Rivera Shoots Down Big Game

It was supposed to be a reproduction of the Bellagio. It was supposed to be Bobby’s Room all over again. Event #8 ($10,000 Mixed Game World Championship), which included Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, Seven-card Stud, Eight or Better, No Limit Hold’em, Pot Limit Omaha and Triple Draw 2-7, was a created from a will to reproduce the largest cash games in the world – namely those played in the poker Mecca named for MGM CEO Bobby Baldwin, and reward one of their number for excellence at their craft.

A funny thing happened on the way to the bracelet.

It was universally accepted that the more experienced Big Gamer regulars had the edge here, but that wasn’t the way it worked out. A look at the final table roster showed four players aged 22 or younger. Two of them – Tom Dwan and Jeff Madsen – went down quickly, but the other two were the last men standing. In the end, it was 22-year-old Tony Rivera defeating 22-year-old James Mackey to take the title.

A descendant of the $50,000 HORSE event that many have called ‘the players championship’, the goal with the mixed game was to present a full docket of the games regularly spread in The Big Game. In all, 192 entrants, including an astounding 76 bracelet winners, put up the cash for what might already be amongst the most prestigious title at the Series.

“I don’t see how anyone who doesn’t play our game all the time can win,” said Eli Elezra, who’d eventually finish in fifth place. The answer was presented on Rivera’s lucky t-shirt; it read "Friends Don't Let Friends Play No Limit" in faded but reliable lettering. It summed up the St. Louis native’s approach.

“I’ve been playing the games for a long time” said Rivera. “For the last couple of years, I’ve been playing the H.O.R.S.E. games both live and online, so this was no real stretch for me. During the No Limit and Pot Limit portions, I just tried to play tight, play my cards, it worked out.”

Being an online player and an Asian player, Rivera played on the stereotypes that accompany both designations. “I played tight, didn’t make a lot of moves…people seemed to be attempting to re-steal and expecting me to make all kinds of moves being that I’m a young internet kid, but the best defense is just to play tight and let them hang themselves. It seemed like in the 2-7 round, I was incredibly lucky compared to the other players they were a little shaky in their play and also, being half-Asian helped out a lot there.”

While Rivera agreed that the importance of his ethnicity was the reputation Asian players have for aggression, his roommate, Mark Newhouse, said it was something different, a belief in an inherent luck. Regardless of the interpretation it’s the back and forth with his roommates that’s helped round out Rivera’s game.

“It’s a lot of fun. We get to have a lot of good times and share ideas about poker hands and strategy. We get to share in our success and failures so everyone helps each other stay on an even keel and it’s just a lot of fun. I’m lucky to have these guys. All the guys you see here (referring to the mob surrounding him during his post-tournament interview)…Newhouse, Thomas Carrell, Luke Neely…those guys really helped me adjust my play and fine tune it to where it is now.”

Rivera’s final obstacle, Mackey, was seeking to become just the third-youngest player in WSOP history to win two bracelets after Madsen and Eric Froehlich. Third place went to Matt Glantz, who was the chipleader at the day’s start, while Michael DeMichele and Sammy Farha finished fourth and sixth respectively.

Asked about the perceived advantage attributed to the members of the Big Game, Rivera quipped “I’ve been playing big live mixed games now for 1.5 years or so. I’d played with almost all the guys that were in this field at least once and I was really familiar with all of their games, so I feel like I had the advantage.”

While the kids came out on top, several former WSOP bracelet winners cashed in this tournament.  They included Tom Schneider (12th), Johnny Chan (13th), Lee Watkinson (14th), and Doyle Brunson (21st). Of the elite field, Rivera said “They’re all fantastic players and I’m just happy I was able to come out on top.”
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP all summer for WorldSeriesofPoker.com, espn.com/poker and in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.