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Damian Salas Wins 2020’s Extraordinary World Series of Poker $10,000 Buy-In Main Event

First-Ever Argentinian World Champion Triumphs In Event Marred By Delays And Player Disqualifications

by Erik Fast |  Published: Jan 27, 2021


Ever since the second annual World Series of Poker in 1971, the game’s world championship has been decided by a $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold‘em freezeout tournament. The 2020 World Series of Poker main event did technically check all of those boxes, but like most of what happened in 2020, it was far from typical.

In the end, Damian Salas emerged victorious with the championship bracelet and more than $2.5 million in total prize money. The 45-year-old poker pro from Chascomús, Argentina became the first from his country to become poker’s world champion, after having fallen just a few places short of doing so when he finished seventh in the 2017 main event.

Salas’ road to the title was different than any world champion before him. Here is a look at how this unique and often controversial tournament played out.

WSOP Postpones, Reschedules, And Improvises In Response To COVID-19 Outbreak

On April 20, WSOP organizers officially announced the postponement of this year’s planned live series that was slated to award a record 101 gold bracelets due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The WSOP indicated that they hoped to reschedule some form of the live and in-person series in the fall, but everything remained up in the air. With all of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, many in the poker community speculated, and even bet on whether or not there would be any version of the series held in 2020.

“We are committed to running the World Series of Poker this year but need additional time to proceed on our traditional scale while prioritizing guest and staff well-being,” said WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart in the press release announcing the postponement of the live series. “In the interim, official WSOP competitions are expected to be played online this summer.”

The first ever WSOP Online was indeed announced in early June. A total of 85 gold bracelets were ultimately awarded between July 1 and Sept. 6, with $174.5 million in prize money paid out throughout the series. Bulgarian poker pro Stoyan Madanzhiev captured the title in the WSOP Online $5,000 buy-in main event, earning $3,904,686. The massive payday represented the lion’s share of the $27,559,500 prize pool, which represented the largest prize pool in online poker history. The 29-year-old defeated a field of 5,802 players in the tournament to secure the championship bracelet.

It seemed likely that the WSOP Online would be the only series awarding bracelets in 2020, as no plans for any live series had been announced with roughly seven weeks remaining in the year. In fact, Card Player reached out to the WSOP in late October, but heard no response. Much of the media relations staff was furloughed in the early months of the pandemic and subsequently let go. On Nov. 13, however, tournament organizers suddenly revealed plans for a hybrid live and online $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event to close out the year.

This tournament would be unlike any main event before it. The new-look format essentially featured the concurrent running of two tournaments, a US-facing ‘Domestic Tournament’ and an ‘International Tournament,’ both of which would begin online and play until their final tables were set. The remaining players would then play out those final tables live and in-person at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and the King’s Casino Rozvadov in the Czech Republic, with the two champions of those events meeting in a final heads-up showdown for the championship bracelet and an added $1 million prize at the Rio.

The last-minute announcement drew some protests from many players, including Madanzhiev himself, who disagreed with the marketing of this newly-revealed event as the ‘WSOP main event,’ when the tournament he had won just a month prior was also described that way.

“Looking back, If I had known I wasn’t playing the ‘actual’ [WSOP], I probably wouldn’t have re-entered, or maybe even played. It worked well for me, but I wonder how many others fell for this false advertising trap?” said Madanzhiev in a Twitter post.

“There must be a world champion in 2020,” said Stewart in the press release announcing the new hybrid event. “Poker’s history is too important. It’s a unique format for the main event, but this is a unique year.”

WSOP bracelet winner and high-stakes tournament regular Sam Greenwood responded in a social media post, stating, “There is. His name is Stoyan Madanzhiev.”

The event would kick off just over two weeks after it was first announced. While much of the focus on the event began to drift to the chip counts and big hands that normally occupy the poker communities’ attention during a marquee event such as this, there were still a number of controversial developments waiting in the wings.

Salas Triumphs In WSOP International Tournament

The ‘International Tournament’ segment of this event kicked off with the first of three starting flights on Nov. 29 on online poker site GGPoker. A total of 246 entries were made before registration closed for the day. The second and third starting flights were held on Dec. 5 and 6, adding another 171 and 257 players to bring the total to 674 entries by the time registration closed. As a result, the sub-tournament built a final prize pool of $6,470,400 to be distributed among the top 80 finishers.

Just 179 players survived the three starting flights to make day 2, which would see the field narrowed down to a final table of nine players over the course of ten hours of online action. With just nine competitors left, play was halted for a week to allow time for the remaining players to make their way to King’s Casino in the Czech Republic to play out the final table in person.

The final nine were meant to reconvene on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at the recent site of the WSOP Europe, but in the end only eight players showed up. According to the official WSOP live updates, China’s Peiyuan Sun declined to make the trip to Rozvadov, reportedly citing travel safety concerns. Based on the published rules for the event, Sun was disqualified, his chips were removed from play, and he was subsequently awarded the ninth-place payout of $75,360.

The other eight players were required to wear facial coverings at the table and were tested for COVID-19 prior to the start of play. Everyone that made the trip tested negative, and cards were soon in the air. Brazil’s Brunno Botteon came into the day as the chip leader. Botteon had a breakout summer at the WSOP Online, making three final tables in as many weeks to cash for more than $1 million. He finished runner-up in a $500 buy-in limit hold’em event for $41,855, and then four days later placed sixth in the $25,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em high roller for $388,827. Just a week later he made it down to the final in the $25,000 buy-in heads-up no-limit hold’em event, but lost to Fedor Holz. He added another $622,300 for that runner-up showing.

2017 WSOP main event seventh-place finisher Damian Salas sat in third chip position to start the day. Salas was just three years removed from navigating his way through a field of 7,221 in the big dance, only to fall a few spots shy of becoming the first-ever poker world champion from his home country of Argentina. He got off to a better start at the final table this time around, knocking out Hannes Speiser in eighth ($109,982) and Stoyan Obreshkov in seventh ($160,512) to move within striking distance of the chip lead.

Like Salas, Manuel Ruivo had some prior experience playing for seven-figures top prizes. The Portuguese player earned more than $2.3 million as the winner of the 2018 partypoker MILLIONS Online $5,300 buy-in main event, which drew a massive field of 4,367 entries. Ruivo started the day as the second largest stack, and he kept pace with the surging Salas and Botteon by knocking out Dominykas Mikolaitis in sixth place ($234,255) and Marco Streda in fifth place ($341,879). In the latter elimination, Ruivo’s pocket aces held against the A-K of Streda after all of the chips went in preflop.

Salas was able to overtake the lead during short-handed play, and he extended it even further as the final four battled it out. He held more than three times as many chips as the next largest stack by the time the remaining players took their dinner break. Botteon was able to close the gap somewhat by eliminating Ramon Miquel Munoz in fourth place ($498,947). The short stack got his last few blinds in with A-6 and was unable to outrun the pocket threes of Botteon, who flopped a set and turned a full house.

Ruivo took his stand against the chip leader after the pair took a flop of 9Club Suit 4Club Suit 2Diamond Suit. Salas checked from out of position and Ruivo bet 750,000. Salas check-raised to 5,000,000. Ruivo only had around 6,000,000 in total, and he announced that he was all-in. Salas called and revealed the 10Club Suit 7Club Suit for a flush draw. Ruivo held 9Diamond Suit 4Heart Suit for two pair. The 8Spade Suit on the turn gave Salas more outs with an open-ended straight draw, and the 5Club Suit on the river completed his flush, eliminating Ruivo in third place ($728,177).

With that, Salas took roughly a 5:3 chip lead into heads-up play against Botteon. The Brazilian was able to take back the lead in the early going, but Salas regained the advantage and never gave it up again. By the time the final hand was dealt, he held a nearly 3:1 lead.

Salas limped in from the button with KDiamond Suit 8Heart Suit and Botteon checked his option holding 7Heart Suit 3Heart Suit. The flop came down KClub Suit 4Club Suit 2Heart Suit and Botteon checked. Salas checked behind with his top pair and the turn brought the 6Heart Suit to give Botteon a flush draw and outs to a straight. He checked and Salas bet 1,000,000. Botteon check-raised to 2,800,000. Salas called and the river brought the 8Club Suit. Botteon had missed, but he elected to move all-in as a bluff for around 6.6 million.

Salas thought it over before making the call with his kings and eights to secure the pot and the title. Botteon earned $1,062,723 as the runner-up finisher, while Salas earned $1,550,669 and set up a date with the eventual winner of the ‘Domestic Tournament’ in Las Vegas.

Joseph Hebert Wins #ForLinda In WSOP Domestic Tournament

The ‘Domestic Tournament’ featured just one starting day on Sunday, Dec. 13. The US-facing segment of this unique event got underway on just two days prior to the ‘International Tournament’ final table. By the time the registration was officially closed there had been 705 entries made, creating a final prize pool of $6,768,000, the largest ever on a regulated online poker site in the United States.

The top 105 finishers cashed in this segment of the event, with the money bubble bursting late in the first day’s play. After 12 hours of action, three-time bracelet winner Upeshka De Silva held the chip lead with 71 players remaining heading into day 2 action.

It took around seven hours to further narrow the field down to the final table of nine. When the dust settled it was 38-year-old Louisiana native Joseph Hebert who bagged up the chip lead. His 13,052,534-stack was nearly 2.5 times larger than the next-biggest stack at the table and represented more than 30 percent of the total chips in play.

Like the ‘International Tournament,’ this event also saw the final nine travel to play out the business end of the event live and in-person. The players made their way to Las Vegas in order to play down to a winner on Monday, Dec. 28 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Unfortunately, like its international counterpart, this final table would also only see eight players take a seat.

Less than a day before play was set to resume it was reported that De Silva was being disqualified from the event due to testing positive for COVID-19. De Silva claimed in social media posts to have been quarantining since Dec. 10 in preparation for the final table, but had tested positive on both Dec. 20 and Dec. 27, with a negative test result returned in between.

Although De Silva was to enter the final table among the short stacks, he was by far the most accomplished player remaining in the tournament. The Sri Lanka-born and Texas-raised pro has just shy of $3.1 million in tournament earnings, with all of his three bracelet wins coming in no-limit hold’em events. He was ultimately awarded ninth-place money ($98,813) as a result of his disqualification.

De Silva’s stack was officially removed from play, which meant that only eight players converged on the final table stage to battle it out in front of ESPN’s cameras. Gershon Distenfeld began the day in sixth chip position but got off to a slow start. He lost a considerable chunk of his stack just a few hands into the action when he ran pocket tens into the pocket queens of short stack Harrison Dobin. Just a couple of hands later, he got the last of his stack in with KClub Suit JClub Suit against the pocket queens of Ron Jenkins. Distenfeld failed to improve and was eliminated in eighth place ($125,885). Incredibly, he intends to donate all of his prize money to charitable causes. The 44-year-old works in finance and has been committed to philanthropic works for years.

“There is a parallel to investing. You don’t blindly invest in companies, [and] you also don’t blindly invest in a charity. You have to do your research. My wife and I have been very fortunate to be blessed with resources. We have spent our time, not only donating money but also getting involved in charities and getting our hands dirty. We didn’t have to start from scratch, as we decided to give to charities that we have been involved with for a long time,” said Distenfeld after being eliminated. “We are in a pandemic now and the need is greater than ever.”

Seven-handed action continued for more than two-and-a-half hours. Shawn Stroke was the next to fall. The 31-year-old Long Island-native came into the day in second chip position but fell to the bottom of the leaderboard during the early hours of play. He got his last chips in preflop with pocket threes, only to have Harrison Dobin three-bet all-in over the top with A-K and Jenkins call all-in behind with pocket queens. Jenkins’ big pair held up through the river and Stroke was eliminated in seventh place ($163,786). Dobin was left with just four big blinds after the hand and was eliminated shortly thereafter in sixth place ($215,222), while Jenkins surged up the chip counts.

Hebert continued to accumulate chips by knocking out 25-year-old Wisconsin-based mathematics doctoral candidate Ye Yuan in fifth place ($286,963). The final four battled it out for more than half an hour before the next elimination took place. In a battle of the blinds, Jenkins shoved all-in from the small blind with ASpade Suit JDiamond Suit and Ryan Hagerty called from the big blind with AHeart Suit 8Diamond Suit. Both players paired their live cards on the flop, but the 28-year-old received no further help and was sent home in fourth place ($387,130), picking up the largest score of his career.

Just six hands after Hagerty was eliminated, his sometimes-roommate on the live tournament circuit Michael Cannon joined him on the rail. Cannon three-bet all-in over the button min-raise of Hebert holding KClub Suit QDiamond Suit. Hebert quickly called the shove of around 16 big blinds with pocket aces. A clean runout saw the 29-year-old former professional video game player knocked out in third place ($529,258).

With that, Hebert took just over a 2:1 chip lead into heads-up play against Jenkins, who had begun the day as the second-shortest stack with just 17 big blinds. Jenkins had accumulated a decent amount of experience on the felt, with nearly $400,000 in prior live tournament cashes to his name.

A cooler decided things on the very first hand of heads-up play. Hebert raised the button with AClub Suit QSpade Suit and Jenkins three-bet to 2,300,000 with pocket queens. Hebert four-bet all-in and Jenkins eagerly called off the last of his chips. He was ahead preflop with his pocket queens, but an ADiamond Suit KDiamond Suit 7Club Suit 4Heart Suit 8Club Suit runout secured the pot and the title for Hebert. Jenkins earned $1,002,340 as the runner-up finisher.

The $1,553,256 win nearly tripled Hebert’s lifetime live tournament earnings. His largest score prior to this victory was $140,932, which he earned as the runner-up in the 2013 WSOP Circuit Harrah’s New Orleans main event.

Hebert dedicated the win to his late mother, Linda, who passed away earlier this year due to a pulmonary embolism. His last text conversation with his mother had been about his dream of winning a WSOP bracelet. He created the hashtag ‘#ForLinda’ online to help rally his friends and family around his efforts to win this event in his mother’s name.

“I am just so excited!” said Hebert at the start of his post-win press conference. He went on to say, “I’m going to take this all in. Winning this tournament was my ultimate goal, for my mom, but having the freeroll is just another bonus. I’m just going to take my time and figure out what to do about that, and go from there.”

Salas Wins Lengthy Final Showdown To Secure Title

Hebert and Salas were supposed to begin their final showdown just two days later, but 2020 wasn’t finished with throwing curveballs. A report surfaced on the morning of the ‘Domestic Tournament’ final table that Salas was initially denied entry into the United States because he had been in Europe less than 15 days prior, having had to travel there in order to compete at the ‘International Tournament’ final table.

While the initial report was never officially confirmed by the WSOP, the live updates posted on their website did announce that the final heads-up battle that was originally scheduled for the night of Dec. 30 had been instead moved to Sunday, Jan. 3.

The final two players took their seats with 500 big blinds each to start as they battled for the championship bracelet and the $1 million in added prize money that was on the line.

“We have a great battle ahead of us, Joseph and I, and of course I am going to enjoy it,” said Salas via an interpreter. “I am privileged to be able to be here again, at the final stage of the sport that I am so passionate about.”

The early action saw both players hold a small lead for some time. Hebert was able to swing the advantage his way, building a 3:1 advantage by winning one of the largest pots of the night. He extended that lead to roughly 9:1 before Salas found a double up. Although fighting with a stack disadvantage for quite some time, Salas was able to survive a handful of all-ins to prolong the match.

After 153 hands, the two players found themselves more or less back to even. Every pot became important with the stacks so shallow. By the time the final hand of the event was dealt it was Salas who held the advantage.

In the 173rd hand of the match, Hebert looked down at ADiamond Suit QSpade Suit on the button and moved all-in for just shy of eight big blinds. Salas called with KDiamond Suit JSpade Suit for the majority of his stack. The board came down KSpade Suit 8Spade Suit 5Club Suit 5Diamond Suit KClub Suit, giving Salas kings full to secure the pot and the title. He earned the championship gold bracelet, becoming the first main event champion from his home country of Argentina.

Salas added $1 million to his earnings from the ‘International Tournament,’ bringing his total score to $2,550,969. He now has more than $5.7 million in career tournament earnings to his name.

“I don’t play for the money, I play because of the challenge, because of my love of poker,” said Salas. “I play to be better every time, to compete. I am very proud of myself to earn this achievement.”

When asked about the volatile swings during his final match with Hebert, Salas replied, “That is part of the magic of poker. It is pure adrenaline. It is a rollercoaster that you face down in a moment. That is why poker is so good and so beautiful. What happened at the table today was simply poker in its pure essence. I have worked a lot to accept the good times that poker can give you, and the bad moments, too.”

Salas also realizes what an opportunity this is to grow the sport of poker in Argentina. Past international world champions have used their notoriety to help spark poker interest in their home countries.

“I think this performance will help Latin American poker, and will also help a lot for Argentinian poker. That makes me feel very happy. I don’t know what this moment will have as far as an impact there. I wish that all Latin American countries could start to see poker as a mental sport, which is what it is.” ♠