But then, an explosion. An eruption of chips and cards and good sportsmanship, all predicated on one man's A♠ 6♠ and the other's pocket sevens. And in the end, an ace on the turn and a championship won for Schulze, a 40-year-old German stock trader who apparently thought so little of his chances at winning the tournament that he booked a flight home after Day 1 and constantly readjusted his departure date by one day each evening as he progressed through the event, even going so far as to buy a new meal packet (about a 250 PLN investment) rather than splurge on the 1,000 PLN five-day value pack.
Whether due to superstition or just world-class nittiness, Schulze's idiosyncratic approach to the tournament meant five days of phone calls to travel agents, cancellation fees, rebooking hotel rooms and overpaying for dinner. In the end, though, we're pretty sure he'd take what came in trade - a 2,154,000 PLN (€609,782) grand prize and his first ever EPT title, won after a grueling final table and somewhat listless heads-up battle with runner-up Sousa.
Schulze came into the final table as prohibitive chipleader, holding nearly 3x the average stack with $1.162 million to his name, good for over $400,000 on second-place Sousa and $700,000 on third-place Juan Maceiras. It was a final table of unknowns, with recently-crowned Scandinavian Rookie of the Year Trond Eidsvig the most notable name in a collection of nine amateurs, online pros and cash game specialists hailing from all corners of the European continent and, in one case, America.
That American, online qualifier Daniel Woolson, would not last long at the final table. Woolson arrived at the hallowed baize second to last in chips, but it was no desperation push that felled him. Rather, the 22-year-old from Worcester, Massachusetts saw his pocket aces cracked by Mathias Viberg's flopped set of fives and Medhi Ouakhir's rivered two-pair in a three-way all-in, sending him to the rail in 9th place for a payout worth 122,060 PLN (€34,554).
Next to the rail was Norwegian Eidsvig, who set EPT records in this event for most cashes in a season (four) and most final tables in a season (three), but who thus far has been unable to claim outright victory as his own (Eidsvig did win the Dutch Master Classics Main Event in late 2007). Saturday would not be the 23-year-old's day either, as Eidsvig fell after getting all-in with A-10 against Maceiras' A-9 and saw his rival river a second nine to eliminate him in 8th place (201,040 PLN or €56,913).
Seventh-place would go to Niclas Svensson, who'd played tenacious short-stack poker seemingly since the Dawn of Man and was unable to get any traction going at the final table. Svensson succumbed at last when his all-in with Q♠ T♠ found him racing against Ouakhir's pocket fours. The board failed to bring any help for the Swede, who ran out of gas just in time to collect 272,840 PLN (€77,239) for his time.
Juan Maceiras would pick up his check next after making a questionable move with pocket deuces that saw him limp-shove over the top of Mathias Viberg's raise from the big blind. Viberg turned up A-K and the race was on once more, but after the turn brought an ace the Spanish business student was out in sixth place for a 344,640 PLN (€97,565) score.
The surviving five players then tossed their chips around inconsequentially for a while and went off to dinner, and it would take another level after dinner before Christian Oman found himself the next to be eliminated. Oman got all-in on a K-Q-7-9 board with K-5 and found himself in great shape against Schulze's A-9, but the river card was a cruel, cruel nine and that was the end of Oman's day. The Swede took home 437,980 PLN (€123,989) for his fifth-place finish.
Medhi Ouakhir would then double-up Sousa after making an admittedly "sick call" with Q♥ J♥ after his rival pushed all-in with pocket nines preflop. The nines held and Sousa berated his opponent for his low-quality call while simultaneously managing to brag about his invincibility at the felt. It was not the Portuguese pro's classiest moment, but it did cripple Ouakhir and the young Frenchman was eliminated a few hands later, out with Q♦ 3♦ against Schulze's pocket tens for a fourth-place finish worth 538,500 PLN (€152,445).
Despite augmenting his stack with most of Ouakhir's, Sousa would take the short-stack into three-handed play but would quickly gain ground on his opponents by crippling Mathias Viberg, the last Swede left standing in a final table that seemed chock-full of them. Sousa doubled through Viberg after getting all-in on a 9-8-3 board with J-10 against Viberg's pocket jacks and seeing a queen fill his straight on the turn, reducing the blonde bomber to barely 10% of the chip average.
It wouldn't take long for Viberg to get the last of his chips in the middle, although for a man with no fold equity he sure chose an interesting hand with which to do it, calling all-in from the big blind with 6-2 and losing out to Schulze's pocket fours, despite picking up a double-gutshot draw on the flop. The draws missed and the young pro was out in third for 718,000 PLN (€203,261).
With Viberg's elimination it was time for heads-up play, with Ricardo Sousa and Michael Schulze taking nearly identical stacks into the match. Immediately, the players set about opening the checking accounts, refusing to bet pairs or draws and seeming to be willing to lay down hands at the slightest provocation. Not helping the matter was Schulze's calling station strategy, or for that matter Sousa's seeming predilection for taking the time to mentally alphabetize his spice rack before folding even the most marginal of hands.
Eventually, however, Schulze pulled ahead, building a $2.2 million to $1.4 million lead on the strength of a raising war preflop and then using that advantage to his, er, advantage in the final hand of the tournament. In the climactic hand, Sousa raised to $150,000 on the button and Schulze, re-raised to $500,000 in the big blind. Sousa barely paused before moving all-in and Schulze beat him to the pot, slamming down his A6s as though it was pocket quads, while Sousa seemed to see his sevens in the same rosy hue.
The board would run 5-4-2-A-2 and with an ace on the turn Schulze had engineered the victory, earning the aforementioned $2.154 million Zloty, as well as a giant novelty check, a couple of trophies and an exclusive interview with PokerListings.com (due up Monday) worth more than eight trophies and a yacht-sized novelty check.
For his runner-up finish, Sousa takes home 1,220,600 PLN (€345,543) and the knowledge that he is, in fact, fallible. Meanwhile, the media is spared four hours of snidely remarking on the inabilities of the heads-up contestants and EPT officials can be content in the success of another tournament in another fledgling poker market. So we're all winners, in a way.
That about sums it up from Warsaw. Next stop on the EPT express is San Remo, Italy in early April, and then the Grand Final from Monte Carlo in the middle of the month. We suggest you practice your Italian and work on your blind-faith aggression, because you won't want to miss either epic event. Goodnight from Poland!