Jesper Hougaard won Event #36 ($1,500 No Limit Hold 'em) on Saturday after dominating the final table to bag $610,304 and a World Series of Poker bracelet.
Hougaard, 24, is a former professional table tennis player and coach from Copenhagen, Denmark. He played on the Danish national team but left to pursue a career at the poker tables. Before banking his big win on Saturday Hougaard had recorded three previous WSOP cashes and had more than $100,000 in career tournament earnings.
Hougaard, like many of his fellow Danes, started playing poker after Gus Hansen become a household name in Denmark. He played small home games with his friends where he said, "if you won maybe 20, 30, 40 bucks in a night that was a huge night . . . and you were the king of the school the next day."
Hougaard quickly moved to online poker in search of bigger games and recently won one of the biggest regular tournaments for nearly $150,000.
Hougaard came to the final table of Event #36 with the chip lead and put on one of the strongest displays so far at the 2008 WSOP. He was relentlessly aggressive and maintained his strategy even when things didn't go his way. When play was down to four-handed Hougaard doubled up Danny Wong and Aaron Kanter in consecutive hands, but instead of shying away he went on to win eight on the next nine pots, most of them before the flop.
"It's better to be too aggressive than too passive," Hougaard said after the tournament.
Hougaard went on to bust Wong and Kanter after getting lucky against both of them. Hougaard's A-5 of hearts flopped the nut flush to crack Wong's pocket Kings and nine hands later he got Kanter all-in and beat pocket queens with K-J when a king landed on the river.
Hougaard's final obstacle was Cody Slaubaugh, a 23-year-old online pro from Rugby, North Dakota. Hougaard had Slaubaugh out-chipped almost 7:1 and the lively group of Danish supporters in the crowd were on the verge of singing victory songs. But Slaubaugh doubled up on the first hand of heads-up with A-10 against Q-10, then ran a big bluff to get right back in it. From the official WSOP updates:
"Cody raised to 125,000 and Jesper thought a good while before announcing a reraise. He made it 320,000 in total and Slaubaugh took some time before making the call. The flop came 10s-3c-Kc and Hougaard bet 375,000. Cody announced all in for another 1.2 million and Hougaard angrily flicked his cards away, showing an ace. And that's when Cody showed Q-9, causing his friends in the crowd to make some considerable noise."
A few pots later Slaubaugh had taken the chip lead and silenced Hougaard's supporters. Fortunately for Hougaard the dinner break came moments later, giving him a chance to cool down.
"I really needed to take five or ten minutes to regroup my thoughts," Hougaard said. "I spoke to some people back at home just to clear my mind and think of something else than poker. When there was about 15 minutes on the break I put on my earphones, I put on 'Eye of the Tiger' and then I just kind of shadow boxed my way back down to the [final table]."
Hougaard credited his mental turnaround to his experience as a professional table tennis player and said it helped him to forget the shift in momentum and think of the post-dinner play as a whole new match. Hougaard came back from the break a seemingly changed man and took control of the action. From the official WSOP updates:
"Hougaard raised to 160,000 and Cody reraised to 480,000. Again Jesper beat Cody into the pot with a 1 million raise of his own, and after Cody asked how much Jesper had left he sat back and thought a bit. All the while looking at Hougaard, sitting ramrod straight with his hands in front of him, staring at Cody. Slaubaugh finally chose to call, and the flop came Qs-4s-7d. Cody checked, and Jesper bet 450,000, putting his chips into the pot with a THUMP. Throughout the hand Jesper radiated strength, aggression, menace. And in the end Slaubaugh laid his hand down."
Hougaard regained the chip lead and an hour after returning from break he finished off Slaubaugh when his pocket queens held up against A-10 in an all-in pre-flop pot. Hougaard hit a dream flop of Q-2-8 rainbow and gave the crowd one of the most enthusiastic celebrations of the 2008 WSOP. He jumped into the air, ran over to his supporters to dish out a few hugs and high-fives, then gave a Tiger-esque fist pump as he returned to the table to watch the turn and river. The turn was a 5 and Slaubaugh was drawing dead, prompting another round of celebration from Hougaard and his large group of supporters, who soon after broke out in victory songs.
Slaubaugh finished in second place for $389,128 and said he was disappointed not to win yet happy with his finish in the tournament.
Hougaard wins $610,304 and the WSOP bracelet.
"It's tough to express the feelings," Hougaard said. "Right now the boys and me are going to have a big party and go celebrate this. This is what I came for."
For a full list of money finishers from Event #36, see the WSOP results page.