Five-Time WSOP Gold Bracelet Winner Victorious in Caesars Palace Championship 

All great athletes possess intangible qualities. There’s something extraordinary about stars such as Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, and Wayne Gretzky performing in the prime of their careers. It’s not just that they were winners. Many athletes win championships. It was the way they won which captivated fans everywhere leaving an indelible mark on the consciousness of a generation.

Witnessing the final table of the most recent World Series of Poker Circuit championship at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, one had a sense of absolute inevitability. Like watching Jordan, Montana, or Gretzky trailing on the scoreboard with the clock ticking, every fan in the house knows the next play is likely to be a score and the champion will pull out a victory. Allen Cunningham may have started his quest for yet another tournament victory ranked seventh in the chip count of the final nine, but all eyes were focused on the phenomenally-talented 31-year-old winner of five WSOP gold bracelets. Indeed, very late in the competition, Cunningham began heads-up play down by a 4 to 1 stack margin. But every spectator packed to the rafters inside Caesars Palace seemed to expect Cunningham’s inexorable fate – yet another championship on his burgeoning resume of poker accomplishments.  Only a rare few stars in any sport or field have the capacity to instill such confidence.

This is not to say Cunningham’s victory came easy. To the contrary, the tournament’s runner up -- 24-year-old Ben Fineman -- was an arduous adversary. Facing anyone except a dozen or so players in the world, including Cunningham, Fineman would certainly have been a prohibitive favorite to win the match, given both his talent and massive chip count during most of the five-hour finale. But true champions have a way of displaying their best game under the most extraordinary of circumstances and in that manner Allen Cunningham proved once again why he is so revered by so many as a great tournament player.

The $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em championship event was played inside the expansive $10 million tournament facility at Caesars Palace. With poker’s icons looking down from photographs encircling the 63-table room (including Allen Cunningham’s portrait) Caesars has quietly become the venue with Las Vegas’ busiest tournament schedule. With five daily tournaments, and major poker events including the Caesars Classic, NBC’s Heads-Up World Poker Championships, and the WSOP Circuit series each year, Caesars Palace has regained its foothold as a place where history is made.

This year’s main event attracted 334 entrants, making it the largest main event turnout of the 2007-2008 WSOP Circuit season. The strong field also included a whopping 28 former WSOP gold bracelet winners. After 280 players were eliminated on the first day, 54 survivors returned for day two. After 45 more players were eliminated, the final nine continued to play on day three with Ben Fineman holding a commanding chip lead with 828,000 in his stack. In fact, Fineman enjoyed a better than 2 to 1 advantage over every player at the table.  Five of the nine finalists were from Las Vegas.  Three nations – Japan, Canada, and the United States – were represented. The exact starting chip counts were as follows:

Seat 1: Motoyuki “Moto” Mabuchi 142,000
Seat 2: Kelly “K-Boy” Samson 385,000
Seat 3: Ben Fineman   828,000
Seat 4: Ralph Perry   319,000
Seat 5: Thomas Hover   407,000
Seat 6: Blair Hinkle   382,000
Seat 7: Justin Bonomo  272,000
Seat 8: Allen Cunningham  296,000
Seat 9: Doug Lee   323,900

Opening blinds were 6,000-12,000 with a 2,000 ante. 

9th Place – The first all-in moment occurred when “Moto” Mabuchi pushed his chips forward with A-J.  He was called by Doug Lee with K-Q. The flop came Q-10-9. That gave Lee top pair (queens). But Moto still had many outs and caught one when an ace fell on the river. Moto’s pair of aces ended up scooping the 300,000 pot and Lee was left on life support – with less than 100,000 in his stack. 

A few hands later, Lee made his last move with A-J. Ben Fineman called the raise from the big blind and showed Q-9 suited. Fineman caught a nine on the flop and later improved his hand to make a straight. All Lee could do was muck his cards and walk away. Lee was forced to accept a disappointing finish in this tournament. The real estate investor from Calgary, Alberta won the WSOP Circuit championship event held at the Rio Las Vegas in 2005. Yet, he had not played in a WSOP Circuit event in over three years. In the end, Lee took ninth place in this championship, which paid $32,198.

8th Place – Six hands later, blinds increased to 8,000-16,000 with a 3,000 ante.  Ralph Perry moved all-in with J-J pre-flop. Allen Cunningham called instantly and tabled Q-Q. The pocket queens held up, which eliminated Perry.  Ralph the Russian,” aptly named because Perry was the first Russian-born gold bracelet winner in WSOP history (Pot-Limit Omaha in 2006), collected $48,297 for eighth place.

7th Place – On hand 27, Thomas Hover put in a big raise with Q-Q. Blair Hinkle re-raised all-in with 265,000, holding 5-5. Hover called. The flop was horrifying to Hover’s supporters, as a five came.  That gave Hinkle trip fives, which held up as the winning hand. With the tough beat, Hover was left very low on chips. He went out a short time later when Kelly Samson made a full house, sevens over deuces, which eliminated the professional gambler from Las Vegas. Hover, who has turned to poker in recent years after a lengthy stint playing blackjack, received $64,396 for seventh place.

6th Place – Fineman and Hinkle were very close in chips at that point with about 900,000 each. Meanwhile, Moto Mabuchi was the lowest stack, with about 170,000. Players jockeyed for position over the next hour. Over that time, Justin Bonomo lost some chips. Blinds increased again, this time to 10,000-20,000 with a 3,000 ante. With the cost of each orbit being 45,000 in chips, the three lowest stacks could not afford to be patient. However, the next player eliminated turned out to be a surprise.

One hand 79, Blair Hinkle made the wrong move at the wrong time. In the small blind, chip leader Ben Fineman made a 60,000 raise. Hinkle suspected a steal attempt and moved all-in for 520,000 more.  Fineman called and showed A-Q. Hinkle sheepishly revealed his Q-9 and knew he was in big trouble.  Both players caught a queen, but the ace played as the higher kicker, giving Fineman all of Hinkle’s chips. Fineman became the first player to surpass the 1,000,000 mark while Blair Hinkle was left to wonder about his decision to battle the big stack. Hinkle, from Kansas City, ended up in sixth place, which paid $80,495.

5th Place – Ten hands later, Justin Bonomo raised with this last 140,000 holding K-3, hoping to make a pre-flop steal. Allen Cunningham re-raised all-in with A-Q to isolate the lowest stack. The tactic worked.  Neither player made a pair, which meant Cunningham added to his stack. Bonomo, a 22-year-old online poker specialist, received $96,594 for fifth place.

4th Place – Cunningham was up to nearly 500,000 in chips, but was still down by more than a 2 to 1 margin to Fineman. “Moto” Mabuchi had survived as the lowest stack during much of the initial four hours of play. But his luck finally ran out.  Moto moved all-in with K-2 after a king-high flopped. He was called quickly by Fineman with K-Q.  Both players had flopped top pair. But Fineman’s queen-kicker ended up being the key card which took the pot. Moto Mabuchi, a poker pioneer from Japan who is now helping to spread the popularity of game to his hometown of Osaka, earned a well-deserved $112,693 for fourth place.

3rd Place – Kelly “K-Boy” Samson enjoyed a few double ups and managed to go deep in this event.  The longtime poker veteran from Las Vegas finally went out on a tough beat. He had 9-8 suited and called an all-in bet by Fineman on the turn when the four board cards showed 9-7-4-9. Samson made an obligatory call holding onto trip nines. But three hearts were also showing and Fineman has the J-10 of hearts, good for a flush. The board failed to pair (for a full house), which meant an exit for Samson. Third place paid $128,792.
2nd Place – When heads-up play began, Ben Fineman enjoyed approximately a 4 to 1 chip lead over Allen Cunningham – 2,700,000 to 700,000. After some back and forth play lasting about 20 minutes, blinds increased to 15,000-30,000 with a 4,000 ante. 

The first major confrontation between the duo took place on the 109th hand of play when Cunningham moved all-in after catching a pair of queens on the flop, which was called by Fineman holding pocket sevens.  Hoping to either snap off a semi-bluff or spike a seven, Fineman failed to improve his hand and was forced to double up the most dangerous of adversaries. That key hand put the two rivals into nearly a dead heat.

A few hands after (hand 115) Cunningham managed to seize a slight chip lead, the tournament ended in stunning fashion. The final hand was dealt as Cunningham had 5-4 of clubs versus Fineman’s A-J.  Fineman raised pre-flop and Cunningham called. Both players checked the flop after it came K-Q-Q with two clubs.  Then, a nightmare card fell for Fineman. The ten of clubs on the turn gave Fineman a straight.  But it also improved Cunningham’s hand to a flush. Cunningham bet out 100,000.  Fineman made it 300,000 more. Cunningham announced “all in.” Fineman – staring at three clubs on board -- could not have liked his hand at that point, but called. That turned out to be a fateful decision as Fineman had no club and was left drawing dead. 

Ben Fineman played brilliantly over three days. Had he caught a break or two or had Cunningham been eliminated earlier, it’s fair to say Fineman would have been a prohibitive favorite to win. Instead, the winner of a preliminary event here at Caesars last week, had to settle for second place. Fineman collected $257,585.

1st Place – If records are made to be broken, Allen Cunningham is holding a sledgehammer. He already owns five career WSOP victories and now has his first WSOP Circuit gold ring.  The special ring which is embossed with the official WSOP seal was presented afterward to Cunningham by the Caesars Poker Room Manager, Jim Pedulla. 

First place paid $499,069. He also was awarded a seat in the $10,000 buy-in championship event at the Rio Las Vegas, which begins in July. Allen Cunningham proves that in poker, the rich continue to get richer.  And those of us watching and cheering will continue to marvel at the talent and flair demonstrated by Cunningham at poker’s highest levels. 

Dreamers hope to win. Champions expect to win. Allen Cunningham just wins – and makes it all look too easy.  Jordan, Montana, and Gretzky now have some serious company.