Greg Raymer said an interesting thing this week. Asked to name the biggest tournaments in the world during the live Internet broadcast of the European Poker Tour Grand Final, Raymer named off four events: the WSOP main event, the WSOP $50,000 HORSE event, NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship and the same Grand Final he was commentating from. More important than the answer Raymer gave was the answer he didn't. The WPT Championship was nowhere to be found in the discussion.
While it may not be a big part of Raymer's calendar, the $25,000 buy-in WPT Championship makes a big dent on just about everyone else's, and this week we saw why when David Chiu emerged the victor. One of the toughest fields of the year produced a dramatic final table featuring chip leader/WPT hero Gus Hansen taking four stacks in 30 hands and playing Goliath to Chiu's David, with a $22.9 million-$4.36 million lead going into heads-up play.
David bet $505,000 on pocket fives and doubled up against Hansen's 2-2. After he took the lead, Chiu completed the comeback by calling Hansen's two-pair all-in to his top pair/flush draw. Chiu rivered an ace for trips, then grabbed a Chinese flag and waved it as Gus stood stunned. Finally, they shook hands. Losing on the river was ironic for Gus after he got his money in behind in three of his four final-table eliminations.
Chiu is a quiet and thoughtful man overlooked by modern poker's rush for glitz and glamour. The owner of four World Series of Poker bracelets, Chiu immigrated to the United States 30 years ago and has been playing poker professionally for most of that time. Sitting in front of the WPT's cameras before the final table played out, he spelled out his very simple plan: Sit back, let Gus beat everyone else, then beat Gus.
The flag waving wasn't meant to be political. "I'm proud to be Chinese, but I lived there for 18 years, now I've been here for 30 years. Which one do you think is my home?" he said. "We all know America is the greatest country in the world. I wish I'd had both flags so I could have waved them together." Chiu's exuberant victory was unexpected by those who know him, simply because it was so out of character. He even admits that normally, "I'm a low key guy. Mike Matusow, he's a good talker. Daniel Negreanu, he's a good talker. I'm not, especially in my second language."
"He's been an amazing player for a long time," Chris Ferguson says, "a great guy and a deserving champion. The public wouldn't be too aware of him, but all the top players know him and respect his game." WPT host Mike Sexton says of Chiu, "I consider David Chiu a pro's pro. He's a terrific player, conducts himself well on and off the table, goes about his business quietly. I don't know anyone who doesn't like him."
For Chiu, the win is vindicating. He still deals with the aftermath of a wrongful imprisonment. He and his wife were arrested two days before Christmas in 1998, his car mistaken for a similar one belonging to a kidnapper. Chiu was wrongfully imprisoned for three and a half months (his wife for two and a half), and their two children were immediately put into foster homes.
"They put me through hell," Chiu said. "God made me go through this to make me a better person and a stronger person. Everything happens for a reason. I'm trying to forget it and forgive it and go on with my life."
Chiu finally got his rightful release but stayed away from the tables for the next six weeks. He finally made his way to Sexton's 1999 Tournament of Champions to re-enter the game and promptly won the event. "On that final table, he played perfect poker," Sexton remembers. "In one hand, he folded pocket kings preflop when someone else had aces. In another hand, he won when he made a big river call with king-high."
"The guy is one of the class acts of the game," Howard Lederer said. "He's quiet and goes about his business. He doesn't go around with a chip on his shoulder. I don't know how I'd have reacted to what happened to him. He's never complained to me about it. He did what he had to do to make sure it went away and he's gone on with his business since then. I respect that a lot."
Chiu doesn't see big changes coming in his life or his public profile. "Everyone has their way of living. I'm happy the way I am. I understand there's a lot of money for having a big name, but I'm happy the way I am. Being a good human being." He won't be embracing the bright lights and cameras that so many of his fellow longtime professionals have, but with the return of the seemingly victorious seven, the WPT didn't need another star. It needed a legitimate champion, and it got one.
As the tournament played out, the leaderboard tantalized. Early on, Carlos Mortensen was threatening to go back to back. Then there was Tom Dwan showing signs of being poker's next big thing. When Dwan fell, it was the original WPT star, Hansen, who took top billing. Hansen entered the final table as the chip leader and favorite, and he showed the world why, knocking out four players to take 84 percent of the chips to the heads-up portion. All that was left was for the soon-to-be-anointed "King Gus" to finish the job and leave WPT producers wondering where their extra footage would come from. A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.
It was a big week for the WPT. Its marquee event was proceeded by the news the lawsuit filed by seven of poker's brightest stars had been settled, with a number of the players involved playing their first WPT in years. None of the former plaintiffs -- Ferguson, Lederer, Raymer, Phil Gordon, Joe Hachem, Andy Bloch, Annie Duke, -- managed to cash (granted, not all of them played), but as far as the future of televised poker goes, things got a little brighter.
Most of the seven will be making their way back to the World Poker Tour after their two-year absence. That's not good news for players looking for weaker fields, but it is for the WPT. In a company news release, CEO Steve Lipscomb stated: "We are glad to put this dispute behind us, and we look forward to working with all players to grow the sport of poker."
Gary Wise spent a year traveling with the WPT. Now he contributes regularly for espn.com and talks incessantly about poker's comings and goings on 'Wise Hand Poker Radio', broadcast Wednesday, 8 p.m. at roundersradio.com.