The arc of a poker tournament is usually hard to define. Chips move, leaders come, and leaders go. It is rare to see a story define itself as well as it did at the NAPT Venetian event. By the penultimate day, a leader had established himself, and the story became Sam Stein versus the world. The end of that story, however, was one few people expected.
When the first NAPT event in the United States ended, 22-year-old Tom Marchese had taken his opponents' remains and turned them into enough to battle Stein, strike him down, and claim the NAPT Venetian title.
There was no denying that the North American Poker Tour was an experiment on the grandest of poker scales. The attempt to start a brand new tour in the epicenter of world poker might have been seen as an act of hubris, if not for the fact it worked and worked so well. How well? It was a $5,000 tournament that drew 872 players, got a deal with ESPN, and featured some of the world's best known players. The $4 million prize pool for an affordable event was proof positive that the NAPT was going to work. All that had to be determined was who would be the king of Las Vegas for the week.
They were eight players from all over the United States--internet young guns, old school rounders, and up-and-coming locals. For a moment, they posed with smiles, a faux camraderie that stood in clever contrast to the real mission at hand. They were meant to take everything from each other, and it didn't matter what they had to do to get it.
Seat 1: Dan Clemente - 1,345,000
Seat 2: Sam Stein - 6,145,000
Seat 3: Thomas Fuller - 4,735,000
Seat 4: "Miami" John Cernuto - 1,310,000
Seat 5: Yunus Jamal - 3,940,000
Seat 6: David Paredes - 4,700,000
Seat 7: Tom Marchese - 2,370,000
Seat 8: Eric Blair - 1,690,000
The final table began with the assumption that 22-year-old Sam Stein, a Vegas rounder and up and coming tournament pro, couldn't lose. He was meant to be champion. He would defeat everyone and there was no changing that fact. He cloaked himself in a sort of supernatural invincibility that few had proven the ability to penetrate. Stein was meant to win, and if he had a list of superpowers, the ability to win races sat at the very top.
Eric Blair was the first to test Stein's abilities. Facing a raise to 175,000 from Tom Marchese, Blair moved all-in with pocket sevens. To Blair's sure chagrin, Stein moved all-in over the top. Marchese threw his cards in the muck and averted his eyes as the first bloody scene played out. Stein had A♣K♦, and as if it were predestined by whatever sick Dr. Frankenstein that created Sam Stein, a king came on the flop. Blair laid himself on the sacrificial altar and took his punishment like a man. For his sacrifice, he was awarded the eighth place prize of $60,266.
Blair is a relative newcomer to the poker scene. So, perhaps, everyone thought, the secret to turning Sam Stein into something mortal was the conscription of an elder statesmen. And so, yea verily, came sixty-six year-old Miami John Cernuto. He knew what to do. When Stein raised from the button, Cernuto jammed from the blinds with A♣5♣. If Stein had the ability to show emotion, he might have laughed then. Instead, he just called with J♥T♦, let Cernuto catch an ace, and then went runner-runner jack-ten for two pair. Cernuto was laid to rest with $104,461 on his grave. Rest in peace, Mr. Cernuto.
The rise of any despot is marked by a period of quiet in which the commoners believe they might still have control over their fate. It is a time of war, when factions battle amongst themelves. This happened today, too, as Stein took a break from killing off the people. Thomas Fuller (the only man who had shown a real ability to combat Stein's reign) decided to assert himself with pocket jacks. Alas, Daniel Clemente had his sights on a rise to power, turned over queens, and sent Fuller into exile. Fuller took $144,639 with him for his sixth place finish.
David Paredes meanwhile might be this story's most tragic hero. He was playing well. He knew he was playing well. It was like watching a valiant warrior walk onto the battlefield...and fall into a giant hole full of rabid raccoons. He got his five million in chips all-in pre-flop with aces against Stein's jacks. The fatalists in the crowd began betting, not on who would win, but how Stein's jacks would suck out. The aces had the four-flush covered, so the smart money was on a four-card straight. Instead, it was a jack on the flop. There was never any doubt what would become of Paredes. The real power of foreshadowing is its ability to make you empathize with the person you know is dying. Empathy only goes so far, though, so Paredes was awarded $184,816 for fifth place and then sent elsewhere.
By this point, Stein had accumulated around 70% of the chips in play. The remaining players could only look at each other as if to ask, "Which one of us is to die last?"
Like all great belief systems, there are some fiddly issues that, to fully embrace, require some suspension of disbelief. Those who believed in Sam Stein believed he could never, ever lose. And so they overlooked what happened over the next fifteen minutes as he doubled up both Yunus Jamal and Daniel Clemente. Stein got it in bad against Jamal--a sort of careless gamble aimed at cutting off one of the heads of the monster rising against him. Against Clemente, however, Stein held pocket aces and could only stand and watch as Clemente went runner-runner for the flush.
The players all took dinner. When the infallible are wrong, and the invincible are scratched, the best thing to do is go for an enchilada and think it over.
What would happen? Would the blows against Stein spell the beginning of the dream's end or merely a temporary hiccup that was probably just foreshadowing the enchilada dinner?
What happened was this: the shorter stacks turned on each other. It was a bloody, ugly mess. They fought tooth and nail with no regard for their pride or prejudice, as if mere survival until second place carried with it a moral victory of its own. So went Yunus Jamal, a Vegas local and frequent 5/10 player in The Venetian Poker Room and $550 satellite qualifier. His pocket tens went blindly into the maw of Tom Machese's A♥Q♠. Of course there was an ace on the flop. If there hadn't been, there might have been some hope the short stacks would survive to take small bites out Stein's stack. Instead, Jamal headed back in the direction of the 5/10 game with $241,064.
With Jamal's exit, however, there presented a possibility that the Stein foes had been plotting all along. It was not to hurt each other so much as to pool their resources to put up one final fight. Instead of dying at Stein's hand one by one, they moved their chips into one pool and gave them to arguably the best player left among them. Daniel Clemente quickly got it in with a naked ace against keeper-of-the-queens, Tom Marchese. Clemente didn't catch up, and that was that. He was gone in third place for $309,366.
And so, there were two: the unbeatable force of nature known as Sam Stein, and the brave leader sent up from the fields to fight for the commoners, Tom Marchese. Neither face betrayed emotion. It was as if they knew this was going to happen and it was only a matter of waiting for the moment to arrive.
This is a moment that both men would someday use as a benchmark in their early careers. It was a test of Stein's ability to go wire-to-wire. It was a test of Marchese's ability to overcome. The people on the rail watched as the men circled each other, gauging their opponent's willingness to die and will to live. Stein struck first with several quick punches meant to test Marchese's resolve.
Let's posit this: it may well be easier for one man to rule over a people than over another singular man. That is, Sam Stein's power may have been in his ability to control the masses and turn them against each other. However, when finally faced with the red stare behind Tom Marchese's glasses, Stein fell on his sword. It brought us to a hand that will live in NAPT lore for years to come.
Marchese raised to 500,000 from the button, and Stein made the call. On the flop, 6♦K♣5♥, Stein checked, and Marchese bet again, this time for 625,000. Stein made the called and they saw the turn, 4♠. Again Stein checked. This time Marchese bet 1.45 million. Stein took longer to call this time.
The river brought the T♣. Stein checked, and Marchese quickly announced he was all in. Stein didn't think for 20 seconds before announcing, "Call."
Marchese showed K♠9♥ for top pair, Stein showed an eyebrow-raising J♦5♦...fourth pair.
That was tectonic shift. Almost everyone left--all of these people who believed Stein was unbeatable--now knew there was no chance Stein would win.
Moments later, we saw a 4♣5♥9♦ flop. A bet and a call and we were on to the 3♣ turn. Stein bet 1,825,000 chips, and Marchese calmly called.
The T♠ dropped on the river. When Stein checked, Marchese moved all-in, knowing he had Stein covered. Stein thought amidst silence in the room, all eyes on the player who came to the table with the massive chip lead and seemed unstoppable. But the last hour proved otherwise, and ultimately Stein called with 4♠2♠ for the pair of fours.
Marchese turned over T♥T♣ for a set of tens. The crowd was a little stunned but soon realized that this was the final hand of the tournament.
Stein, the man who would not be king, slumped away with $522,306. Tom Marchese became the latest North American Poker Tour winner. He cashed for $827,648.
"I'm feeling great," said Marchese. "There were a lot of great players here. I was all the way down to three million at one point and was ready to go out in fourth, but in the end, it all worked out."
A lot of people who had overcome such adversity might hit the bars for a big party. Marchese said, "I may not even celebrate. I may just head to L.A. for tomorrow."
Because that's where the next tournament is.
Here's a look back at the coverage from today.
For a complete list of prize winners, check out the NAPT Venetian winners list.
Thanks for joining us for this first American event of the NAPT. We look forward to many more in the future. Again, congratulations to Tom Marchese, our newest NAPT champion.
Special thanks to my partners Martin Harris and Jennifer Newell for their tireless efforts in covering this monster event. As always, the top-notch photography here has been brought to you by Joe Giron © 2010.