It was, quite simply, one of the greatest final tables of all time. It had everything - drama, tragedy, humor, passion, laughter, tears, a fight, a downfall, a comeback, and an ending no one could possibly have predicted.
It was twenty times longer than an episode of "SportsCenter", eight times longer than the movie "Rounders", and four times longer than a Super Bowl game. Clocking in at just over 11 hours, it was perhaps the only final table where the standing-room only crowd departed the arena feeling completely exhausted -- yet wanting, even screaming for more.
It was a final table which had nine compelling stories. The second place finisher in the Main Event at this year's World Series of Poker (WSOP); a player who arrived at the final table as chip leader at his last big tournament, busted out a disappointing fifth; a player who has grinded out a living for ten years on the tournament trail but who has yet to earn a televised breakthrough victory; a poker megalomaniac who finished second in the Tournament of Champions (TOC) last year; a player who has enjoyed tremendous success in poker recently, but who had not won a WSOP-related event in 13 long years; a professional poker player who has yet to win a major poker tournament. although he has made it to several final tables; a player from New Orleans who barely qualified for the TOC and lost much in the devastation that was Hurricane Katrina; an Englishman who has won big events overseas, but who has yet to make it big on the American poker scene; and finally, there was a fabulously-talented, admired by some, despised by others poker pro who started off the year as far away from a table at Caesars Palace and ESPN television cameras as humanly possible. Whoever won, had a great story.
The 2005 TOC concluded in a way which will be the yardstick of all future televised tournaments. Some events, such as the World Series of Poker may be considerably bigger, but no major poker tournament has ever offered so much human drama as the three-day invitational event, which concluded late on a Tuesday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Fortunately, ESPN was there to capture it all for posterity. A special three-hour telecast will air on Dec. 24 from 1-4 pm EST. Postpone the holidays and let Santa Claus wait on the delivery of presents. When the TOC airs on Christmas Eve, you won't want to miss this one.
The final table's opening moments began with a series of hysterical pranks. The banter made it seem more like a comedy act than a multi-million dollar poker tournament. Given the colorful cast of characters, it was hardly surprising that egoistical Phil Hellmuth would be everyone's favorite target. It all started off when Mike Matusow joked with Hellmuth about his new line of designer sunglasses. Matusow had his own designer label and whipped out a pair of sunglasses, which will require one to use the imagination. Superimposed in the lenses was a hand, with one extended finger, tilted upward. One gets the idea.
Steve Dannenmann had his own prank in store for Hellmuth. Knowing that the telecast will air on Christmas Eve, Dannenmann presented Hellmuth with a colorfully wrapped holiday gift. Hellmuth was shocked. Encouraged to open the gift by the audience, Hellmuth unwrapped his box like a 4-year-old and pulled out a doll resembling a donkey. The audience roared. Even Hellmuth cracked a smile. Ironically, the jovial spirit which characterized the Hellmuth-Dannenmann relationship early would become increasingly poisonous from that moment forward.
With cards in the air, the first big hand of the day took place when Hoyt Corkins found himself in a horrible spot. He was dealt pocket Queens against Brandon Adams' pocket Aces. Just when it looked like Corkins would be the first casualty of the day, an angelic Queen on the turn delivered saintly salvation and Corkins went from being one step away from the rail to second place in the chip count. What a huge hand that turned out to be. The $220,000 pot put Corkins onto the heels of Hellmuth.
Meanwhile, Brandon Adams was down to his last $30,000.
The amateur player from New Orleans who lost so much in Hurricane Katrina was playing for far more meaningful reasons than just a poker championship. Adams pledged that ten percent of his tournament win would be donated to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. It was a remarkable gesture since he and his family lost many of their possessions in the hurricane and flood. Had Adams won the TOC, it would have been the 'feel-good' story of the year. As it turned out, Adams could not recover from the devastating early beat. Adams collected $25,000 in prize money.
Quickly following Adams to the door was Keith Sexton in a very cruel hand. Sexton went from big dog, to big favorite, to big dog within a 45 second span. Sexton was dealt pocket Tens. Hoyt Corkins picked up pocket Queens (again). Sexton moved all-in with a re-raise before the flop. Corkins quickly called. Corkins was a definitive favorite when the flop fell with all blanks - 9-4-2. But a Ten rained down on the turn and shocked the room full of spectators. Just when it looked like Corkins would lose in the same manner where he doubled-up, the river was dealt. Wham! A Queen rocked the table and Sexton's dreams were crushed. All Corkins could do was shake his head in disbelief and rake in a huge $305,000 pot. Keith Sexton earned $25,000 in prize money, but was clearly disappointed with the outcome.
That extraordinary hand was the first in a series of earthquakes which shook Phil Hellmuth. The 1989 world poker champion went card dead during the early stages of the final table and watched as his tall towers of chips slowly disappeared. By essentially busting the first two players, Corkins rocketed into the chip lead for the first time and surpassed the $300,000 mark. It was the first occasion since late on Day One that Phil Hellmuth was not the tournament chip leader.
Patiently playing his short stack, David Levi went out in 7th place and earned him $25,000. Hopelessly short-stacked from the start, Levi survived two full hours and catapulted into seventh place, moving from an anticipated $25,000 in prize money up to a cash of $50,000. Levi had an opportunity to move up even higher. He moved all-in with A-Q and caught a Queen on the flop. But Mike Matusow hijacked the top pair with his pocket Aces and crushed Levi's dream of staging a comeback.
An hour passed before the next elimination. After not playing a big pot for a while, Grant Lang was dealt 9-5 of diamonds in the big blind. He called a raise by Tony Bloom, sitting in late position. The flop came K-J-10, normally a fold situation for the 9-5, but Lang played his opponent and the situation, hoping (wrongly, as it turned out) that his opponent might fold a stronger hand. Lang moved all-in after Bloom bet out. He said later that he hoped Bloom had a small pair and would fold. Lang went on to say he hoped Bloom would give him credit for A-K (top pair, top kicker). Unfortunately, Lang picked the wrong time to be creative. Bloom had pocket Aces all along, and Lang's mental gymnastics resulted in a crash and burn in sixth place. Lang, a.k.a. "G-Money" collected $75,000 for sixth place.
At a final table with so much at stake, and with so many combustible personalities, an explosion was foreseeable. What wasn't expected was who would light the fuse. Bothered by Phil Hellmuth's constant toying with his chips, and not stacking them in a conventional manner which allowed them to be easily counted by opponents, Steve Dannenmann had enough and insisted that Hellmuth cease his covert chip activities. Hellmuth refused. That brought about a barrage of insults that made for great television, but which certainly detracted from the jovial spirit which had characterized the final table up to that point.
"I don't understand why you can't stack your chips like everyone else," the normally reserved Dannenmann declared. "You are disrespecting the game."
Still, Hellmuth refused to comply.
"I'm here playing as an amateur, and I know I'm up against professionals," Dannenmann said. "You above everyone else should know the rules…..you sell all those books and products. But you aren't a professional - you're a punk!"
Coming from Matusow, the insult might have been expected. But delivered by the normally soft-spoken Dannenmann, the words stung the crowd like diving into a wasps' nest. Half of the audience had their mouths open in disbelief. The other half were bent over in hysterical laughter. Unfortunately, the casualty of the verbal barrage would ultimately be Steve Dannenmann himself. He lost two critical pots, which destroyed what might have one of poker's greatest soap operas.
Dannenmann's first blow was one for the ages. Mike Matusow, who chatted incessantly throughout the initial stages of the final table, became decreasingly vocal as his stack-size dwindled. Unable to needle his favorite target (Hellmuth), Matusow was silenced when he was all-in with A-K against Steve Dannenmann's pocket Jacks. By the fourth card, Matusow was in serious trouble. The Jacks were best, but four hearts were on the table, including Matusow's Ace of hearts. Desperate for an Ace, King, or heart, he leapt into the air, fists raised, when a heart tumbled down on the river. Matusow spiked his flush and the standing room only crowd went wild. As it turned out, that would be a huge hand. Even more ironic was the fact that at last year's WSOP final table in the Main Event, Dannenmann eliminated Matusow when he caught runner-runner hearts. Payback time.
Steve Dannenmann's misery continued. He tried to make a move at the pot with A-10 after the flop came Q-J-3. On a semi-bluff, Dannenmann moved all-in and Mike Matusow quickly called with K-Q. The top pair held up. Steve Dannenmann, a self-described amateur poker player who is "the fourth best poker player in his weekly poker game (quoting him from the 2005 World Series of Poker)," finished in fifth place and collected $100,000.
The real story is what took place in the post-elimination interview. With ESPN cameras rolling, Dannenmann blasted Phil Hellmuth. "We don't need players like that in the sport," Dannenmann said, raising a few eyebrows. Adding insult to injury, Dannenmann stated unequivocally, "Mike Matusow is the best player I have ever played with." As they say, war and poker create very strange bedfellows.
With Tony Bloom was blinded down to his last $100,000 in chips, he made a fateful call when he took K-8 up against Phil Hellmuth's A-Q. Both players flopped a pair, but Hellmuth's pair of Queens topped Bloom's Eights. Bloom wilted. Tony 'The Lizard' Bloom, one of Europe's most dynamic young stars, slithered away in fourth place and collected $150,000.
It was interesting that the three players who had dominated the Tournament of Champions from Day One ended up as the final trio of combatants. Hellmuth and Matusow had the chip lead during most of the tournament. Meanwhile, Hoyt Corkins (third after Day One to Hellmuth who was first, and Matusow who was second) vacillated up and down in the chip count before catching lightning early at the final table and stealing the chip-lead away from the two chatterboxes.
The next hand appeared mind boggling at first glance. But upon closer inspection, it revealed the strategic complexity of tournament poker. Corkins, dealt 5-4 suited, made a seemingly inexplicable play when he re-raised enough to put Matusow's all-in before the flop. Matusow had A-6 and called. The Ace-high held up and Corkins had just given Matusow renewed confidence and $150,000 in chips. Corkins would later explain that he thought Matusow was weak and would not play a big pot with a marginal hand. "My re-raise was just big enough to possibly make Mike lay down the hand," Corkins explained. "Even if Mike had two overcards like I believed and decided to call, I was still not that much of a dog and had (correct) pot odds."
Now, Matusow was back on his game. He began threatening Hellmuth. "I'm going to bust you … Don't bluff off all your chips … Philly can't play." For the most part, the stoic Corkins stayed out of the war of words during the entire day. Perhaps it was opponents' respect for the stone faced Alabama cowboy or the simple acknowledgment that no amount of chatter would induce a tilt factor, that persuaded supermouths Hellmuth and Matusow to leave Corkins out of the toxic exchange of insults that continued over ten full hours.
Corkins won a series of small pots, which increased his chip stack to the point where he regained the chip lead. After the merry trio had played for an hour, Corkins had $460,000 to $330,000 for Matusow, and $310,000 for Hellmuth.
Then, disaster struck for Corkins. He moved all-in with a re-raise holding A-4 of hearts. Matusow, with pocket fives, made a heart-wrenching call. When the hole cards were revealed, even Hellmuth had to proclaim, "Great call, Mike." Corkins made things interesting when he caught a four on the flop, but two successive blanks gave Matusow the biggest pot of the night to that point, and a 3-2 chip lead over his rival Hellmuth.
Just when it looked like Corkins was about to exit, he outfoxed his two opponents and climbed back into contention. It was an amazing display. It took him another hour to regain those lost chips and retake the chip lead. Just as the clock struck midnight, another electrifying moment occurred when Matusow foiled poker's grim reaper. Holding A-Q, Matusow moved all-in with a re-raise. Corkins, holding A-K called instantly. With a sword at Matusow's neck, it appeared 'The Mouth' would finally be silenced. Yet another miracle happened at this final table in a night filled with jokers. A Queen fell for Matusow on the turn and the crowd went ballistic. All poor Corkins could do was smile and shake his head. That pot lifted Matusow into a decisive chip lead with $700,000. Hellmuth and Corkins were left to battle for the scraps that were left.
Hellmuth sensed the crowd heavily favored Matusow. In a bold public relations move, Hellmuth pledged to buy 30 bottles of Dom Perignon champagne if he won the tournament. At $150 a bottle, that amounted to a $4,500 prize for the audience. So much for poker player allegiances. Suddenly, the crowd started whooping it up for Hellmuth, chanting "Phil! Phil! Phil!" leaving Matusow mystified. Score one for Hellmuth.
After getting punched twice, Corkins was down to his last $150,000. With blinds up to $6,000-$12,000 Corkins had plenty of time left to make his stand. But with Hellmuth and Matusow steadily pounding away, Corkins knew he desperately needed to catch a big hand and double up. He did exactly that. Then, Corkins shifted into overdrive and essentially raised 12 out of the next 15 hands. "I call him 'Mr. All-In," Hellmuth described earlier. "Just when I wanted to be the aggressor, Hoyt would move in his chips and I had to (fold)."
The final confrontation almost everyone in the audience had been expecting, anticipating, perhaps even hoping for never materialized. Arguably, no two opponents had more to prove to themselves and the poker world by achieving victory. Mike Matusow, hoped to make the TOC triumph the final chapter in what has been the comeback story of the year. Phil Hellmuth, the runner up in this event last year, not only hoped, but expected to return and earn a victory. If that wasn't enough, the parents were in attendance. Matusow's mother and Hellmuth's father sat proudly in the audience. Add the individual theatrics, that Matusow and Hellmuth are probably the two most controversial personalities in poker, and the final stage was nearly set for a bloody duel that would have left one player with perhaps his most personally satisfying victory, and the other emotionally crushed, crying, and cursing off in a dark corner.
Hoyt Corkins wouldn't let it happen. Demonstrating an uncanny fortitude for tournament hold'em and raw courage that is easy to glorify but impossible to learn, Corkins regained those lost chips and lots more. When Hellmuth looked down and saw A-Q, he assumed this was the gauntlet hand that would put an end to Corkins' relentless all-in moves. Hellmuth called Corkins raise instantly and was horrified to see the Dixie cowboy flip over two red Aces. Corkins doubled up on the hand and Hellmuth was left with just over $100,000.
Hellmuth began jumping around the table, declaring that he would "never give up." Like a kamikaze warrior trapped on a desert island fighting a lost cause, Hellmuth made one last desperate dash to win the poker war. But he was ultimately defeated, thus extinguishing the tempestuous nine-time gold bracelet winner's final flicker of hope. Hellmuth went out with 10-8 suited against Corkins' K-5. Neither player caught a pair, and the King-high played.
"I come here to win. Third-place is unacceptable," Hellmuth declared in a post-tournament interview. "No one remembers who finishes second or third, except for my swearing tirades afterward."
"I played so great. But, so what? It doesn't mean anything. The American public doesn't understand how unlucky I got. I had Hoyt stealing my blinds over and over and just when I have a chance to bust him (with A-Q), he wakes up with Aces. I mean, how unlucky is that?"
When asked about how this year's third place finish compares with second place last year, Hellmuth replied, "This year is far more frustrating. I had to listen to all this B.S. (talking), and still I overcame it. But I could not overcome the bad luck…..I never had my chips all-in at any point, except late. I played perfect poker. Great poker is not moving all-in every time. The public doesn't understand that."
Hellmuth was asked about the two confrontations with Matusow and Dannenmann. "No one should have to put up with that at a final table," Hellmuth declared. This is not Worldwide Wrestling."
About Dannenmann, Hellmuth said: "I forgive him for that outburst. He is not experienced in tournaments and hasn't played much at this level. I still shook his hand because there's nothing personal about it (the conflict)."
The heads-up duel between Mike Matusow and Hoyt Corkins started off with Matusow holding a decisive three to one chip advantage. But Corkins would prove to be an incessant thorn in Matusow's backside. With Hellmuth out of the room, the banter ceased and the poker became more serious. Amazingly, Corkins seemed to read Matusow perfectly every time, and knew exactly when to make a bold move with a raise. After 30 minutes of heads-up play, the two gladiators were locked into a virtual dead-heat.
The final hand came out of nowhere. After a series of hands where one player tried to steal with a big raise and the other player moving all-in (resulting in a fold), Corkins decided to make his final stand on a semi-bluff. Corkins was dealt Q-10. Matusow was dealt K-9. The flop came K-J-4. Matusow made a large bet and Corkins moved all-in. Matusow called. Corkins was on an outside straight draw. Matusow had top pair. Two blanks fell on the turn and river and Matusow won the $1,110,000 pot with a pair of Kings.
Mike Matusow's win might very well be the greatest comeback story in poker history. It's certainly the greatest story since the late Stu Ungar's stunning victory at the 1997 World Series of Poker, after a 16-year hiatus. Matusow was broke and isolated from the poker world last January. Surrounded by only a few close friends and family, Matusow never gave up on himself. When afforded an opportunity to enter the 2005 World Series of Poker, Matusow registered and nearly eliminated himself on the first day (Note: He was given 40-minutes worth of timeouts for inappropriate conduct). Remarkably, Matusow survived amongst a record-field of 5,618 other players and went on to make it all the way to the final table. He busted out ninth, but managed to earn $1 million. The money was gone shortly thereafter.
Back to where he started, Matusow entered the TOC on a freeroll, having qualified via his WSOP appearance. He raced into the chip lead on Day One, but ended up trailing Phil Hellmuth (and later Hoyt Corkins) most of the way. In the end, Matusow overcame several downswings and waited for opportune moments, making possibly the biggest tournament win of Matusow's life.
"I knew I was up against great players at this final table," The two-time WSOP gold bracelet winner said afterward. "This table had the greatest poker I have ever been exposed to. I've never seen or been involved in poker played at this level."
Matusow was sentimental about the significance of the victory. "This is the greatest moment of my life," Matusow said. "All the disappointments I've had. All the bad beats. All the bad decisions. This win means everything to me."