Horsepower Over Horses at Tunica

The opening event of the WSOP Circuit tour at Harrah's Casino Tunica took on the aspects of a race in its final stages. It pitted Ronnie "Slugger" Sewell, owner of a steel fabrication business, who has 151 stock car racing feature wins to his credit, and Mark "Pegasus" Smith, who breeds race horses. Even more dramatic, Smith (along with eight other players) has two Circuit rings and was trying for his third to tie WSOP champion Chris Ferguson. He came close. He arrived at the final table with a small chip lead and, after getting short-chipped, regained it again with three players left. But in the end it was Sewell, who is 52 and from Shelby, North Carolina, who took down the $300 no-limit event. His victory was worth $37,384 and an eye-catching gold-and-diamond trophy ring. In winning, Sewell made an incredible comeback, because not long after the dinner break on day one, he was down to only 1,000 in chips.

The Sewell Contractors owner has been playing for 20 years and this is his biggest win. Prior cashes include a second in a $1,000 Circuit event and a ninth in a WPT event in Tunica last year, along with a 15th in a $5,000 WSOP tournament three years ago.

Sewell, who plays only tournaments and not cash games, describes his play as conservative, and said he chipped up gradually throughout this event after getting down to his last two chips.. His strategy was to let other players knock each other out and not get involved in a hand unless he thought he was dominant. He plays in a weekly home game tournament back home, but his business only allows him time to play perhaps four or five major tournaments a year. He also gave thanks to his daughter for taking care of business for him and allowing him to play here.

Day one of this inaugural event, which drew 514 players who built a prize pool of $1`49,574, ran up against Barack Obama's inauguration ceremonies in Washington. When Obama learned of this, he phoned tournament director Jimmy Sommmerfeld and asked if the tournament could be delayed to avoid conflict which would cost him viewers, but Sommerfeld refused, explaining that the tournament was more important.

Indeed, this year's Tunica Circuit has something for everyone. The 14 no-limit noon events  have buy-ins ranging from $200 to the three-day $5,000 championship. There are also a dozen $200 events at 4 p.m. offering a diverse menu of limit, no-limit and 6-handed hold'em, as well as pot-limit Omaha and Omaha hi-lo; stud and stud hi-lo; and H.O.R.S.E. Also included will be a ladies and a seniors event. Players in the noon events start with 10,000 chips and the 4 p.m. entrants will get 6,000. In addition, there will be four $500 mega-satellites and nightly 7 p.m. events.

Players arriving for this Circuit will encounter a newly re-branded hotel-casino (formerly Grand Casino Resort Tunica) that was re-opened last year after a $45 million renovation. Notable among the renovations is the 560-seat Paula Deen Buffet, modeled after the Food Network star's home in Savannah, Georgia, and featuring her best recipes. The expansion and upgrade of Harrah’s Casino Tunica included a refurbishing of rooms with new beds, carpet and furniture. The first floor was completely reconfigured with a new entertainment bar, new carpet, lighting, high-limit salon and a new 14-table, 140-seat Grand poker room. Tle poker room, offering daily tournaments in addition to live action, is designed with calming dark colors and has a World Series of Poker flair with walls lined with photos of prominent poker players from past WSOP tournaments.

Tunica is the third-largest gaming market in the United States, and Harrah's Casino Tunica is the largest of the Harrah's Entertainment properties there. The casino, just 20 minutes from the Memphis International Airport, and close to many of the South's most popular travel attractions, is the largest casino between Las Vegas and Atlantic City. It covers over 2,000 acres that include three elegant hotels and an 18-hole Hale Irwin-designed championship golf course

Among the players in this event were 2003 world champion Chris Moneymaker and the colorful Eskimo Clark. Other notables included Doug "Rico" Carli, who holds the record of 34 Circuit cashes. Day two action began with Smith holding 1.28 million chips, just ahead of Ethan Foulkes and Sewell, with 1.1 million and 1 million even, respectively. Action started with 3,000 antes, blinds of 10,000-20,000 and 23 minutes on the clock.

Here were the starting chip counts:

Seat 1. Chad Smithson           456,000          
Seat 2. Dorian Grant               403,000
Seat 3. Adam Young              223,000
Seat 4. Ronnie Sewell             1,000,000
Seat 5. Mark Smith                 1,128,000
Seat 6. Charles Kent St. Clair 300,000          
Seat 7. Ethan Foulkes             1,100,000
Seat 8. Ricky Blackburn Jr.    689,000
Seat 9. John Martinez             161,000

First to leave, soon after blinds went to 15,000-30,000 with 4,000 antes, was Charles Kent St. Clair, a 61-year-old retired Teamster from Wayland, Missouri who's been playing for 30 years. Starting second-lowest in chips, he was all in from the big blind with K-10. Foulkes had only 3-2 in the big blind, but took St. Clair out by catching a trey on the river.

Not long after, Adam Young pushed in his last 217,000 with pocket 7s and was called by Sewell with pocket jacks. Young's pleas for a third 7 went unheeded as he finished  eighth. Young, 39, lives in Orlando, Florida and is a search engine marketing worker. He's been playing three years, has "three beautiful children," and has three brothers who made a final table at a Bellagio $1,000 event.

A few hands later, John "Lucky" Martinez raised pre-flop with pocket kings, and Chad Smithson, holding A-Q, re-raised all in. The board came 7-4-3-10-2, and Smith, 31, self-employed and from Franklin, Tennessee, cashed seventh. Smithson started playing at age 11.

Players took a short break and returned to blinds of 20,000-40,000 with 5,000 antes. On the first hand of that level, Dorian Grant exited in sixth place. He raised all in from the button holding A-5 and was the favorite after Foulkes called with K-10. But things quickly went downhill for him.. Foulkes took the lead when a 10 flopped, made two pair when a king turned, and then filled with a river 10. Grant, 30, a graduate of Atlanta Tech, is a small business owner from Atlanta, Georgia who started playing four years ago.

The next acftion developed after Sewell and Foulkes tangled in a big pot after Foulkes raised pre-flop and Sewell re-raised. The flop brought 9-2-7. and Foulkes moved in with A-6. "You've got me," he said, after Sewell called. Sewell turned over pocket 4s, which held up when a queen and king were dealt as Foulkes cashed out fifth. Foulkes, 28, from Las Vegas, was a computer security engineer before turning pro five years ago.

With four players left, Sewell now had the lead with more than 2 million of the 514,000 chips in play. Right after that, it appeared Smith's quest for a third ring was over when he put in his last chips from the small blind with A-5 and was called by Ricky Blackburn Jr. with pocket 9s. But "Pegasus" survived and doubled up by catching with a 5 on the flop and an ace on the turn, rebounding to close to a million chips..

With blinds at 30,000-60,000, Ricky "Blackbird" Blackburn Jr. moved in for about 700,000 with A-6 and busted out in fourth place after Sewell called with pocket jacks and a board of K-9-5-8-3 didn't change anything. Blackburn, 26, is a rental car manager from Portland, Tennessee. Blackburn, has been playing four years and this is his first Circuit event. The highlight of his life is his "wonderful" 3-1/2-year-old dauighter, Cailey Jo.   

Sewell now had around 3 million chips, but the next big action changed everything around, at least for a while. Swell opened for 100,000, Smith moved in for exactly a million, and Sewell called. Smith had Ad-Kd, a big favorite against Sewell's A-J offsuit, Smith was an even bigger favorite when a 5s-3d-9d gave him a flush draw. But the king kicker was enough as Smith, hauling in a pot of over 2 million chips, took a small lead.

As play went on, though, Smith began picking up chips and climbed past the 3 million mark again. The match got heads-up after Sewell opened for 150,000 with K-10, and John "Lucky" Martinez moved in with Q-J, The king prevailed when the board came A-7-7-3-8.

Martinez, 39, is from Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, and owns a business called The Money Center. He's been playing three years and this is only his second tournament.

Heads-up, Sewell had about a 3-1 lead with roughly 3.8 million chips to 1.3 for Smith.

Later down to 665,000, Smith was able to double up when his A-5 beat Sewell's K-4. But that's as far as he got. On the final hand, the flop came 9-6-4. Sewell bet 200,000 and Smith, holding 8-7 for an open-ended straight draw, gambled and moved in. He lost the gamble when a queen and 9 came, and event number one was in the books

Smith, settling for second, is from Georgetown, Kentucky and, besides breeding horses, has a waste water treatment business and is also a deputy coroner. His two Circuit rings represent a championship event here and a preliminary win at Caesars Indiana. Smith, who has been playing four years, also has two Midwest Regional championship wins to his credit.