Over the past few years, Latin America has become a hotbed of poker talent -- some of it grown there, some of it transported owing to a mass migration of American pros. The emergence of the region as a dominant force has never been more apparent than this afternoon at the Atlantis Resort in Paradise Island in the Bahamas, when a man from Peru and an American export to Mexico went heads up for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, and a first prize of close to $1.5 million.
In the Peruvian corner, there was Diego Ventura, an online superstar who plays as "Die Ventura" on PokerStars. He won his package to the PCA at the last minute, and needed only to finish fourth to assume first place on the all time Peruvian money list. It would be the most emphatic way to translate online form into the live arena, provided he could get past Kevin Schulz, a 28-year-old currently living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Schulz was intent on reclaiming the PCA trophy for Uncle Sam for the first time since 2012.
Ventura and Schulz were the final two players remaining from 816 entrants to this $10,000 buy in tournament and had outlasted 810 others to get into the six-handed final day.
The momentum went almost entirely in Schulz's favour for the first four hours of play, and he had a near four-to-one chip lead when they went heads up. And even though Ventura doubled up with A♦9♥ versus Schulz's pocket threes, reducing the deficit, it proved to be a mere blip.
Sitting with K♥3♦ and looking at a board of 4♥6♦Q♠K♣6♣ Schulz bet small for value on the river. Ventura did more than call. He moved all in, a check-raise, with his [10d]4♦. Schulz thought about it. The shove was for more than 3 million. But eventually he picked off Ventura, the final action of a swift final table. Schulz knocked out all but one of his opponents this afternoon, and got the whole thing done in less than six hours.
"I'm pretty happy," Schulz said, with a fine command of understatement. His rowdy rail picked up the slack, whooping garrulously as the glitter cannons fired into the sky. "I think they all had my back," he said.
Schulz added: "I think poker is an individual game. It's not about countries or nationalities. If you've got money and you want to put it in play, it shouldn't matter where you are from." He admitted he had the run-good when it mattered at the end of the tournament, but said, "I felt good at the table. I had some pretty good reads on everybody, but you never know what's going to happen."
He wins $1,491,580, plus a luxury SLYDE watch. Ventura has to make do with $907,080.
A slight amendment to the usual EPT and PCA structure had meant a longer penultimate day to the tournament yesterday and only six players, instead of the usual eight, returning today to chase down to the champion.
Chance Kornuth, another American pro, from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, had the biggest stack, and all the confidence in the world that he could close it out today. (His fiancee Emily had enough nerves for the both of them.) But Kornuth ran out of steam on the last day.
After introductions and nervous walks to the table, our final table began with a thrilling discussion: why was nobody posting a small blind? The answer was simple: Pratyush Buddiga was eliminated on the final hand of last night when he was in the big blind. It meant no small blind was necessary for the first hand of play on the final day, and it was lucky Juan Martin Pastor had been paying attention. He graciously explained the anomaly to Kornuth et al.
Kornuth was better when he let his chips do the talking, and on the very first hand of play got busy with 8♠7♣, barrelling Ventura off his A♣Q♦ when neither player connected with flop or turn. Kornuth said in a pre-game interview that he was going to "bring the heat today" and was good to his word.
While Kornuth could do whatever he pleased with his stack, Rami Boukai was in a war of attrition with his ten big blinds. He got one shove through, when nobody called, but then picked up 3♣3♠ under the gun and found Niklas Hambitzer with A♣Q♠ in the small blind. Hambitzer looked him up.
Boukai was probably perfectly content to take a flip at this point, but the flop came 6♠7♥A♥, vaulting Hambitzer into the lead, and even though the 5♠ turn offered some more outs, the 6♦ wasn't one of them. Boukai's stay was brief, but his $285,740 prize should last him a while, especially since his buy in to the event came via a $700 satellite on PokerStars.
The PCA is well known on the poker calendar for its abilities to draw players from across the globe, and the festival's numbers this week had been swelled by a partnership with the Latin America Poker Tour, which extended its definition of its regional boundaries to include the Bahamas.
If we put aside for a moment the similar, conflicting claims of Europe -- the PCA is also a date on the European Poker Tour -- the Main Event was certainly all the better for the arrival of the Latin American contingent, and Juan Martin Pastor became the de facto standard bearer for Argentinian poker in the deepest stages.
The 22-year-old from Buenos Aires, who has previously made a final table in on the LAPT in Colombia, is also a Supernova Elite on PokerStars and has further burnished his growing reputation throughout this event. His run ended in fifth, however, when even his consummate skills couldn't help A♣K♦ come from behind against Schulz's A♦A♥. Pastor walked away from his table surrounded by the most populous and enthusiastic rail and seeking $380,720 prize money.
The stacks fluctuated wildly during four-handed play, with Ventura doubling up through Kornuth, when both players flopped top pair queens but Ventura's kicker was better. Then Kornuth made a hero call against Schulz that turned out to be far from heroic: his queen high was no good against Schulz's kings and sevens, and that put the day-start chip leader down to less than 2 million in chips. Schulz, meanwhile, was comfortably into eight figures and had dramatically seized control.
Kornuth's nosedive gave the impression of somebody on tilt, and when he shoved for close to 1,700,000, Niklas Hambitzer the last European in the field, snap-called with K♣J♠. Kornuth's A♦7♥ was leading, but the flop of K♥7♠[10c] put Hambitzer ahead. Kornuth still seemed confident, though, even if his tournament was now hanging by a thread. And when the 7♦ came on the river, putting him ahead again, Kornuth was back to being a genius.
Hambitzer was now the man in trouble, and not only because Fatima Moreira de Melo was in the EPT Live commentary booth and was continually referring to him as Hamburger. Bonn, Germany (Hambitzer's city of birth) is 450km from Hamburg, but it didn't stop the Team PokerStars Pro unleashing a torrent of fast-food related puns whenever Hambitzer was in a hand.
As if in deliberate self-sacrifice to halt the nonsense, Hambitzer was next to bust. He only had about ten big blinds left and got his chips in with A♠Q♦, way ahead of Schulz's Q♠9♠. Schulz was running exceptionally well, however, and after a flop of 7♣9♦3♥, Hambitzer couldn't ketchup. He was done when another nine came on the turn and was on his way back to London, England, his new home, with $482,820.
After Hambitzer's elimination, Kornuth re-assumed the role of tournament short stack, but evidently continued to still believe. And things looked good on the next time he was all in: his A♦8♦ dominated Schulz's A♥4♠.
The flop was safe enough: A♠5♣J♦, and even the 3♥ on the turn only brought a few more cards that could send Kornuth to the rail. However when the 2♠ popped up on the river, filling Schulz's inside straight, Kornuth's chances were all extinguished. The chip leader at the start of the final table was out. He departed in third, for $641,140.
It left only the two of them: Ventura and Schulz. The Peruvian put up the kind of battle that had plenty in the room thinking we might be in for another titanic heads up duel. But then there was that sensational bluff and the even more sensational call. That sealed it, and Schulz is our champion.
"If you haven't skydived, you've got to get out there and try it," Schulz said, likening his victory to his other great passion: leaping out of a plane. "It's pretty awesome. But so far, this is maybe one of the most intense things I've done in my life."
PCA Main Event - January 8-14, 2015
Buy in: $10,000
Prize pool: $7,915,200
1 - Kevin Schulz, United States, $1,491,580
2 - Diego Ventura, Peru, $907,080
3 - Chance Kornuth, United States, $641,140
4 - Niklas Hambitzer, Germany, $482,820
5 - Juan Martin Pastor, Argentina, $380,720
6 - Rami Boukai, United States, $285,740
7 - Pratyush Buddiga, United States, $203,420
8 - Dylan Linde, United States, $140,900
The EPT now goes to Deauville at the end of the month. The LAPT's eighth season will also continue very soon. The PCA is put to bed until about this time next year. We'll be back, so see you then.