LAPT Rio: The end of the beginning

A couple of weeks ago, two young Dutchmen left their homes in Amsterdam for a holiday in South America. When they return to Europe in a few days from now, one of them will be $228,000 richer, and will be known as the first ever champion of the PokerStars.net Latin American Poker Tour.

"We were in the neighbourhood, so we thought we'd give it a go," explained that particular 19-year-old, named Julien Nuijten, as he described the thought process that led him from Argentina to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to take part in the largest poker tournament ever to be hosted in the continent.

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While his definition of "neighbourhood" might need some work, Nuijten's poker playing is already in tip-top shape. He outlasted 313 others, each stumping up $2,500, to take down this magnificent tournament. It was probably worth the brief diversion.

In truth, few could deny that Nuijten deserved this one. The Brazilian PokerStars blogger, Maria, first noticed him in the corridor of the Intercontinental Hotel on Friday and she reported there and then that she thought she had just seen the potential champion. He seemed focused, confident, calm and determined and already had the demeanour of a winner, she said.

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Sure enough, we all watched as his 10,000 starting stack grew relentlessly for two days, acquiring all the chips of Team PokerStars Pro's Humberto Brenes early on day one, then increasing hour on hour. Late last night, with ten players remaining in the field, Nuijten was still among them and, guess what, he still seemed focused, confident, calm and determined.

When he found pocket aces to blast away Alex Marques's pocket kings, we had a final table, and we had a monstrous chip leader. By 9pm tonight, we had a winner.

The final table began today in Rio with these nine players still in with a shout:

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Julien Nuijten (Holland) -- 970,000
Vitaly Kovyazin (USA) -- PokerStars qualifier -- 380,000
Alex Brenes (Costa Rica) -- 324,000
Nikolai Senniger (Germany) -- PokerStars qualifier -- 318,000
Juan Carlos Burguillos (Venezuela) -- 297,000
Rafael Pardo (Colombia) -- PokerStars qualifier --- 278,000
Eduardo Henriques (Brazil) -- 275,000
Oliver Kugler (Germany) -- PokerStars qualifier -- 176,000
Severin Walser (Switzerland) -- PokerStars qualifier -- 175,000

They did their interviews, they told us their biographies, and then they lined up to be snapped in front of a photographic mural showing an aerial view of Rio. Then they were allowed to play some poker.

The opening exchanges were fairly tight, but it was less than 20 minutes before we lost our first contender. Severin Walser was among the quieter people in what had been a boisterous tournament area, boosted by huge and vocal crowds throughout the three days. But he was also the person who probably understood the most of what was going on around him, boasting fluency in at least five languages in addition to his native Swiss/German.

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He also had one of the most glittering poker resumes, with a final table appearance at the 2007 World Series under his belt, where he finished fourth in a seven-card stud event from a final table featuring Daniel Negreanu, Jeffrey Lissandro and Howard Lederer.

But he knows that in poker, the cards speak, and his suited ace-jack couldn't beat Rafael Pardo's aces, all in pre-flop. Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehen, adios, au revoir Severin.

The next man out was one of a strong Latin American contingent in Rio. Juan Carlos Burguillos, from Venezeuela, had bludgeoned his way through the field yesterday afternoon, and cruised onto the final table with around about the average in chips. But he began sliding in the wrong direction today and was on the receiving end of a sickening two outer (more of those later) against Nikolai Senniger that left him crippled.

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He soon found himself shoving all in behind a suited queen-eight. Oliver Kugler, from Germany, called with an ace and it stayed good. Burguillos was out, and the noise in the tournament room was turned down from 11 to just 10 with the elimination of the Latin American.

It was another Latin American who followed Burguillos out the door, although Rafael Pardo will look back on this tournament as one of the most profitable investments of $7 in his life. The Colombian entered the PokerStars "steps" qualifying tournaments at level one, costing all of $7.50. He progressed all the way to the online final, earned his seat for this tournament, then started his ascent all over again in the bricks and mortar environment.

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He made it all the way to the final table, but was another one who spent the first hour or so card dead, else playing into the big stack of Julien Nuijten. Eventually, Pardo got his stack into the middle and earned a potential triple up when both Nuijten and Vitaly Kovyazin called. But when Nuijten bet into a dry side pot on a king-high flop, Pardo probably knew he was drawing thin. Sure enough, although his nine-eight had made middle pair, Nuijten had the king and the Colombian was done.

As previously mentioned, the Latin Americans had received wonderful support here in Rio, with an intrigued crown migrating from the beach or soccer stadiums to the Intercontinental Hotel to shout, cheer and sing throughout three days. The player who thrived most in this environment seemed to be the vibrant Eduardo Hernandes, who fittingly sported the iconic canary-yellow Brazil soccer shirt yesterday, and reliably became the subject of all the best photos in the tournament.

No one wanted to see him eliminated, but he took the fall in sixth place when his 7-8 was out-done by Nuijten's A-5. The crowd, of course, had erupted when an eight flopped, but the ace on the river sealed it and he was gone. Our photographer was on hand to get the sorry elimination photo, but who wants to see that, when we can look again at Eduardo in happier times yesterday.

I make no apology for the repetition, because if one photo could sum up the whole tournament in Brazil, this would be it:

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The five remaining all had a decent enough chip stack, but some knew they were under greater threat than the others. Oliver Kugler, one of two German players who had made it to the final, fell into this category, but ended up departing the tournament knowing he hadn't done much wrong. Kugler, who moved to Rio from Hamburg four years ago, found pocket queens and gradually built up a sizeable pot against Vitaly Kovyazin.

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But the flop and turn was all a bit black and club-shaped for Kugler's red queens and by the time he was all in, Kovyazin's ace of clubs had made the nut flush. Kugler was out.

Oliver's departure left us with four, and it also left Julien Nuijten and Vitaly Kovyazin with the big stacks that they continued to trade with one another. More quietly, at the other end of the table, was a man named Brenes, who has a name scarcely associated with silence at a poker table. But with brother Humberto looking on, the younger Brenes -- Alex -- had steadily progressed to the final four.

And even though he would go no further, Brenes did earn at least half an hour in the spotlight as he raged, raged against the dying of the light. A huge hand against the other short stack, Nikolai Senniger, (A-Q versus 10-10) left Brenes with 7,000 in chips, which was less than a big blind. It was all in the next hand, of course, with a dominated ace, but he rivered a seven to double up.

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Then Brenes found ace-king, good for another double up, and then I think he doubled up again, although the crowd became so thick with Costa Rican supporters watching the phoenix rise from the flames that I couldn't even see. I didn't need to, either. The roars of triumph or howls of anguish could be heard in San Jose.

As it was, there were three or four roars, followed by one of those squeals. His Q-3 ultimately wasn't good enough and Brenes made his way from the tournament floor, having established that there are two men with that name worthy of attention.

Nikolai Senniger had found his way to the last three with a minimum of fuss. And he must have been delighted when the two huge stacks in front of Julien Nuijten and Vitaly Kovyazin began taking each other on. At one point, Julien put Vitaly to the test for all his chips and the American looked like he might call at one point. In the end, he folded and lived to fight another day.

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So Nikolai was undoubtedly in the sights of the two leaders, but ended up getting fairly unlucky to depart in third. The PokerStars qualifier from Germany found jacks and got it all in pre-flop. Not bad, but desperately unfortunate when your opponent has found kings. There was no outdraw and Senniger took his leave, $86,350 richer.

That left Julien and Vitaly to duke it out for first. They had been the most aggressive players all day, and when I interviewed them both before the final table, they had spent a good deal of time discussing each other's game, having played together all day yesterday. They both seemed to have the measure of each other, and they also had almost the same amount in chips. It was going to be a belter.

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Vitaly, who originated in Russia but emigrated to the United States in the 1990s, had made a final table of a World Series circuit event in 2006 and had found a home at the tables of Foxwoods and Atlantic City on the east coast. But he had qualified for the Rio jaunt online, winning a 10,000 FPP satellite on PokerStars, which effectively meant he was freerolling.

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By contrast, Julien was a direct buy-in, with no major poker tournament results to his name. But he'd been in similar situations to this one, having won the world championship of "Magic: The Gathering" when he was just 15. "Magic" players, including Dario Minieri and Noah Boeken of Team PokerStars Pro, have frequently found their experience to stand them in good stead around the poker tables. And so it seemed again with the emergence of Julien.

The heads-up battle was all we expected, and more. Vitaly's tactics seemed to be to raise in position pre-flop, or call Julien's pre-flop bets, and make a decision once three cards were in the middle. Julien's seemed to be exactly the same. Both players were sliding in stacks of 100,000, then check-raising as though their life depended on it.

Julien took the lead, then Vitaly hauled it back, when he hit a two-outer on the river after Julien had picked off a bluff. So they grinded some more.

The final hand was typical, with both players entering the pot with sub-standard starting cards, and then both getting a piece of the flop and expecting to trap the other. In the end, it was Julien whose trap was deeper: he'd flopped trips with his 8-7 when Vitaly's Q-5 had hit top pair. It all went in on the turn and Julien's hand held up. That was that.

All in all, it's been an amazing three days in Rio. More than 300 turned up for this first event on a whole new tour, which bettered anyone's expectations. As we packed up our things to disappear into the Rio night, one phrase was repeated more often than any other among journalists, players, dealers and staff:

"See you next year."

This was only the beginning.

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The video blog team were, of course, on hand to capture all the action from the final table. Here's their latest visual masterpiece, with more available over at PokerStars.tv

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