Consequently, observers were subjected to a night full of the kind of head-scratching play that would make any online gamer's head explode. As the blinds steadily rose throughout the night, contestants with Ms of two and three were given walks in their big blinds. Big stacks readily folded the button and one player seemed determined to flat-call his way to victory.
At one point, in one of the single worst hands PokerListings.com has ever observed (mis)played, Poker Hall of Famer Billy Baxter called off fully $520,000 of his $900,000 stack from the big blind and then check-folded on a raggedy flop to an all-in wager from eventual champion Van "The Blaster" Nguyen.
It didn't have to be like that, and it really shouldn't have been. Besides Nguyen (wife of poker pro Men "The Master" Nguyen and probably the most deserving of the victory) and Baxter (chip leader coming into the day), the final table featured Ethan Ruby (who runs the charity Poker4Life; we'll give him a B for his play on Monday night), poker blogger Justin Marchand (sorry, bud) and poker rookie Elias Madias, meaning fully four of the five finalists should have known better. As it turned out, any Internet donk capable of beating the $5 PokerStars single-table SNGs would have found him- or herself in good shape.
The day began with observers predicting a final table of less than 60 hands and with the initial average stack at an M of five that seemed like a fair assessment. Baxter was himself willing to wager $50,000 that the game would be over after two 60-minute levels. As it turned out, however, the pokeration lasted more than 100 hands and took over five long hours to complete, mostly due to the fact that nobody at the final table seemed to really want to take charge of the situation.
Indeed, players played extremely tight to start the evening's action and seemed to tighten up from there, with Van Nguyen playing only enough to keep her head above water and the rest of the field shying away from major confrontations, folding and check-folding enough to keep Baxter flush as the old-timer seemed poised to walk away with the competition.
First to the exit interview was Madias, who'd acquitted himself admirably over the preceding two days but who could have stood to have clicked the "raise" button a bit more on final-table day. Instead, he tended to call off large portions of his stack with hands that were destined to be thrown away on the flop.
Madias' last stand saw him all-in for 5x the big blind with A-5 against Marchand's pocket eights, and after the board came 9-3-2-7-3 the man who would describe himself as "Elias Madias in a Prius" was out in fifth with $10,000 to spend on a new nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
Second to pay a visit to Layla Kayleigh's lair was Marchand, whose decision to simply flat-call a Van Nguyen early position raise while on the button with A-10 would come back to haunt him immediately on an A-8-2 flop. The young Hellmuth (who'd held up the proceedings earlier in the day after arriving late to the set) got all his money in with top pair but saw Nguyen turn up A-8 for top two, and after the board finished out Q-9 it was back to media row for Marchand, who busted in fourth and earned $15,000.
As three-handed play commenced, Nguyen held a commanding lead over rivals Baxter and Ruby, counting as her own fully $3.3 million of an available $4.5 million in chips. Despite her massive advantage, Nguyen continued to choose a pretty cautious tack, letting Baxter and Ruby gain ground as the blinds reached stratospheric heights and tending to wait for premium hands.
It was here that Baxter's play began to get a tad eccentric. With blinds at $50,000/$100,000 and his stack fluctuating between $500,000 and $100,000, the Hall of Famer would concede walks to Nguyen repeatedly and twice open-raise for $300,000 before folding to Ruby's over-the-top all-ins. Then would come the hand outlined in this article's third paragraph, which needs no further editorializing.
Baxter would not last long following this suboptimal strategy. He fell after open-shoving for $450,000 at $60k/$120k ($20k ante) blinds with 9♦ 4♣ and getting a call from Nguyen, who turned up J♦ 7♥ in the big blind. The board came Q-6-2-A-J and Baxter was out in third place, the beneficiary of a $20,000 payout with which to make a deposit on his favorite online poker site and practice short-handed late tournament play.
The beginning of heads-up play saw Nguyen, bolstered by the boisterous support of husband Men "The Master" and friend Young Phan, holding a $3.695 million-to-$750,000 chip advantage over sole rival Ethan Ruby. Despite his massive disadvantage, however, Ruby would cling tenaciously to survival over the next level or so, doubling up repeatedly and avoiding a near sure elimination after getting all-in with A-10 against A-K and rivering the wheel straight for the chop.
Eventually, however, Nguyen's advantage would prove too much to overcome. On the climactic hand of the evening, Nguyen raised to $580,000 from the small blind and Ruby moved all-in for about $20,000 more. Nguyen obviously called (had she folded, this reporter would likely have gone postal) and turned up K♦ 4♠ to Ruby's Q♠ J♠. The board ran A♦ 9♦ 2♣ 3♦ A♠ and Ruby couldn't engineer one more suck-out, thus conceding the game and the title to Van Nguyen.
With her victory, Nguyen becomes the first female to ever win a WPT open event and also beats her husband to WPT glory. She takes home $100,000, a trophy, a chip set, a $25,000 entry into the WPT World Championship and an exclusive interview with PokerListings.com. For finishing second, Ethan Ruby earns $50,000, as well as plenty of valuable TV face time for his charity, which you can learn more about by clicking here.
That ends the WPT Celebrity Invitational for another year, and all snarkiness aside it was a laugh and a half to be a part of (except bring back the chocolate cupcakes next year, Mr. Lipscomb). PokerListings.com will next be on the scene from the WPT's next stop at Bay 101 in San Jose for the Shooting Star tournament, as well as in Warsaw for the PokerStars EPT Polish Open. That's all a week or so away, so in the meantime, read our pro blogs, write in to the Bad Beat Counselor and for God's sake, get some practice on those turbo SNGs.