Valley Center, CA - Poker is a night game. It is a game often played by night owls. Despite the glitz and glamour surrounding the game and the around the clock allure of contemporary casinos and cardrooms, the most intense poker games usually occur long after most people have nodded off to bed. While the rest of society dozes away, the most dedicated poker players are clustered around tables, sequestered in whirlwind of tough decisions and escalating intensity.
On a crisp winter night on the eve of Valentines Day, the best poker game in southern California took place at the Harrah's Rincon Casino-Resort, tucked into a valley in the steep hills north of San Diego. Rest assured, no one there was thinking about Cupid's holiday or boxes of chocolates. By midnight as the tournament entered the 12th hour, all that was heard was the pitter-patter of chips and snapping of cards, broken by an occasional cheer or moan inspired by the randomness of flops, turns, and rivers.
It wasn't meant to be this way. Event #3 at this year's Rincon tournament circuit attracted 89 entries. The $1,000 buy-in created a total prize pool of $86,330. Eighty players missed the money, leaving the final nine.
The final table began at 10 pm. A two-day tournament was planned, but the nine finalists agreed to play through until the conclusion. That moment would come at long past midnight, which made for a marathon day (night, and early morning) of poker.
Jason Stern arrived as the chip leader - a position he would hold during much of the evening. Yet two of the lowest stacks (Jacob Frank and Justin Hagan) made the biggest moves at the final table. Seating in the finale and chip counts began as follows:
||Justin "The Juice" Hagan
||Joseph "Joe the Gambler" Ochoa
The first player to go bust was Michael Heintschel. He lasted barely one orbit of hands before exiting in ninth place. Mr. Heintschel, age 44, is a local contractor from nearby Escondido, CA. His share of the prize pool came to $2,590.
The next player to bust out was a shock to everyone. Charles Chan had arrived second in chips (slightly behind Mr. Stern by only 400 in chips). But he took a number of early hits and went out in eighth place. The Tunica, Mississippi-based poker player who won a recent stud eight-or-bettor tournament at the L.A. Poker Classic had just about everything hopelessly go wrong during his hour-long stay at the final table. As the imaginary clock struck midnight, Mr. Chan turned into a pumpkin. His payout amounted to $3,453.
The recipient of most of Mr. Chan's chips was Jason Stern, who widened his chip lead. Rick Fox was not so fortunate. The 39-year-old business owner from Seattle lasted for two hours before finally having to commit with a weak hand because he was so short-stacked. He ended up losing the hand and finished in seventh place. Mr. Fox was sly enough to pocket $4,317 in prize money.
Don Fryer was the most senior player of the nine finalists. The 45-year-old contractor from San Diego went out in sixth place. Mr. Fryer had sizable chips much of the time, but he was unable to generate any kind of rush that might have made him into a serious threat to win. On his final hand, Mr. Fryer (with A-K) lost to a straight. He busted out and collected $5,180. Mr. Fryer noted that his wife is having a baby in May, so in many ways he is already a winner.
That left five players. Movie visions of "The Cincinnati Kid" and the multi-day poker marathon flashed into consciousness. Hands on foreheads and yawns abounded. More black coffee was served.
The tournament's 13th hour was marked with another elimination. Long after Letterman and Leno had signed off and made their way to bed, Joseph "Joe the Gamble" Ochoa went out. Mr. Ochoa found himself desperately low and chips and called a raise without looking at his cards, hoping for a miracle. Unfortunately, he ran up against pocket kings, and lost. Remarkably, this was Mr. Ochoa's second final table appearance in three tournaments here at Rincon. He became the first multi-table finalist of this series. Fifth place paid $6,043.
The next two players went out on back-to-back hands. Atypical for the course of events, Jason Stern got whacked after he lost most of his chips on a few beats and then tried to take a round of blinds with a pre-flop raise. Jacob Frank made the call with A-J and won with the better hand. It was a disappointing finish for Mr. Stern, who seemed well on his way to a major tournament win. Instead, the 34-year-old poker pro from northern California collected $6,906 for fourth place.
Jacob Frank had arrived as the lowest stack. That disadvantage would normally make his survival a long shot. But Frank defied the odds by outlasting all but he final two players. He actually had the chip lead for a brief time. His final hand was a heartbreaker. Mr. Frank was dealt A-K versus Christopher Bonita's Q-Q. An ace on the flop woke up the ballroom as several bystanders cheered. But those same cheers turned to stunned silence when a queen dropped from like an anvil from the sky, crushing Mr. Frank's hopes for the unlikeliest of tournament victories. The trip queens held up and Mr. Frank was forced to settle for third place. He received $9,496 in prize money.
That left the final two. Well past two o'clock, Christopher Bonita held a 5 to 2 chip advantage over Justin "The Juice" Hagan. However, just a few minutes into heads-up play, The Juice squeezed his opponent for nearly half of his stack, when two pair scooped a huge pot. That gave Mr. Hagan the chip lead - which he would embrace during the remainder of the tournament. The two aspiring champions dueled for half an hour before the final hand was dealt at 3 am. Mr. Hagan held Q-J and moved all-in with a dominant chip lead. Mr. Bonita called with pocket fours. A queen flopped and Mr. Hagan won when the final board showed A-Q-3-3-A.
The runner up was Christopher Bonita, from Massachusetts. The 40-year-old pool salesman has been playing poker throughout the west during the past month. He finished also second at the Heartland Poker Tour championship held earlier this month in Las Vegas. Second place at in this event paid $17,266.
The winner was Justin "The Juice" Hagan. He says his nickname comes from sharing a common birthday with a certain Hall of Fame NFL running back who used to play for the Buffalo Bills. Much like a pro athlete, Mr. Hagan deserves praise just as much for his physical and mental endurance as his poker skills. Mr. Hagan is a 37-year-old professional poker player from Palm Desert, CA. Demonstrating supreme confidence in his game, just prior to the start of the final table, The Juice predicted he would win. Although it certainly wasn't easy, the bold prediction paid off. He received the $31,079 top prize and the coveted gold ring with the World Series of Poker logo embossed on the crown. But the hour was late and the echoes of earlier cheers had long since turned to silence.
By this time, the poker room which had been so busy just hours earlier had emptied out. The cleaning crew vacuumed the remnants of a busy day, preparing for another soon to follow. Security guards and tournament staff stood and watched, the only witnesses to the crowning of the newest poker champion. For Mr. Hagan, it was already lonely at the top.
by Nolan Dalla
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Tournament Director – Janis Sexton
Harrah's Rincon Poker Room Manager – Mike Adams