It is sometimes said that the best things in life are the hardest to achieve. If that's the case, John Juanda just won the most precious bracelet in World Series of Poker history.
The Full Tilt Poker pro took down the WSOP Europe Main Event last night, laying claim to his fourth gold bracelet after a torturous 484-hand final table that seemed like it might never end.
Longest Final Table in WSOP History
A full 19 hours and 10 minutes (not counting the two-hour dinner break) elapsed from "shuffle up and deal" to the final river card that sealed Juanda's win, thanks to a tournament structure designed to allow skill to triumph over luck in deciding the eventual victor.
The final table's length was definitely a matter for the history books. It shattered WSOP final-table records for most hands played (previously held by the 2006 $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, at 354 hands) and longest time played (previously held by the 2005 $1,500 Razz event at 16 hours).
Behind all the records in London was an epic struggle that saw world-class poker put on display for the crowds at Casino at the Empire in London's Leicester Square. Juanda entered play at 1:23 p.m. local time on Thursday with the chip lead; with blinds at just $6,000/$12,000, he had a stack of $1,349,000, placing him just ahead of Russia's Stanislav Alekhin.
Alekhin would be the first to draw blood when he eliminated England's Chris "Don't Call Me Cabin Boy" Elliott in ninth place. The Englishman was all-in on the turn, holding T♣ 9♣ for two pair and a flush draw with the board reading T♥ 9♥ 2♣ 7♣. Alekhin held a naked flush draw with A♣ 5♣, but the K♣ on the river gave him the win and sent Elliott home early with £108,600.
The slow structure led to a glacial pace even early on at the second-ever WSOPE Main Event's final table. Alekhin's fellow Russian at the final table, 2008 WSOP Main Event final tablist Ivan Demidov, would erase Juanda's chip lead not too long after Elliott's elimination.
Demidov makes back-to-back Main Event final tables.
An all-in move on the turn with nearly $2 million already in the pot claimed a key pot for Demidov, making him the table leader as Level 20 drew to a close and dropping the American toward the back of the pack.
Level 21 continued the slow pace for its first half before things got crazy. Finland's Toni Hiltunen became the eighth-place finisher when he got his short stack all-in before the flop holding JJ, only to find himself up against Stanislav Alekhin's QQ. A queen on the turn locked the hand up for Alekhin and sent Hiltunen out in eighth place with £108,600 for his efforts.
Englishman Robin Keston was the next to depart. He shoved all-in over the top of Ivan Demidov's opening raise holding A♣ 8♥ and got a call from the Russian with 9♥ 9♦. The K♣ T♣ 4♥ 9♣ 6♦ board gave no help and Keston was bounced in seventh place, earning £135,750.
The first of the table's three Americans out would be Scott Fischman, his exit coming not long after Keston's and Hiltunen's. Both Fischman and Stanislav Alekhin called a raise in late position to see a flop of A♦ J♥ T♦; the two of them got into a raising war that saw Fischman get all-in with A♣ Q♣ against the stone-cold nuts - K♥ Q♥.
Alekhin's straight held up against Fischman's runner-runner possibilities to send the Full Tilt pro home in sixth place with £171,950.
Another full level of slow action would pass before John Juanda hit his lowest point of the tournament, dropping to a $600,000 stack after tangling with Alekhin. PL.com's superstar tournament reporter Owen Laukkanen made the call:
"Juanda raises to $55,000 on the button and Alekhin makes the call in the big blind. The flop comes 6♠ 5♥ 2♠ and Alekhin checks to Juanda, who bets out $100,000. The turn is the K♥ and Alekhin checks again.
"Juanda counts out $200,000 and slides it into the middle of the table. Alekhin again opts to flat-call. The river is the 3♥ and Alekhin checks a third time. Juanda bets out $340,000. After some thought, Alekhin puts the American all-in, and you have never seen a man's face fall as fast as Juanda's as he considers the ramifications.
"Looking pale and stressed, Juanda goes into the tank for a good five minutes, his tournament life on the line. Eventually he decides it's not worth it and lays down the hand, conceding a $1 million-plus pot to Alekhin in the most important pot of the day thus far."
Luckily for Juanda, he had time to consider his position at the intervening dinner break. He would find a timely double-up in the first half of Level 23 courtesy of Sweden's Bengt Sonnert, whose A♥ 7♥ couldn't crack Juanda's Q♣ Q♥. That hand would drop Sonnert to $531,000 and signal the Swede's coming demise, but a more famous player would hit the rail before him.
Negreanu Drawing to 3 Aces
Daniel Negreanu had entered the day in fourth position but never managed to get much going at this final table. He finally found himself all-in with A♣ 9♥ in the big blind against Stanislav Alekhin's small-blind special of J♣ J♥.
Kid Poker couldn't convert a short stack into a win.
Negreanu was drawing to the last three aces in the deck by the turn, but no help materialized and the Canadian poker icon-turned-Las Vegas fixture was sent packing in fifth place. He earned £217,200.
Shortly after Negreanu's departure, Bengt Sonnert found the end of his road. He got his last $311,000 in the middle before the flop with A♦ 5♥, but was called by final-table destroyer Alekhin's A♥ 8♠. An eight on the flop sealed the deal, bouncing Sweden's last man standing in fourth place with £271,500.
Alekhin held a significant chip lead over Juanda and Demidov as three-handed play began, but the structure meant the game was still wide open. That showed when Juanda claimed the chip lead from the Russian, only to lose it back to him when Demidov backed Juanda off a pot.
Play continued back and forth through the entirety of Level 24 and into Level 25, when heads-up play was finally reached thanks to Demidov's elimination in third place (£344,850) when his Q♦ T♦ had flush and straight draws on an 8♠ 5♦ 3♦ J♣ board but couldn't crack Juanda's A♦ A♣.
Juanda held a 3-2 chip lead when heads-up play began on Level 25, but the slow structure once again reared its head and the two competitors settled in for the long haul. The double-ups traded back and forth for the next three levels before the Russian found himself crippled to just $600,000 after missing a flush draw against Juanda's top pair.
Alekhin finally shoved pre-flop with A♣ 9♠ and got a call from Juanda, who held K♠ 6♠. Victory was in the cards for Juanda, as the board came down 6♠ 6♦ 2♦ Q♣ 6♣ to give him quads - and the first WSOPE bracelet ever won by an American.
Just one WSOP bracelet remains to be awarded this year: the $10,000 Main Event, which will be played out in Las Vegas early next month. Of last night's London final tablists, only third-place finisher Ivan Demidov stands a chance of winning that title.