It’s a story that’s been told a thousand or more times, but never gets old. David slays Goliath. Rocky defeats Apollo Creed. The latest giant-killer is named Gerry Drehobl, the owner of a small aviation-related business in Spokane, Wash., who last week won the $1,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em event at the World Series of Poker.
Incredibly, Drehobl began playing poker only six months ago. When he came to Las Vegas this year to play in his first major poker tournament, no one, not even Drehobl himself, could have possibly imagined the most implausible of poker victories.
Drehobl overcame immeasurable odds and defeated a huge field of 537 players ”” including former world champions Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Scotty Nguyen, Phil Hellmuth, Huck Seed, Tom McEvoy, Berry Johnston, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson ”” en route to his first tournament victory and a whopping payout of $365,900 in prize money.
Even more remarkable was Drehobl’s crafty performance at the final table ”” against what was undoubtedly one of the toughest and most colorful battles in recent memory.
Just how colorful was it? First, there were a number of poker "superstars" ”” well-known players sure to attract attention. In a sense, it was a dream table for the ESPN broadcast crew, which televised the event for expected showing during the summer, enticing hundreds of spectators to gather on the second floor of the Horseshoe Casino-Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.
Those in attendance were fortunate enough to witness poker history being made by a 49-year-old first-time poker player and consummate underdog.
Lee Markholt had been primarily responsible for knocking out the "Professor" of tournament poker, Howard Lederer, when there were just 10 players remaining. About an hour into the final table, Markholt had about $100K and blinds were $3K-6K. He found A-Q and announced "all in" after Ram Vaswani had made an initial raise with pocket kings. The pair cowboys became the four horsemen of the apocalypse when the final board showed K-9-9-K-x. Quad kings was massive overkill, and Markholt took his place on the rail as the 8th place finisher. He received $37,860.
Down to seven, Ram "Crazy Horse" Vaswani was low on chips. The pro poker player is part of the "Hendon Mob," a group of four top London-based players who have terrorized the European circuit with their poker skills for nearly a decade. However Crazy Horse wasn’t able to corral his opponents at this final table and was bucked off the final table in 7th place ”” good for 50 grand.
Chip leader Negreanu continued to add to his chip castle. As he stacked yet another pot, he was taunted incessantly by the player on his immediate right ”” Mike "Motormouth" Matusow. "You’re my hero," Motormouth snarled in jest. "There’s nothing like beating a hero up" ”” which evoked laughter from the standing room only crowd.
About an hour later, it was Negreanu who got to laugh when he busted Reggie "The Wrecker" Cardiel. The flop came Q-Q-3 and Cardiel was the aggressor on the hand, betting $45K. Negreanu called. A five on the turn put two diamonds on board, and Cardiel bet out again. Negreanu called. A third diamond fell on the river, and Cardiel checked. Negreanu moved "all in" with Q-J and Cardiel called reluctantly with 10-10. That was a big mistake, since Negreanu had trip queens. The Wrecker was towed away from the final table in 6th place with $63,080.
The circus sideshow between Negreanu and Motormouth continued. At one point, Tournament Director Matt Savage listed Negreanu’s impressive tournament resume, to which Motormouth replied, "Do we have to listen to this again?"
Moments later, Motormouth took another verbal jab at Negreanu when he barked out, "I remember the last tournament we played (together), I busted you! You remember that, don’t you, Daniel?" More laughter. Even Negreanu was smiling.
But there were some serious moments, too. Motormouth flopped top pair with kings and made a large bet, which was called by dot.com dilettante, Paul Phillips. The sandal-wearing winner of several major tournaments and emerging poker celebrity caught a flush on the turn. When Phillips bet out on the river, it was enough to put Motormouth "all in." Motormouth called and showed two pair. No good. Phillips’ hand won and Motormouth took $75,700 as the 5th place finisher.
After a break, blinds increased to $4K-8K. John Juanda was the first player to deal a serious blow to Negreanu’s chip lead, when he made top pair with jacks and was called reluctantly by Negreanu with pocket 8s. The hand essentially put all four finalists close in chips, and the outcome seemed wide open. Gerry Drehobl sat quietly most of the evening, absorbing the unfolding drama around him. For the most part, he assumed a conservative strategy and played far fewer hands than his three "world class" opponents.
But Drehobl suddenly came alive on a big hand when he was dealt Q-Q. He made it $40K, and Juanda called. Phillips, with 8-8 moved "all in." Drehobl moved "all in" over the top, and had more than enough chips to cover Phillips. Juanda thought about it, then folded, and showed A-J. The crowd gasped when the flop came A-10-6 (which would have Juanda’s ace) and watched as two successive blanks fell on the turn and river — resulting in a $350,000 pot for Drehobl and a 4th place finish for Mr. Dot.Com — otherwise known as the amiable Paul Phillips. This was Phillip’s second final table at this year’s WSOP (he finished 2nd a few days ago).
The remaining motley trio battled back and forth for nearly two hours. Negreanu became desperate to stop the flow of chips out of his stack. He moved "all in" after an initial raise by Drehobl, and knew he was in serious trouble when Drehobl nearly beat him into the pot with his chips. Negreanu’s instincts were correct. Drehobl woke up with pocket kings, and Negreanu’s petty king-queen looked like a couple on the verge of a divorce. The board failed to overturn the decisive odds in Drehobl’s favor, which meant the final table was down to just three players. Negreanu, who has two gold bracelets from the World Series of Poker (wins in 1998 and 2003) received $88,320 for 3rd place.
When heads up play started, Drehobl enjoyed slightly better than a 2-to-1 chip lead over Juanda. Most observers expected the more-experienced Juanda to gradually peck away at Drehobl’s big stack. But it was quite a surprise that the heads-up match between the polar opposites lasted only three hands.
First, Drehobl was dealt K-K to Juanda’s Ac-10s. Drehobl raised pre-flop and Juanda called. On the turn, the board showed Qc-7c-7d-6c (three clubs on board) and Juanda bet $50K. Drehobl raised $110K. Juanda announced "all in" on the semi-bluff nut flush draw — and Drehobl called. A blank 4 fell on the river, which made Drehobl the unlikeliest of poker champions. John Juanda received $193,020 as the runner up.
Immediately following the final hand, at the pinnacle of his fame and glory as poker’s newest champion, Drehobl’s wife rushed from the crowd and ran onto the ESPN stage where the final table was held. Tears of joy streamed down her face as the two embraced.
"I’m so excited. I’m so proud of him," she said.