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Akkari wins WSOP title, $675,117

29 June 2011

Depending upon one’s perspective, everything that is either right or wrong with poker in the modern era was manifested in the heads-up duel between the final two players in the latest mega tournament, held at the 2011 World Series of Poker.

Three long days, countless poker hands, and hundreds of bad beat stories after it started, an initial starting tournament field of nearly 3,000 had been whittled down to an American versus a Brazilian playing for the coveted WSOP gold bracelet.

The stage was set for the final showdown of the $1,500 buy-in No-Limit Hold’em championship -- the 43rd gold bracelet event (of 58) on this year’s WSOP schedule. In a very crude sense, the names of the two players didn't really matter. What did matter was what each player represented to those who were watching and cheering them on. Both players attracted a dedicated following of fawning fans who came to the ESPN main stage with one purpose in mind -- to make as much noise as possible while partying their brains out.

Nachman Berlin, a 31-year-old poker pro from Brooklyn, N.Y. enjoyed as high-powered an entourage as anyone at any final table. Several of his friends cheering up in the stands were highly-accomplished poker players. It was a smattering of anarchistic talent, nauseatingly self-confident, yet seemingly incomplete for one of their own having not yet won a WSOP title.

Staring down the opposition on the other side of the table was Andre Akkari, who is considered by many to be the best poker player from Brazil. If Berlin’s supporters were a maxed out "10" in volume, the brassy Brazilians – to borrow a line from the quirky niche film “Spinal Tap” – were dialed up to an "11." All that was missing from the final table festivity was Metallica bursting out of the wings and blasting out everyone's collective eardrums with some deafening guitar riff.

Indeed, the atmosphere was a cross between the Olympics, the World Cup, and Carnival (make that Mardi Gras, for the American readers -- this is the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, after all). There was ceaseless chanting. There were flags (all Brazilian). The wave was even performed dozens of times.

I know, the wave. At a poker tournament. What next? Poker riots?

And so, this was the bizarre setting for the latest WSOP heads-up showdown, a surreal mix of gamesmanship and showmanship. A game once played in the quiet stillness, amidst the incessant hum of air conditioners, is now one step away from an episode of Glee. All night marathons with half a dozen bored silent witnesses have been jettisoned to the proverbial Stone Age -- their living corpses replaced by a sort of superfandom embodying the notion that poker is a real actual sport.

While the spirit seems fun for most, some detractors don't care much for the recent changes where many spectators have quite literally become part of the game. It’s easy to understand this criticism, as top-flight poker usually requires tremendous concentration and focus, which can be difficult when a hundred spectators are screaming in Portuguese on one side of the arena, while the other half are hollering out “USA! USA! USA!” at the other.

After the sea of noise and revelry finally parted following a two-day final table, walking through the abyss like Moses headed to the promised land was Akkari, a 36-year-old poker pro from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He defeated his final adversary in heads up play, leaving scores of Brazilians in a state of ecstasy as though they'd just won the World Cup. By doing what may have seemed impossible days earlier when there were 2,857 players who started the race, Akkari won his first WSOP gold bracelet.

Akkari collected a whopping $675,117 in prize money. He'd already won more than $2.2 million in online tournaments.

Three days before the circus atmosphere that was the final table, the tournament began on quite a different note. Prior to the start of play, a distinguished guest was introduced to the huge gallery of players and spectators. Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) was present to rally support for a pro-online poker bill he recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Over the years, several notable political figures have appeared at WSOP events. The most notable appearances in recent years were by (former) Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), and others.

Barton asked the nearly 3,000 poker players who were assembled in the tournament room to contact their elected representatives in Washington and ask them to support efforts to legalize, license, and regulate online poker inside the United States.

Ah, the irony; a U.S. congressman appearing at the WSOP, trying to drum up support and enthusiasm for a new law which allows Americans to play poker. Then four days later, a Brazilian poker champion is crowned. Indeed, Akkari's moment of triumph was clear proof of what a large mass of unified people cheering for one common goal can accomplish.


Akkari was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil – which is the nation’s largest city. He is married with two children. Akkari is close friends with Alexandre Gomes, who was the first Brazilian to win WSOP title in 2008. Akkari was with Gomes when he won his gold bracelet.

"It was unbelievable," said Akkari. "After he won the bracelet, it changed everything about poker in Brazil. Poker was growing before he won the bracelet, but after that, it was unbelievable. Three million people play poker online and play poker live, it changed everything about poker in Brazil. I was so happy. I was here, rooting for him, and now he is here rooting for me.”

The win meant even more to Akkari, who recently lost his father while playing in the LAPT in Lima, Peru.

"I finished the Day 1 third in chips, in the Top 3, and I went to my room, so happy because I had so many chips, and it was one hour before I started playing Day 2, I got a call from Brazil saying my father had passed away," said Akkari. "So it was the worst day of my life. And I was pretty sure something, something good would happen here this time. And it happened."

Berlin, a 31-year-old professional poker player, was formerly a landlord. When Ari Engel moved into Berlin’s basement, Berlin saw him playing online poker and gradually developed a friendship and student-teacher relationship with the very successful online pro. That instruction and support paid off in this tournament, as Berlin ended up earning $419,173 for finishing second.

Matthew Carmody from Hollywood, Calif., was third for $295,635, Jacob Naquin of Destin, Fla., was fourth for $213,520, Scott Sitron from Glendale, Wisc., was fifth for $156,090, and Nicolas Chouity from Beirut, Lebanon, was sixth for $115,477.

Zachary Hall from Frederick, Md., Phillip Meulyzer from Antwerp, Belgium, and Fay Foley from Northville, Mich., finish seventh, eighth, and ninth, respectively.

The top 297 finishers collected prize money. Former gold bracelet winners who cashed in this tournament were: Simon Watt (22nd), Andre Boyer (68th), Phi Nguyen (79th), Jordan Smith (84th), Justin Scott (118th), Kathy Liebert (148th), David Bakes Baker (149th), Eric Baldwin (214th), and Thomas “Thunder” Keller (252nd).

Soi Nguyen, one of last year’s November Nine finalists, cashed in 207th place.

Tournament summary provided by Nolan Dalla, WSOP Media Director, republished by permission.

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