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Jimmy Hu Wins 2016 Norwegian Poker Challenge Main Event

Third Annual Event Draws Huge 337-Entry Field Aboard Cruise Ship

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Norwegian Cruise Line hosted the third annual Norwegian Poker Challenge onboard the Norwegian Epic ship from Dec. 10-17, 2016. The $1,100 no-limit hold’em main event drew a record turnout of 337 total entries, easily surpassing the $250,000 guarantee to build a $337,000 prize pool, one of the largest at-sea poker tournaments in history.

In the end, 25-year-old Canadian amateur Jimmy Hu emerged victorious, capturing the title and the top prize of $84,250.

Here is a look back at how this exciting event played out.

Getting The Party Started

The Norwegian Poker Challenge first took place in 2014 and has seen phenomenal year-over-year growth. The first running of this event drew 186 players, which increased to a field of 215 in year two. With this year’s incredible turnout the event’s field has grown by nearly double in the two years following the tournament’s inception.

“It continues to get bigger and bigger each year”, said Senior Vice President of Casino Operations Jim Abbas. “We are hoping to continue to grow this event every year. This event is unique; there are not a lot of poker tournaments at sea and especially not on this scale. We’ve done this event three years in a row now and have no intention of ever stopping.”

Joe Cada, Ryan Riess and Loni Harwood snap a photo with a playerThis year the event was held in a 20-table poker room set up in the spacious Bliss Lounge aboard the Norwegian Epic, a 1,081-ft. long ship with 4,100 passenger berths. The event was held while the massive ship was at sea, in between stops at three excellent ports of call: Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Great Stirrup Cay, a private island in the Bahamas.

After setting sail from Port Canaveral, Florida the players were greeted with a welcome party that featured free, flowing drinks, tasty hors d’oeuvres and a meet-and-greet with 2013 World Series of Poker main event champion Ryan Riess, 2009 WSOP main event champ Joe Cada and two-time WSOP bracelet winner Loni Harwood.

“I want to thank everybody for coming out. This is my second year on the cruise and I don’t plan on ever missing it,” said Ryan Riess before joining his fellow pros in taking photos with the tournament participants. “I think Joe and I agree that this is definitely one of the most fun things we do throughout the year.”

In addition to the marquee main event, the Norwegian Poker Challenge also hosted a $560 no-limit hold’em event, a $230 no-limit hold’em re-buy event, a $120 no-limit hold’em re-buy event and a $120 no-limit hold’em ladies event. There were also cash games, ranging from $2-$5 to $10-$20 and $250 sit-and-go’s that qualified players for next year’s event.

Cards In The Air… At Sea

The first day at sea saw the two starting flights for the main event play out. A total of 337 entries were made in this event, with 285 players having qualified through satellites held aboard Norwegian ships throughout the year. There was a nice chunk of bonus money in the prize pool this year, because 25 of those qualifiers were not able to make it on the cruise, so their buy-in was added to the prize pool to create a nice overlay for those in the field. Registration was closed before play began, and the prize pool was announced. The top 24 finishers would make the money, with a min-cash being worth $1,685 and a top prize of $84,250.

Players began with 20,000 in chips with blinds at 50-100, meaning that each stack started with 200 big blinds with levels at 30 minutes. Cada and Riess both failed to survive their starting flight, but Harwood made it to day 2 as one of the top 10 stacks with 104 players remaining.

Loni Harwood“The day went well for me overall, poker wise,” said Harwood after bagging up a big stack. “I’d say the biggest hand from today, I had pocket jacks and flopped top set on a J-9-X with two clubs and I got it in against 9c 6c and faded that flush draw for a really big pot early on. This is actually my first time ever playing poker on a cruise ship. Having a chance to win over $84,000 while cruising is pretty amazing.”

Harwood remained one of the biggest stacks through the early part of day two, but eventually lost some key hands and was eliminated a few spots before the money bubble. The fun-focused, lighthearted atmosphere of the tournament lent itself to a fast-paced bubble. Hand-for-hand play didn’t last long at all. In the end, a short-stacked player ran pocket sevens into an opponent’s pocket kings to hit the rail as the last player outside of the money.

One of several players who managed to make the money despite starting day 2 as a short stack was Aaron Eckhart, (no, not that Aaron Eckhart) a player who has taken part in all three of the Norwegian Poker Challenge main events.

“I had a great time the first year and just knew that I would be back every year if they keep doing it,” said Eckhart. “The cash games are extremely live and you have celebrity poker players here, which is great. Everybody has been incredibly friendly each and every year. The ship is amazing, the food is amazing and the ports that we go to on the cruise are definitely amazing. It’s just a very enjoyable time.”

Eckhart ultimately finished in 22nd place, earning $2,359 for his deep run. Plenty of other short-stacked players who squeaked into the money joined Eckhart on the rail shortly after the bubble burst, and at a brisk pace the field was trimmed down to the final nine.

The Norwegian Nine

The final nine players were introduced one-by-one over the stereo system in the poker room, each receiving enthusiastic applause from their friends and family who had come to watch the exciting conclusion of the Norwegian Poker Challenge main event. The chip leader going into the final day was James Clark with 1,416,000. The only other player with more than a million in chips was Peter Magarelli with 1,408,000.

Here is a look at the stacks heading into the final table:

1. James Clark – 1,416,000
2. Peter Magarelli – 1,408,000
3. Robert Wamsley – 844,000
4. Jimmy Hu – 818,000
5. Candeleria Vaca – 686,000
6. Dale Eberle – 462,000
7. Jeff Montoya – 239,000
8. Colin Guthrie – 189,000
9. Daniel Ballestero – 90,000

Daniel Ballestero was the shortest stack by far. Shortly after play resumed he moved all-in and got two callers. It checked to the river on a AHeart Suit9Diamond Suit2Spade Suit10Diamond SuitJHeart Suit board and Peter Magarelli showed the ASpade SuitJDiamond Suit for two pair. Ballestero showed an ace as he mucked his hand. The player from St. Barts earned $8,425 for his ninth-place finish. Dale Eberle was the next to go. Robert Wamsley raised to 60,000 under the gun and James Clark made the call to his left. Dale Eberle made the call from the button and Jeff Montoya folded his big blind. The flop came down 10Club Suit6Spade Suit4[[suit:club] and Wamsley bet 100,000. Eberle moved all in for 193,000 total and Wamsley made the call with the QSpade SuitQDiamond Suit. He was ahead of Eberle’s KDiamond Suit10Diamond Suit. The turn brought the 4h and the river the Ac to secure the pot for Wamsley and send Eberle to the rail in eighth place with $11,795.

The blinds increased to 20,000 – 40,000 before the next knockout came down. Short stacked Jeff Montoya moved all-in from early position and Jimmy Hu made the call from the button with the KHeart SuitQSpade Suit. Montoya had the 5Club Suit3Diamond Suit and the board ran out ADiamond Suit4Spade Suit3Spade Suit10Spade SuitJDiamond Suit to give Hu the rivered broadway straight. Montoya was eliminated in seventh place, earning $13,480 for his deep run.

Robert WamsleyOn the next big hand Robert Wamsley raised to 120,000 preflop and Candelaria Vaca called. The flop came down 8Spade Suit7Spade Suit4[[suit:heart] and Vaca moved all in for 493,000. Wamsley quickly called with the QSpade SuitQClub Suit and was way ahead of Vaca’s 9Spade Suit9Club Suit. The turn brought the 5Club Suit and the river the 9Heart Suit to give Vaca set on the river. With that she doubled up to over 1.1 million while Wamsley was left with only a few big blinds. The following hand he was eliminated when he ran the 9Heart Suit8Diamond Suit into James Clark’s AHeart SuitKHeart Suit. Clark made kings full to send Wamsley to the rail in sixth place with $16,850.

Colin Guthrie came into the day as the second shortest stack, but had been able to win some key hands to stay alive. His comeback story ended abruptly, however, in the next major hand. Guthrie limped from the small blind for 50,000 and James Clark made it 150,000 to go from the big blind. Guthrie called and the flop came down QSpade Suit8Spade Suit4Spade Suit. Colin Guthrie checked and Clark bet 150,000. Guthrie moved all-in for 850,000 total and after just a moment Clark made the call with the KDiamond SuitQDiamond Suit for top pair. Guthrie was making a move with the KClub Suit3Club Suit. The turn was the 7Heart Suit and the river was the AClub Suit to secure the largest pot of the tournament for Clark. Guthrie was knocked out in fifth place, taking home $20,220.

With two knockouts in a row James Clark seemed to be taking over the final table. That narrative was further reinforced when Candelaria Vaca got all-in with the ASpade Suit7Club Suit against James Clark’s AClub SuitJHeart Suit after a flop of ADiamond SuitJSpade Suit6Spade Suit. Clark’s hand was way ahead, and after the 10Club Suit hit the turn Vaca was left drawing dead. The 2Diamond Suit on the river was a mere formality and Vaca was eliminated in fourth place, earning $26,960 after an impressive run.

Deciding A Champion

After coming into the day with the lead and scoring multiple knockouts in the early going, James Clark seemed primed to run away with the title.

James ClarkClark utilized his big stack well and kept the aggression up, but things definitely began to turn against him during three-handed play. He lost three straight all-in hands in a row having been in dominant positions when the chips went in preflop. Somehow, after just a few orbits, he was left as the short stack.

With blinds up to 50,000–100,000 he open shoved all-in for around 1.4 million from the small blind. After some thought Jimmy Hu made the call from the big blind with the KSpade SuitQSpade Suit. Clark had him dominated with the AHeart SuitQDiamond Suit. Hu caught up in a hurry when the flop brought the JDiamond Suit10Spade Suit9Club Suit to give Hu the king-high straight. The 6Spade Suit on the turn and 3Diamond Suit on the river changed nothing and Hu won the massive pot to send Clark to his cabin in third place with $37,070.

After Clark’s elimination the clock was paused to bring out the prize money to display between the heads-up players. The mounds of money sprawling across the table definitely added a spark of excitement to the proceedings.

The players must have felt that electricity because it only took one hand for them to get all-in. On the first hand of heads-up play Jimmy Hu raised to 300,000 from the button. Peter Magarelli announced that he was all-in for roughly 1.8 million and Hu made the call with the AHeart Suit4Diamond Suit. Magarelli was ahead with the 9Heart Suit9Club Suit. The flop brought the AClub Suit8Heart Suit2Diamond Suit to catapult Hu into the lead. The turn brought the 10Club Suit and the river the KSpade Suit to lock up the pot and the title for Hu. Magarelli earned $57,290 as the runner-up while Hu was awarded the top prize of $84,250.

“I came in feeling pretty confident about my chances, but I never anticipated winning,” said Hu, a 25-year-old online business owner from Toronto, Canada. “This is my first live tournament ever.”

“This is an amazing event. It’s getting bigger every year and I will definitely be back next year,” said Hu. Earlier in the event tournament staff announced that the winner this year would automatically be entered into next year’s main event. Hu is very optimistic about the growth of this event moving forward. “I anticipate it will be over 500 players to make a prize pool of over half a million dollars. Hopefully I can do as well as I did this time!”

The 4th annual Norwegian Poker Challenge will once again take place on the Norwegian Epic from Dec. 2-9, 2017 Those interested in participating in this great event next year should head to www.ncl.com/pokerchallenge or call 1-877-PLAY NCL (752-9625).