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‘Jesus’ wins another
bracelet, on Easter!

Apr 22, 2003 5:06 AM

By Nolan Dalla

Special to GT

For the second time in just three years, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson won the $2,000 buy-in Omaha High-Low event at the World Series of Poker on Sunday.

Ferguson now moves into select company, having won a total of four gold bracelets during his lifetime (the same number won by the late Stu Ungar). Given his relatively young age (40) it’s quite conceivable Ferguson could eventually challenge living poker legend Doyle Brunson’s record for lifetime wins of eight bracelets at the World Series of Poker.

Ferguson came to the final table sixth in chips, and faced a 2-to-1 disadvantage to the chip-leader Doug Saab.

Over the next five hours, Ferguson went on a rampage. He seized the chip lead with six players remaining in the tournament, then traded the lead back-and-forth several times with Barry Bindelglass, who would turn out to be his toughest adversary at the final table.

After a one-hour duel where Ferguson won an astounding 20 pots in a row at one point versus Bindelglass, the man everyone calls "Jesus" collected $123,680 in prize money and snapped up gold bracelet number four.

"This win tonight is just as satisfying to me as any of the other three," said Ferguson when asked how the victory compared to his previous wins. "Of course the 2000 World Championship (in the main event) was the best of all, but this one is really special to me because I’ve won this event before and proved I could win it again."

Ferguson added that this win came at a great time. "I’ve been running bad for a while," he said. "I hadn’t made a final table at a tournament in six months. I can’t think of a better place to break a cold streak than the World Series of Poker."

Interestingly enough, despite his exalted status as a former world poker champion and four-time winner, Ferguson does not consider himself to be a professional poker player. He enters approximately 60 tournaments a year, and refuses to play in cash games. "I consider myself a student," said Ferguson, who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics five years ago from UCLA. For his opponents at the poker table, it’s scary to think that Ferguson continues striving to improve his knowledge and skills in poker. Can a fifth gold bracelet be far away?

Event No. 3

April 17 was Good Friday, which traditionally marks an occasion to give thanks. Thus the first thing professional poker player Toto Leonidas did on this day was attend mass at a local church in Las Vegas. He stayed at the church until well past noon. In fact, he was almost late for the start of the final table of the $1,500 buy-in Seven-Card Stud event, where he held an impressive chip advantage against seven very talented opponents. For Leonidas, once the cards were dealt, "Good Friday, turned into "Great Friday."

Leonidas was born 42 years ago in Bacolod City, Philippines. "I wanted to be a basketball player," joked Leonidas, who stands no more than 5’ 7". He started playing poker following his arrival in United States, mostly in the Los Angeles area where he continues to reside. Over the years, Leonidas improved his poker skills and progressively built up a bigger bankroll.

Finally, his hard work and dedication to poker paid off when he burst upon the tournament scene a few years ago and quickly became one of game’s most respected, yet reserved players.

During the entire final table, which lasted about six hours, Leonidas never once said a word to his opponents, preferring instead to let his cards do all the talking. The final table provided an interesting mix of poker personalities and backgrounds, including players with no final table experience to seasoned poker pros like Jennifer Harman (winner of two World Series of Poker gold bracelets)

After the six players were eliminated, the two finalists traded the chip lead back and forth in a grueling battle for the world title. Leonidas went "all in" on at least two occasions and managed to survive both. It looked as though Peter Rallis, from Monroe, CT might win the tournament that point, but he was never quite able to close the victory. Leonidas would get on a rush by The heads-up match lasted three full hours until Leonidas clobbered Rallis with one key hand.

Remarkably, Leonidas’ first World Series of Poker victory took place nearly a year to the day he finished second in this same event at last year’s tournament. But this time there was a different ending. In the end, Leonidas was blessed with his first gold bracelet and $98,760 in prize money.

Event No. 2

Egyptian-born Mohamed Ihrahim, a professional poker player now living in Long Beach, California won the $2,000 buy-in Limit Texas Hold’em event at the 2003 World Series of Poker, which was held on Wednesday-Thursday.

Ihrahim, outlasted an extremely competitive field of 422 players to capture his first-ever World Series of Poker gold bracelet. He also collected a colossal stack of cash piled up high on the final table, amounting to $290,420. Not bad for two days of work.

But this one didn’t come easy. "Early in the tournament I was down to just two chips ($200) once, and four chips ($400) a couple of times," explained a thrilled, but obviously exhausted Ihrahim following the 9-hour marathon finale. "A lot of players usually give up in that spot when they get really down low on chips. But I hung in there early on and clawed my way back. Then, I made the money, and ended up making it to the final table. Finally, look what happened. I’m sitting here with a gold bracelet."

The key early hand came for Ihrahim when he was down perilously low on chips at the second level, and made a flush draw on the river against an opponent’s pocket nines. That critical pot lit a fuse which catapulted Ihrahim into a late first-day chip lead — which he took into the final table on day two. Ihrahim arrived at the final table with a 9 to 5 chip advantage over his closest competitor.

The final table provided an interesting mix of poker personalities and backgrounds: The finalists ranged from experienced poker professinals like Mohamed Ihrahim and Farzad Bontadi; to two casino dealer, Todd Ostrow and Tuan Nguyen; two businessmen, Joseph Cordi and Jay Helfert (a former billiards pro); a consultant, Adam Scwartz; an equity trader, Jon Brody; and finally, a gambler, Richard Brendel.

At no point during the final table, which lasted from 2:00 in the afternoon until close to midnight, was Ihrahim in serious danger of getting busted. However, there were many dramatic moments for the packed gallery in attendance and a live feed broadcast over the Internet, including one of the most phenomenal up and down swings in recent poker history.

This was Todd Ostrow’s first time to ever play in an event at the World Series of Poker. Incredibly, with six players remaining, Ostrow was down to just two chips ($2,000) -- an almost insignificant number of chips given Ihrahim’s massive stack (over $200,000 at the time). It looked as if Ostrow would be the next player to hit the rail.

Amazingly, Ostrow then went on an astounding roll which lasted nearly three full hours. He went from $2,000 in chips to around quarter of a million at one point (nearly a third of the total chips in play!).

But the rush finally ended and Ostrow could not maintain his momentum. When the action became three-handed (versus Ihrahim and Jon Brody), Ostrow was gradually worn down, despite surviving two all-ins and making another slight comeback, and ended up departing in third place, good for $74,560.

When it comes to playing poker tournaments, Ihrahim is a firm believer in both mental and physical preparation. "Many players think that they can start preparing for the World Series of Poker a few weeks earlier, and some don’t even bother to prepare," explained Ihrahim. "But I believe in getting yourself ready three to four months in advance. This year, I quit smoking, and stopped my leaks one at a time. Now, I feel much better and it all paid off for me."

Event No. 1

In one of the most exciting and unusual poker success stories in recent memory, David Lukaszewski, a shift manager at the Desert Diamond Casino in Tucson, Arizona won the first event at the 2003 World Series of Poker — the Casino Employees Limit Hold’em tournament.

For Lukaszewski, age 33, this was not only his first time to ever play in a world championship event, it also marked the first occasion he has entered a tournament with an entry fee of over $50. Talk about beginner’s luck!

But this tournament wasn’t about luck. It was about skill; more precisely, setting goals and achieving them by recognizing opportunities and then taking advantage. In this, his first excursion into the risky battleground of high-stakes poker, Lukaszewski set modest goals for himself every step of the way, hoping to acquire a certain amount of chips at each stage of the tournament.

He shifted his play in response not only on the characteristics of his opponents, but also to meet his chip count objectives.

"At the first break, I wanted to have $1,000 and ended up with $1,200," he said. "Then, at the next break my target goal was $2,500 —and I had $2,800, and so on."

If Lukaszewski were to author "The Making of a Champion," the first chapter would almost certainly be his extensive background in the industry — as both a Poker Shift Manager and avid cardplayer.

The second chapter of the story would be Lukaszewski’s laudable dedication to the concept of planning and meeting goals. Goals in life and goals in poker.

"Back in January, I made up a list of the goals I wanted to meet in my personal and private life by the end of this year," said Lukaszewski. "The first time I made up my list, I wrote: To win a major event. After I thought about it, I figured that sounded a little too ambitious. So, I scratched it out and wrote instead: To play in a major event."

In what amounted to a wire-to-wire victory in the tournament, Lukaszewski has now met both of those goals. He played, and then he won. He made it look too easy.

That proved to be Lukaszewski’s single best decision of the tournament.

Lukaszewski arrived at the final table as the chip leader with about $20,000 — roughly a fifth of the total chips in play. "That’s when I changed my style of play (by accident). I had been aggressive all day, but then went passive when we started playing for the gold bracelet. During a break, and I figured out that I had lost some of my aggression. So, when (play resumed) I went back to the more aggressive style that got me there in the first place. I raised and won seven pots in a row pre-flop and only had a decent hand twice. That’s when I realized I could run over the table."

Lukaszewski received $35,800 and the renowned gold bracelet for his impressive victory. After the tournament was over, which came nearly 15 hours after the start and fell as the clock struck precisely 3 a.m., Lukaszewski called many of his friends and relatives to tell them the good news. "I woke up everyone at like 4 in the morning to tell them I won! All the poker players that I called — they knew what this moment means. They know what the World Series of Poker gold bracelet is all about. I can now walk into to any cardroom in the world and show this gold bracelet, and everyone will know. You become part of a very elite club. I feel like I just won the Super Bowl!"