With tonight seeing the successful conclusion of the most lucrative non-Championship Victor Ramdin, John Hennigan, Fred Goldberg, Nenad Medic, David Oppenheim, Steve Dannenmann, Lee Markholt, Marcel Luske, Haralabos Voulgaris, Burt Boutin, David Benyamine, Erica Schoenberg, Jeff Cabanillas and Nam Le, the latter of whom made it to the final table of ten but fell to Mike Matusow in eighth place.
The real story of the event, however, was the play of Kevin Saul. Saul, or "BeLOWaBOVe", as he is known online, dominated the field from Day 1 to the final table, eliminating David Singer at the end of Day 1A to amass a massive chip lead and then using the big stack with Jamie Gold-like precision, seemingly playing 75% of hands and hitting the deck hard when he needed the nuts.
Saul brought a large chip lead into the final table , where he joined a WPT dream-cast that included Matusow, Shane Schleger and up-and-comer Danny Wong, as well as relative unknowns Eric Panayioyou and Konstantin Puchkov.
Saul came into the day with $4.2 million, good for more than double second-place Matusow's $1.87 million, but immediately began hemorrhaging chips in so drastic a manner it soon seemed he'd be out in sixth.
The talkative online phenom made a suspect play to double up Wong by attempting to bully the Californian by putting him all-in with naught but king-high, but Wong had aces and was more than happy to call on a raggedy board. Then Matusow and Shaniac had their ways with the Illinoisan, with the Mouth getting paid off after flopping a set of nines and Shaniac taking advantage of Saul's tilting after turning a queen-high straight.
Then Shaniac near single-handedly let Saul back in the game. With his opponent on the ropes, Schleger made the first of two disastrous overbets that would give Saul the chips he would need to regain his balance and resume the table-bullying tactics that had got him to the final six in the first place.
As Saul was reversing his tilt, the field was narrowed by two with the eliminations of Puchkov (6th, $103,280) and Panayioyou (5th, $154,920). A few hands after the latter's elimination, Danny Wong hit quad eights while all-in against Saul to double-up and keep BeLOWaBOVe honest, but it wouldn't be enough to stem the rising tide of Saul's chip stack.
Shane Schleger would make the second of his disastrous overbets his last move of the tournament, moving all-in for $1,539,000 over the top of Saul's open-raise of $175,000. Saul tanked for a few minutes but eventually made a call that was either amazing or reckless, turning up A♣ J♥ to Shaniac's A♥ 6♠. Both players would pair their undercards on the flop, but bricks on the turn and river would spell demise for Shaniac, who more or less seemed to ruin a promising tournament with a pair of high-risk, low-reward moves. Schleger earns $232,490 for his fourth-place finish.
While Mike Matusow would come into three-handed play as the short-stack, it was Danny Wong who would find himself out in third. Wong, who finished as the runner-up in the second Bellagio Cup last year, briefly held the chip lead before doubling-up Saul after both players wound up with two pair by the turn and got all the money in with a quickness.
Wong would be left in dire straits by the loss and would fall to Matusow's K♣ J♠ with A♦ 3♦ when The Mouth turned a jack to send Danny Boy to the rail. Wong earns $361,480 but falls short of the tournament win that would bolster his reputation to the level it deserves.
That left only Saul and Matusow to battle it out for the cash and the Bellagio bracelet. Saul came into heads-up with a 4:1 chip lead and took advantage, raising almost 90% of the pots preflop and bullying Matusow into a decision for his tournament life on the occasion that the Mouth pushed back.
Eventually, Matusow found a good spot to put his money in, shoving on a T♥ 6♣ 5♣ flop with 8♣ 7♣ and seeing Saul turn up Q♥ Q♠ after his opponent insta-called. According to the PokerListings.com odds calculator , Matusow was a 56% favorite after the flop, but saw the board brick out (3♦ K♦) to give Saul the championship.
For the win, Saul earns $1,342,320, plus a WPT chipset, a bracelet and an entry into the $25,000 WPT World Championship next April. As he observed during the post-game interview with Mike Sexton, Saul also earns vindication as another online player who has proven he belongs in the live-game arena, a mantle which seemed to mean as much as the cash.
Congratulations are in order to Saul and to Matusow, who earns $671,320 in a losing effort, and also to Bellagio and the World Poker Tour as a whole. While the whole world watched Harrah's botch terribly the most recognizable tournament brand in the world with this year's WSOP, Bellagio and Jack McClelland put on a typically competent tournament that rewarded skilled play and treated players and media alike with common sense and respect.
The WPT, meanwhile, introduced its new final-table blind structure at Bellagio and saw the revisions work out perfectly, with the finalists getting plenty of play and that familiar "crapshoot" scenario that had plagued previous final tables nowhere to be seen.
The new structure could make for some late nights as the season progresses, but those sitting at the final tables can be confident that skill, rather than luck, will be rewarded in the long run, and that's the most important thing. Bravo!