“I have five kids. We are a lower middle class family. We work hard. This is life changing money for us.”
How fitting that Hung Le, a Vietnamese immigrant now living in Dayton, Ohio won the latest World Series of Poker tournament on the Fourth of July.
Just as appropriate was Le winning a tournament known as “Crazy Eights.”
Le was the most unlikely WSOP champion for a number of reasons.
First, hard to believe, but he’d never entered a major tournament before, including a WSOP event. This was his first attempt to play in the world’s most prestigious poker series.
Second, if Le had limited playing experience, he had even more limited personal finances. A small business owner, Le operates a single store, which is a nail salon with his family, including five children. Two of his children work at the nail salon.
Third, Le had utterly no concept of what playing at a WSOP final table was like. He made baffling calls, which he later explained provided him with the only chance he had of winning the tournament. He would later even admit that he was completely outclassed by his opponents and had to resort to extremely unorthodox measures. In a sense, as crazy as this strategy was, it was also brilliant.
And -- it worked.
“I tried to come out to Las Vegas to get lucky,” the winner said afterward.
The 53-year-old recreational poker player who has never been close to the bright lights of Las Vegas before won the $888 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em “Crazy Eights” 8-Handed tournament, which was played over four days and nights and just concluded on the ESPN main stage at the Rio in Las Vegas.
Le collected prize money amounting to – you guessed it -- $888,888, making this not just the biggest win of his career. It was also the only CASH of his career. The winner, surrounded by beaming family and friends on stage in a post-tournament victory celebration, confessed this was “life changing money.”
Le won his victory by coming out on top at a final table which included a determined lineup of players, most of whom were also seeking a first WSOP victory. No one, perhaps not even Le himself, expected to be the final player sitting at the table with all the chips.
The final day had begun with 12 survivors. The most notable name remaining in the field was Loni Harwood, seeking what would have been her third career gold bracelet victory. However, Harwood was eliminated in sixth place.
That left five players to play down to a gold bracelet. After Dimitar Danchev from Bulgaria, and Rafael Yaraliyev and Henry Grunzweig, both Americans were eliminated 3rd through 5th place respectively, that left Le to face off against Michael Lech for the win. Lech appeared to be all but assured of the victory, given his big chip lead and depth of experience against a novice.
However, a key hand occurred when Le was caught off-guard with a Queen-Three and was all-in with his tournament life on the line. A three hit the board, giving Le not just new life, but also the hope that he might actually pull off what everyone agreed would be a major upset. Le also had the chip lead for the first time.
“It’s the only way I can beat him – he’s too good for me,” Le said afterward when asked to explain some of his bizarre calls and table decisions. “He was very aggressive. He knows how to play the flop good. If I try to play the flop with him, I can’t beat him – he’s too good.”
After a few dozen hands, the ultimate moment of triumph came when Le scooped the final pot of the tournament – shocking the crowd and his opponent by calling down a stone-cold bluff with a flush possible holding nothing but a pair of deuces against Lech, who finished as the runner up.
“He decided to bluff and I call him,” Le said. “I go with the feeling of the player. The last hand, if he had the flush, he would have reeled me in. He wouldn’t have shoved. That’s why I called with pocket deuce.”
Le was born in South Vietnam and came over to the United States after his home country’s civil war. He worked and saved enough money to start his own family business. As for poker, he plays recreationally, mostly $1-2 blind No-Limit Hold’em games in Ohio.
As expected, this exciting tourney attracted yet another huge field at the 2016 World Series of Poker. There were 6,761 entrants which created a prize pool totaling $5,403,391. The top 956 finishers collected prize money.
The four starting flights meant that players could re-enter. The breakdown of re-entries was as follows:
Entered 1 time – 4,222 players
Entered 2 times – 1,680 players
Entered 3 times – 643 players
Entered 4 times – 216 players
[It should be noted that Le, the winner, entered two times]
Aside from the winner, here’s a brief report of the other top finishers who made the final table:
Second Place: Michael Lech, from Alma, AR is a 26-year-old poker pro who was hyper-aggressive and certainly could have won this tournament had a few cards fallen his way. Lech, who has a college degree in international business has previously lived in multiple South American countries. He could certainly be proud of his play and the consolation prize he received, which amounted to $401,888.
Third Place: Dimitar Danchev, from Plovdiv, Bulgaria has an impressive resume of international cashes. He came in second in an EPT event. The poker pro also has 19 cahses at the WSOP, including a runner-up finish here two years ago. Danchev pocketed $297,888 for this fine effort.
Fourth Place: Rafael Yaraliyev, originally from Azerbaijan, and now residing in Brooklyn, NY cashed for the first time at the WOSP. His payout amounted to $222,888. Yaraliyev previously finished as runner up earlier this year in the Borgata Winter Open.
Fifth Place: Henry Grunzweig, a consultant from Berkeley, CA put on quite a show in what amounted to his first time to cash in a WSOP-related tournament. The debut in-the-money finished paid $167,888.
Sixth Place: Loni Harwood, from Staten Island, NY was aiming for a third gold bracelet after wins in 2013 and 2015. In fact, she won last year’s WSOP National Championship. Harwood had a big rail, but that wasn’t enough to carry her past sixth place, which paid $126,888. This was Harwood’s deepest run since the 2015 WSOP National Championship. It was also her 18th time to cash at the series. Harwood also owns two WSOP Circuit gold rings.
Seventh Place: Aurelien Guiglini, from Paris, France made a deep run in a $1,500 buy in event last year, coming in second place, which paid $330K. This was his second WSOP final table, which produced close to another six-figure payout -- $96,888. Guiglini now has 10 WSOP cashes and more than $500K in career earnings at the series.
Eighth Place: Yang Zhang, a financial investor from Dalian, China was the first player eliminated from the final table. However, he did collect the biggest cash prize of his life with this $74,888 score. Zhang now has five WSOP cashes – two this year and three in 2015.