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Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic: The Homestretch for the Player of the Year Award

by BJ Nemeth |  Published: Feb 07, 2006


Daniel Negreanu had a fantastic 2004 to win Card Player's prestigious Player of the Year title. After the World Series of Poker, it looked like he could have coasted to the title, but late pressure from David "The Dragon" Pham actually had Negreanu in second place as they entered the last $15,000 buy-in event of the year – Bellagio's Five-Diamond World Poker Classic. Negreanu would rise to the challenge and win the event to clinch the title.

Now, in 2005, it could happen all over again. John Phan had led the Player of the Year race since April, but the field gained ground as he slumped in the second half of the year. In early December, Men "The Master" Nguyen passed him by winning a preliminary event at Bellagio, and now Phan was in an unusual position – second place. He had fallen behind by just 124 points. Would the Five-Diamond again determine who would win the Player of the Year award?

Besides the titles, there was also a huge prize pool at stake, as 555 players invested $15,000 each, generating a prize pool of $8,075,250. The top 100 players would all earn at least $24,150, with $1 million for second and $2 million for first. For the record, Negreanu earned $1.77 million for his victory against a 376-player field in 2004.

Day One: Player of the Year Award Repercussions

Some of the top Player of the Year award contenders failed to survive day one, including John Phan (No. 2) and Allen Cunningham (No. 3). Cunningham took the loss in stride, but Phan was quickly looking for other qualifying tournaments where he could potentially pick up points. He wasn't going to go down without a fight.

Points leader Men Nguyen survived to day two with an average chip stack, but he was still being pursued by Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi (No. 4) and Michael Gracz (No. 5). Mizrachi finished day one second in chip count at $172,175. Both Mizrachi and Gracz would likely overtake Nguyen in the POY race with a final-table finish.

The chip leader at the end of day one was European Patrik Antonius. Could Antonius break the "Curse of the Day-One Chip Leader" and reach the final table? Recent tournaments certainly show that it's possible.

Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow were first and second in chip counts on day one of the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, and then repeated those standings again on day two. They would finish third and first, respectively. At the World Poker Tour Foxwoods World Poker Finals, Lyle Berman carried a huge chip lead from day one all the way to fifth place. Scotty Nguyen hosted the recent WSOP Circuit event in Las Vegas, led the field after day one, and walked away with a fourth-place finish. And most recently, Chris Reslock won the WSOP Circuit event at the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City after leading days one and two. Perhaps the day-one curse had been changed to a blessing?

Patrik Antonius (left) entered day two of the WPT Bellagio Five- Diamond World Poker Classic with the chip lead, but found himself sitting out of position to Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi (right), who entered day two in second place.

Day Two: Antonius v. Mizrachi

Antonius may have had the chip lead, but he picked up the worst possible table draw for day two; Mizrachi was sitting on his immediate left with the second-biggest chip stack in the room. Having an extremely aggressive player like Mizrachi acting behind you severely limits the power of your big stack.

Mizrachi flexed his positional muscles early, reraising Antonius preflop to put him to the test. But as the day wore on, Antonius eventually got the best of it. The key hand of the day happened late in the second level, when Antonius bet $15,000 on the turn with the board showing K 6 4 5. Mizrachi raised to $45,000, and Antonius called. The river card was the 8, and Mizrachi called an $80,000 bet from Antonius with the 8 7; Mizrachi had turned an 8-high straight. But, Antonius had the 9 7; he had hit a three-outer to make a 9-high straight on the river. That pot was worth more than $250,000, and Antonius increased his lead over the field.

Mizrachi was left with a respectable $184,000 in chips, but that hand started a downward spiral for The Grinder, and he was eliminated during the fourth round of the day. Mizrachi had a superb 2005, but he would not be claiming the Player of the Year title.

Points leader Men Nguyen also busted out on day two, but he didn't rest on his lead. John Phan had headed east to the Trump Classic in Atlantic City to try to pick up the handful of points he would need to regain the POY lead. Nguyen followed to protect his lead.

Nguyen's other big threat was Michael Gracz, who survived to day three with $178,000 in chips, which was above average for the 120 players remaining. Gracz was still facing a tough road, as he would need a fifth-place finish to take the lead in the POY race.

And the chip leader after day two? Once again, it was Patrik Antonius, who kept building his stack all day until he finished with $644,700. He was followed by Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken ($542,200), Alan Goehring ($434,600), Doyle Brunson ($418,000), and Phil Laak ($364,100).

Phil Laak drops his hood for some serious thinking on day four.

Day Three: The Curse Rears its Head

For the second day in a row, Antonius shared a table with the second-place player, and it didn't take long for them to tangle in the biggest pot of the tournament.

Antonius saw a benign-looking flop of J 7 5 in a hand against the player known across the Internet as "Gigabet" – but who registers for brick-and-mortar tournaments under his real name, Darrell Dicken. Dicken had raised before the flop, and called a reraise by Antonius. Dicken bet out after the flop, and there was a long delay before chip leader Antonius said, "All in." Dicken immediately called with the 7 5, giving him two pair. But Antonius had a strong hand, too; his K J gave him top pair with a flush draw. The odds were about 50-50 at this point, and the two chip leaders were battling over a post-flop coin flip. The last two cards were 9 A, and just like that, Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken became the new chip leader with nearly $900,000 in chips.

Joe Cassidy made an incredible call on day three that other players discussed for days.

Antonius still had plenty of chips (about $410,000), but would this hand put the European on tilt? Not likely. While

Antonius' youthful face isn't well-known in America, he has been tearing up the European Poker Tour (EPT) recently, with a third-place finish at the Barcelona Open in September and a victory at the Baden Classic in October.

Antonius bounced back, staying among the top five on the leader board most of the day. He even survived a failed bluff against Joe Cassidy late in the day. Cassidy had bet $100,000 into a $500,000 pot on a board of 9 6 5 Q J with nothing but the A 7 (ace high). Antonius raised the bet to $300,000 and Cassidy called. Antonius held only the A 3, Cassidy's 7 kicker played, and this huge pot temporarily propelled the young American into the chip lead.

Joanne "J.J." Liu won a huge pot at the end of the day to become the new chip leader. Dicken had chosen the wrong time to bluff all in with A-Q on a board of K-6-6-7-2. Liu quickly called with pocket kings – as she had flopped a full house.

Liu finished the day with $1.98 million in chips to lead the final 27 players into day four. She was followed by Rehne Pedersen ($1,460,000), Joe Cassidy ($1,207,000), Bengt Sonnert ($1,194,000), Patrik Antonius ($1,121,000), and Doyle Brunson ($1,110,000). POY contender Michael Gracz had been near elimination at one point, but bounced back to quietly survive the day in 10th place with $577,000 in chips, just a little below average.

Day Four: Gracz Threatens, but Falls Short

The Player of the Year race would see a shake up if Gracz could survive to the final table. However, he took a big hit during the second level when he was in a race situation with A-K against Jeff Littlefield's pocket queens. Littlefield flopped a full house on a board of Q-5-5, and Gracz lost more than half a million in chips, leaving him with less than $200,000. He caught a break 10 minutes later when he was on the other side of a race against Dicken, and his pocket jacks held up against Dicken's A-Q. But, he was still pretty low in chips.

Doyle Brunson draws plenty of fans when he plays next to the rail on day four.

He continued losing chips until he moved all in with the K 9 after an early-position raise by James Van Alstyne. But when Dicken moved all in over the top of him and Antonius moved all in over the top of Dicken, Gracz, after Van Alstyne quickly folded to get out of the way, was up against Antonius' A K and Dicken's pocket aces (A A).

Gracz hit two pair on the flop of K 9 5, but he had to dodge lots of outs to triple up. Dicken had the A (for a flush draw), and also could make a higher two pair. Gracz needed to avoid diamonds, the case ace, a 5, and a runner-runner pair on the board to win the hand. The turn card was the J, and Gracz was one card away from tripling up, but the river card was the 3, completing Dicken's flush. Gracz needed to finish fifth or higher in a 555-player field to take the lead in the Player of the Year standings – and he finished 15th. He earned $80,500 and had had an incredible 2005, but it probably felt like getting five out of six lottery numbers.

With Gracz gone, the rest of the tournament was all about the money – $2 million. And when Joe Cassidy was eliminated on the TV bubble in seventh place, the final table was set.

Final Table: A Story in Every Seat

The final table for the WPT Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic championship featured a compelling story in all six seats.

In seat No. 1, you had Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken, a legendary Internet player who was looking to win one of the largest brick-and-mortar tournaments of the year. He had some fans in the room, but far more were rooting for him "virtually" as they followed his progress online.

In seat No. 2, you had Patrik Antonius, the chip leader after days one and two, looking to crack that curse by showing America the skills he used to finish first and third in recent European Poker Tour (EPT) events. He also could be the first person to ever enter a WPT final table in last place and come back to win.

In seat No. 3, you had Rehne Pedersen, the unknown at the table. But this unknown was sitting here after investing only $100 in a satellite, and he was now playing for more than $2 million.

In seat No. 4, you had Joanne "J.J." Liu, who was entering with the chip lead and looking to become the first female to win an open World Poker Tour event.

In seat No. 5, you had Phil Laak, looking to join the elite group of players with two WPT titles.

And in seat No. 6, you had the living legend himself, Doyle Brunson. Nothing else needs to be said.

Here were the opening chip counts:

Chip Count Seat
Joanne "J.J." Liu $3,630,000 4
Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken $3,510,000 1
Rehne Pedersen $3,225,000 3
Laak $2,505,000 5
Doyle Brunson $2,025,000 6
Patrik Antonius $1,755,000 2

This was one of the closest final-table chip counts you're likely to see; nobody had a dominating lead, and nobody was particularly vulnerable. The blinds opened at $25,000-$50,000, with a $5,000 ante, so everyone would have plenty of play in their stacks.

Laak's aggressive play got him in trouble early. In hand No. 30, Antonius raised to $200,000, and Laak reraised all in for about $2 million from the small blind with the K 3. But it was the wrong time to bluff – as Antonius had pocket aces (A A). The flop gave Laak a fighting chance when it came K J 10, and he could catch a king or a 3 to win the pot and double up with two pair. But the turn card was the A, and Antonius' set of aces left Laak drawing dead. His only hope was to catch a queen on the river, putting a straight on the board to chop the pot. But the last card was the 5, and Phil Laak was eliminated in sixth place. This hand catapulted Antonius into the chip lead.

Brunson and Dicken were nearly tied at the bottom of the leader board at that point, but Brunson continued his comeback, winning a big pot in hand No. 33. There wasn't much action, but Liu raised to $175,000 preflop and got three callers – Brunson, Antonius, and Pedersen. Nobody stepped up to steal the pot, and everyone checked all the way to the river on a board of A 10 8 6 5. At that point, Brunson bet $500,000 into the $750,000 pot, and Pedersen called. Brunson showed the K 10 (pair of tens), and Pedersen mucked. Over the course of three hands, the legendary Brunson had gone from $800,000 to nearly $2.9 million.

That left Dicken alone at the bottom of the chip counts. In hand No. 51, he moved all in from the button for about $1 million with the J 10, but was called by Pedersen, who held the A Q in the big blind. The flop of 10 4 2 gave Dicken the lead with a pair of tens, but Pedersen had two overcards with the nut-flush draw. The last two cards were K 6, and the two players swapped chip counts; Dicken now had about $2 million, while Pedersen became the anchor at the bottom of the leader board with just $1 million.

The blinds increased to $60,000-$120,000 ($15,000 ante) after that hand, and Pedersen had a great opportunity to turn the tables in hand No. 52. Dicken raised to $300,000, Pedersen moved all in for $1 million, and Dicken felt pot-committed and called with the Q 8. Pedersen dominated him with the A 8, but it became irrelevant when they both turned an 8-high straight on a board of 7 6 4 5 2. The chop was unlucky for Pedersen, but at least he was still alive and in the running.

Pedersen would get a second chance in hand No. 62. Dicken again raised to $300,000, Pedersen again moved all in (for $1.2 million), and Dicken again called. Again, he was dominated by Pedersen, who held A-J to Dicken's Q-J. But this time, the better starting hand held up on a board of A 9 9 3 5. That took Pedersen to about $2.5 million, and left Dicken with just about $780,000.

Michael Gracz was the last man standing in the Five-Diamond with a shot at Card Player's Player of the Year.

In hand No. 68, Dicken moved all in with pocket fours (4 4) for about $1.3 million. Antonius called with the A J, and they were in a race situation. Antonius flopped a higher pair and went on to win on a board of J 9 7 6 8. Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken was eliminated in fifth place.

Antonius had a big chip lead at this point, but it may have made him too aggressive in hand No. 71, when he raised preflop to $300,000 with 4-2. He was called by Liu in the big blind, and both players checked the flop of A 7 6. Liu bet $300,000 when the 3 fell on the turn, and Antonius called, either having faith in his gutshot-straight draw (he needed a 5) or sensing weakness that he could exploit on the river. The last card was the 9, and when Liu checked, Antonius bet $1 million with the nut-low hand. Liu called with A-J; checking her pair of aces on the flop seemed to trap Antonius, and she picked up a $3.2 million pot. Antonius was still in front, but his lead was shrinking.

The blinds increased to a staggering $100,000-$200,000 ($20,000 ante) after hand No. 79, and Antonius had nearly half the chips on the table at that point (about $8 million). Liu and Pedersen were tied with roughly $3.6 million each, and Brunson was at the bottom with about $1.5 million.

Brunson had increased that amount to nearly $2.4 million by hand No. 88, when Antonius made a preflop raise to $600,000 and Brunson called from the big blind. Brunson moved in for more than $1.7 million when the flop came 8 4 2, and Antonius immediately called with an overpair – pocket nines (9 9). Brunson showed the 10 8 (pair of eights), and was facing elimination unless he could catch a 10 or another 8. The 10 fell on the turn to give Brunson two pair, pushing him up to about $5 million in chips. Once again, it was Pedersen's turn at the bottom of the leader board.

The final four players continued swapping smaller pots through hand No. 111, when the blinds increased to $150,000-$300,000, with a $30,000 ante. Can there be such a thing as a "small pot" when there is $570,000 in the pot before anybody even calls the big blind? When the blinds are this high, two bad hands in a row could end anyone's day at any time.

Mike Sexton, Courtney Friel, and Vince Van Patten congratulate Rehne Pederson on his victory.

Antonius had about half the chips in play when he moved all in from the button in hand No. 119. Pedersen called from the small blind with pocket queens (Q Q), and Antonius showed the 8 5. He picked up a spade flush draw on the turn, but got no further on a board of J 9 2 K 10. Pedersen actually finished with a king-high straight to double up to nearly $6 million in chips, and now he was the chip leader.

In hand No. 120, Pedersen raised to $1 million from the button, and Brunson moved all in for about $2 million from the big blind with pocket tens (10 10). Pedersen had the pot odds to call with pocket deuces (2 2), but was clearly hoping for a race situation. The board came K 8 4 4 Q, and Brunson doubled up to more than $4 million in chips.

J.J. Liu moved all in from the button for about $2 million in hand No. 121, and Antonius called with the A 10 from the big blind. She was dominated with the A 3, and would need to improve to stay alive. The flop came 7 7 6, and she could catch a 3 to win, or she would chop the pot if the board double-paired. But the last two cards were 9 J, and Joanne "J.J." Liu was eliminated in fourth place.

Here were the approximate chip counts with three players remaining:

Chip Count Seat
Patrik Antonius $9,000,000 2
Rehne Pedersen $4,500,000 3
Doyle Brunson $4,100,000 6

In hand No. 124, Brunson moved all in for $4.1 million from the small blind with pocket threes (3 3), and Antonius immediately called from the big blind with the A 2. (The speed of his call with A-2 offsuit reminded everyone just how high the blinds were at this point; you couldn't sit back and wait for ideal situations.) Brunson finished the hand with a full house on a board of 10 9 6 9 9, and doubled up to about $8 million in chips. Now it was his turn to be the chip leader.

Hand No. 135 again featured a small pocket pair and a weak ace – both premium hands at this point. Pedersen moved in for more than $3 million from the small blind with pocket deuces (2 2), and Brunson called from the big blind with the A 7. Pedersen finished with an unnecessary club flush on a board of K Q 8 10 6, and doubled up to more than $6.5 million – and the chip lead.

The shorter stacks would continue their luck in hand No. 145, when Brunson moved in from the small blind with the A 6, but Antonius dominated him from the big blind with the A 9. The board came A 8 7 Q 2, and Antonius' kicker held up to give him the chip lead once again. Win a hand, take the chip lead; welcome to high-blinds hold'em.

The pattern finally broke in hand No. 146, at the expense of a legend. Brunson moved all in from the button with the K J, and Pedersen called from the big blind with pocket kings (K K). Brunson was dominated and facing elimination, but picked up outs with an open-end straight draw on the turn when the board showed 10 6 3 Q. He could win with a 9 or an ace – but the last card was the 8. Brunson was eliminated in third place.

Here were the official chip counts for the final two players as they entered heads-up play:

Chip Count
Rehne Pedersen $9,390,000
Patrik Antonius $8,270,000

As if they weren't high enough, the blinds increased again, to $200,000-$400,000 ($40,000 ante). And by WPT rules, once two players are heads up, the blind levels are only 30 minutes long. These guys had no time to be patient.

The first seven pots were taken with a preflop raise and a fold. Hand No. 154 had Antonius raising to $1 million, and Pedersen actually called. The flop came 10 6 4, and Pedersen moved in. Antonius looked annoyed, as if he had wanted to move in, as the preflop raiser. But the board clearly didn't help him, and he folded. There was very little action, but it was still more than a $2 million pot for Pedersen.

They continued to trade the blinds back and forth, with the occasional "small" pot thrown in. But neither player was distancing himself from the other. After hand No. 167, the blinds increased again, going all the way to $300,000-$600,000, with a $50,000 ante. There would be $1 million in the pot before the small blind even acted; how long could it last at these stakes? Four more hands.

Antonius evened the chip counts at about $8.5 million each when he won hand No. 168 by betting the flop of J 10 6. Pedersen folded from the small blind in hand No. 169, and that gave Antonius a slight chip lead.

In hand No. 170, Antonius moved all in with the A K, which dominated Pedersen's A 4. Pedersen was the player facing immediate elimination, but the chip counts were so close that this hand would clearly determine the winner.

The flop came 7 6 5, and you could feel the air go still as Antonius' friends held their collective breath; Pedersen had picked up an open-end straight draw, and could win with a 3, a 4, or an 8. The turn card was – the 3.

Pedersen hit his straight, but Antonius' friends were quick to point out that he had picked up a flush draw, and quickly started chanting, "Spade! Spade! Spade! Spade!" But the river card was the 10, and Pedersen won with his 7-high straight to take the lead – but it was not just any lead. Check out the chip counts:

Chip Count
Rehne Pedersen $16,500,000
Patrik Antonius $150,000

Antonius had less than 1 percent of the chips in play. It was only a matter of time before Pedersen won – one more hand, to be exact.

Antonius was forced all in from the big blind in hand No. 171, so they both flipped over their cards as soon as they were dealt. Antonius had the K 7 against Pedersen's pocket eights (8 8). The board came 9 6 3 3 J, and Pedersen's pocket pair held up to win the 2005 WPT Bellagio Five-Diamond World Poker Classic, $2,078,185, a gold-and-diamond bracelet, and a $25,500 entry into the season-ending WPT World Championship.

It was a painful loss for Antonius, who survived a rough ride at the final table, only to lose the key pot after going into it with a dominating hand. But rest assured that you haven't seen the last of Patrik Antonius on the World Poker Tour.

Here were the official payouts for the final-table players:

Chip Count
Rehne Pedersen $2,078,185
Patrik Antonius $1,046,470
Doyle Brunson $563,485
Joanne "J.J." Liu $362,140
Darrell "Gigabet" Dicken $241,495
Phil Laak $160,995