The largest turnout in the five-year history of the World Series of Poker Circuit at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe generated $1,418,132 in prize money spread over 13 tournaments. The annual attraction which is held on the south shore of beautiful Lake Tahoe right at the Nevada-California border attracted 2,163 entries. This surpassed last year’s record of 2,128 entries. The ten-day tournament series concluded with the $5,000 buy-in championship event.
The winner was Michael Binger, from Las Vegas, NV. The 31-year-old professional poker player overcame a severe chip disadvantage while heads up at the final table and won his first major poker tournament victory. He collected first place prize money totaling $181,379. Following his victory, Binger was presented with a gold ring, the coveted token of achievement for all WSOP Circuit championship tournaments. Binger also received a buy-in to the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event, plus $1,000 in spending money.
Binger is perhaps best known publicly as the third-place finisher in the 2006 WSOP Main Event (won by Jamie Gold). For that effort he won more than $4 million. With his victory at Lake Tahoe, Binger now has more than $5.7 million in career tournament earnings, all accrued within the last three years. What many may not know is that Binger also holds a PhD in physics from Stanford.
The championship event attracted several big names. Last year’s winner and 2000 world poker champion Chris “Jesus” Ferguson entered the tournament, along with Johnny Chan (the 1987 and 1988 world champ) and Jerry Yang (the 2007 world champ). Former WSOP gold bracelet winners who played at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe included Robert “RCW” Cheung, Scott Clements, Dan Heimiller, Kathy Liebert, Jeff Madsen, and Max Pescatori. Evan Schwartz -- the only player in history to have won multiple WSOP Circuit events at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe – also entered.
The tournament was played over a three day period. On Day One, the 125-player field was reduced to 55 players. As 18 players approached a guaranteed payout on Day Two, buzz began to circulate that Chris Ferguson might become the repeat champion. A victory by Ferguson would have been notable since no player has successfully defended a title at a major tournament (defined as buy-ins of $5,000 and higher) since 1989. That’s when Stu Ungar won back to back Super Bowl of Poker titles in 1988 and 1989 (coincidentally at Lake Tahoe). However, Ferguson’s achievement was not meant to be. He ended up as the 11th-place finisher.
On Day Three, the final table was played on the second floor at Harvey’s Lake Tahoe, alongside the Hard Rock Café. With several hundred poker fans in attendance, tournament pro Binger arrived as the early chip leader. However, four players were relatively close in chips which made it a wide open event.
Two-time WSOP gold bracelet winner Scott Clements was the first player of the final nine to exit. He was short stacked and was eliminated just a few hands into play. Clements, who has over $3 million in tournament winnings since 2005 added $13,444 for his ninth-place finish.
A few hands later, Bill Bostick was eliminated. This was Bostick’s second time to cash at this year’s Harvey’s Lake Tahoe series. He also cashed twice in events on the Heartland Poker Tour held earlier this year. Bostick, an automotive consultant from Minnesota drive away with $18,566 for eighth place.
With the two lowest stacks out of the way, play tightened down for the next hour. Then, Travis Erdman was finally knocked out when he played a hand perfectly, but still lost. Erdman has pocket kings (with a spade) and moved all in after three low spades flopped. Unfortunately, Ty Stewart had two spades, good for the made flush. Erdman still had outs, but missed. Nevertheless, Erdman tied a record by making it to the final table of the Harvey’s championship three years in a row. This is only the second time this has happened on the WSOP Circuit (Note: Lou Esposito, of Howard Beach, NY first made three straight final tables at Harrah’s New Orleans). The investment manager from San Francisco added $24,968 to his poker portfolio.
Next, tournament journeyman Allen Kessler took one of the sickest beats imaginable. He moved all in with pocket aces and was called by Ty Stewart holding pocket sevens. The first four board cards were inconsequential. Then, an unlucky seven fell on the river, eliminating Kessler. The Philadelphia native who has more than 90 tournaments cashes on his poker resume collected $31,370 for sixth place.
Tay Nguyen was short on chips and moved all-in on a straight draw on what turned out to be his final hand of the tournament. He missed the draw and had to settle for fifth place. Nguyen, an accountant from Sacramento, logged $40,653 into his profit column.
Poker pro Mike McClain has long been known as the face for poker’s “agony of defeat” moment. Five years ago, his despair was captured and immortalized on ESPN’s WSOP broadcasts when his bad beat was shown on film and repeated countless times in contrast to Chris Moneymaker’s “thrill of victory.” Unfortunately, McClain endured yet another agonizing defeat in this tournament when his pocket queens were cracked by Ty Stewart’s straight. McClain, who finished ninth in the 2004 WSOP Main Event, settled for fourth-place, which paid $53,777.
Down to three players, Stewart had the biggest stack, while Jake Solis and Michael Binger jockeyed for position to get heads-up. The tug of war went about 40 hands before Solis finally moved all-win on what turned out to be a three-way pot. Solis had 7-7. But Binger ended up with the best hand with a pair of queens, taking the last of Solis’ chips. Solis, a 30-year-old salesman and father of two, racked up a commission totaling $77,464.
The final showdown began with Stewart holding a 4 to 3 advantage over Binger. It appeared that the final table might be completed in a lightning-fast pace, clocking in at less than four hours. This would have shattered the previous record as the fastest WSOP Circuit final table ever (which is about five hours). However, heads-up play lasted more than 60 hands. Binger was the more patient player, refusing to commit his final chips unless he was confident enough with his hand.
Such patience came at a price. Binger gradually lost his chips and was down by an 8 to 1 margin at one point, before staging a stunning comeback. Displaying a never-say-die attitude, Binger seemed always make the right decision when faced with what were a number of razor-thin calls. For instance, Binger made a major-league call with third pair on board, snapping off a stone-cold bluff by Stewart, which swung the chip lead in Binger’s direction for the first time.
Then, Binger caught a number of big hands which left Stewart in desperate shape when the final hand of the tournament was dealt. That came when Stewart made second pair with eights against Binger’s top pair – nines. By the thinnest of margins, Binger won the last pot of the night and achieved a personal milestone with his first major tournament win.
As the runner up, Ty Stewart received $112,675. The 32-year-old middle-limit cash game player from Sacramento was pleased with his play and received a long ovation from the crowd, including Binger. Had Stewart caught just one or two key hands while heads-up, he would have been the winner.
But the night was indeed Binger’s who was visibly thrilled with his victory, far more even perhaps than the prize money. “It’s amazing. I told (a friend) that the next time I see him I would be wearing WSOP Circuit ring. And that’s exactly what happened here,” Binger said.
“I visualized this victory coming. It was a sort of mind over matter thing. The power of positive thinking,” Binger said. “I was down at one point (when heads-up) and told myself to stick with it. I played well, and the cards finally turned around for me. This is a very meaningful win for me because to win (on the WSOP Circuit) is considered a major tournament and it’s part of the World Series.”
When asked what he next goal might be, Binger didn’t hesitate. “A gold bracelet,” he answered.
Note: It should be noted that runner-up Ty Stewart is not the same Ty Stewart who is an executive with the World Series of Poker. They are unrelated and merely share the same name.