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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

World Poker Tour Crowns Champion

25 April 2005

More than seven grueling hours after the kickoff of the World Poker Tour Championship at the Bellagio resort Sunday afternoon, Los Angeles resident Tuan Le took home the top prize of $2.9 million in what has become the world's most expensive poker tournament.

Now in its third year at the Bellagio, the tournament draws only a few hundred people compared with the thousands that gather each spring for the World Series of Poker. But with a $25,000 buy-in, the Bellagio event attracts the world's best and most aggressive players.

Unlike some unknowns who emerged from Internet poker rooms in recent years to win major tournaments, the six people who made the final table Sunday are experienced casino tournament players.

"The cream rose to the top," the Bellagio's director of poker tournaments, Jack McClelland, said.

Le won a World Poker Tour event at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut last year. Paul Maxfield of England, who took second, placed in a World Series of Poker event last year. Third place winner Hasan Habib of Los Angeles placed second at last year's WPT Championship. Long Beach resident John Phan, in fourth, won a Commerce Casino tournament this year and placed in a tournament at the Plaza casino in downtown Las Vegas last year. Fifth place winner Rob Hollink of the Netherlands won a European Poker Tour tournament in Monaco this year.

Poker pro Phil Ivey, the only Las Vegas resident at the table, has won three World Series of Poker events and placed in several other tournaments. He placed sixth.

Maxfield won $1.7 million, Habib won $896,375, Phan won $518,920, Hollink won $377,420 and Ivey took home $264,195.

The first 100 placeholders in the tournament, which began April 19, were paid prize money from the pool of nearly $11 million. The minimum prize was $30,000.

The final table will be broadcast June 29 on the Travel Channel, which has broadcast rights to World Poker Tour events.

Habib began Sunday's final table with $7.8 million in chips, followed by Ivey with $3.4 million, Hollink with $4.4 million, Maxfield with $2.9 million, Le with $2.7 million and Phan with $1.5 million.

Habib was well ahead of the pack for much of the game but drew a number of losing cards later on.

"Some guys are chick magnets," tournament official Linda Johnson told the crowd. Habib, she said, is a "chip magnet."

More than two hours passed before two players, Ivey and Hollink, were knocked out in quick succession. About three hours in, Phan was out, followed by Habib three hours later. With a king and a five card, Maxfield tried for a flush but went out before midnight.

A rapt crowd of a few hundred watched the televised tournament from a ballroom in Bellagio's new hotel tower. A few hundred more drew numbers outside the room for a chance to see the game live. The audience sat during hour-long sessions with breaks of a few minutes in between. Some drinks were provided but food was nowhere to be seen.

Texas hold 'em -- the preferred game of big-money, televised tournaments -- is "two hours of boredom and 20 seconds of terror," McClelland told the crowd.

Actor Robert Duvall was in the crowd Sunday.

Duvall will be filming scenes at Bellagio for an upcoming movie featuring poker called "Lucky You."

"It's great that celebrities are so into poker," Johnson told the audience. "The other day Matt Damon was in the room and someone asked for Gus Hanson's autograph," she said, referring to a tournament player.

Most of those in the audience were regular joes and janes -- a testament to the growing popularity of poker. Some wore baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans, others business suits and dresses.

Erin Reynolds, a loss retention specialist for a retailer, traveled from Milwaukee for the chance to see the final table event. With more than 400 ahead of her in line, she waited for more than an hour near the door to the ballroom before an usher saw her and took her inside.

"It would take a bomb to get me out of this chair," she said.

Reynolds said she is a conservative poker player who hones her skills with free games online. She doesn't see herself entering a major tournament in the near future.

"I love to watch," she said. "I'm more of a spectator than a player."

"I don't have the guts to do it," she said of the Bellagio tournament. "I'd crack under the pressure. These guys are so amazing."

Nearby, computer programmer Shane Cooper flew in from San Diego to see the event.

Cooper was in town for a bachelor party at the Hard Rock but cut out -- he didn't really know anyone at the party anyway, he says -- to catch the tournament across town.

After three hours of waiting and with more than 100 people ahead of him, Cooper rose to the top of the list when another offered his seat. Cooper said he hopes to play in a major tournament someday and expects to start out by playing in satellite tournaments for less money.

"I TiVo every poker show on TV," he said. "I play online (for real money) like five hours a day."

Players began the tournament with $50,000 in chips each. The final table began with minimum bets of $40,000 to $80,000. Those bets got richer as the evening wore on and eventually reached a World Poker Tour record.

Antes rose from a few hundred thousand to around $500,000, with players raising one another in the millions of dollars per hand. Little-used yellow chips, each worth $100,000, emerged several hours into the game.

More than 450 players entered the tournament compared with last year's 343 players. Last year's top prize winner took home $2.7 million from an $8.6 million prize pool.

World Poker Tour Crowns Champion is republished from