In 2003, an amateur poker player with a full-time job won a $39 online satellite, ultimately leading to a seat in the World Series of Poker main event. Playing in the WSOP for the first time, this accountant from Tennessee who just so happened to be named Chris Moneymaker stunned the world by winning the 2003 WSOP main event -- an "inconceivable" run that changed poker forever.
Thirteen years later, another amateur poker player with a full-time job outside the world of poker -- this one from Spain -- qualified for the WSOP main event by winning his way in on a run that began with a 30 Euro online satellite. After taking the opportunity to play in his first WSOP bracelet event and turning it into a spot in the 2016 November Nine, Fernando Pons is trying to shock the world too.
The 37-year-old is also trying to become the first WSOP main event champion from Spain since Carlos "The Madator" Mortensen in 2001; Mortensen is one of two inductees into the Poker Hall of Fame this year. Pons will have a steep uphill climb as the shortest stack at the table, although he is thrilled with this improbable run to the 2016 WSOP main event final table.
"I can't believe it, and I'm enjoying the moment."
Pons still lives in the city where he was born and raised, Palma de Mallorca. The Spaniard currently lives there with his wife, Vicky, and 4-year-old daughter, Martina. Since 1999, he has worked at Leroy Merlin, a home improvement company similar to Home Depot, as the head of the electrical and plumbing department.
In 2010, a friend introduced Pons to the game that he currently loves -- poker. His interest led him to begin watching poker on television and seek out training videos online. Pons then discovered the world of online poker, which fit his personal lifestyle and schedule, as he could play at night after work. He's mainly a tournament player who occasionally travels to play in live tournaments, but Pons primarily plays online in modest buy-in events every day.
"I play poker every day online, at night for 4 to 5 hours," Pons said. "I do go to play live tournaments in Gran Casino de Mallorca, and other casinos in Spain. But the percentage breakdown of my poker play is 95 percent online. ... Online, I usually play tournaments with buy-ins is between 40 or 50 Euro, not any special tournaments."
This nightly ritual paved the road to this year's WSOP main event. Initially, he won a 30 Euro satellite, which qualified him for a 250 Euro mega-satellite. He won that mega-satellite, earning a package that included a $10,000 seat into the world's most famous poker tournament.
After the long journey from Spain, Pons had a solid start to the 2016 WSOP main event, ending Day 1 with more than double starting stack (118,900 chips) and doubled his chips again on Day 2. This excellent start ranked him in the top 12 percent of the remaining field going into Day 3, but he barely managed to survive as his chip stack tumbled to only 137,000 going into Day 4.
With blinds at 3000/6000 (and an ante of 1,000), Pons knew he had to have a great day or he would be heading back to Spain with a min-cash.
Suddenly, the poker gods began to send cards Pons' way. The Spaniard steadily increased his stack, as he climbed the leaderboard on Day 4 and never really looked back until late on Day 7. This run was a surprise to Pons, as he never expected to stay in Las Vegas for so long. In fact, he only brought clothes enough for four or five days, and as Pons continued his surreal run to the November Nine, he had to improvise.
"On the fifth day, I had to go and buy some clothes," Pons said. "I went alone in the morning before Day 5, and I went to a store close to the hotel. I enjoyed going shopping very much, because that means I was climbing in the tournament."
Day 6 was truly a day for Pons to remember. He found himself all-in and behind with his pocket 9h-9d versus Ka Kwan Lau's As-Ad. A miracle 9s on the turn kept Pons' hopes alive, and made him fight harder.
"I just felt incredible, and I could fight for the tournament," Pons said.
Less than 90 minutes later, he found himself in another critical hand where his Js-Jd was up against Jan Suchanek's As-Qc. When the dealer flopped an Ad, Pons' run seemed to be derailed once again, but he was saved once more with a dream jack of clubs on the river. Pons jumped out of his chair in shock at the sight of the miracle river card, almost in disbelief of his good fortune.
"It was the only moment I cried in the tournament," Pons said, "and I really felt I could be at final table."
By the end of Day 6, even Pons believed that the November Nine was no longer a dream, but a realistic possibility.
"When the sixth day finished, I realized I could be part of the November Nine."
Heading into Day 7, Pons surprisingly had a restful sleep. His focus was just to play his game and not deviate from the style that got him to where he was.
"I was only playing my game," said Pons. "My friend and I only spoke about enjoying the moment."
Entering Day 7, Pons had 17.27 million in chips, ranking him seventh among the remaining 27 players. He did not get involved in many hands during the day and slowly chipped down while players kept falling around him. Pons entered the WSOP main event final table bubble with only 18 big blinds, but fortunately for him, American Josh Weiss only had seven big blinds. There was no question in Pons' mind about his strategy with 10 players left.
"I tried to wait," Pons said. "There were a lot of difference about the prices, and I hope for his elimination."
Less than one hour into 10-handed play -- just 18 hands later, in fact -- Weiss was eliminated when he pushed his last 850,000 (less than two big blinds) all-in with Ad-8c. Michael Ruane and Gordon Vayo called from the blinds. After the board ran out Js-7h-3h-5c-4c, Ruane flipped over Jh-5h to eliminate Weiss and finalize the 2016 November Nine. Pons felt an immense amount of relief as the massive celebration for the final nine players and their rails got underway.
"It was incredible, I just felt I was November Nine and I thought I had a good tournament," Pons said. "I was very happy."
Since that fateful day in July, Pons has played in some live tournaments, including the European Poker Tour main event in Barcelona. He plans to continue playing online and read articles to sharpen his game, but Pons doesn't plan on getting any additional specific training, and hopes to just enjoy the moment.
Entering the November Nine, Pons is the short stack with only 6.15 million in chips, as he had to sit idly by while Weiss blinded down during 10-handed play. In an effort to bring some good karma and positivity from his run in July, he will be wearing the same sweatshirt he wore throughout the WSOP main event, along with the same hat and personalized shoes with the names of his wife and daughter.
However, with blinds at 250,000/500,000 (and an ante of 75,000) when they return to the WSOP main event final table, the amateur has only 12 big blinds. He understands that he will need to double up early in order to have a chance to become the next WSOP main event champion. Nevertheless, Pons is certainly not complaining.
"It is not the best situation, but I'll play the best I can," Pons said. "My friends, and hopefully my wife also, will come to cheer me on. I know I'll really enjoy the moment."