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World Poker Tour Perennial Scotty Nguyen Wins First WPT Title: The World Poker Open in Tunica, MIssissippi

by BJ Nemeth |  Published: Mar 07, 2006

Scotty Nguyen

Mid-January on the poker calendar belongs to Tunica, Mississippi, with two major tournaments taking place in this riverside gambling town. The first was the World Poker Open at the Gold Strike Casino, the second stop for the World Poker Tour in 2006.

The Sky is Falling?
It was disappointing that only 327 players entered the $10,000 buy-in championship event. While the total prize pool was more than $3 million, and first place was worth just less than $1 million, this represented a 36 percent decrease in attendance – as 512 players entered the last year.

But before you sound the alarms that poker is dying, there are a few factors to consider. Clearly, having two major tournaments in the same city segmented the pool of players, particularly those who depend on satellites for entry. (Not surprisingly, most top pros played both events.)

There was also a major European Poker Tour (EPT) event starting simultaneously in Copenhagen that sold out at 288 players. Certainly, Tunica lost some European players who chose to play closer to home this year.

Last but not least, this was the first major poker tournament in the Gulf Coast region since Hurricane Katrina struck in early September. Tunica relies on the entire region for customers, and some of them certainly had a change in plans (and priorities) after the catastrophe.

So, with cautious optimism, we can say that the number of players in this event isn't a sign of the poker apocalypse – yet.

Day One: A Family Affair
Day one saw the field cut in half, as 163 people survived to day two. There were a few familiar names on the leader board, with Gavin Smith and Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi neck and neck for second and third place, and Card Player Publisher Barry Shulman in fourth place.

Reigning champion John Stolzmann was still alive and above average in chip count, as was his father, Steve. Interestingly, 2004 champion Barry Greenstein was also still in the hunt, along with his son, Joe Sebok.

The chip leader after day one was Dale Morrow, a local player from Horn Lake, Mississippi. He turned his starting stack of $20,000 in chips into nearly $200,000, and finished the day with $60,000 more than anyone else in the field.

Day Two: Gavin and Grinder Take Control

Gavin Smith started day two in second place, but it took him less than an hour to leap into the lead with nearly $300,000 in chips. According to Smith, nobody at his table seemed to believe him whenever he had a hand – and he had some good hands early.

Shortly after that, Smith's table broke, and he was moved to the seat on Mizrachi's right – and Mizrachi was strongly in second place with well over $200,000 in chips. This was similar to the situation Mizrachi found himself in a month earlier at Bellagio's Five-Diamond World Poker Classic – sitting in second place with position on chip leader Patrik Antonius.

Mizrachi may have learned from that experience, because on this day, he and Smith stayed out of each other's way. Their peaceful coexistence worked to everyone else's disadvantage, as these two knocked out player after player. When play finally ended after five levels, they were the only two players above the $300,000 mark: $394,000 for Smith and $355,000 for Mizrachi.

Day-one chip leader Morrow fell from the top spot but stayed strong, finishing day two in fifth place with $272,000. Overall, there were 52 players left, with only the top 50 getting paid; two players would have a very unhappy exit on day three.

Day Three: A String-Bet Catastrophe
It took just three minutes to lose the first player on day three, and then everyone would play hand for hand until the next player was eliminated. It didn't take long, as Barry Shulman and Andy Miller both busted out on the next hand. They would split 50th-place prize money, earning $6,293 each. It was a stinging parting gift, because even though they finished in the money, it represented a loss.

Day-one chip leader Dale Morrow had a rough day. He tried to move all in against Mizrachi with the board showing A 8 4 6 7, but was caught making a string bet. He was allowed to bet only $20,000 into a pot worth well over $100,000, making it an easy call for Mizrachi with A-J (pair of aces). Morrow had to show his king-high bluff, and Mizrachi took the pot. Would Morrow have induced a fold with an all-in bet? We'll never know, and Morrow was eliminated in 23rd place about half an hour later.

Day-two chip leader Gavin Smith had a great day – except for five minutes at around 4 p.m. In back-to-back hands, he held pocket aces and pocket queens, got the money all in preflop, and lost.

In the first hand, Smith's aces were cracked by Tom Schreiber's A-J, as Schreiber made a jack-high straight on a board of 10-7-7-9-8. The next hand, Smith's pocket queens lost a race against Josh Tieman's A-K when a king fell on the river.

Those two hands knocked Smith down from about $500,000 to $335,000. If he hadn't been the chip leader at that point, those two hands may have cost him the tournament.

With Smith off the top of the mountain, there was a vacancy for a new chip leader. Mizrachi had been holding steady in second place, and briefly took over the top spot. But he was soon eclipsed by Gary Gibbs, who went on a rush to finish the day with more than $1 million in chips.

The only other player close to Gibbs was Scotty Nguyen, who rebounded in a big way at the end of the day. With 22 players remaining, he was 20th in chip count. But he went on a rush in the last two hours to shoot up to second place with $848,000.

Day three ended with 17 players, but Gibbs and Nguyen jointly held nearly 30 percent of all the chips in play. Nobody else finished the day above the $500,000 mark.

Day Four: Familiar Faces Reach the WPT Final Table
It took only about six hours to play down from 17 players to the final six. There was a lot of action in that time, and nobody was able to coast through day four.

Chris Bell jumped out to an early chip lead, only to tangle with Gavin Smith in an $800,000 pot. Smith rivered two pair to win the hand and take over the chip lead, and Bell busted out a short while later.

Gary Gibbs was in great shape with nearly $900,000 in chips with 10 players remaining. The biggest hand of the day played out between Gavin Smith and him on a board of K Q 5 7 9. Gibbs bet the flop and turn, and then check-raised all in on the river with the 8 6; he had hit a runner-runner 9-high straight. But then Smith showed the 10 8; he had hit a runner-runner flush. Without warning, Gibbs was out of the tournament, and Smith dominated the field with $2.2 million, more than double what Scotty Nguyen had in second place.

Unfortunately for Smith, that situation didn't last long. He doubled up An Tran when he reraised all in with A-K; Tran had pocket aces. Twenty minutes later, he lost a huge pot when Nguyen hit two pair on the river against him. At that point, he effectively shared the chip lead with Nguyen and Tran.

But it got worse for Smith. Bau Le moved all in with pocket jacks, and Smith called with pocket queens. A jack fell on the turn, and Smith was now below average just an hour after dominating the table. Ten minutes later, Smith raised with the A Q, and Rodeen Talebi moved all in with a shorter stack. Smith called, only to find Talebi holding the A K. Smith was about to be crippled, but this time the luck broke in his direction: He caught a queen on the flop. Talebi was eliminated, and Smith was back in action with an above-average stack.

The last hand of the day had Nguyen raising from the cutoff position. When Johnny Donaldson considered calling from the small blind, Nguyen said, "If you can beat queens, move all in, baby." Donaldson did just that, and Nguyen called – with pocket queens. Donaldson was dominated with J-10.

The situation was reminiscent of the last hand of the 1998 World Series, when Nguyen uttered one of the best quotes in poker history after moving all in with a full house on the board: "You call this one, and it's all over, baby." Kevin McBride called, playing the board, and Nguyen showed a higher full house to become the world champion.

Scotty Nguyen and Michael Mizrachi congratulate each other on their one-two finish.
Scotty Nguyen and Michael Mizrachi congratulate each other on their one-two finish.

In this case, Donaldson caught a pair of tens on the flop, but that was as close as he got; it was all over, baby. With Donaldson out in seventh place, the final six players were headed to the WPT final table:

1. Scotty Nguyen – $2,144,000 (seat No. 5)

2. Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi – $1,272,000 (seat No. 6)

3. Raul Paez – $862,000 (seat No. 3)

4. An "The Boss" Tran – $845,000 (seat No. 1)

5. Gavin Smith – $774,000 (seat No. 4)

6. Bau Le – $645,000 (seat No. 2)

Both Nguyen and Mizrachi made this same final table a year ago; Mizrachi finished fifth and Nguyen finished fourth. As the chip leaders, they were in excellent position to improve upon their previous results.

This also represented the third WPT final table of the season for Gavin Smith, which gives him a nearly insurmountable lead in the WPT Player of the Year race. (Smith won the Mirage Poker Showdown last summer and finished third at the Doyle Brunson North American Championship in October.)

The WPT Final Table
This was an exciting final table, with Nguyen, Mizrachi, and Smith joking around with each other to keep the atmosphere light.

Other than the table chatter, there wasn't much action early, with the blinds at $12,000-$24,000 ($3,000 ante). But in hand No. 21, Bau Le raised to $100,000, Raul Paez reraised to $300,000 from the small blind, and Le moved all in for nearly $600,000. Paez called with the A J, and it was a race situation against Le's pocket tens (10 10). The flop of J 8 3 gave Paez the lead with a pair of jacks, but Le picked up a flush draw to give himself a chance with 11 outs. He missed when the last two cards fell 4 7, and Bau Le was eliminated in sixth place.

The blinds increased to $20,000-$40,000 ($5,000 ante) after hand No. 24. An Tran had a rough day, winning the very first hand with pocket sevens, but then going completely cold after that. Tran eventually moved all in for $150,000 in hand No. 35, and he was called by Paez and Mizrachi, who both checked down a board of J 8 5 3 3. Tran showed K-10 (king high), but Mizrachi won the pot with 8-7 (pair of eights). An "The Boss" Tran was eliminated in fifth place.

Gavin Smith was the short stack at that point, but he stayed ahead of the blinds by doubling through Mizrachi in hand No. 37 (when his A-Q held up against K-10) and hand No. 49 (when his A-J held up against Q-9 suited).

The blinds increased to $30,000-$60,000 ($10,000 ante) after hand No. 44, and increased again to $50,000-$100,000 ($10,000 ante) after hand No. 73. Here were the official chip counts at that point:

1. Scotty Nguyen – $2,320,000 (seat No. 5)

2. Michael Mizrachi – $2,170,000 (seat No. 6)

3. Raul Paez – $1,110,000 (seat No. 3)

4. Gavin Smith – $880,000 (seat No. 4)

Smith raised to $350,000 in hand No. 74, Mizrachi moved all in from the big blind, and Smith immediately called with pocket sevens (7 7). Unfortunately for him, Mizrachi dominated him with pocket queens (Q Q), and they held up on a board of J 5 4 4 5. Gavin Smith was eliminated in fourth place.

In hand No. 79, Paez moved all in from the small blind with the Q 10, only to be dominated by Nguyen's A Q in the big blind. Once again, the better hand held up on a board of 6 3 2 2 4, and Raul Paez was eliminated in third place.

Nguyen and Mizrachi had assured themselves of finishing higher than they did last year, and they entered heads-up play effectively even in chips. They both had at least 32 big blinds in their stacks, and the blinds wouldn't increase again for at least 45 minutes.

But that was all a moot point, as both of them were all in on the very next hand.

The audience had barely settled in after the money presentation when Nguyen raised to $300,000 and Mizrachi reraised to $1.2 million. Nguyen took a moment to think as the audience rose in anticipation. He then said, "All right, I'm all in, baby."

Mizrachi immediately called with the A J, but his friends and family (including a very pregnant Mrs. Grinder, who arrived about three hours into the final table) groaned when they saw that he was dominated by Nguyen's A Q. With the chip stacks nearly equal, whoever won this hand would win the tournament.

The flop came K 9 2, and Mizrachi needed a jack. But the turn card was the 10, and now Mizrachi needed a queen – as a jack would give Nguyen a straight. The river card was the 8, and Nguyen made the nut flush to eliminate Michael Mizrachi in second place.

Winner Scotty Nguyen shares the spotlight with runner-up Michael Mizrachi. Behind them, from left to right: Mike Sexton, Courtney Friel, Linda Johnson, and Vince Van Patten.
Winner Scotty Nguyen shares the spotlight with runner-up Michael Mizrachi. Behind them, from left to right: Mike Sexton, Courtney Friel, Linda Johnson, and Vince Van Patten.

Scotty Nguyen, who has more WPT final-table appearances than any other player (including at least one each season), finally broke through with a victory. This was Nguyen's seventh WPT appearance, but his fourth-place finish here last year was his previous best. Nguyen also joins the elite group of former World Series champions with WPT victories, following Doyle Brunson and Carlos Mortensen.

There weren't a lot of twists and turns at this final table – no big lead changes, and no major drawouts. It was just good old-fashioned poker, played by some of the hottest players in the game right now (Nguyen, Mizrachi, and Smith). And they had fun the entire time. This is definitely an episode of the World Poker Tour that you won't want to miss.

Here were the prize payouts for the final-table finishers:

1. Scotty Nguyen – $969,421

2. Michael Mizrachi – $566,352

3. Raul Paez – $298,908

4. Gavin Smith – $173,052

5. An Tran – $125,856

6. Bau Le – $88,099

Mark your calendars for Wednesday, May 10, when this episode is scheduled to premiere on the Travel Channel.