The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure has an uncanny habit of unearthing new talents. Each of the former champions John Gale, Ryan Daut, Steve Paul-Ambrose, Poorya Nazari, Harrison Gimbel, Galen Hall and John Dibella recorded the first major score of their careers in Paradise Island, each outlasting stacked fields and terrifying final tables to prevail.
Tonight, we can add to their ranks a young Polish player named Dominik Panka, who upset all the form books, as well as the history writers, to win one of the toughest finals ever witnessed on the tour.
Mike McDonald was expected to become the first two-time EPT champion, and the purist would have settled for a glorious return to action from Isaac Baron. As it was, the watching poker community was left with a guessing game on their hands. Just who was Panka, specifically at the online tables, where his brilliant game had quite clearly been honed?
He had qualified on PokerStars -- we knew that -- but had kept his online handle secret. But the likes of Isaac Haxton, commentating for PCA Live, was confident we were watching the play of one of the true anonymous greats of the online world transferring his talents to the bricks and mortar environment.
"Obviously, I'm an internet player," Panka, 22, said. "I started playing live tournaments last year. Every day I sat down at the table, I was a little bit nervous, but then all that pressure came off. It's weird, but I didn't feel too much pressure. I was very confident in my game."
Panka took on and bettered Baron and then McDonald, taking the largest slice of a three-way deal with the two established superstars. Then with $100,000 left to play for, and the all important title, Panka did not let up.
Baron bowed out and McDonald swung into a chip lead. But Panka wrestled it back on the 244th hand of final table play, winning an enormous flip with pocket nines against the K♣J♠ of McDonald. After that, Panka ground down McDonald, the last adversary of some 1,031 others who assembled for this tournament this week, and snatched the top prize.
Panka is the first champion from Poland and is $1,423,096 richer. He is also out of the shadows and now has as much chance as anyone to become the first double EPT champ.
Make no mistake, by the way, this was no fluke. Panka gained the genuine admiration of all who watched him, including those who remained on site through a grueling three-hour heads up session at the end of a 16-hour final table.
"I've run really good this week," the defeated McDonald said. "It's a sweet start to the year. Obviously I wish I'd won, but (Panka) played really well."
The final table convened at 1pm and was broadcast live on PokerStars.tv. Everyone concerned with the event -- the players, organisers and television crew alike -- knew this was going to be a long one, with a glittering field sharing bundles of chips between them.
Fabian Ortiz, who once won an LAPT event after coming back from less than one big blind, was among the most active players in the early stages of this final table. But it almost seemed as though he was more comfortable with a micro-stack. He couldn't get a hand to stand up and none of his bluffs were working, which left him with the fewest chips of the eight.
When he finally found a legitimate hand -- A♠K♥ -- his neighbour McDonald had Q♥Q♠. They got it all in pre-flop and the pocket pair held up. Ortiz bade farewell in eighth, winning $173,220, and we were suddenly on the way.
The next pot of note was an absolute corker, arguably the first major turning point of the day. In these relatively early stages still, with seven players remaining, Madis Muur, an unflappable Estonian, and McDonald had swapped the chip lead between them, but not by much. They had also largely stayed clear of one another, judiciously opting to pick on the other, smaller-stacked opponents.
That's when the poker gods intervened and dealt McDonald A♣K♠ and Muur Q♠Q♦ with the former on the button and the latter in the small blind. Things were always likely to get interesting, but this exceeded expectation.
McDonald opened with a standard min-plus raise. Muur three bet to 310,000 and then McDonald four bet to 700,000. In the EPT Live commentary booth, Tom Hall, who had finished tenth in this tournament, was dumbfounded. "I can't really put myself in Mike's head," Hall said. "For me to try and understand his level..." Hall tailed off.
Muur had to try to do battle with McDonald. He five bet to 1.275m. "Playing a 14 million chip pot would be completely absurd at this stage in the tournament," Hall said. "There are still seven in."
He added: "It's stomach-crunching. It really hurts even thinking about this spot."
McDonald didn't just think. He actually did. He moved all in for 6.73m, which at this stage was slightly less than Muur. He was willing to gamble for his tournament life, his two-time dream and, of course, the massive chip lead.
Muur was anguished and then it suddenly dawned on everybody that he may be preparing to fold his queens. He sighed and flipped over his cards, showing how big his pass was.
"Bad fold probably," Muur said. McDonald did not reply.
"I'm speechless," Hall said in the commentary booth.
McDonald therefore assumed the chip lead and it would last for about another 50 hands. But during that period, which also incorporated a dinner break, Baron began his steady move up the leader board. Baron, with all the experience of the brilliant online grinder, picked up a succession of small pots, leading to the moment when he was dealt A♦K♣ when Pascal LeFrancois had 6♠6♥.
LeFrancois opened, Baron three bet, LeFrancois, the tournament short stack at this stage, shoved. Baron waited for about the time it takes to go through the downward motion in a blink of an eye, and the cards were on theirs backs by the time the eyelid was back in place.
The 9♥Q♣T♣ flop ostensibly missed Baron, but he picked up more outs. The A♥ on the turn left LeFrancois denuded. The player who famously posed for his World Series of Poker bracelet photo with his top off, skulked out of the room fully clothed and $242,020 richer. Baron, meanwhile, was the chip leader for the first time in the tournament.
Shyam Srinivasan is one of the only players in the world who can match Baron for online poker success. He has more than $7m in tournament winnings on the virtual felt and was having something of a breakout performance on the live circuit with his measured journey to the final table.
But there's nothing anyone can do -- either live or online -- to overcome a bad run of cards. And Srinivasan went out in fifth after getting a brutal beat at the hands of Panka. The Polish player had pocket tens to Srinivasan's pocket jacks. But a ten popped out on the flop and that was the end of Srinivasan. He took $328,020, more than three times his total live event cashes to date.
Panka, meanwhile, was now starting his roll.
There we were with five players left and there were still as many players from both Estonia and Guatemala as there were from the United States. However, the American, Baron, was now in the chip lead, with the two representatives of the smaller countries in fifth and fourth spots.
That, indeed, was exactly where they would go out.
Even before a card was dealt today, Daniel Gamez was so far ahead of all other Guatemalan players in the country's all time money list that there wasn't even an all time money list published anywhere to be seen. As the table grew slightly short handed, Gamez found himself repeatedly with smaller pairs to his opponents, trimming his chips further and further.
He eventually got them in against McDonald. A dangerous move at the best of times. On this occasion he had the odds stacked against him with Q♥T♥ to McDonald's T♦T♠ and after the dealer completed the formalities, McDonald's hand was stretched across the table to shake that of Gamez.
Gamez had achieved much here in the Bahamas this week, including sending numerous graphics teams in desperate search of the icon of a new flag. More pertinently, he had also earned himself $447,040, and played superbly. We were down to four.
Baron continued his effortless control of the final table, even taking on McDonald and edging through the 10 million chip mark. The only player going backwards at this stage was Muur, who was now in the unfamiliar position of short stack. He got his chips in with Q♦T♣ and ran into the resurgent Panka's A♥K♣.
Muur took $581,040 and a long and lonely walk down the catwalk at the front of the stage with the echoes of deal negotiations ringing in his ears.
Baron, Panka and McDonald wanted to look at the numbers. "The way Panka is playing, I don't think he should give up any money," said Tom Hall, back in the commentary box, and seeing the Polish player with the chip lead for the first time today. They examined a chip-chop and then an ICM break-down. It didn't take long to decide an equitable arrangement. Panka was going to win the PCA, at least in financial terms.
They agreed on the following payouts: Panka - $1,323,096, Baron - $1,207,599 and McDonald - $1,064,865. They would play on for $100,000 and the trophy. And the title, of course.
Baron was making a long-postponed return to the high stakes tournament tables. Three or four years ago he was considered one of the best players in the world, but had gone back to school and had migrated to the big cash games of late. However, he had clearly kept all his skills intact and cards up broadcast permitted us to see just how brilliant he still was.
One fold with pocket queens, in particular, was sensational. There was a small bet from McDonald on a board showing two eights and Baron skittered away, correctly. However, with his stack dipping to the third largest from the three remaining, Baron got all his chips in with K♦Q♥.
Panka called with A♠9♠ and Baron let out a huge laugh when the flop came 7♠T♠3♠, ending it immediately. Baron's return to the tournament scene netted him $1,207,599 and offered a gentle reminder to the world that Isaac Baron has not gone anywhere.
That left us with two, and a titanic heads up battle. The $100,000 for which they were still playing was perhaps secondary to the acclaim of winning this thing. Yet each man applied himself as if it was still $2m on the line. Even though supporters began to wilt and backers drifted away, neither McDonald nor Panka let up.
On this occasion, it was Panka's day. There was that enormous flip, which gave him all the momentum. And then McDonald wanted to dance with 7♣4♣ against Panka's A♦2♣. There was, of course, some drama. The flop helped Panka, coming 2♠5♠J♥, but McDonald flew into the lead on the 7♥ turn.
But finally we were going to find a champion when the A♣ popped up on the river. Panka and Poland had prevailed.
"My mind and body concentrated on being a rock, a statue," Panka said, who only slightly started to thaw after a remarkably icy performance. "I can't dance with joy. I'm still in that mindset that I have to be concentrated."
One suspects that will shift sometime tonight.
PCA 2014 Main Event
Date: January 7-13, 2014
Prize pool: $10,070,000
1 - Dominik Panka, Poland, PokerStars qualifier, $1,423,096*
2 - Mike McDonald, Canada, PokerStars qualifier, $1,064,865*
3 - Isaac Baron, USA, $1,207,599*
4 - Madis Muur, Estonia, PokerStars qualifier, $581,040
5 - Daniel Gamez, Guatemala, $447,040
6 - Shyam Srinivasan, Canada, PokerStars qualifier, $328,020
7 - Pascal LeFrancois, Canada, PokerStars player, $242,020
8 - Fabian Ortiz, Argentina, $173,220
*denotes a three-way deal
It was a big day at the PCA. Kathy Saraf became the first two-time ladies event champion. Then Jake Schindler out-lasted Greg Merson and Vanessa Selbst to win the High Roller.
We caught up with tales from the nosebleeds, courtesy of Ville Wahlbeck, and the bleary eyed patrons of last night's players' party.
And as the PCA wound down, we decided that everything must go.
That is now the end of that. Enjoy looking back through all our coverage from the PCA and join us in Deauville in a couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, if you see a Polish man trying to fit this in an overhead locker of a plane back to Central Europe, help him out.