PokerStars Festival London: Walker sprints to blackjack title

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Matthew Walker: Only one winner in the blackjack tournament

At the official party time of "9pm til late" tonight, Lola's Underground Casino in the Hippodrome, London, will host the first players party of the PokerStars Festival era. It's free booze "until we run out" and is likely to be a hot ticket even in the capital's party zone.

Before that, however, Lola's is hosting the second of this week's "Stars Fun" events, and it draws on the venue's other main focus. Despite the misleading outside appearance of an apothecary, and the inside appearance of a burlesque club (it's a deliberate speakeasy vibe), there are also a host of casino games down there: roulette wheels, a craps pit and a few blackjack tables.

Yesterday it was the spinning wheel. Today it was 21.

To cut to the chase, I'll tell you this: our inaugural blackjack champion is Matthew Walker, who sealed the deal and won £850 at about 7pm tonight. To be honest, if Walker hadn't have won it would have been a scandal. Right from the word go he was in the blackjack/speakeasy spirit, swilling whisky from a square glass, white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, pendant swinging from nipple to nipple. His suit jacket even had a leather collar. A leather collar!

After prevailing in his heat, played against three others over 10 hands, Walker joined Keisuke Hikosaka, Yann de la Ferte and Markus Seine in the final. It was a cosmopolitan line-up, the kind you might find at any blackjack table the world over.

Players all started the final with the same number of tournament chips and the idea is pretty simple: the player with the most after 10 regular hands of blackjack is the winner. The dealer is not officially in the tournament but still plays a huge role: each player has to beat him to win any hand and there's still the familiar desire to see him bust.

The first four hands of the final were undramatic and Walker didn't win a single one. Seine moved into an early lead when he was dealt 3♠8♦, doubled down, (Trent would be proud) and was rewarded with the T♦ for 21. The dealer bust.

By the time hand six came along, Walker was looking a little crestfallen. "You've got to be in it to win it boys," he said, as he put his biggest chips in the betting box.

The dealer dealt him the A♠ and then the K♠ beside it. "Boo-ya!" he said.

The dealer gave himself the J♦K♣ and beat all three others. "Gotta go for it," Walker said, now sitting with the biggest stack. Shirley Bassey's Big Spender started playing with precise synchronicity. Walker sang along as a girl in a sparkly red leotard gyrated in a cage before us all.

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Walker, standing, was born to blackjack

On hand eight, Walker was again in luck. He got T♦Q♦ and the dealer managed to find a 19. All others lost and Walker had a stack that it would be difficult to overhaul.

The principal strategy decisions in blackjack tournaments concern knowing the correct amount to wager, particularly in reference to your opponents' stacks. Only three places paid in this event--£850 for first, £350 for second, £200 for third and zilch for fourth--so there was a lot of counting of chips. Players were happy to provide the key information, but then they needed still to process it before betting. Like poker, there is a dealer button that moves around the table, determining who has to put their chips in the box first.

After Walker bet big on hand nine, despite being in the chip lead, De la Ferte, acting behind him, had a difficult choice. "Do you want to bet on me to lose or to win?" Walker probed.

Before De la Ferte made up his mind, Hikosaka moved all-in. "Well done," Walker said. Hikosaka was the only player to win the hand when his J♦9♣ beat the dealer's 4♠4♦5♣4♣.

On the final hand of the tournament, Walker again put out a significant chunk of his chips, but still had enough to leave nearly 1,000 behind. The short-stacked Seine and De La Ferte had little choice but to wager almost everything, while Hikosaka left 400 back.

Here's how the final hand played out:

Walker: A♠6♠
Hikosaka: J♣7♣
De La Ferte: 4♦J♠
Seine: 7♥4♦
Dealer: Q♣ ??

With the picture card showing in the dealer's hand, and seven or 17 in his, Walker had to peel one. It was the 8♠, taking him to 15. "I'm going to go against everything I've ever been taught," he said as he stuck. Hikosaka stuck with his 17, then De La Ferte peeled the Q♥. He bust.

Seine had 11 but had no chips to double down. He drew the 4♣ and then a picture card, which bust him. The dealer then turned over the 8♠ and scooped the lot, meaning the winner was the player who had left the most behind the line.

Walker had 925, Hikosaka 400, Seine 275.5 and De La Ferte 75. The cards had spoken and we had our winner.

It's craps tomorrow. Be sure to join us for that!

Follow live updates of Day 1C of the PokerStars Festival London Main Event via our friends at PokerNews.

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Howard Swains
@howardswains in Live Poker