EPT11 Malta: Vive la France as Jean Montury sees off Panka et al to win in the early hours

For two days towards the beginning of the inaugural EPT Malta festival, the facilities at Casino Portomaso, St Julians, were shared with a team poker event that played out following a World Cup format. The idea was to determine which of the eight highest-ranked poker countries in the world was the best.

France sent a team, featuring their six top-ranked players, but the Gallic campaign fizzled out in seventh. Only the British finished lower in the standings.

As if spurred to action by the disappointment, the poker players of France redoubled efforts in the €5,300 EPT Malta main event. There were 895 players in the tournament, 60 of whom were French, but by the time only two of them were left, both were playing beneath the Tricolore.

Valentin Messina, 34, and Jean Montury, 41, first saw off the other 893 challengers. Then, with national pride secured, they played simply to determine whether the trophy was heading back to Arras with Montury or staying in St Julians, where Messina has now re-located -- and, of course, which of them would get the lion's share of the €4,340,750 prize pool and the trophy.

In the end, Air France is the big winner: Montury, who is also a former world champion in pool, came out on top, and he'll need some extra baggage space for a huge trophy, a bigger cheque and an exclusive SLYDE watch. He wins €687,400 after the pair agreed a deal.

"It was very, very hard to win," Montury said. "I did a good job. I'm so happy, but very tired...I am very proud to be a winner of an EPT and I hope I will win more tournaments and do it again."


Jean Montury: The first ever champion of EPT Malta

To get heads up, the French duo needed to dispose of Dominik Panka, the former PCA champion and the player whose star has done nothing but rise over the past 14 months. Panka, who followed up his victory in the Bahamas with triumph in the EPT Deauville high roller, has rapidly become an EPT sensation.

Here he was at his second career main event final table, looking to achieve the double that he denied Mike McDonald in Nassau. Again like McDonald, he came very, very close. But even he could not penetrate the French defences. Panka came third.


Dominik Panka: TV star

After play ran long last night, the official final table of eight had already been reduced to six when play resumed today. The line-up looked like this:

Seat 1 - Stefan Schillhabel, Germany, 5,515,000
Seat 2 - Javier Gomez Zapatero, Spain, 3,800,000
Seat 3 - Valentin Messina, France, 7,805,000
Seat 4 - Hossein Ensan, Germany, 865,000
Seat 5 - Dominik Panka, Poland, 1,680,000
Seat 6 - Jean Montury, France, 7,185,000


A select group at the final table

No sooner had Hossein Ensan made himself comfortable than he was bidding farewell, finding Q♦T♣ in the small blind after action was folded to him. He had only about ten big blinds and shoved, with Panka behind him on the other short stack. However Panka, running very well all week, found K♥Q♣ and called, and then flopped a king.

Ensan, at his second final table of the season, was gracious in defeat: shaking five hands and hugging his adversaries on the way to the cash desk, looking for €153,700. The German is one of the success stories of this season and is continually delighted by his own performances. He has been a fun to watch.


Hossein Ensan bids farewell at the end of another wonderful run

The remaining five traded chips for about another 60 minutes, with the chip-leading French duo continuing to boss proceedings. Although Panka's stack received a fillip with the elimination of Ensan, he lost much of it back when Montury turned a straight with 5♠4♠ and bettered his top pair, top kicker.

This is Panka we're talking about, though, and he managed to find K♦K♥ not long after, at precisely the right time. Montury called Panka's shove with A♦9♠ and, for the umpteenth time, Panka won when all in.

Pressure had now shifted to Javier Gomez Zapatero, the final Spanish player still hoping to bring the first title back to his homeland (via London, where he now lives). But Gomez Zapatero, who led at the end of Day 3, was also unfortunate in his timing when he shoved with Q♠T♦.

Panka had K♣Q♣ and the same match up of hands that eliminated Ensan ended in the same result for Gomez Zapatero. The board was blank and he went out in fifth for €205,300.


Javier Gomez Zapatero: Spain continues to search for first title

Stefan Schillhabel assumed short-stack responsibilities, a role that usually requires a player either to double up or to go home. Schillhabel, to the manor born, did both.

Firstly he managed to out-flop Messina's J♥J♣ with A♦7♥. (The A♠ did it.) And then, even more dramatically, he managed to river a jack with A♣J♠ to beat Messina's 8♦8♣. He did that the hard way too. There were three diamonds on board, cutting away two of his outs. But the J♣ popped out and that was good.


One last sweat for Stefan Schillhabel

The German player, at his first EPT final, had this kind of remarkable run late yesterday and could have been forgiven for thinking the Gods were as yet undecided between him and Panka. But even after those double ups, he was still the tournament short stack and it was third time unlucky. He got his chips in with pocket fours and this time was picked off by Messina's pocket sixes.

Schillhabel took €260,500 for fourth and left Panka to do battle with the two Frenchmen.

Panka is good. He is very good. But after finding pocket tens and three-betting Messina's open, could he get away from the hand when Montury four bet from the big blind? For probably 95 per cent of players sitting with about 25 big blinds, this is an insta-jam. But Panka took his sweet time and then flicked his cards away. It was a brilliant fold: Montury had pocket queens and Panka had sidestepped the trap door with enormous élan. Did he have a tell? (He later told us that he did.)

With vocal cheering sections supporting all three remaining players, the atmosphere around the feature table was one of the most energetic of the season. There were more than 60 people on the stage; an ensemble cast for this high drama (even if most of them were at best dividing their time between live action and the one-hour delayed EPT Live coverage on their smartphones).


The crowds pack in

Panka continued to be the favourite, both of the crowd in the tournament room and across cyberspace as the tournament was broadcast on a one-hour delay. But it just meant that the disappointment was also stretched out for 60 minutes, as first the live crowd and then his distant supporters discovered that Panka was going to fall short.

He had about 5 million chips when he found 9♦9♣ and three bet to 1.05 million after Montury had opened to 425,000 with A♣Q♣. Montury then shoved, covering Panka, and this time the PCA champion called for a tournament-defining flip.

Panka had won countless similar coups throughout this tournament and must have felt good when flop and turn came 2♦K♣7♠J♦. But Montury had ten outs, including the T♠ which filled his straight and sent Panka packing.

This was another exceptional performance from Panka, whose €347,300 for third will likely feel insignificant beside the goodwill he has also earned.


Dominik Panka departs as Valentin Messina and Jean Montury celebrate

Panka's departure left the Frenchmen and they immediately did what the French do best. They went on a dinner break. When they came back, they agreed on a deal: Messina had marginally more chips so took €615,000 while Montury was guaranteed €587,000. They still had €100,000 to play for, which would determine the real champion, and they settled in for a long heads-up battle with all but equal chips.


Messina and Montury: It has come to this

And, yes, this was a long one. The early exchanges all went in the favour of Montury and he quickly ran up the kind of lead that suggested a hasty conclusion. But Messina doubled up at least three times to extend play deep into the early hours, forcing tournament officials to reduce the length of the levels.

Messina got really unlucky in one pot, flopping trips with his A♦Q♥ on a board of A♠7♣A♥ and, better, finding an opponent with A♣9♠. But the river brought the 9♣ and Montury took a massive lead again.

Messina would not die, though, and another couple of double ups drew him all but level. However, there's no accounting for a cooler and at about 4.12 a.m. local time, a full six hours after Panka was eliminated and 15 since the final table started, we finally reached the end.

They got it in pre-flop: a pocket pair -- 5♣5♦ for Messina -- against a big ace -- A♦T♥ for Montury. And after the board ran 6♥J♣J♠4♥6♦, the fives were counterfeited and the ace played. That was that for this epic.

"The heads-up was so long because we both wanted the trophy and wanted to win so much," Montury said. "It was so hard to beat a man like Valentin, because he is a very good player. It's hard for him, but we need one winner."


Jean Montury consoles with Valentin Messina at the end of this epic


Valentin Messina: The trophy remained tantalisingly out of reach

Montury therefore joins a long roll call of French EPT champions, including ElkY, Arnaud Mattern, Ludovic Lacay, Remi Castaignon and Christophe Benzimra. He was exhausted at the end, but now heads to Monaco as the latest EPT champion.

We will be there too towards the end of next month. See you there.

EPT11 Malta, €5,000 NL Hold 'em Main Event
Entries: 895
Places paid: 127
Prize pool: €4,340,750

1 - Jean Montury, France, €687,400*
2 - Valentin Messina, France, €615,000*
3 - Dominik Panka, Poland, €347,300
4 - Stefan Schillhabel, Germany, €260,500
5 - Javier Gomez Zapatero, Spain, €205,300
6 - Hossein Ensan, Germany, €153,700
7 - Antonin Duda, Czech Republic, €108,200
8 - Remi Wyrzykiewicz, Poland, €76,000

*denotes two-way deal

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour