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Winner Take All

After a week of bad beats and big bets, the 2004 World Series of Poker championship came down to a table of mostly unknown names
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Greg Raymer, Sept/Oct 2004

(continued from page 2)

Former champion Phil Hellmuth gets extra flashy, showing the camera his pocket kings before he lays them down. Struggling to stay alive, and on seemingly continual deathwatch, Hellmuth hangs in there like the gifted tournament player he is, often doubling up when he seems a breath away from being knocked out. After a feisty opponent makes a big bet at him, Hellmuth shoots the guy a tight grin and sharply asks, "Are you bluffing me again? This is the third time you've bluffed me. But that's OK. I always get the guys who bluff me."

Hellmuth mucks his cards and the guy looks at him curiously. "You'll come after me?"

"No," Hellmuth replies. "You'll come after me and I'll be waiting for you with top set."

It sounds good, and it's a compelling sentiment, but it never comes to pass. Before day three is over, Hellmuth is out of the tournament.

One star who lasts the third day but not much beyond it is Brunson, a great player with unbelievable stamina. At 70 years of age, Brunson has been playing in a $4,000/$8,000 game at the Golden Nugget, right across from the Horseshoe, just about every day for the last month. It's a game that routinely starts in the early afternoon and ends 14 or 15 hours later. When a young player at Brunson's World Series table complains about being tired from all the action, Brunson looks at him, smiles gently and lets the kid know that he's been putting in the long hours all month. On top of that, Brunson's recently finished the sequel to Super/System, which has long stood as the most reliable instructional manual on poker.

Considering Brunson's lifelong career in the game, combined with his advancing age, it's easy to get sentimental and hope that he might pull out a final World Series win, which would be his eighth victory in a World Series event. He has a shot at moving toward that goal when he makes an all-in bet before the flop. Sitting across the table, the burly and bearded Bradley Berman—whose father, Lyle, co-founded the World Poker Tour and is a regular fixture in Brunson's big game at the Nugget—doesn't hear the bet and thinks Brunson has checked from the big blind. Attempting to steal the pot, Berman says, "Raise."

He has no interest in going all in on the hand, and the last thing Brunson wants, with his pocket 10s, is a caller. But, regardless of a misunderstanding, tournament rules dictate that a call is a call. Berman is forced to push all his chips to the table's center. He sheepishly turns over his cards: ace 7. The odds of winning remain in Brunson's favor—until an ace comes on the flop. Brunson never improves his hands and gets knocked out in a manner that no book could ever prepare you for. "I had a gut feeling he was going to catch that ace," Brunson later says, slowly shaking his head. "It's the kind of unfortunate break that I'd been trying to avoid all tournament. But it's kind of like this was destiny or something."

Brunson rises from his seat to leave the tournament room, and the place erupts with cheering. It turns into a standing ovation. He tips his hat to the crowd, smiles broadly and exits in the classiest way imaginable. Asked how it felt to get such a show of appreciation, Brunson puts on his poker face: "It was nice that all those guys in there knew me and were appreciative of the contributions I had made. It was kind of a touching moment for me."

Asked if he'll be playing in 2005, Brunson replies, "I said this was going to be my last tournament because it's so grueling, even though I still hold up pretty well."

Then he hesitates for a beat before adding, "But I'm sure I'll be there next year."

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