Ivan Demidov came into the final table of the Betfair Poker World Series of Poker Europe Main Event the focal point. More than 21 hours later, however, it was John Juanda who had landed his name in the history books.
The introverted Indonesian-American pro claimed his fourth World Series of Poker bracelet - and first since 2003 - after defeating Stanislav Alekhin in heads-up play at the culmination of the longest final table since dinosaurs ruled the earth.
It was a 21.5 hour grindfest of epic proportions, a battle between a collection of extremely skilled poker players given enough structure with which to showcase their talents.
Action at this most fateful of final tables began innocuously enough at 1 p.m. on Thursday afternoon with the final nine adversaries returning for one last time to the friendly confines of the tournament floor at the Casino at the Empire in Leicester Square, the 59th WSOP bracelet sitting pretty atop a pile of funny-looking money just aside the feature table.
Leading the finalists into battle was Juanda, the three-time WSOP-bracelet winner who'd straight dominated his succession of tables since the tournament's second day, when he'd announced his presence on the West End's biggest stage by bullying none other than Doyle Brunson around.
Also in the hunt for one of the most prestigious bracelets to be awarded this year were hometown heroes Chris Elliott and Robin Keston, as well as North American pros Daniel Negreanu and Scott Fischman, Scandinavian sensations Bengt Sonnert and Toni Hiltunen and a pair of Russians in Alekhin and the man of the hour, Ivan Demidov, who with his presence at the final table became the first player to make both WSOP and WSOPE Main Event final tables, accomplishing the incredible feat of final-tabling both events in the same calendar year.
Within an hour of the beginning of play the field had seen its first casualty. Elliott came into the final table with the smallest stack and his stay was likewise the shortest. The Brit got all-in on a T♥ 9♥ 2♣ 7♣ board while heads-up with Alekhin and holding T♣ 9♣.
The Russian held A♣ 5♣ for the naked club flush draw and would get there on the river, which brought the K♣ to give Alekhin the nut flush and send Elliott packing in ninth, good for a £81,450 payday.
In his blog on Poker Road, Daniel Negreanu forecast a 15-hour final table, and after Elliott's elimination the first of a number of long, slow grinding stretches began, each one threatening to make Kid Poker's apocalyptic prediction a reality. In the end, we'd all find ourselves wishing Negreanu had been right.
It would take another two hours for the first elimination, but Toni Hiltunen's eighth-place bust-out seemed to trigger something in the field as the next two eliminations came within the hour.
Hiltunen earned himself £108,600 and not a penny more after getting all-in late in Level 21 with pocket jacks to Alekhin's pocket queens. The flop came rags and the turn brought a third queen, giving Alekhin the set and leaving the Finn drawing dead.
A few rounds later and Robin Keston was gone, out in seventh place when he ran A♣ 8♥ into Demidov's pocket nines. The flop came K♣ T♣ 4♣ to give Keston backdoor flush possibilities, and the 9♣ on the turn was probably the most interesting card in the deck. The 6♦ on the river, however, was a bona fide brick and Keston couldn't get there, instead busting out and earning £135,750 for his efforts.
Then it was Scott Fischman's turn. The Full Tilt Poker pro got all-in on an A♦ J♥ T♦ flop with A♣ Q♣ and found Alekhin making a lightning-quick call with K♥ Q♥ for the nuts. Fischman had outs for the chop, but the board finished out with running fours and that was the end of the Crewman in the naughty shirt. The Fisch took £171,950 from the prize pool for his sixth-place finish.
Alekhin had certainly asserted himself in the early stages of the final table, eliminating three of the first four players to bust, but he'd thus far avoided chip boss John Juanda. That all changed in an impressive hand that saw Alekhin defend his big blind against a Juanda button raise and then check-call large bets on the flop and turn before snapping the trap shut with an all-in check-raise on the river of a 6♠ 5♥ 2♠ K♥ 3♥ board.
The move seemed to stun Juanda, ultimately forcing him to concede a $1 million pot and leaving him looking completely demoralized heading into the dinner break.
After the requisite two-hour dinner break the field returned to the tables to continue play five-handed. Daniel Negreanu spent the mealtime as the short stack and returned to the tables clearly willing to ship-ship should the circumstances demand it.
Kid Poker would have to wait an hour or so before he found a willing partner in Alekhin, who found jacks in the small blind and put Negreanu all-in in the big blind. The PokerStars pro made the call with A♣ 9♥ and couldn't conjure any miracles, missing the board completely on flop, turn and river and busting out in fifth place, good for a £217,200 score.
As the level came to a close Bengt Sonnert hit the road, another victim of the murderer Alekhin, who held A♥ 8♠ when Sonnert made a desperation shove with A♦ 5♥. The flop brought an eight and Sonnert was drawing dead by the turn, conceding defeat in fourth place and earning £271,500 for his time.
It would take almost another level and a half of grinding, back-and-forth action before the third-place finisher was established, with Juanda, Demidov and Alekhin trading the chip lead among themselves, none proving able to hold on to top spot for very long.
Eventually, however, Demidov would find himself short-stacked after dropping a nearly $2 million pot to Juanda, and got all-in with his American rival on the next hand, holding Q♦ T♦ on a 8♠ 5♦ 3♠ J♣ board and finding Juanda willing to call holding A♦ A♣ for the overpair.
Demidov needed to hit a diamond or a nine to stay alive, but the river card was the J♠ and Juanda's aces-up took the pot, sending the November Niner to the rail in third place with a £344,850 consolation prize.
Thus began heads-up play, with Juanda holding a $4.42 million to $2.85 million lead over Alekhin. What followed was certainly one of the epic heads-up battles of all-time, a seven-hour, 242-hand seesaw battle during which each player saw victory snatched away from him in the most heartbreaking of fashions.
The full details of the instant classic are available here in convenient hour-by-hour breakdowns, but suffice it to say despite plenty of drama, raises galore and a number of nail-biting all-ins, as night turned to day outside the Empire Casino, the spectators fell asleep and the suits began fretting about what to do with their airplane reservations, nothing had been accomplished on the feature table, with Juanda and Alekhin still neck and neck.
Then, a few minutes after 10 in the morning and over 21 hours since play had gotten under way, Juanda doubled through his rival, getting all-in on a king-high flop with top pair and managing to dodge Alekhin's club flush draw.
The play crippled the Russian and forced him into pushbot mode. A few hands later, the tournament was over, Juanda having called Alekhin's desperation all-in holding K♠ 6♣ to his rival's A♣ 9♠ and watching the flop bring two sixes to pretty much seal the deal.
The case six on the river tied things up nicely and the game was over: Juanda was champion! For the victory, the Quiet American banks £868,800, while Alekhin earns £533,950 for his second-place finish. Congratulations to both finalists and to Harrah's and Betfair Poker for another spectacular event!