stone-cold nuts with a straight. Lee failed to improve and staggered away from the final table as the eighth-place finisher. Lee, the winner of the WSOP Circuit championship held at the Rio Las Vegas last February, failed to become the first player to ever win two WSOP Circuit championships. Eighth place paid $50,384.
The next big hand electrified the standing-room-only crowd and would be a pre-curser of the excitement to come. J.C. Tran escaped final table death when he was dealt pocket Jacks and found himself drawing to only two outs when he was all-in against Kido Pham. Tran stood up preparing to exit while staring at the turn in desperation, which showed A-K-6-4. Pham (holding A-4) had two pair — aces and fours. Just when it looked as if Pham would be the next player out, the earth shook and a merry Jack rained down on the river, giving salvation to Tran. Those same Jacks would later apologize in a very big way to Kido Pham. For the moment, J.C. Tran moved into second-place behind the chip-leader, Joe Hachem.
A few hands later, Steve Hudak would not be so lucky. He was dealt pocket Queens and moved his last 50,000 into the pot when the flop showed A-9-2, with three spades. Hudak had the Queen of spades and also had several outs. But Joe Hachem was the slight favorite with A-8 (no spades). Two blanks sealed Hudak’s fate — a seventh place finish. Hudak, who finished as the runner-up in the Pot-Limit championship at this year’s WSOP, added $62,980 to his poker bankroll.
John Smith was short-stacked and moved his last 40,000 into the pot with A-6. It was a case of bad timing. Kido Pham called instantly and flipped over A-K. Neither player made a pair and the Ace-King played giving Pham another big pot. John Smith, a highway contractor from Southern California hit the road with $75,576 for sixth place.
Then came the hand. What followed next was a bombshell or an abomination, depending upon one’s perspective. The hand clearly demonstrates that poker tournaments can be either won or lost within seconds. It all started when 2005 world champion Joe Hachem was dealt pocket Kings. After J.C. Tran made an initial 18,000 raise, Kido Pham re-raised another 50,000. Hachem must have thought he was in final table heaven. Pondering his move, Hachem re-raised again up to 150,000. Tran immediately folded and Pham moved over the top with an all-in re-raise, for 157,000 more.
Hachem later admitted that he feared his opponent having pocket Aces. But there was no way to lay down the big hand. Hachem called and Tran knew immediately he had made the wrong move. Tran sheepishly showed J-10, a huge underdog to Hachem’s powerhouse K-K. With 650,000 in the pot at stake (about half of the chips in play), it was to be the turning point of the final table.
"I didn’t want to play a big pot," Hachem said later. "But I made the right read and was the leader by a mile."
When three cards fell on the flop, the second floor of the Bally’s Casino was rocked to its foundation. It took a few seconds for Hachem’s eyes to focus on the horror he was about to confront. Wham! J-J-2 (trip Jacks) twisted Tran from a big dog into a huge favorite and put the pocket Kings into a meat grinder. In an instant that will certainly haunt Hachem for some time, the Australian’s dreams of winning his second WSOP title were demolished. Hachem failed to catch one of two remaining Kings and was left with just 40,000 in chips. The damage was clearly done. Hachem looked like he had been hit in the stomach with a sledgehammer.
But poker champions never go out without a fight. Hachem managed to win one more pot and doubled-up to nearly 100,000 before finally running out of steam. He was dealt K-8 in the small blind and moved all-in hoping to steal a round of blinds and antes. Unfortunately, Lee Watkinson was sitting in the big blind with pocket Nines. He called the raise. A Nine on the flop effectively ended any hope of Hachem making a dramatic comeback. The reigning world poker champion walked away to a standing ovation from the crowd. Perhaps more importantly, he proved the $7.5 million win back in July was no fluke. With this impressive performance, Joe Hachem demonstrated he is a serious contender in any event he enters. Fifth-place paid. $88,172.
"I came here wanting to avoid making any mistakes," Hachem said in a post-tournament interview. "The fact is — I didn’t make a mistake. I’m proud of the way I played in this tournament, although it is very painful not to win."
When asked which emotion is more powerful in poker — joy or despair, Hachem was candid. "Despair is more powerful," Hachem admitted. "It’s great to win, but it takes some time to get over losing. But that’s poker — you have to get over the tough beats."
Down to four players, Kido Pham enjoyed a sizable chip advantage. He had 650,000. J.C. Tran had 280,000. Lee Watkinson had 170,000. Meanwhile, Scotty Nguyen was on life-support. Down to about 75,000, Nguyen found a playable hand with A-J and moved all-in. Kido Pham could not have been more delighted to call the raise, holding pocket Kings. This time, the normally formidable cowboys held up, and Pham dragged the last chip from Nguyen’s stack.
Scotty Nguyen, the 1998 world poker champion and official host of this tournament on behalf of Harrah’s Entertainment, was in top form at this final table. But the $100,768 in prize money was bittersweet.
"Second, third, fourth — it’s all disappointing," Nguyen said afterward. "First place is what it’s all about. Money is good. But there’s nothing like first-place, baby."
During his five hours spent at the final table, Lee Watkinson had been the stealth player. While other players openly talked, laughed, and cheered for themselves and each other, Watkinson sat stoically, rarely showing any emotion. Down to his last 100,000 in chips, Watkinson was dealt K-Q. He raised and was called by Kido Pham. The flop, K-K-5, was a thing of beauty to Watkinson. Unfortunately, there was danger on the horizon as two clubs were on board.
Watkinson moved all-in. Kido Pham had more than enough chips to call the raise and did so with J-9 of clubs. Watkinson’s advantage was short-lived. A club on the turn brought a scowl to the emotionally-detached Watkinson. Hoping to see the board pair, all Watkinson could do was watch hopelessly as another club fell in the river. Third-place paid $138,556.
Lee Watkins has enjoyed a stellar year in tournament poker that any other player would envy. He has won well in excess of a million dollars with two second-place finishes, netting over $500,000 each time. Despite financial success, Watkinson has not fared so well in tournament victories. This would prove to be another impressive showing, but less than satisfying conclusion for the poker pro from Washington State.
That said — in stark contrast to Scotty Nguyen, Watkinson had a different view of his finish. "I really can’t be disappointed with this," Watkinson said. "I was low in chips from the start and never had a big hand. I’ll take one of the top three spots (finishes) anytime I can get it."
It would be an all-Vietnamese finale. Heads-up play began with Kido Pham (894,000) holding a 2-to-1 chip lead over J.C. Tran (446,000). The two finalists played for about 20 minutes before the relatively uneventful ending.
On the final hand of the tournament, Pham was dealt A-8. Tran was dealt K-8. The flop came A-K-6. Pham bet out with top pair and Tran called with second pair. When a Queen fell on the turn Pham moved all-in. Tran thought for six long minutes before announcing "call." Everyone in the audience rose to their feet and when Tran saw Pham’s Ace, he realized the end was only seconds away. A harmless Jack fell on the river, sealing the victory for Pham. J.C. Tran, decked out in his trademark Sacramento Kings (NBA) hat and jersey, slam dunked second place — good for $251,920.
If anyone deserved to catch a few breaks and get lucky, it was Thang ”˜Kido’ Pham. His personal odyssey is one of compassion and inspiration. At the age of eight, Pham fled his native Vietnam on a wooden boat and drifted out into the South China Sea. He and his family evacuated his war-torn homeland with all of their possessions tucked inside a few knapsacks. Pham’s family eventually arrived in the United States and settled in Dallas.
Pham later married and now has two children — ages 2 and 4. One of his children is autistic and has special needs. "I could not make it this far in my life without my wife," Pham said. "I owe everything to her. This (win) is for her."
When he started to take poker seriously, his family expressed their reservations about gambling. But Pham believed in himself and his talent. He studied and started playing in poker tournaments. Pham cashed in two major tournaments earlier this year, but this win marked his biggest win ever. First-place paid $453,456.
"My nickname is ”˜freeroll,’ Pham said. "(The reason is because) everything for me has been a free-roll in my life. I came here and am free-rolling. When I left my home country, there was shooting and I was very lucky to survive. Now, I can play poker and nothing affects me because whatever happens — I’m a winner."
When asked about the hand against Hachem, Pham was brutally sincere. "I played the hand very badly," Pham admitted. "That was very lucky. I had already committed half of my chips, so I tried to steal the pot ”¦ I caught a lot of cards today. I think after what I have been through (in my life), I deserve to get a break."
Who could possibly disagree?