Hale to the Champ!
Jesse Hale, a 35-year-old professional skydiving coach and instructor from Houston, Texas, and as upbeat a guy as you would ever hope to find, sang, joked and talked his way into a win in the $5,150 championship event of the WSOP Circuit tour at Horseshoe Council Bluffs. A deal had been made when the three finalists were pretty even, but his win was worth an official $113,020 along with the gold and diamond trophy ring and a buy-in to the WSOP $10,000 main event. Strangely, he really didn't want that seat, which is non-transferable, because the WSOP championship event starts two days after the expected birth of his first child (daughter Kayla), and he offered a public apology to his wife.
You see, he really came here to play blackjack, badly beat up the tables, and at the last minute decided to use some of the money to play a couple of tournaments. He came in second in the pot-limit Omaha event, and was diving back and forth as he played that event and day one of this main event simultaneously.

Victory tonight did not come easy to Hale. With three players left, at one point he was down to 125,000 after taking a bad beat, and would have been out on the next hand if he didn't outdraw his opponent on the turn. The final heads-up match with Dennis Meierotto was no cakewalk, either. It lasted 78 hands. Hale rated him a very tough and conservative player, but was able to play off that conservatism with continuation bets that got Meierotto to fold as Hale slowly ate up his chips.

Hale has been playing poker a bit over three years and is mostly a cash-game player. He prefers pot-limit Omaha and hold'em because he feels pot-limit favors the better player. He has a Circuit cash at New Orleans and a few other small tournament pay-outs.

Hale first started skydiving from planes 13 years ago, and has some 4,000.jumps to his credit. He's been instructing for eight years. He is also a pilot and snow and water skier.

Action on this final day started at 2 p.m. at level 12 with blinds of 2,000-4,000 and 500 antes, 52 minutes left in the 90-minute round. Jeff "Mr Rain" Banghart, winner of the opening event, began day two as chip leader but was overtaken in the late stages by John McDonald, who now was in front with 439,500 chips.  

Here were the final day starting chip counts:

Seat 1: John McDonald                        439,500
Seat 2: Dennis Meierotto          387,500
Seat 3: Evan Panesis                 203,000
Seat 4: Alan Engel                    92,000
Seat 5: Joaquin Sosa                60,000
Seat 6: Jeff Bryan                    27,500
Seat 7: Jeff Banghart                52,000
Seat 8: Jesse Hale                     77,000
Seat 9: Jeff Daubs                    34,500

Ninth Place, $9,419. It didn't take long to see action. On the first hand,  Hale tried to raise with pocket aces, but before he could announce how much, Jeff Daubs did the job for him, pushing in for 34,000 with pocket jacks. The board came 4-5-8-K-3 and Daubs was first to leave. Daubs is 49, from Plattsburgh, New York, and is a software test engineer. He started playing three years ago.

Eighth Place, $12,558. Thirty minutes later, Jeff Bryan, who started lowest-chipped, moved in from late position with his last 6,000 holding Q-J. He had three callers. On a flop of 2-5-K, Dennis Meierotto bet out and the other two callers folded. Meierotto turned up K-4. When a 5 turned, Bryan, now drawing dead, stood up and watched as a river king give Meierotto a full house. Bryan, 51, is from Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, and works as a sales manager for a concrete equipment company. He's been playing since age 9. He has over a half-million in tournament cashes in three years, including nine Circuits. His two cashes in WSOP main events include $333,490 for 27th in 2007. He also has a WSOP money finish in pot-limit Omaha. He and his wife Donna (who also played in this main event but went out on day one) have five children and three grandkids.

Seventh Place, $15,698. After a break, play continued with blinds of 3,000-6,000. Now virtually tied for the lead with about 430,000 each were McDonald and Meierotto. Ten minutes into the level, Banghart moved in. As McDonald hesitated, Banghart told him he really wanted a call so he could double up. Finally, McDonald obliged and turned up A-8 to Banghart's 10d-7d. The board came 6-9-K-9-5, and Banghart, failing to catch anything, had talked himself out of the tournament. He is 47 and from Bennington, Nebraska where he owns a lawn sprinkler company. He's played poker since age 12. Besides winning the opening event here, Banghart also placed fifth in event 14. Other major payouts include $237,000 for 41st in the 2007 WSOP main event and $54,000 for fourth in the Council Bluffs Circuit main event that same year.

Sixth Place, $18,837. Next out was Alan "Ari" Engel, one of two pros at the table. He was all in with K-J against Hale's A-J, and busted out after the board came A-5-2-8-Q. Engel, 25, is a full-time player originally from Toronto, Canada now living in Vegas. His biggest cash was $120,125 for a third in a $2,000 no-limit Borgata Deep Stack event last year.

Fifth Place, $21,977. Joaquin Sosa, who hadn't seen much action thus far, now looked down at pocket kings and made a small raise of 20,000. Hale re-raised to 50,000 and Sosa moved in, only to see Hale turn up pocket aces. The board of 5-3-7-Q-2 was irrelevant, and Sosa, 49, a lab technician from Chicago who started poker five years ago, was out. This was his poker highlight

A hand later, Evan :"MacDaddy" Panesis, the other poker player at the table, had a close call. He had K-9 against McDonald's J-10. McDonald flopped two pair, but then Panesis caught two miracle kings to escape and double up. As play continued, Meierotto took down a monster pot. Hale bet 50,000 on a board of 2-5-Q-4 and Meierotto, with a set of ladies, raised to 100,000, then won a few more chips with a river bet.

Fourth Place, $25,116. Blinds moved to 4,000-8,000 with 1,000 antes. Meierotto now had the lead with 640,000 followed by McDonald, 336,000; Hale, 321,000; and Panesis, 89,000. On the second hand of the new level, Panesis committed his last chips with K-7, a small underdog to MacDonald's pocket treys. He couldn't find anything when the board came 8-6-A-Q-A, and went out fourth. Panesis is a college student turned online cash-game player from Overland Park, Kansas. He's played five years and this is only his third live tournament.

Play now tightened considerably with relatively small bets and no confrontations. Hale, meanwhile, was enjoying himself immensely, putting out a constant stream of commentary, patter, sound effects, singing, clapping and banging on the table on almost every card dealt. Along the way he played and talked his way into the chip lead.  

The level dragged on and new blinds of 6,000-12,000 with 2,000 antes kicked in. Then at Hale's suggestion, the three pre-ordered from the Jack Binion Steakhouse, ready to take a break when the steaks were ready. A few minutes into the new level, the pot of the night thus far came down. Pre-flop, Hale bet 100,000 and McDonald called. The flop came 3-4-2 and Hale moved in for 375,000 with pocket queens. "Either way, I'll buy dinner," he offered. McDonald accepted and called with A-10. An 8 turned and then a river 5 gave McDonald a wheel, leaving Hale with just 125,000 chips. "How could you call? What did you think I had?" he kept asking. McDonald wasn't really sure, just didn't think that Hale had anything much.

Hale nearly busted immediately after, all in with A-J against McDonald's 8d-7d after an 8 flopped. Then a jack turned, Hale doubled up, and kept adding to his stacks after that. "Laugh is good," he said. "I'm thankful for everything." But he also said that McDonald now had to pay for dinner. Thirty minutes into the level the three went off to eat. By now it was a race, with Hale climbing back to 429,000 to 471,000 for Meierotto and 462,000 for McDonald. While they were out, they agreed to do a deal and play for the ring.

Third Place, $34,535. Five minutes into the level, with Hale now in front, the flop came Q-8-6. Holding pocket aces, McDonald bet 80,000 and Hale, with 8-6 for two pair, moved in, filling when a 6 turned, knocking McDonald out in third place. McDonald, 38, is a real estate investor from Marshall, Minnesota playing five years. He has some cashes in small events, but this is his first big tournament. He's also still looking for a nickname.

Heads-up, Hale had about a million chips to around 450,000 for Meierotto. Poker room manager Gary Margetsen now brought in the trophy ring and a silver tray loaded with cash as the two prepared to do battle. Fifty hands and an hour later, Hale had picked up about another 75,000 chips, and blinds were now 8,000-16,000 with 2,000 antes.  On and on and on the contest went. In all this time there had been nothing close to a major bet, much less an all-in.

As play went on, Hale gradually took more chips away as Meierotto, would fold when Hale bet.. Finally, on the 78th deal heads-up, the board came J-A-6. Holding A-7, Hale slow-played it. When a king turned, Meierotto, holding 6-5 for a pair of 6s, moved in for his last 136,000. Hale called, hit a second pair with a river 7, and the skydiver landed in first place.

Second Place
, $62,790. Meierotto is a coin dealer from Kansas City, Missouri who has been playing three years. His nickname is Denny "D" Dealer.