Ex-Champ Wins Horse Play
The poker world has changed significantly in the nearly 2 1/2 decades since Chip Reese captured the gold and diamond encrusted bracelet for winning an event at the World Series of Poker. Early Saturday at the Rio, the Las Vegas resident -- a 1991 inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame -- rejoined that community in epic fashion. Beginning shortly after 2 a.m., Reese, 55, and fellow poker professional Andy Bloch staged a record 7-hour, 12-minute head-to-head matchup at the final table of the World Series of Poker's HORSE event. When the back-and-forth tussle was over, Reese won his first World Series title since 1982 and his richest paycheck ever in tournament competition -- more than $1.78 million. His last championship, 24 years ago, was worth $92,500. Back then, only a few hundred players competed in the World Series of Poker. Today, fueled by the Internet and televised poker events, close to 30,000 players will enter the 2006 competition and millions will follow online and on ESPN. Saturday's first-place prize was the highest payout in World Series of Poker history for any event other than the no-limit World Championship Texas hold'em match. The championship bracelet makes three in Reese's collection, although he's not really sure what happened to the other two. "It's pretty nice," said Reese, admiring his new piece of jewelry. "Actually, I think one year that I won, they gave me a watch. I occasionally play in big events at the Venetian and Bellagio, but this is the biggest payday I've ever had in tournament play." Reese had to earn that reward, mostly through lack of sleep.
The three-day HORSE tournament, which had a World Series of Poker record buy-in of $50,000 and attracted 143 players, consisted of five different poker games that rotated every 40 minutes, with the stakes increasing roughly every three hours. Games included Texas hold'em, Omaha, razz, seven card stud, and seven card stud high-low split/eight or better for low.
No-limit Texas hold'em was the only game played during the 12-hour final table, which began with nine players just before 10 p.m. Friday.
The competition's second day, which started with 127 players, lasted longer, beginning at 2 p.m. Thursday and ending at 9 a.m. Friday.
Reese began Friday night in first place, holding almost $1.8 million in chips of the $7.15 million tournament pot. He had to face down some hefty competition, who collectively owned 27 championship bracelets.
Two previous World Poker champions, Doyle Brunson (1976 and 1977) and Jim Bechtel (1993), also reached the final table, along with tournament veterans Dewey Tomko, T.J. Cloutier, Bloch, and Phil Ivey, who has a strong following via televised poker and the Internet.
Brunson, seeking a record 11th World Series of Poker bracelet, seemed to be the sentimental favorite of the audience, which packed the Rio Pavilion's small bleachers and stood 10 rows deep around the ESPN television cameras that surrounded the final table.
"Heck, I had sentiment for Doyle," Reese said. "We all want to see him win that 11th bracelet. He's an amazing player. I knew going in there were going to be some great players at the final table. I just hoped to be one of them."
Brunson, who had the second-highest amount of chips coming in, busted out in eighth place shortly after midnight. He was soon followed by Tomko. Bloch eliminated Cloutier, and Reese ended Bechtel's night by 1:30 a.m. A half-hour later, Ivey was on the sidelines.
When heads-up play began, Bloch held a $90,000 lead over Reese in chips, but that figure grew steadily during slow play over the next four hours.
By 6:15 a.m., Bloch had a better than 5-to-1 lead in chips over Reese.
"I had never played heads-up with Chip before, so I was trying to read him and he was trying to read me," said Bloch, a professional poker player since 1992 who holds two electrical engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a law degree from Harvard.
"That's probably a reason the play was so slow," he added.
Reese nipped away at Bloch's lead and won two significant pots in the next hour, twice doubling his chip total. By 7:15 a.m., Reese took a $350,000 lead, increasing it to almost $1.2 million in the next 20 minutes.
But Bloch wasn't discouraged. Within 40 minutes, he battled back, winning several large pots and regaining a $1.4 million lead by 8:37 a.m.
However, the end was in sight 20 minutes later. Bloch, with a pair of nines, called Reese when he went all-in holding a king of diamonds and six diamonds. The flop and river cards gave Reese a flush and a commanding lead of more than 6 to 1 in chips.
Bloch bet his last $300,000 on a nine-high; Reese won with ace-high.
"I was really impressed with the way Andy played heads-up," Reese said. "I just got lucky on some of the cards I drew. He had several opportunities where he could have won it."
Bloch, who was seeking his first World Series of Poker bracelet, won more than $1 million for second place.
"I'm sure I'll feel pretty good about how I did after I've had a chance to sleep," he said. "I think we both just grew tired and made the moves that we did."
This was the first time a HORSE event was added to the 45-event competition. World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, who has likened the poker tournament to a professional sports league, said HORSE was the event's all-star game, coming at the halfway point.
"You saw the best poker players in the world over these past few days, the all-stars of our sport," Pollack said. "I thought going in that we would get 65 to 75 players. So 143 was amazing. In our off-season, we'll look at the HORSE event and see how we can make it better."
World Series of Poker Communications Director Gary Thompson said HORSE was added at the request of long-time poker professionals. The players thought competition at different games with a buy-in five times any previous amount was a needed event.
"We have a player's advisory committee, and they were unanimous at including this event into the schedule," Thompson said. "When we checked with other players, they were also unanimous in us having this event. The players thought the event showcases their skills across a variety of games."
Some players, however, thought the final table should have been the HORSE format, rather than no-limit hold'em, including Brunson, considered the game's godfather.
"We played HORSE for two days, and I think it cheapens (the event) by playing hold'em on the last day," Brunson said before the final table. "We were asking for this big game, and I'm glad it was added, but the final table should have been HORSE, not hold'em."
Both Reese and Bloch agreed with Brunson but understood that hold'em translated better to a television audience. ESPN is scheduled to show the HORSE event in late October.
Thompson said ESPN insisted that hold'em be the game at the final table, while several players questioned said that Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the World Series of Poker, made the final call.
An ESPN representative could not be reached.
HORSE attracted a poker all-star roster. Former World Series of Poker champions Johnny Chan (1987, 1988), Phil Hellmuth (1989), Huck Seed (1996), Chris Ferguson (2000), Carlos Mortensen (2001) and Greg Raymer (2004) took part, as did well-recognized professionals Mike Sexton, Mike Matusow, Annie Duke, Todd Brunson, Jennifer Harmon, Erik Seidel, Lyle Berman, Gabe Kaplan and Daniel Negreanu.
None finished among the top 16, which split the total prize pool of almost $6.9 million.
This year's World Championship event, in which Harrah's officials expect to draw more than 8,000 players at $10,000 a buy-in, begins July 28 at the Rio with a four-day opening round.
Participants will play down until nine players remain, who will compete at the final table on Aug. 10.
Australian Joseph Hachem collected $7.5 million for becoming last year's world champion. Harrah's officials expect the 2006 winner to take home more than $12 million.