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The World Poker Tour Crowns A Trio Of New Champions

Tour Concludes Extended 18th Season After Long Delays Caused By Pandemic

by Erik Fast |  Published: Jun 16, 2021

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The World Poker Tour first announced that it would be adopting a delayed approach for its televised final tables in the spring of 2018. The change saw select events play out at the tour’s host casinos around the world, with action halted when the final table was decided. The last six players would then fly to Las Vegas at a later date, playing out at a single fixed location, which was initially the HyperX Esports Arena at the Luxor.

There were many reasons for the move, including an extra level of oversight on the production that isn’t always possible with a traveling stage setup.

“It gives us a degree of control that ensures the live experience will be like nothing else we’ve done before,” WPT President and CEO Adam Pliska told Card Player back in 2019.

The shift in approach also offered major reductions in costs for the tour. Pliska noted that moving a massive television set around the country was “really, really expensive, with a lot of that benefit never being enjoyed by either the viewers or the players, since most of the cost is in transportation and set up.”

The tour’s 17th season was the first to utilize the delayed format, and a total of six televised final tables were filmed in Vegas without incident. While many theoretical problems were posed after the initial format change, neither the players or the tour itself could have predicted the global pandemic that ultimately impacted the WPT’s 18th season, causing a trio of delayed final tables to be postponed for well over a year.

Three Final Tables In Limbo

There were three final tables set in the early months of 2020 that were supposed to play out over a three-day period from March 31 through April 2. The 18 players from the final tables of the World Poker Tour Gardens Poker Championship, WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open, and the WPT L.A. Poker Classic were supposed to each wait no more than eight weeks until action resumed. But the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the globe saw the live poker scene shutdown for months starting in early March, leaving the players in limbo with no clear indication as to when they could be rescheduled.

These final tables featured a number of exciting storylines and huge opportunities for the competitors, with millions of dollars on the line, as well as a pair of two-time WPT champions with a chance to secure their third titles on the tour. Unfortunately, those narratives could not reach their conclusions until everyone could be safely brought back.

Matt Savage“Our first concern is always the players. At first, we offered them options to not have to wait and potentially get paid earlier or make a deal, but all of the respective groups decided they wanted to play at the televised final table that they rightfully earned,” WPT Executive Tour Director Matt Savage told Card Player. “In addition to the substantial amount of money at stake, there were the factors in play of them all wanting to put their name on the Sexton Cup and earn the prestige that comes with winning a TV final table and becoming a WPT Champion.”

“Our casino partners were incredibly understanding through this entire process and we thank them immensely for working with us to ensure the best player experience,” said Savage. “The rapidly changing health environment and having international players at all three final tables presented unique challenges and added another layer to the difficulties we faced, along with the protocols in Las Vegas which were definitely unexpected.”

Nearly a year after the three delayed final tables were postponed, the WPT was able to announce rescheduled dates for the three events. In addition to the long-postponed tournaments, a newly-set fourth final table would also be included. The 2021 WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown would act as the closing tournament for the WPT’s extended 18th season that ended up spanning from 2019 through 2021.

The WPT Gardens Poker Championship final table that was set all the way back on Jan. 13, 2020 would be the first to reconvene. On March 10, 2021 the final six players gathered at a new venue, the PokerGO studio at ARIA Resort & Casino. Markus Gonsalves emerged victorious from the field of 257 total entries to secure his first WPT title and the first-place prize of $554,495. The win came a whopping 422 days after having made the final table.

“It feels good to get it over with, it feels good to win,” a relieved Gonsalves said after his victory.

The remaining three final tables were scheduled for May 16-18 at the same venue. The first of the events to play out would be the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open final table, which was set back on Jan. 30 2020 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The winner of that event was supposed to be decided roughly two months later. In the end, COVID-19 delays resulted in the final table resuming 471 days after the final table had been set.

To put that in perspective, the final six in this tournament waited roughly 350 days longer than the four-month delay experienced by World Series of Poker November Nine members during the eight years that the WSOP main event used that format. While it would ultimately be a good problem to have, it can’t be easy to sleep at night, knowing you can either win an additional half a million dollars, or go home without anything other than the sixth-place payout you already received. Despite the challenges that arose from a global pandemic, though, these events were finally set to decide their champions.

The Wait Is Over, Zakarian Tops Borgata Winter Poker Open

“I’m excited for these final tables to be back and broadcast to a wide audience,” said Savage in May. “The intimate environment provides a great atmosphere, and gaming has ensured we are taking proper protocols to keep players and staff safe.”

The final six players from the Borgata Winter Poker Open took their seats on Sunday, May 16 at the PokerGO studio. They were the last remaining survivors from a field of 1,290 total entries in the $3,500 buy-in no-limit hold’em event. In the end, it was Canada’s Veerab Zakarian who emerged victorious, capturing his first WPT title and the top prize of $674,840.

“Everyone always wants the bracelet, but these days it looks like the WPT is what everyone is chasing, because the bracelets, there’s so many of them. But the WPT is special, especially Borgata,” said Zakarian after the win. “When you think of poker on the East Coast, the first thing you think of is Borgata, of winning something like this.”

This was by far the largest score of Zakarian’s career, blowing away the $63,340 he earned as the 2018 Mid-States Poker Tour Seneca Niagara Casino $1,100 main event champion. This latest victory increased his lifetime live tournament earnings to just over a million dollars. In addition to the career-best payday, Zakarian was also awarded 1,440 Card Player Player of the Year points as the champion. This was his first POY-qualified score of 2021, but it alone was enough to catapult him into 17th place in the overall standings.

Zakarian entered the final table as the chip leader, having bagged up roughly 100 big blinds over a year ago. Wooster, Ohio resident James Anderson was the next-largest stack. Anderson won his first WSOP bracelet in the 2019 $1,111 Little One For One Drop event and was well-positioned to add a WPT title to his résumé.

Two-time WPT main event champion Brian Altman was hot on Anderson’s heels. Altman had recently locked up the Hublot WPT Player of the Year award, having earned four cashes, three final-table finishes including this event, and a title during the tour’s 18th season. (For more information on Altman’s WPT POY win, check out the sidebar on page 25.)

Andrew Hanna was the first player eliminated. He lost a chunk of his stack with a flopped top pair against the turned set of Bin Weng, and then ran pocket deuces into the pocket tens of Zakarian to hit the rail in sixth place for $143,264. Despite having won that sizable pot against Hanna early on at the final table, Weng was the next to fall. He got all in with pocket nines against the pocket kings of Anderson. Both players made a full house by the river, but Weng’s was second best. He earned $187,900 for his fifth-place finish in this tournament, while Anderson surged into the lead.

Nathan Russler had come into the day as the shortest stack, but he managed to maneuver his way to the final four. His run came to an end when he three-bet all-in with KClub Suit JClub Suit for roughly 18 big blinds from the small blind. Zakarian had raised from under-the-gun with pocket queens. Zakarian made the call and flopped middle set. Russler was drawing dead by the turn. He was awarded $248,913 for his fourth-place showing, while Zakarian regained the top spot on the leaderboard.

While Zakarian and Anderson had added to their stacks in the early action, Altman had fewer chips than he started with by the time three-handed action began. Just ten hands after Russler was knocked out, Altman got involved in what turned out to be his final hand. Altman min-raised from the button with AClub Suit 3Club Suit and Zakarian called from the big blind holding 4Heart Suit 2Club Suit. The flop brought the QDiamond Suit 5Heart Suit 3Heart Suit and both players checked.

The ASpade Suit on the turn improved both players, giving Altman aces up and Zakarian the wheel. Zakarian check-called Altman’s bet and the river brought the 9Diamond Suit. Zakarian checked again and Altman bet 2,800,000, leaving himself with just 1,250,000 behind. Zakarian moved all-in and Altman went into the tank before calling. His aces up were no good, and he was eliminated in third place for $333,012. The score increased his career earnings to more than $4.8 million. The 960 POY points he earned were enough to see him move into 16th place in the standings.

With that, Zakarian entered heads-up play with a slight lead, although both players had over 115 big blinds to start with. It took 80 more hands for a winner to be decided. Anderson was able to battle his way into the lead ever-so-briefly before the decisive hand of the match was dealt. Anderson raised from the button with the KHeart Suit 5Club Suit and Zakarian three-bet holding pocket sixes. Anderson four-bet all-in and Zakarian quickly called with his pocket pair. The board ran out JClub Suit 9Heart Suit 3Spade Suit 2Spade Suit 6Spade Suit and Zakar
ian made a set of sixes to secure the massive pot.

Anderson was left with a single 100,000 tournament chip, less than a small blind. He won the next four hands in a row to get all the way back to 1.6 million, but in the fifth consecutive all-in his JHeart Suit 4Diamond Suit failed to edge out the 10Club Suit 5Diamond Suit of Zakarian, who turned an eight-high straight to secure the pot and the title. Anderson took home $449,904 as the runner-up. This was his fourth POY-qualified final table of 2021, with two titles won along the way. With $558,939 in earnings so far and 2,256 points, Anderson has shot up the standings to land in second place on the overall POY leaderboard.

Place Player Payout POY Points
1 Veerab Zakarian $674,840 1,440
2 James Anderson $449,904 1,200
3 Brian Altman $333,012 960
4 Nathan Russler $248,913 720
5 Bin Weng $187,900 600
6 Andrew Hanna $143,264 480

Patur Secures Seven-Figure Payday As LA Poker Classic Champion

The 2020 L.A. Poker Classic $10,000 buy-in main event was the second final table on the agenda. The tournament attracted a total of 490 entries, but in the end, only one player would walk away with the seven-figure top prize, which was Balakrishna Patur.

“It’s incredible. I can’t express my happiness right now,” Patur said after the win. “To me, it was such a long time… and the table with such good players, it was anybody’s game and I played well and ran well.”

The Parsippany, New Jersey resident joined a prestigious list of players that have won the LAPC that includes the likes of Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Antonio Esfandiari, Michael Mizrachi, and many other legends of the game.

“I can’t express the feeling right now. Every poker player dreams of getting a WPT [title]. Getting my name next to these big, big names that you watch all the time is an awesome feeling,” Patur confided.

In addition to the title and the money, Patur was also awarded 1,800 POY points for his second POY-qualified final table of the year. He now sits in 11th place in the overall standings.

Patur had bagged up the chip lead when the final table of six players was set back on March 5, 2020. Three-time WSOP bracelet winner Upeshka De Silva was the first player to be eliminated when action resumed. De Silva, who was disqualified from the 2020 WSOP main event domestic tournament final table due to a positive COVID-19 test result late last year, came into this final table as the shortest stack. On the 30th hand of the day he shoved his last 10 big blinds from the button with AClub Suit 2Spade Suit and ran into the AHeart Suit KHeart Suit of Patur in the small blind. Patur’s hand held up to send De Silva to the rail in sixth place for $185,330.

Spain’s Ka Kwan Lau was the next to fall. It folded to 2019 LAPC runner-up Matas Cimbolas in the small blind and he shoved all-in with QDiamond Suit 7Heart Suit putting Lau at risk for his last eight big blinds. Lau looked down at ASpade Suit JSpade Suit and made the call. The board ran out KDiamond Suit 7Club Suit 2Club Suit 6Heart Suit 8Diamond Suit and Cimbolas made a pair of sevens to bust Lau in fifth place. He earned $243,330 for his strong showing in this event.

A preflop cooler brought Scott Hempel’s run to an end. Hempel raised from the button with pocket tens, and Cimbolas three-bet from the big blind holding pocket queens. Hempel went into the tank for a while before raising all in. Cimbolas made the call and his superior pocket pair held up, making a full house by the river. Hempel was awarded $323,485 for his fourth-place finish.

Two-time WPT main event champion James Carrol had just a handful of big blinds at the time of Hempel’s elimination. He managed to double up twice in rapid succession but soon found himself at risk yet again. This time around he three-bet all-in for around 11 big blinds with KClub Suit 9Spade Suit facing a button raise from Patur. The chip leader quickly called with his pocket kings and the board came down QClub Suit JHeart Suit 5Spade Suit 4Diamond Suit 7Spade Suit. Carroll fell short of his third WPT title, earning $431,585 for his third-place showing. He was awarded 1,200 POY points, moving into fifth place in the overall standings as a result.

Heads-up play began with Patur holding 11,400,000 to Cimbolas’ 8,200,000. The Lithuanian poker pro was looking to improve on his second-place finish in this event in 2019. The two battled for 29 hands, with Patur extending his advantage to roughly a 4:1 lead by the time the final hand of the tournament was dealt. Cimbolas moved all-in for 3,700,000 from the button with KDiamond Suit 6Club Suit. Patur called the shove of 15 big blinds with AHeart Suit 9Diamond Suit and the JDiamond Suit 7Diamond Suit 2Diamond Suit 8Spade Suit 5Heart Suit runout secured him the pot and the title.

Cimbolas earned $600,060 and 1,500 POY points for his second runner-up showing in this prestigious event. With $1,064,605 in year-to-date earnings and 2,810 total points, Cimbolas has climbed into second place on the POY leaderboard.

Place Player Payout POY Points
1 Balakrishna Patur $1,015,000 1,800
2 Matas Cimbolas $600,060 1,500
3 James Carroll $431,585 1,200
4 Scott Hempel $323,485 900
5 Ka Kwan Lau $243,330 750
6 Upeshka De Silva $185,330 600

Brek Schutten Overcomes Largest Field In WPT History At Hard Rock Poker Showdown

The 2021 World Poker Tour Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown $3,500 buy-in main event set the record for the largest main-event field in the WPT’s history, with a huge turnout of 2,482 entries. The previous record for WPT main event field size was established in the 2020 WPT Online Championship, which had 2,130 entries. The largest live WPT main event field prior to this event was the 2014 running of this very same tournament, which had attracted 1,795 entries.

The final table was set on April 27, 2021. The last six players converged on the PokerGO studio just a few weeks later, on May 18, ready to determine the champion of this record-breaking event. In the end it was Brek Schutten, a 32-year-old father of four who secured the title. The Grand Rapids, Michigan native walked away with $1,261,095 and 1,620 POY points. This was his first POY-qualified score of the year, but it alone was enough to see him climb into 15th place in rankings.

“You play a tournament and everybody except one person ends up disappointed at the end, and this time, I’m the person who’s not disappointed,” Schutten told WPT reporters after coming out on top.

As an ICU nurse, Schutten has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year.

“It’s just rewarding in that sense,” he said when asked how it feels to secure a huge poker win after such a trying period. “I’ve put in time at the hospital and saw COVID first-hand quite a bit. Then, things start to open back up. To go down to Florida and win the thing is an amazing feeling.”

Sonny Franco of Montagnac, France held the chip lead when the final table resumed, with Schutten sitting in second place. WSOP bracelet winner Ken Aldridge was the first to hit the rail. The 69-year-old former teacher from Burlington, North Carolina fell to the bottom of the chip counts after doubling up Albert Calderon. He then got his last five big blinds in with KDiamond Suit 9Diamond Suit against the pocket fives of Schutten. A five on the flop gave Schutten a lead that he never relinquished and Aldridge was sent to collect his $261,700.

Schutten took the lead shortly after that and extended his advantage by knocking out Calderon in fifth place. Calderon shoved for just shy of 12 big blinds with AClub Suit 9Heart Suit as the first to act. Schutten re-shoved with ADiamond Suit KHeart Suit from the button and the two saw a KDiamond Suit JClub Suit 3Diamond Suit 5Spade Suit 5Heart Suit runout. Calderon earned $326,750 for his strong showing in this event.

During four-handed play, Franco attempted a big bluff with air, only to have Schutten shove all-in over the top with pocket queens to take down the massive pot and extend his advantage. Franco eventually found himself all-in for just over 11 big blinds with AClub Suit 9Club Suit against the pocket queens of Steven Snyder, who flopped top set and held from there. Franco was awarded $438,500 as the fourth-place finisher.

Viet Vo began the day as the shortest stack with just over 10 big blinds. He survived to the final three, but his run came to an end when his pocket sevens were unable to hold up against the 10Club Suit 8Club Suit of Schutten. A ten on the flop gave Schutten the advantage, and Vo received no help by the river. The 2018 WPT Choctaw runner-up finisher earned $593,140 for this latest deep run.

With that, Schutten took a nearly 2:1 lead into heads-up play against Snyder. The two battled it out for 35 hands, with Schutten retaining the lead the entire way. In the final hand, he raised on the button with 8Club Suit 5Heart Suit. Snyder put in the call from the big blind with ADiamond Suit 2Diamond Suit and the flop came down 10Diamond Suit 5Diamond Suit 5Club Suit.

Snyder checked his flush draw, and Schutten bet with his trip fives. Snyder check-raised, and Schutten called. The turn brought the 7Heart Suit. Snyder fired another bet, and Schutten moved all-in. Snyder called off the rest of his stack with his flush draw. Schutten’s trips were ahead, and the 2Club Suit on the end secured him the pot and the title. Snyder settled for $899,295 as the runner-up.

Place Player Payouts POY Points
1 Brek Schutten $1,261,095 1,620
2 Steven Snyder $899,295 1,350
3 Viet Vo $593,140 1,080
4 Sonny Franco $438,500 810
5 Albert Calderon $326,750 675
6 Ken Aldridge $261,700 540

WPT Pivots During The Pandemic

WPT StaffLike the wider poker industry, the WPT had a lot to adapt to as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While these delayed final tables were eventually rescheduled, there were a lot of other facets to the WPT business that were also impacted. One area that thrived during the live poker shutdown of 2020 was the WPT’s online offerings.

“WPT is in a fortunate position to have options to turn to during this global pandemic as proven by the numbers on partypoker and ClubWPT in 2020,” noted Savage. “Our partnership main tour events with partypoker and partypoker US Network showed that players are excited to participate in WPT-branded events from wherever they sit around the globe.”

“ClubWPT has always been a huge part of the WPT, but even I was shocked to see the outstanding community that has been established with the continually developing product,” continued Savage. “The streams with myself, anchor Lynn Gilmartin, and analysts Tony Dunst and Vince Van Patten have created a strong connection with our ClubWPT players and WPT fans. I look forward to this continuing even when we go back to a regular schedule of live events.”

The tour is now looking ahead to scheduling their next set of televised final table events for their upcoming 19th season, while also working on projects like their NFT (Non-Fungible Token) partnership with Theta Labs, a leading decentralized video delivery network. According to Savage, the WPT NFT Marketplace has been “a huge hit with players and fans.”

“There’s a lot to be excited about with the WPT right now,” continued Savage. “As we saw with our record-breaking event in Florida, players are excited to be back at live WPT events, and we look forward to that trend continuing as we head into Season 19.”

Note: We’d like to thank the World Poker Tour and Joe Giron for providing the photos for this story.