Anyone who is considering playing poker tournaments for a living should take a long hard look Daniel Negreanu's earnings in 2005. Consider the fact that at age 31, Negreanu is already one of poker's icons. He has won three World Series of Poker gold bracelets. He plays regularly in the biggest cash games in the world (he's both won and lost over a million dollars in a single session). And, Negreanu is one of poker's most dedicated students and most creative strategists. Given his numerous advantages in skill, experience, and dedication -- one would expect him to win lots of money playing in poker tournaments.
Last year by his own admission, Daniel Negreanu lost money more money than he won on the 2005 tournament circuit. He did not make it to a single final table at last year's World Series of Poker. While "Kid Poker" did manage to do quite well in side games over the course of the year, his poor showing in 2005 illustrates the perilous financial swings of tournament poker. In other words, busting out of $10,000 buy-in tournaments repeatedly does eventually add up. Ten-thousand here and ten-thousand there, and pretty soon you are talking about big money.
This is the preamble to Daniel Negreanu's arrival in rainy Tunica, Mississippi during the first week of the 2006 tournament season. When he stepped off an airplane in the nearby Memphis fog two weeks ago, Negreanu must have wondered if his tournament future was as cloudy as the overcast skies. The days since a big win had stretched from weeks, to months, to over a full year.
The World Series of Poker Circuit's feature attraction -- the $10,000 buy-in championship event - began four days and and attracted 241 entries to the Tunica Grand Casino-Resort. The total prize pool amounted to $2,289,500. With ESPN cameras on site to cover the competition, the large field was gradually eliminated down to the nine finalists, which took their seats inside the Tunica Grand Events Center. In an arena specifically designed for boxing matches, it was fitting that the final table would resemble a heavyweight prize fight. The early chip leader was Brian Lamkin, from Austin, TX. But from the very start, all eyes were on the Las Vegas wonderkid, Daniel Negreanu.
Expectations were high. Nothing short of a first-place finish would be acceptable. In the end, Negreanu, nor his legions of fans, would be disappointed.
The nine players took their seats at the final table and were eliminated as follows:
9th Place - It took nearly an hour for the first player to bust out. Brandon Adams and Chad Brown arrived with the two lowest stacks, so it was expected they might spar in the first major confrontation. That's exactly what happened when Adams was dealt J-J and raised pre-flop. Brown re-raised 'all in' with A-Q. Adams called quickly. It was the classic hold'em confrontation, with an underpair versus two overcards. Adams' pocket jacks held up and Brown was the first player to exit. Chad Brown, the former actor turned professional poker player accepted his defeat gracefully. "I played very well just to get here," he said afterward. "With just 100,000 left, I had to move in with a coin flip at that point and I just didn't get lucky. I have no regrets about my decision." Ninth-place paid $45,790.
8th Place - Robert Schulz was the final table's local favorite. He arrived as the only player from the Memphis area (Southaven, MS is about ten miles north of the Grand Casino). Schulz brought a large cheering section with him which unfortunately left disappointed when their favorite player busted out in eighth place. Schulz was getting low on chips and moved 'all in' with 7-7. Daniel Negreanu, sensing his opponent was probably hoping not to get called, made the call instantly with 9-9. Neither player improved, which meant Negreanu's pocket nines dragged the big pot. Schulz vanished. "It was a very exciting four days," Schulz told ESPN cameras following his exit. "I was hoping to finish a little higher for the home crowd since everyone came out to support me. But, I'll be back here at a final table again sometime." Eighth place paid $68,685.
7th Place - The "The Daniel Negreanu Show" had only just begun. The supporting cast was not pleased. Negreanu completely altered the balance of the final table when he cracked two players in succession. His first victim was Wendell Barnes, a welder from Massachusetts. Barnes was torched when he was flopped two pair and moved 'all in' against Negreanu. Barnes initially looked delighted to see Negreanu call the large bet. But Barnes might as well have been standing on the railroad tracks waving at an oncoming freight train. Negreanu had been dealt pocket aces and flopped an ace - good for trips. Barnes was essentially drawing dead and was Negreanu's second road kill of the night. "That's poker," Barnes said in a post-tournament interview. "It's a long drive back (home to Massachusetts) but I'm leaving with some cash. It's all good." Seventh-place paid $91,580.
A short time later, Negreanu won the biggest pot of the tournament up to that point when he moved up to 1,240,000 in chips when his two pair (aces and queens) crushed Brian Lamkin (his hand was not shown). It was a devastating pot for Lamkin to lose. Lamkin had arrived at the final table with a solid chip lead, but most of those chips vanished on the ill-advised confrontation. In one single hand, Lamkin went from chip leader to the shortest stack, with only about 100,000 remaining.
6th Place - Brandon Adams started off the day as the lowest stack at the table. He managed to leap up three places on the money ladder. However, he finally ran out of punches when he was short on chips and made a raise with K-9 and was re-raised 'all in' by Brian Lamkin - holding A-Q. Neither player made a pair and the ace-high played. Adams was eliminated. Brandon Adams will earn his PhD in Finance from Harvard University later this year. This is his second big-time final table appearance in just three months. Adams also appeared at the final table at the 2005 Tournament of Champions (finishing ninth). "My strategy during this tournament was to be the aggressor, don't be a caller," Adams said later. "I went as far as I did because I followed that strategy most of the way...I will be teaching (college courses) this spring, but I plan to play in the main event at the World Series of Poker," Adams stated, already optimistic about his future as a part-time tournament player and college instructor. Sixth place paid $114,475.
5th Place - After Brian Lamkin doubled up from his devastating defeat to Negreanu (besting Brandon Adams), he then found himself having to commit to a coin flip situation when dealt 8-8. Kia Mohajeri had not played many pots up to that point but decided to take a stand with A-K. The final board showed K-7-2-2-10 giving Mohajeri top pair with top kicker. Lamkin was out in fifth place, good for $137,370 in prize money. "I'll take some of this experience and keep moving forward," Lamkin said following his exit. "This is the farthest I have ever gone in a field this tough. There are so many world-class players here. I learned a lot and hopefully, there will be a next time."
4th Place - With Negreanu still holding a decisive chip lead, Lee Markholt got into a tough jam when he picked the wrong time to make a move. Markholt, who had survived with selective aggression most of the day, made a move at the pot before the flop with J-8. He could not have picked a worse time to try and move his opponent off a hand. Kia Mohajeri looked down and saw two aces, and he moved over the top with an 'all in' re-raise. At that point, Markholt was pot committed. He called. The flop brought Markholt some interesting possibilities - as 10-7-6 opened up an inside straight draw. A five on the turn gave Markholt eight outs on the river to double up. But a harmless deuce fell on the fifth and final card, sealing Markholt's fate. Lee Markholt, a former professional bull rider turned poker player from Washington State was bucked off the final table and received $183,160 for fourth place. "It's always disappointing when you don't win. But I'm happy with my play and that's all the matters," he said.
3rd Place - The two shortest stacks battled a few times and traded chips back and forth. Then a major turning point occurred when Kia Mohajeri was dealt A-J and raised pre-flop. Bryant "B.K." King moved 'all in' with his last 227,000 -- holding K-K. Mohajeri called and lost the big hand. That left Mohajeri on life support. A few minutes later, Mohajeri made his final stand with K-J, moving 'all in.' King was delighted to call the raise with A-J. The flop provided some hope for underdog Mohajeri (10-9-8). But two blanks on the turn and river ended the night for the Floridian. This will likely not be the final time we see Mohajeri. Encouraged by his recent poker success, Mohajeri is seriously considering making a career move which might include playing full-time. "I'm thinking of turning pro," Mohajeri said later. "Whatever my decision is, poker will be a part of it." Perhaps $228,950 in prize money will make his decision a little easier.
When heads-up play began, Negreanu held slightly better than a 2-1 chip advantage - Negreanu with approximately 1.7 million to King's 700,000. Most interesting of all, King had predicted he would get heads-up with Negreanu. During breaks, King confidently told everyone around him that he planned to take on Negreanu and play for the championship. Ultimately, he got exactly what he wanted.
2nd Place - Heads-up play lasted just six hands. King knew he had to make a move fast because Negreanu was certain to keep putting pressure on and would slowly peck away at King's stack with ceaseless raises. Nearing the 200th hand of the final table King was dealt K-3 against Negreanu's K-9. The flop came K-Q-4. Both players had top pair. Negreanu bet out. "I thought that was a dream flop for me (with top pair)," King said afterward. "I figured that if he really had top pair he would check-raise me. I really liked it when he bet into me." As it turned out, Negreanu had the best hand all along. King re-raised 'all in' and Negreanu called. The nine outkicked the three, which meant King needed help. The final board showed K-Q-4-5-7. The nine-kicker played and Negreanu had ended the longest cold spell of his poker career.
The runner up was Bryant "BK" King. He was no stranger to final tables here in Tunica. This was King's second final table appearance in a major event here, as he also made it to the final table at the first WSOP Circuit event of the season, last August. "How can I feel bad?" King later asked. "I started off the day with just 200,000 and I went as far as I could. I was really happy with the way I played and I certainly think Daniel played his best game." Second place paid $416,690.
1st Place - This was Daniel Negreanu's first win on the WSOP Circuit. The victory paid $755,525. He won his three WSOP gold bracelets in 1998, 2003, and 2004. However, he is perhaps poker's most honest and open player about his ups and downs. In fact, Negreanu is becoming just was well-known for his poker writing as much as playing. He began writing a weekly newspaper column syndicated by Card Shark Media which is published in 40 newspapers in North America and is read by an estimated 4 million readers.
Negreanu was in top form in a post tournament interview. He provided some unique insights into this victory:
"I had a strategy designed for each individual player and pretty much followed it at the final table. The key to winning for me is that I stayed out of marginal situations. I don't want to get into a race with 6-6 against A-K and hope to stay alive. I think what I am best at is playing after the flop, and I wanted to get as many situations as I could where I was up against (an opponent) and could take them on after the flop. My goal is to see the most flops I can. I like to set traps. I let (opponents) get involved, and then trap then. If I get them drawing dead (which happened twice at the final table in big pots) - that's always the plan."
Negreanu reflected on what this particular win meant at this stage in his poker career. "Poker has changed so much since I first came into the game," he said. "I'm 31 now, and ten years ago there were just a few good young players - such as John Juanda, Allen Cunningham, Phil Ivey, and myself. Now, the young guys in their 20s can really play. You see it all the time. They come in with years of experience playing on the Internet and they are super tough."
"I consider myself like a bridge between the old poker world and the new. I saw the way it used to be. But I also see where it is going, with computers and lots of new young players. So, I guess I'm not really a kid anymore."
DAY THREE: Texan Brian Lamkin the chip leader going into final table in WSOP Circuit Championship at Tunica Grand
The Final Table:
Seat 1: Brian Lamkin
Hometown: Austin, TX
Chip Count: 600,000
Brian Lamkin is from Austin, TX. He is the 37-year-old owner of a commercial flooring company. Lamkin has been playing poker for 20 years and has entered three WSOP events, to date. His highest cash up to this point was in a major tournament at the Bellagio (Las Vegas) last month. Lamkin is engaged to be married and there would be no sweeter wedding gift than to win first prize here in Tunica - which is over three-quarters of a million dollars. He comes in as the favorite, with a respectable chip lead.
Seat 2: Daniel Negreanu
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
Chip Count: 410,000
Born in Canada, Daniel Negreanu is now one of poker's biggest superstars. His breakthrough win came at the 1999 World Series of Poker, when he won his first gold bracelet. He has since won two more. Negreanu was named Card Player Magazine's 'Player of the Year' in 2004. He is just as famous for his poker writings, which are carried by several top poker websites. Now, at age 31, Negreanu is married and has settled down in Las Vegas. When he's not sitting at final tables, he can usually be found playing in the highest-limit cash games in the world. Yet Negreanu candidly admits that last year was an off-year for him. He would like nothing more than to start off 2006 with a big win. He's well on his way, currently ranked second in the chip count.
Seat 3: Robert Schulz
Hometown: Southaven, MS
Chip Count: 229,000
If anyone at today's final table has a home field advantage, it is Robert Schulz from nearby Southaven, MS. Schulz, age 27, was actually born in the New York City area. He was once a craps dealer before he turned to poker playing to make his living. Schultz came close to winning an event here last summer when he cashed in second place in a field of 879. He's in good shape coming in to this final table, with about an average stack size.
Seat 4: Brandon Adams
Hometown: Boston, MA
Chip Count: 103,000
If formal education were a prerequisite for winning poker tournaments, then today's championship would go to Brandon Adams. He is scheduled to earn his PhD later this year from Harvard University. Adams was at a televised final table a few months ago, when he appeared in the 2005 Tournament of Champions. He has the toughest challenge of anyone in today's finale - with the shortest chip count.
Seat 5: Wendell Barnes
Hometown: Charcton, MA
Chip Count: 237,000
Wendell Barnes, age 38, is from Charcton, MA. He is married and has two children. Barnes says he started playing poker about 15 years ago and mostly plays with friends. He is certainly going to have a lot more friends if he wins this tournament. To date, his best finish was at the New England Poker Classic - a second-place showing worth $80,000. He also won Event #12 here in Tunica last week, the no-limit hold'em shootout. Barnes lists his occupation as a welder. He hopes to catch fire and melt all of his opponents at today's final table
Seat 6: Bryant King
Hometown: Spokane, WA
Chip Count: 200,000
Bryant King is a 38-year-old concert promoter originally from Kentucky. He now lives in Spokane, WA. King says he learned to play poker from his grandmother. King came close to the big prize in last year's main event at the World Series of Poker. He finished 21st - a remarkable accomplishment considering there were 5,619 entries. This event started with 241 players and King is currently sixth in the chip count.
Seat 7: Lee Markholt
Hometown: Eatonville, WA
Chip Count: 177,000
Lee Markholt is a 42-year-old professional poker player from Eatonville, WA. He is married and has two children. Markholt is no stranger to playing for big prize money. He has made it to two WSOP final tables in his distinguished poker career, but has yet to win a gold bracelet. He did win $225,000 at the Five Diamond Classic at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, last year. Markholt won his way into this tournament via a one-table satellite. He arrives seventh in the chip count.
Seat 8: Kia Mohajeri
Hometown: Bockledge, FL
Chip Count: 331,000
Today's senior citizen at the final table is 52-year-old Kia Mohajeri. He was born in Tehran, Iran - and now lives in Florida. Kia is married and has one child. He lists his profession as an electrical engineer. Mohajeri hopes to shock the poker world with a victory today and he is well on his way - currently third in the chip count. Mohajeri won a major poker tournament held last year at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.
Seat 9: Chad Brown
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Chip Count: 123,000
Chad Brown has appeared in front of more television cameras than everyone else at this final table - combined. That's because he was, and remains, a professional actor. He has appeared in films, on television, and as host of a TV game show. Brown has been a commentator on poker programs and is currently working on a project with fellow-actor Joe Mantegna. But today, Brown's focus will be on winning a poker tournament. Brown, who lives in Los Angeles, has appeared at many final tables and has won his fair share. It will take quite a performance today by Brown to overcome his chip disadvantage. He's currently eighth in chips.
DAY TWO: Many of the biggest names go bust; final 27 players set to return for Day Three
During the first two days of the World Series of Poker Circuit championship event at the Tunica Grand, many observers remarked that this one of the toughest major events of the year. The main event attracted a brutally-tough field -- at least half of which consisted of former WSOP gold bracelet winners and world class players. However, most of the big names hit the rail as bust-outs on Day Two leaving a wide mix of players with different backgrounds and levels of experience to compete for more than $2 million in prize money.
At the top of the standings is Don Barton, from Pahrump, NV. Barton is a familiar name to those who follow tournament poker. He has appeared at countless final tables in his storied poker career. Barton has finished in the money 22 times and has won nearly half a million dollars at the World Series of Poker alone.
The chip leader's closest rival is Brian Lamkin, from Austin, TX. Lamkin is the 37-year-old owner of a commercial flooring company. He has been playing poker for 20 years and has entered three WSOP events, to date. His best cash was in a major tournament at the Bellagio (Las Vegas) last month. Lamkin and Barton are currently the only two players with over 200,000 in chips.
The most notable big names remaining include Daniel Negreanu, Todd Brunson (who won his first WSOP gold bracelet in 2005), and Galen Kester, who is arguably Mississippi's top tournament player in recent years.
Play is expected to get more intense over the next day. ESPN will begin full coverage, as the tournament shifts to the Tunica Grand Special Events Center. Nine players will eventually be eliminated, just short of a payout. Prize money will go to the top 18 finishers. On Day Three, play will continue down to the final table of nine players - who will make up the final table.
DAY ONE: Star-studded tournament field floods into Mississippi to enter main event
No one knows for sure where the first game of poker was played. But there is general agreement that poker, as we know it today, originated in riverboats along the Mississippi during the 1830s. Since then, Las Vegas and other casino hotspots may have supplanted the Mississippi Region as the epicenters of the poker universe. But Mississippi will always be contemporary poker's birthplace.
Thirty-six years after the first World Series of Poker was played, the most prestigious of all poker spectacles came to Mississippi for the first time. The fifth stop on the 2005-06 World Series of Poker Circuit is the Tunica Grand Casino-Resort, located about 25 miles south of Memphis. Nestled comfortably along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, the Tunica Grand is the largest casino-resort located in the expansive mid-American region between Atlantic City and Las Vegas. With ESPN televisions cameras here to capture all the action, this event promises to be one of the most exciting tournaments of the new year.
"We are tremendously excited to have the World Series of Poker and ESPN come to the Tunica Grand for the first time," said Karen Kaegin, Poker Room Manager at the Tunica Grand. "We are thrilled with the turnout here, which includes so many superstar players and spectators. Since poker was born here in the Mississippi region, it's fitting that the World Series of Poker would find a home here in Tunica."
The $10,000 buy-in championship event started today and attracted 241 entries, with a total prize pool of $2,289,500. Three former world champions were in the field, including Scotty Nguyen (1998), Chris 'Jesus' Ferguson (2000), and Carlos Mortensen (2001). Only Ferguson survived past the first day.
In addition, several other poker luminaries entered the main event including - Mike Sexton, Bob Stupak, T.J. Cloutier, Barry Greenstein, Erik Seidel, Sammy Farha, Michael 'the Grinder' Mizrachi, Men 'the Master' Nguyen, Daniel Negreanu, Mike 'the Mouth' Matusow, Ted Forrest, Robert Williamson III, Chau Giang, Eric, Lindgren, Todd Brunson, and several others. The main event also started with five female players.
After nearly 12 hours of play on Day One, the early chip leader is Josh Prager, from Yuba City, CA. Little is known about Prager, other than the fact he finished 97th in last year's main event at the World Series of Poker. Considering there were 5,619 entries, making the top 100 was quite an accomplishment. Now six months later, in a highly-competitive field of 77 remaining players, it remains to be seen if Prager can continue acquiring chips; or will he become one of so many first day flash-in-the-pans who play well, but who for whatever reason are unable to sustain momentum on the following days. Prager clearly has something to prove.
Tournament report by Nolan Dalla