Two Stars at the Final Table

PokerStars qualifiers make the WSOP final table and become millionaires

Brad Kondracki being interviewed by CardPlayer magazine

Daniel Bergsdorf lets it all sink in

Getting there, and those left behind

There was a point during the day when two longtime card players and I stood and stared across the legendary Benny's Bullpen and asked in a not-quite rhetorical manner, "Why do we even play this game?"

There we stood in the the most hallowed building in the game's history. We were alongside of some of the greatest players in the game. We were within whispering distance of people who would soon be new millionaires. It was a time when we should've been basking in all that the history and history-making could offer. And yet, one veteran said, perhaps seriously, "I don't think I want to come back to the World Series."

And yet, by the middle of the next morning, we all had smiles on our faces.

To be sure, it had been a heartbreaking day. World Champion Greg Raymer, poised to make his second final table in as many years, suffered a beat so bad, it was like shoving one's face in a bag of ammonia. Our eyes watered, our chests hitched, our senses burned. Fossilman had raised pre-flop and got called. When the flop came down came down 356 rainbow, Raymer bet half the pot and his opponent called. The turn was a seven of hearts, putting two hearts on board. Greg bet out half the pot again ($330,000), Greg's opponent made it $900,000 to go. Greg put his opponent all-in for his remaining $700,000. The opponent called. Greg had KK to his opponent's flush draw with QJ hearts. The river came down a deuce of hearts and reduced Raymer's stack to nearly nothing.

After busting out a few minutes later, Raymer said of the odds, "Eighty percent of the time, I'm the chip leader or close to it. Twenty percent of the time, I'm in bad shape."

In fact, those of us rooting for Raymer felt in bad shape ourselves. At the time, it seemed our other PokerStars qualifiers might fall short and that Raymer would be our only hope.

But there is that thing about hope springing eternal, and, indeed, I had hope. There was a man in the room who had more spirit in his eyes and game than five of his competitors combined. Bernard "Dogger9" Lee, known as Bernie to his friends, has a heart for the game unlike any I had seen in recent months. He surived on a short-stack for days on end, but began each day with the eyes of a chip leader.

A chip and a chair was all he needed

As his opponents fell out of the field one by one, Lee survived with wild, adrenaline-moist eyes. When his aces held up against a pair of queens, his excitement was not borne out of his need for camera time. It was real. It was genuine competitor's drive. During a break, he looked at me as if he thought he actually owed me something. "I've made it through this many days," he said. "I'm going to give you another day."

I wanted to tell him he had already given me, PokerStars, and all his family and friends more than they deserved. He had played with such purity and skill, it made the game seem palatable again.

But then, as it seemed to happen all day, the fates gave up on Lee. After three players limped around to Lee in the big blind, he checked his option. The flop came down K63. Everyone checked round to Aaron Kanter on the button. Kanter bet out $200,000. Bernard raised all-in and Aaron called. Lee had paired his king. Kanter had paired the six. The turn came a jack, but the river was a six to give Kanter trips. Bernard Lee, the last man in this contest to qualify for free with Frequent Player Points, left in 13th place and cashed for $400,000.

Bernie Lee with ESPN's Norman Chad

When bad things happen to good people, sometimes one has to just sit back and wait for something good to happen. And, of course, it did.

Daniel Bergsdorf, a 27-year-old truck driver from Sweden, and 24-year-old US law student Brad Kondracki emerged from the pack and made it down to the final ten players.

The pair found themselves up against some massive stacks. Kondracki, short stacked, barely had enough to make it around the table a few times. Yet some well-timed all-ins and re-raises allowed him to hold on.

Brad Kondracki (center) and his entourage

Bergsdorf played a few more pots than Kondracki, but established himself as a contender in one big hand. Aussie Joe Hachem raised pre-flop to $350K and Bergsdorf re-raised to make it $850,000 to go. Hachem asked for a count and found Bergsdorf had a little less than two million. Hachem called. Flop came down T44 rainbow. Bergsdorf checked. Hachem bet $500K. Bergsdorf announced all-in. Hachem insta-called with pocket nines. Bergsdorf showed just how beautiful his trap was. He had aces and they held up.

In a ten-handed session that lasted for more than two hours, play loosened and tightened the table's screws like a carpenter on speed. Seemingly forever-tight, the table would suddenly loosen up for a major confrontation. Several times it seemed like a player was on the ropes. Almost every time, a miracle two-outer would send us back to the drawing board. Finally, a shortstack's queens lost to a rivered flush, and we were down to nine.

Though everyone already knew it, the announcement hit the room as if it were a suprise.

"Players, you are all millionaires!"

Indeed, everyone left at the table will win at least a million bucks. Kondracki spent $160 on a double shootout to get in. Bergsdorf played a $33 rebuy that cost him a total of $66. Combined they spent less than $230 for a now-guaranteed combined prize of more than $2 million.
And now, as the sun rise over the Las Vegas mountains, I think back to that moment more than 12 hours ago when we asked ourselves, "Why do we play this game?"
Why? Well, I think we'll see the answer this afteroon. And, frankly, I saw the answer in the eyes of our winners last night.

Play resumes Friday at 4pm Vegas time. Come back here for more all day play-by-play.

Good luck, gentlemen.
Brad Willis
@BradWillis in World Series of Poker