Back in 2015, in a cold December in Prague, Kenny Smaron tucked himself away in a quiet corner of a conference room at the Hilton Hotel and won a €10,000 buy-in High Roller poker tournament without all that many people noticing.
Flash forward 15 months and Smaron, now 32, has just won another one. This time, in Panama City, Panama, he took centre stage under the studio lights for the final of the $5,000 PokerStars Championship Main Event--and this one was far from either quiet or smooth.
After outlasting all but six of a 366-strong field, Smaron played a full role in a boisterous, turbulent final. There was some exceptional poker--some genuinely thrilling hands that swung in multiple directions--but it was also one of those days where the dealer played as significant a part as anyone, landing race after beat after cooler after outdraw on the felt. It all played out in front of a rail that was full of sound and fury (and beer).
When push came to shove, Smaron proved to be the least susceptible to accidents of either his or the poker gods' making. He held the lead for longest on a day when at least three others were at the front for varying lengths of time. He was constant and consistent and wrapped it up at around 9.40pm local time. As a significant side-point, his $293,860 winner's prize nudged career earnings in live tournaments past the $1 million mark.
"At times I did get agitated," Smaron said of the tumult in the room. "But I've been in this place before. I stayed focused and stayed the course."
Smaron's beaten heads-up opponent, Harpreet Gill, took the bumpiest route. He needed a series of double ups to rise from short-stack to the final two, and might have been knocked out numerous times had the coin landed the other side up. He tried to blast his way through heads-up play, but was beaten by a short-handed online specialist--Smaron plays as "kenny05" at PokerStars--at the top of his game.
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Meanwhile, the overnight chip leader, Denis Timofeev, went out in third having played excellently, but hardly managing to get a hand to hold up. Before that, we had entertaining cameos from Jonathan Abdellatif and Robin Wozniczek, after a fleeting glance of Anthony Diotte. All played their part.
After the extended formalities ahead of the cards-up live broadcast, we quickly got into the swing of things just after noon. Within three hands, there was the first shove, the first call, the first flopped set, rivered full house and the first elimination. This would set a tone.
Diotte was the man on the receiving end: his A♥J♣ was distinctly inferior to Wozniczek's 2♣2♦ as the latter improved throughout the 8♦2♥5♠A♣8♣ board. Diotte's tournament lasted five days to this point. His Day 6 was done in less than five minutes--but he took $65,520 for sixth. (Hand history)
Wozniczek, who is a business studies student from Germany, came to the final as the least experienced player, and quickly got a harsh lesson in the realities of tournament poker. The hand against Diotte, combined with a handful of other small subsequent pots, vaulted him to the top of the counts. He must have been delighted. But his nosedive was spectacular after that. He was next out. Poker is cruel.
Wozniczek flopped top pair at least twice in hands where Smaron had two pair. He lost both of those. Then he bet a gutshot draw, missed it, but bluffed on the river. Again his opponent in the hand, Abdellatif this time, had two pair and another stack of chips left Wozniczek's possession.
His elimination, however, was especially gruesome. In a three-handed pot against Timofeev and Abdellatif, Wozniczek flopped best with his K♥6♥ and the 5♥3♥6♣ on the board. Abdellatif bet with his 9♥7♥ and then, after Wozniczek check-raised, Abdellatif moved all-in with 37 percent equity.
Wozniczek called and was ahead, but also in danger. He had the marginally smaller stack. The J♣ was unproblematic for him. The 4♠ on the end was the very opposite. It filled Abdellatif's straight and sent the 22-year-old Wozniczek out of the door with $88,480. (Hand history)
Through Diotte's early elimination, then Wozniczek's rise and fall, Gill had sat with a short stack, happily laddering to a guaranteed six-figure payday. And then the cards started helping him out as he looked to become more than just a spectator.
He was able to pick up a useful few blinds and antes with pocket jacks and he then found a full double up with some slow-played kings when Timofeev flopped top pair of tens. Timofeev had the chips to handle that small dent: he had close to double his closest challenger at one point. But they went to the first break with 219 big blinds between them, yet only 25 separating first from fourth.
This flattening process continued after the break, and each of Timofeev, Smaron and then even Gill took over the lead. Smaron gave to Gill, Gill gave back to Smaron. Timofeev sometimes appeared back at the top simply by staying out of it.
One man who couldn't seem to get anything to stick, however, was Abdellatif. He slid down the counts, and eventually out, thanks to back-to-back hands featuring ace-seven.
The first time, he had A♠7♠ but lost a chunk to Smaron's A♥Q♣. Then he had J♦T♦ and lost the last of his stack to Smaron's A♠7♥. They got it in on the flop when Smaron had top pair and Abdellatif a flush draw that missed. (Hand history)
Abdellatif earned the first six-figure score of his career and took $119,480 back to Belgium.
It had been a pretty fun ride to take us from six to three, but it scarcely prepared us for what happened next. The best way to keep track of how volatile this was is to look through the live updates and use CTRL+F for the word "double". Every time you find one, drink a shot--and imagine about 20 poker railbirds doing the same.
All of Smaron, Timofeev and Gill were in the lead and also the short stack, and there were also periods in which all three were even.
It follows that it might have been any of them to go broke next, but the ignominy fell to Timofeev. After being pushed out of a huge pot by Gill (even though Gill was bluffing with the best hand), Timofeev and Smaron went to the races with T♥T♠ for Timofeev and A♣K♠ for Smaron.
The board confounded most of the spectators and even the dealer. They all seemed to think it was dry, meaning a double for the pocket pair. However, the 5♦4♠7♣2♣3♣ actually filled a wheel for Smaron and sent Timofeev back to Russia with $161,340. (Hand history)
They took dinner before returning for heads up play, with only about 1 million between them. But this was where Smaron's greater experience paid immediate dividends. Smaron limped buttons and then out-played a Gill who had clearly decided to play it aggressively.
Smaron took about half of Gill's stack on the fourth hand of heads-up play. On the ninth, he took the rest.
The decisive hand started with Gill limping the button, then Smaron raising. Gill jammed for 2.5 million and Smaron called.
The flop brought straight draws for both of them. It was Q♣9♥A♣. Smaron actually had a draw to win a tournament with a royal flush--something that I don't think has ever been done--but he didn't get it and he didn't need it. The 9♦ and 5♦ completed the board, and that sealed the trophy for Smaron. (Hand history)
Smaron, who relocated from Philadelphia to Latin America after Black Friday to continue his online poker career, said he is preparing already to get back to the grind.
"I'm going to take a few days off, celebrate this one tonight, and I'm going to fly back to Costa Rica tomorrow," he said.
For us, next up it's a trip to Macau for the PokerStars Championship at the PokerStars LIVE! card-room at the City of Dreams. We'll all be there for that one. Until then, it's goodnight from Panama where blessed peace is still only just descending.
PokerStars Championship Panama Main Event
Dates: March 14-20, 2017
Buy-in: $5,000 + $300
Total prize pool: $1,775,100
|1||Kenny Smaron||USA||PokerStars player||$293,860|
|3||Denis Timofeev||Russia||PokerStars qualifier||$161,340|
|5||Robin Wozniczek||Germany||PokerStars qualifier||$88,480|
|6||Anthony Diotte||Canada||PokerStars player||$65,520|