After 13 years of WSOP events, over 50 cashes, and 5 final tables, long-time Chicago grinder earns first bracelet

June 30, 2017 (Las Vegas, NV) - Tom Koral made the trek to the Rio every summer for over a decade before taking a World Series of Poker bracelet back home to Chicago, but he made his first bracelet win one to remember with one of the most epic comebacks in recent poker history.

Koral defeated 298 players to win $96,907 and his first WSOP title in the $1,500 Seven Card Stud tournament on Friday night. 

"Honestly, I still think it's going to take a little bit to soak in," said Koral after the tournament. "I've been coming here since 2005, so 13 years I've been at the World Series and cashing events. I don't know. Finally, it happened.... I love poker, I love the game, so it's really a blessing to finally have a World Series bracelet. I know after a 13-year journey how hard it is to get one."

For most of the final day, it looked like Tsong Lin was going to run away with the tournament. He came in with the chip lead and dominated the final table, up until heads-up play. Of the just over 2.2 million chips in play, Lin held about 2.1 million of them at the outset of their heads-up match.

Koral only had about 125,000 in chips, which is about three big bets, and doubled up on one of the first couple hands. Over the course of the next several hours, he proceeded to put a sizable dent into Lin's stack and eventually take the chip lead over for himself. After more five hours of heads-up play, Koral finished off Lin and put a close on a classic 'Chip and a Chair' story.

Even though he was facing a nearly 20-to-1 chip deficit, there was never a doubt in Koral's mind about making a comeback. Especially when he felt that he actually had some room to pick a good spot and outmaneuver Lin, who he had much less experience in tournament play.

"In stud, you are basically anteing, but you really aren't forced to play a big pot, if you have enough chips, unless you have to," said Koral. "A big part of my heads-up strategy was to just play very aggressively with the hands that I was going to play and basically trying to punish him as much as I could for playing too many hands.

"I was hoping that would lead to him playing a little bit more passively heads-up and giving me some extra antes and helping me win pots without hands. My heads-up strategy was basically full pedal to the metal if I had a reasonable hand worth playing and put the pressure on him and hopefully pick up pots later on if I didn't catch well."

Koral both caught well and played well, thanks in part to his lucky hand warmers that he got from a now fellow bracelet winner, Anthony Zinno. Zinno, who has over $2.2 million in WSOP earnings alone, gave him a hand warmer in the $3,000 HORSE event that Koral finished fourth in about a week ago.

"I saw him having these little hand warmers," said Koral. "All the poker players kind of know how awfully cold the Rio can be sometimes and I was like 'That's a great idea.' My fingertips were freezing." 

Zinno joked that he usually charges $5 for a hand warmer, but he gave Koral the first one for free. After a final table in the HORSE and a poor performance in his next event, Koral went back to Zinno for his lucky hand warmer.

"Then I took a tournament off and I played a no-limit tournament and I busted," said Koral. "And I started up in the Miranda on Day 2 [of this event] and my hands were freezing again.... So I went over to Zinno and I said 'I'll give you $20 for two hand warmers.'"

Zinno wouldn't take the money this time, but Koral forced him to take the money and donate it to charity. Koral got two hand warmers for the remaining two days of the Seven Card Stud event, which he used the whole time en route to his first bracelet.

"It's a lucky hand warmer," said Koral. "I might have to hold on to this as a keepsake."

With a strong showing in Seven Card Stud, Koral continued to prove he is a force to be reckoned with in all poker variants. This is Koral's fifth final table and they are in five different games. His lone win, however, comes in a game he considers to be one of his weakest games.

"I actually think in the HORSE lineup, I think it's my maybe fourth or fifth [best game]," said Koral. "I would say I'm better at stud 8, better at hold'em and better at Omaha for sure. That and razz are pretty close."

Koral hails from Skokie, IL, a Chicago suburb. With Mohsin Charania winning his first bracelet in the $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em last night, it's the second night in a row that a Chicago based pro takes home a bracelet.

"Chicago breeds a lot of talented poker players," said the 33-year-old pro. "There are a lot that are there, too, that haven't ran as well as I did in this tournament and haven't had their shot at winning a bracelet yet, but there is a lot of very, very good tough players over there. It's not easy in Chicago to make a living playing poker because there are so many tough players, for sure."

He credits the traits of people from Chicago with a good chunk of the reason that the area produces such good players.

"I think people in the MIdwest, they work hard, they are driven, they have good values," said Koral. "We work hard and we keep improving. Even during this tournament, I was constantly running equities on hands that kept coming up almost every break. [I] probably looked up 40 or 50 different stud hands over the last two or three days just to make sure that I'm not making mistakes and if I did make a mistake, realizing it so if that situation comes up in the future, I won't make it again. Even 13 years in, I'm still trying to improve."

The final day started on Friday at 2 p.m. with the final seven players still remaining. They reached the final table late on Thursday, but Chris Tryba hit the rail before they stopped for the day. He finished in eighth place and took home $8,726.

Koral came into the day fifth in chips with 147,000 compared to Lin's 791,000, but was able to tread water as Lin knocked out the majority of the players at the final table. Daniel Mogavero finished in seventh, Cheryl Denzik fell in sixth, and Todd Bui was sent packing in fifth.

With four players left, Lin had about 70% of the chips in play. He eliminated Alexander Freund in fourth and Yueqi Zhu in third to get heads-up with the eventual winner. Koral was able to hold on to his chips, but he wasn't trying to ladder up the payouts.

"I was actually pretty fortunate that even though the chip counts were pretty small, the payjumps were so tiny that it just really was never a factor in my mind," said Koral. "If I had a hand that was playable, I was willing to go with it at any time." 

Koral added that sticking to his gut and going with his reads were a big reason he took it down.

"There was even a hand right before the first break where I had less than half a bet left on the river. Where I called down a very aggressive player on a 10-5-10 board where he was representing trips," he recalled. "It's kind of dangerous in stud when somebody pairs their door cards, but you also have to go with your reads and also have to go with, you know, having blockers in your hand and stuff like that. He could have trips and I could be drawing almost dead for my tournament, but you are going to have to get really lucky at some point and you really just have to trust your read all the way through because the second you stop trusting your reads is the second you are going to get run over by an aggressive player."

Full Results
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Final Table Results:

1st: Tom Koral  - $96,907
2nd: Tsong Lin - $59,894
3rd: Yueqi Zhu - $41,349
4th: Alexander Freund - $29,102
5th: Todd Bui - $20,888
6th: Cheryl Denzik - $15,297
7th: Daniel Mogavero - $11,433
8th: Chris Tryba - $8,726