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Christian Harder: Inaugural PokerStars Championship winner

The PokerStars Championship series has its first Main Event winner and it’s the name of a 29-year-old from Maryland to be placed beside those of Alexander Stevic and Gus Hansen, the inaugural champions of the EPT and PCA, respectively.

Christian Harder never did manage outright victory in either of those previous tours, despite making a final table in each of them as he amassed millions of dollars in winnings both live and online. But Harder wasted no time in sealing the deal after the tours rebranded as the PokerStars Championship: he dominated from the outset on the final table today, clinching the first prize of $429,664 after a heads-up deal.

Harder beat out a field of 738 players this week, the last six of whom contested the lion’s share of the prize-pool this evening at the Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island. Harder’s final obstacle was Cliff Josephy, the legend of online poker and recent November Niner. Josephy was coming off the back of a third-placed finish in Las Vegas towards the end of last year, and played a patient game to rise from short stack to second.


Backer turned opponent: Cliff Josephy

The pair had history too. When Harder made the final here in 2008, Josephy was his backer; Harder was just one of many online prodigies who got their leg-up thanks to the man known as JohnnyBax. The snowball that Josephy had helped propel back then was now an unstoppable juggernaut and it rolled over Josephy shortly before 9pm.

“It’s pretty amazing, I’ve come full circle,” Harder said. “It’s totally where it all started. I’d never played a big buy in until the 2008 PCA.”

He added: “It’s amazing. I’ve been playing for nine years really, never won a major tournament. To finally win one, here, it’s awesome.”

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Players returned to the Imperial Ballroom at noon guaranteed at least $103,780, but there was a clear line running through start-of-day leader board dividing the stacked from the slacks.


Final table players: Standing (l-r): Alexsi Opalikhin, Christian Harder, Michael Gentili, Cliff Josephy. Seated (l-r): Rasmus Glæsel, Michael Vela

While Gentili (6.175 million), Harder (5.985 million) and Aleksei Opalikhin (4.59 million) could afford to take hits and survive, Cliff Josephy (1.24 million), Rasmus Glæsel (1.56 million) and Michael Vela (1.755 million) would need their hands to hit or hold up if they had designs on the trophy. Alas for Glæsel first, that would not come to pass.

On the first hand, Glæsel flopped a set of nines, but found no callers. Within about another 20 minutes he found AK and this time did get action: Harder had pocket tens. The chips went in but the board was dry and Glæsel left us in sixth. Glæsel received hugs from friends and opponents alike, testament to a gregarious table presence for the past five days during which he has kept conversation bubbling along. (Hand history)


Rasmus Glæsel, right, racing for his life


Michael Vela bids farewell to his new friend Glaesel

With five left, action was still cautious. They played out more than two and a half levels–that’s more than three hours, and more than 100 hands–without either a double-up or an elimination. But arguably this period is precisely where the tournament was won.

A few pots brewed between Gentili and Harder that principally profited the latter. Indeed, everybody ended up taking some from the overnight leader and his stack dwindled below the 1.5 million mark. He was ultimately knocked out by a Opalikhin/Josephy one-two: Opalikhin took all but a couple of Gentili’s chips in skirmish with AA against 22. Then Josephy polished him off with K10 to Gentili’s 97. (Hand history)


Michael Gentili: First to fifth

Despite having the biggest stack at the end of Days 4 and 5, Gentili was out in fifth. He took $140,940, but it’s going to be a while before he sees that for the success it so patently is.


The end of a bad day for the overnight leader

With the dam now broken, chips began to move. Although Harder was still sitting pretty with almost half the total chips in play, any of the other three knew it might be them swept away next. So it proved for Opalikhin. Holding KQ, he faced a three-bet shove from Josephy, holding pocket nines.


The game is up for Aleksei Opalikhin

A call and a dry board later, and it was Opalikhin left with shrapnel. Vela took the bounty with his pocket kings. (Hand history) Opalikhin, who was the last player from outside North America in the final five, took $191,420 back to St Petersburg, Russia.

Despite scoring the knockout, Vela was the short-stack. But here was a man who has overcome much more serious obstacles than the deficit of a few chips in a poker tournament. He was diagnosed in September 2015 with throat and tongue cancer, which he had licked within 10 months.

“I had a lot more positives than negatives come out it for me,” Vela said of what proved to be a one-sided battle. “Life is what you make of it. At the end of the day, it was a very positive experience.”

He will doubtless say the same of this event, even if the road ended in third. He had the most vocal supporters in the room, headed by his girlfriend and latterly bolstered by the returning Glæsel. They went through every emotion with him, including the frustration and disappointment of losing to Josephy’s rivered flush when he was hoping for a triple up. (Hand history) But the $259,980 he took for third will be very well spent.


Michael Vela: Pretty, pretty good


Vela’s rail on a rollercoaster of emotion

With two experienced campaigners left, and with only a few blinds between them, Harder and Josephy quickly agreed a deal. Harder locked up $419,664 and Josephy $403,445, with $10,000 and the trophy left on the side.


Harder, left, and Josephy agree on the terms of their deal

In the past, heads-up battles in the Bahamas have kept everyone up before sunrise, but these two had no desire to stick around. The first time they both found aces, they were prepared to risk all with them, and Harder’s AJ remained better than Josephy’s A8 when they got their stacks in pre-flop. (Hand history)

Harder is a good friend with fellow Maryland native Tony Gregg, who has twice previously finished runner up in the Bahamas. But Harder went one better even than Gregg and gets the PokerStars Championships up and running in exemplary fashion.


Ticker tape for Christian Harder

Next stop: Panama in March. See you all then.

PokerStars Championship Bahamas Main Event

Dates: January 8-14, 2017
Players: 738
Buy-in: $4,717 + $283
Total prize pool: $3,376,712

1 Christian Harder USA PokerStars player $429,664*
2 Cliff Josephy USA   $403,445*
3 Michael Vela USA   $259,980
4 Aleksei Opalikhin Russia   $191,420
5 Michael Gentili Canada   $140,940
6 Rasmus Glæsel Norway   $103,780

*Denotes heads-up deal

Full payouts

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