One hundred and thirty-four of the world’s best heads-up no-limit hold’em players gathered around a screen at the Rio Hotel and Casino earlier this week.
They were waiting for their draw in the World Series of Poker $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em Championship.
The majority of the field got a bye, but 30 players would have to battle for one of the 128 spots.
One of those players was Matt Marafioti, a high-stakes cash game player from Toronto with more than $2.7 million in live tournament earnings.
Marafioti, who's cashed in the WSOP 22 times, was up against Valeriu Coca, a Moldovan player who was playing in his first WSOP event.
By the time the tournament was over, Coca was all anyone could talk about.
The first day of the tournament, Coca ran over his opponents. All were experienced heads-up players who described similar feelings of having their souls read.
Coca’s opponents shared their experiences with each other and allegations of Coca being barred from casinos in Europe for marking cards surfaced.
The WSOP launched an investigation and Coca’s next few opponents started covering their cards to avoid being exploited.
The preliminary investigation showed no evidence of marked cards or ink and the Moldovan player went on to finish in 5th place.
Coca, who's still playing cash games at the WSOP, claims these players are just sore losers.
But Coca’s six opponents, who combined have $17.16 million in live tournament earnings and 12 WSOP final tables, are convinced that something was amiss.
The Opening Round: Coca vs Marafioti
Matt Marafioti was the first one to experience a crushing heads-up match against Coca.
“I just thought I got thrown around like a ragdoll by some player that I’d never played before,” Marafioti said.
“Which I guess is weird in this day and age, but there are a lot of really good high-stakes cash games players who don’t play that many tournaments, but play a lot of heads up.
“I felt pretty helpless but I didn’t feel there was any cheating going on at first.”
There were also things about the way Coca was playing that confused Marafioti.
“What I did find very peculiar is that the match that was going on beside us ended in ten minutes or fifteen minutes,” Marafioti said.
“But while that match was going on, when he was dealt his cards first and was first to act, he would be looking at that match and shuffling the cards back and forth. I was wondering why he was watching their match so closely.”
There was a full redraw after the opening round so neither player would face whoever won that match.
While that confused Marafioti, it wasn't the most perplexing part of the match.
“The thing I was most skeptical of was, halfway through our match, I noticed he kept playing with his cards even when he was first to act,” Marafioti said.
“It’s like he was waiting for me to look at my cards and I was looking at him and I was like, is he stalling or something? He had a few more chips than I did so I didn't get what he was doing exactly.’”
So Marafioti decided to copy Coca’s movements.
"I started to shuffle my cards back and forth, the way that he was doing,” Marafioti said.
“Which I was just doing as reverse psyche, because I thought he was just shuffling the cards and was just in the zone, that it was his table presence.
"So I started shuffling my cards too and he immediately started asking for a break.”
Marafioti found this suspicious and refused to take a break. The match didn't last much longer anyways.
“He didn’t call one shove the whole match and then all of the sudden he snaps queen-nine off when I have jack-seven.
“And it’s just like … he called so quickly. It was like he was sure.
“I was so fazed you know, I didn’t think I played the hand great, but other than that, I was fazed by the entire match and the way it went.”
“It happens heads up sometimes you know, but then to beat Pratyush Buddiga, Connor Drinan, and the other players he beat, you really have to know what you’re doing.”
The Round of 128: Coca vs Buddiga
At 4 p.m. Coca sat in front of his next opponent, Pratyush Buddiga.
“It’s kind of funny, all of us just have the same story,” Buddiga said. “In the beginning, he was playing really slow and shuffling and moving around with his cards and looking left and right.
“I thought it was just because he was trying to get the blinds up and stall.
"Because if you’re a weak player heads-up, it kind of makes sense just to stall and get the blinds up and you just increase the variance of the match.
“Then, once the blinds went up, it just seemed like he started playing a lot faster and his aggression went up.
“He’d have a ton of aggression on ace-high boards. He’d be check-raising if you didn’t have it and if you had an ace he would just fold.”
Buddiga said he was only able to take down pots when he connected with low cards.
“I remember this one hand where I check-called the flop and turned two pair on an ace-high board,” Buddiga said. “He check-raised the turn and I called.
“When I called he seemed so surprised that I called, he had a very weird face.
“The river was a blank and I jam after he checks and he stared at me for a while, confused. I didn’t have an ace and it was probably confusing to him so he folded."
Aside from those few instances, Buddiga couldn't catch a break.
“He won every pot against me and then I jammed with 10 big blinds with queen-two suited and he called with king-queen. It was very standard.
“It was all the stuff that happened before that.”
Like Marafioti, Buddiga initially thought he’d just gotten outplayed by an amateur.
“When I lost to him I was just like, wow, there was a lot of weird stuff in this match but I guess he just outplayed me,” Buddiga said.
“It happens to me all the time. It’s a joke with my friends that I have a lot of problems versus recreational players. They make fun of me for that all the time.”
Another perplexed player hit the rail and Coca advanced to the next round.
The Round of 64: Coca vs Mermelstein
At 7 p.m., Aaron Mermelstein faced Coca. At first, Mermelstein was surprised by how passive his opponent was.
As the match drew on, Mermelstein faced what was becoming an all-too-familiar crushing defeat.
“At the beginning it was really easy,” Mermelstein said. “I couldn’t believe he beat Pratyush. I thought it must’ve been a cooler or a bad beat because he was really easy.
"With all due respect, in the first 10 to 15 minutes I was kind of running over him.
“Then, further on into the match, he was really just like crushing me and it just felt like he always knew when I had it.
"It’s really like he kind of read my soul.
“Whenever I had a big hand, he would fold. Whenever there was a big card on the board, I felt like he really knew how to outplay me.
According to Mermelstein, Coca’s demeanor at the table was also different enough for him to take notice.
“At the time you’re just kind of going with it,” Mermelstein said. “But thinking back, some of the mannerisms he had and some of the things he was doing just felt different.
“Like the way he would look through the glasses and he would do weird things with the cards.
“He also kept asking to see my chips.
“I mean, we were heads up, I wish I thought of this more because he could obviously just look at his stack and known what I had.”
Just like Buddiga, Mermelstein says the biggest pots he won against Coca were with small hole cards. In one hand, Mermelstein had 6-2 and hit two pair on a Q-6-2 flop.
In another hand, Mermelstein flopped a straight and took a pot off of Coca. Besides that, the match belonged to Coca.
“I was really sad after the match,” Mermelstein said. "I felt like I got owned. I couldn’t believe it."
Round of 32: Coca vs Drinan
It was 10 p.m. and the final 32 players were getting ready for the last match of the day. After defeating Mermelstein, Coca was pitted against Connor Drinan.
Before the match, Buddiga briefed Drinan about his bout with Coca.
“I gave [Drinan] some reads about the ace-high board and the late aggression,” Buddiga said.
But even with these reads, Drinan got destroyed.
Bubbled the HU. Hands down strangest hour and a half of poker of my life. Felt super-used— Connor Drinan (@ConnorDrinan) June 3, 2015
“I was like ‘wow’,” Buddiga said. “That’s the same exact thing that happened to me and then we talked to Aaron and it was the same thing.
“Then, we talked to Matt Marafioti and he said the same thing.”
Suspicion was high at this point and then Drinan got an email from one of his friends in the Czech Republic.
On a thread in 2+2, Drinan said:
I then woke up this morning to a message on facebook from a czech friend of mine that read "Hey man just woke up and found out u were in HU with a guy who made a lot of money in cash games in Prague. He has ban in czech poker casinos for cheating. Guy was marking cards. We can talk in person little bit later when Im on sngs in Rio and u can forward it to floors players etc so they can do smtng about it I guess
Drinan and Buddiga warned the WSOP staff and Coca’s next opponent, Byron Kaverman.
Round of 16: Coca vs Kaverman
By 1 p.m. the following the day, all eyes were on the Coca vs. Kaverman match.
The eye in the sky had been alerted, WSOP staff were watching and switching out decks, members of the media hounded the table and Coca’s previous opponents were watching the match.
Even Matt Marafioti kept peeking over from a nearby tournament.
Despite that, Coca was able to defeat Kaverman and advance to the round of eight.
In the same post, Drinan said:
I spoke with Byron after his match and he said he was 100% sure the guy was trying to cheat and was watching the cards very closely as the dealer dealt off the deck but that he did a pretty good job covering his cards and the decks were being switched up so it was hard for Coca to work his magic.
Despite that, Kaverman was chipped down and moved all-in with T♥ T♣. Coca called with 4♥ 4♣ and hit a straight when the board came 2♠ 5♠ 6♥ 6♦ 3♦.
Kaverman was eliminated in 9th place and Coca advanced to the next rond.
Round of 8: Coca vs Lehr
Coca’s next opponent was Keith Lehr, who put a stop to Coca’s run and went on to win the tournament.
“I was warned beforehand that he was barred in other places and they suspected him,” Lehr said.
“I did my best to not allow him to do that and changed the decks.”
Lehr noticed Coca was watching the cards come off the deck very intently and made sure to protect his hand as best as possible.
“I hid my cards so well from him,” Lehr said.
“I kept my cards where there’s no chance he could see them and I tried to hide them off the deck as soon as the dealer dealt.
“If he was trying to do something at the beginning, he might’ve stopped.”
In the last hand of his tournament, Coca moved all-in with 6♥ 3♣ and Lehr called with A♥ J♣. Lehr hit a jack on the flop and Coca was eliminated in 5th place.
Coca collected his money, denied all accusations and kept playing cash games.
Did He or Didn’t He?
The WSOP’s preliminary investigation turned up nothing. The cards weren’t marked and they couldn’t find traces of invisible ink on the decks.
But there’s one thing the WSOP didn’t investigate.
“The make of glasses he was wearing was one I’ve never seen before,” Marafioti said. “I asked them if they examined them. They didn’t examine them."
The fact that there was no hard evidence against Coca didn't surprise Marafioti.
“If you’re cheating in high stakes cash games and winning hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’re not doing it to come to Las Vegas to get caught," Marafioti said. "You’re doing it perfected.”
Many people suspect Coca’s glasses either had a magnifying lens that helped him see marked cards or were designed to see a specific kind of invisible ink.
Passiveness early on followed by non-stop aggression, some say, is consistent with someone who uses the first rounds of play to focus on marking cards.
But with a lack of hard evidence, a few of Coca’s opponents are hesitant to throw out accusations.
“Do I feel like he cheated me?” Lehr said. “I have no comment. I mean, I won, so he didn’t cheat very good if I beat him.”
Others are far more convinced that Coca wasn’t playing fair.
“It’s a strong statement to accuse someone of cheating,” Buddiga said.
“But even if they don’t find definitive proof, I’m 100 percent convinced that he’s a cheater and these cards, everyone’s been talking about how easy they are to mark.”
Mermelstein agrees and says there are two explanations for how Coca ran through a field of some of the world’s best.
“I would put it this way,” Mermelstein said. “Either he’s the best ever, or he’s a cheater.”
Only Valeriu Coca knows for sure.