“Sun Shines Bright in Las Vegas Night”
It was a little after midnight, well into the long heads-up duel between the 2000 Tournament of Champions last two survivors, when Spencer Sun, a 27 year-old, likeable, soft-spoken computer programmer from Novato, California, finally saw victory in his grasp.
He’d battled his way through three days of play and 484 opponents to reach this position, a duel of wills and wits against another relatively unknown player, Oceanside, New York’s Alan Colon, and had a chip lead of 1.6 million to $800,000. Sun, with his $20,000 small blind already on the button, made it $120,000 to go, and Colon decided to make a stand, raising $500,000 more.
Sun looked down at his cards, glanced at the few chips remaining in Colon’s stack, and said, “Let’s put it all in.” Colon was committed to the pot; there was probably no hand that it would be right to fold, and he certainly wasn’t throwing away Kd-Qc.
Sun turned over the A-6 of clubs, a nice little favorite, but nothing like the monster favorite it became on the 4c-8c-7s flop: not only did Sun still have the overcard lead, but also had the nut flush draw and a gutshot straight draw. Only five of the unseen 45 cards could save Colon; the Kc would be no help.
But the King of hearts would be, and that’s what hit on the turn. After three grueling days, with victory close enough to taste, the turn card had snatched glory from Sun’s grasp, and no ace, five, or club gave it back on the river; indeed, as if to prove this hand was destined not to be Sun’s, Fate dealt off the Qs on the river.
“Alan Colon had only five outs,” boomed tournament creator Mike Sexton to the huge crowd assembled in dual grandstands, “and he hit two of them!”
It was a staggering, punishing blow that almost exactly reversed the chip positions, and when Sun put in a small raise on the very next hand and Colon moved in, Sun’s body language sighed “What the heck, let’s get this over with,” and it looked like he was going to call. But in one of those moments in which champions are born, he regained his focus and composure, tossed his hand away, and decided to pick a better spot for a potentially final battle.
He picked that spot about 20 minutes later, taking down the championship, $239,400, a gaudy diamond and gold bracelet, and a trophy only slightly less massive than the heart Sun showed in winning the event. More on how that happened shortly. For the moment, let’s move back to the beginning, and review the long and winding road that led to Spencer Sun’s moment of glory.
The Tournament of Champions is, as Louis Asmo (one of two 1999 finalists who returned to the final 27 this year) so accurately put it, “a player’s tournament.” The limits move up in 90 minute increments, giving the patient player time to pick his or her spots, and giving the skillful player more of a chance than s/he usually finds in faster moving shootouts, where shorter limits send players out of the tournament and into the more profitable (for the host casino) side games more quickly.
The required skill factor multiplies yet again due to the multi-game nature of the event. In each 90-minute round, the players play limit hold’em (25 minutes), limit 7-card stud (30 minutes) and limit Omaha 8-or-better (35 minutes), putting one-game specialists at a huge disadvantage. Last year, the rounds were 30 minutes in each game, but the players noted that many more hold’em hands get dealt in 30 minutes than do a split game like Omaha, and so TOC creators Sexton and Chuck Humphrey listened to their players and created more of a balance this year.
We had 486 entrants this year, down from last year’s 664, a shift explicable through a combination of factors. The entry fee increased from $1,500 to $2,000, the tournament became non-smoking (an announcement that drew a huge cheer from the non-smokers who showed up), and in an effort to keep the classy event going (where else does every starting player get treated to gourmet buffets, an embroidered leather bag, a specially minted silver commemorative coin, and a champion’s lounge full of poker history?) until corporate sponsorship increases to a level that funds all these extras, the house percentage was a bit higher (10%) than is usually found in big events.
When you add in the drop in attendance that most tournament are experiencing this year—an almost inevitable result of the rapidly increasing NUMBER of tournaments around the U.S. and indeed the world—the drop in attendance could have been foreseeable, but it became obvious only in hindsight, and the smaller-than-expected starting number caused a bit of a delay after the opening Parade of Nations, as officials broke and recombined some tables.
Once we got started, though, we had a tournament for the ages.
I wore two hats for this tournament, one as a player and one as a writer (one hat fewer than Spencer Sun, but I’ll talk about his more later), and one thing that jumped out at me right away was the dominant impact the 7-stud seemed to have on chip counts. The additional betting round and the nature of a game that makes chasing more correct than in hold’em but without the split pots of the Omaha consistently created the biggest pots. Taking a few 7-stud hands to the river tended to make or break a lot of players.
The craftier players quickly discovered that you didn’t necessarily have to play stud hands to the river to make money, though. 323 players made it through to the dinner break, after which I noted that a raise/completion of a stud bet to the $300 limit stood to win $550 in antes and bring-ins if unchallenged, whereas in the same hold’em round, a raiser had to risk $600 to win $450 in blinds, a pretty dramatic difference in the risk/reward ratio for thieves (or, if you prefer, “aggressors”). The players who realized this and defended or re-raised created the big pots that so affected the standings. Next year, it might make more sense for stud to have the 25-minute round, rather than hold’em
184 players made it to Day Two, and I was happy to be among them, although staying up late to write my daily story left me a bit sleep-deprived for the next day’s action. I was still hanging in when player #80 was eliminated, and that made my tablemate, Gloria Tschetschot as the sole remaining woman, and the winner of the diamond earrings donated Russ Hamilton.
Russ’s donation wasn’t the only special extra prize. George P., a high stakes Greek player who wanted to remain semi-anonymous, donated three $10,000 vacations for two to the Annabelle Village resort in Crete. These trips were assigned random draw, and the big winners were Richard Santos, Odetie Tremblay, and Richard Dunberg. “Little” things like this were part of what made the TOC so special.
Another special part of the TOC is its international flavor. 13 countries were eligible for the International Cup, awarded to the nation (other than the U.S.) that holds at least one TOC qualifying tournament and has the most finishers in the money, and when we reached the final 45, France had successfully defended the title it won last year placing Jan Boubli, Laurent Besnainou, and Jean-Bernard Bot in the money. The UK and Japan made it close with two cashers each.
My run ended in 35th place, a simultaneously gratifying and disappointing finish, but at $6,000 a lot nicer than 46th would have been. I took off my player’s hat and put on my press pass, which had superstitiously remained in my pocket until I was eliminated. It wasn’t that long thereafter that the final 27 players were set for Day Three, when the players shift gears completely: no more limit games, no more shifting games: no-limit hold’em the rest of the way. When we started, the tables and chip positions were:
Spencer Sun, $132,200
Diego Cordovez, $48,200
Takeshi Kobayashi, $84,900
Russ Salzer, $92,200
Mike Matusow, $210,000
Roy Thung, $26,700
Hassan Habib, $120,000
Kevin Song, $222,500
Alan Colon, $39,000
Robert Mangino, $82,000
Bill Munger, $20,900
Fred Coleman, $97,000
Vasili Lazarou, $84,600
Bill Fain, $83,400
Jan Boubli, $101,000
Jean-Bernard Bot, $107,000
Louis Asmo, $46,200
Young Phan, $111,000
Henry Nowakowski, $146,300
Simon Zhang, $66,900
Ray Greene, $125,500
Laurent Besnainou, $33,700
Anthony Hamilton, $150,900
Josh Arieh, $148,300
Gene Timberlake, $4,700
Yoshihisa Saito, $7,200
Hans Pfister, $47,200
The unluckiest player on the re-draw had to be Mike Matusow, who was otherwise in great shape in second chip position. But table three lost two players relatively quickly, and Roy Thung got moved, leaving Matusow with fellow chip monsters (and star players) Hassan Habib and Kevin Song holding position on him. This left it very difficult for him to try any blind steals.
“I should have just played very conservatively until after we re-drew for two tables,” Matusow admitted on a break. “It was a mistake to mix it up with them holding position on me when I wasn’t going to have to wait that long for a better seat.” Habib and Song never put any bad hurts on Matusow, but their presence made it difficult for him to try any re-steals, and it was Sun who came away from Table 1 with a chunk of Mike’s money.
Matusow didn’t catch a break on the redraw, finding two more great players and big stacks lurking behind him again, this time in the form of Young Phan and Josh Arieh, and with the antes at $1,000 and the blinds at $5,000-$10,000, these three played a monster hand whose reverberations were felt throughout the tournament.
With Arieh in the big blind, Matusow raised it to $30,000 on the button, and Phan re-raised it to $80,000 from the small blind. Arieh considered briefly, showed his hand to several players who later confirmed it was AK suited, and tossed it in the muck. Matusow moved in, a raise of another $81,000, and with $257,000 already in the pot, Phan called. He had only $60,000 left in front of him.
Matusow turned over A-8 off, and before Phan turned his and over, Mike said, “A small pair, right?” Only somewhat right, it turned out: J-J.
The flop came down K-K-9, someone sent for Dramamine for Arieh, and the 4-7 finish sent Matusow out in 12th place.
“GIVE ME SOME CHOPSTICKS!!!” yelled Phan with delight, as he scooped in the giant pot, sending the neat stacks into a mammoth jumbled mess that he decided not to eat but merely play with in a “mine, all mine,” sort of way for a couple of minutes before he started the long task of re-stacking them.
“Josh Arieh laid down A-K suited there, and only a great player can make that laydown,” announced Phil Hellmuth, who was handling microphone duties for the crowd, “but Josh Arieh is wishing he hadn’t right now.”
“I KNEW Matusow was making a move there,” Josh later told me, “and Phan could have been making a re-steal, but I didn’t think so.”
Phan continued to acquire chips and was involved in another gigantic pot shortly thereafter. Kevin Song raised a pot to $30,000 pre-flop, and Phan called. The flop came down Qs-10s-8h, Song bet $60,000, and Phan called. The Js hit on the turn, Song moved all-in for his last $132,000, and Phan quickly called, showing J-9: he’d flopped the nut straight.
Song turned over Ks-Qd: he’d flopped top pair and turned an open-ended royal flush draw, but Phan still had the lead and if his hand held up, he’d own more than a third of the chips with 10 players left.
The eight of spades on the river handed nearly half a million in chips to Kevin Song.
Phan, who still had more than $300,000, took the beat about as well as could be expected. “Oh, I lost a fish, man,” he said, playing to the crowd. “I went fishing and lost a fish!”
“Too big a fish for you, maybe,” replied Song with a smile.
We lost two short stacks relatively quickly, and with the redraw, the final table was set:
Russ Salzer, $90,000
Young Phan, $323,000
Hassan Habib, $286,000
Spencer Sun, $390,500
Alan Colon, $334,000
Kevin Song, $457,500
Anthony Hamilton, $67,500
Josh Arieh, $374,000
Jean-Bernard Bot, $115,500
While everyone went to dinner, the finishing touches were applied to the tournament area, transforming it into a glamorous stage for the finale: dual grandstands, a podium for introductions of poker greats and from which Linda Johnson would announce the finale, a side stage set up for the internet TV broadcast, and a huge video screen displaying the video crew’s efforts so that the spectators could see the cards, even from a distance.
Phil Hellmuth anchored the broadcast, starting off with John Bonetti as his partner, and bringing various other poker greats like Daniel Negreanu in and out during the telecast. WSOP champ Chris Ferguson spent a great deal of time as the “third man in the both,” and as the cameras occasionally cut away from the cards to show the commentators, I couldn’t help the feeling that I was watching Monday Night Football, with Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith, and Frank Gifford.
I mentioned this later to Ferguson and he seconded it. “Yes, it felt a little like that,” he said, “but I think the guy I’d want to be, rather than Gifford or Meredith, is the new one, Dennis Miller.”
As the players marched in, Sun added a bit more “color” to the event. He entered wearing the same woman’s hat (black, with a big red rose) that J.P. Massar had worn to the final table the previous year. Massar had started wearing it during a dry run of cards, and RGP friend Patti Beadles had lent it to him. Massar’s luck changed immediately, and he kept the hat on for the finale, although he lasted only one hand there. Despite the hat’s failure at the 1999 final table, Massar lent it to his good friend, who wore it faithfully throughout.
We started play with 57 minutes left at the $1,500 ante, $8,000-$16,000 blind level, which meant that each hand began with a tempting $37,500 in dead money sitting out there for the taking, and is usually the case in no-limit, “taking” is what mostly happened. Most hands were brought in for a $50,000 raise and were not contested; occasionally we’d see a re-raise to $150,000 that was not contested.
The short-stacked Hamilton exited first when Kevin Song brought a hand in for $50,000 and Hamilton called all-in for his remaining $39,500. 9-9 for Hamilton, A-8 off for Song, and the board came J-3-J-10-A, a river thus finishing off the last remaining man from the nation that ruled the waves.
Unlike the finale at the WSOP, where the action was fast and furious from the first hand and we lost four players in about half an hour, everyone here was jockeying more carefully, and it looked like we were going to finish the first level with eight players left. But on the last hand, Salzer brought it in for $50,000, Phan raised it to $150,000, and Salzer called all-in for the 70k he had. As-3s for Salzer, 7-7 for Phan, and when the first four cards came down 10s-7h-5d-Jc, Salzer had no outs.
The antes stayed at $1,500 and the blinds moved up only slightly, to $10,000-20,000. With seven players, each round now cost $40,500 to play.
Hassan Habib, who had performed a marvelously impressive double making the final table at both the WSOP (were he was 4th) and the TOC, exited next when his short stack wasn’t enough to move Josh Arieh off a steal. Josh brought the hand in for $60,000, Hassan went all-in for only $69,000 more, and with 170k already in the pot, Josh called with 10-8, and saw exactly the kind of hand he’d hoped to see: pocket fours for Habib. The flop was harmless to Habib at 9-7-A, but a ten hit the turn, and we were six-handed.
Having been caught red-handed, Arieh announced with a wry smile, “I’m not doing it again, boys.” A couple of rounds later, when an uncontested Arieh raise to 60k took down another pot, Phan said “10-9?”
Arieh was the chip leader, and a talented player who owns a World Series bracelet, but the “chalk” players in the crowd were now focused on Song and Phan, who easily had the longest and most impressive tournament resumes of the remaining players.
Sun put in a button raise to 70k, and Song called from the big blind. The flop came down a very scary, full-of-possibilities Ad-Kh-10h, and Song opened for only 20k, a bet that Sun later described as “scary.” He called the almost impossible-to-decline wager.
The 3s, a complete blank, hit the turn, Song led out for 60k, Sun moved his remaining 306k all-in, and Kevin Song called almost instantly. It wasn’t clear who had whom covered: it was going to be close. As-10s for Sun, Kc-10c for Song. A deuce on the river finished Song, who turned out to have had about 290k when he called Sun’s all-in bet with bottom two pair (ignoring the turn card), and Spencer Sun had a big chip lead. When he next brought a hand in for $100,000, Linda Johnson announced “Spencer Sun brings it in for $100,000,” and Sun proclaimed, “You’re going to hear a lot of that,” in effect announcing his intent to become the table bully.
The antes moved to $2,000, and the blinds to $15,000-30,000. With five players, it would now cost $55,000 to sit out a round, and of course, the button comes around a lot faster five-handed than nine-handed. Play had been somewhat cautious; things were almost certainly going to heat up, and they did.
Colon, who had been relatively quiet, opened a hand for 80 under the gun, and Bot, who had also been quiet and who had survived numerous all-ins as a very short stack before the final table, shoved his final 96k in. Phan decided to call from the button, and we had our first significant three-way action. The flop came J-7-8, check-check, a two on the turn, check-check, and a ten on the river, check-check. Aces everywhere, it turned out: A-5 for Colon, Ah-Qh for Phan, and A-9 for Bot; the ten on the river had given him a straight.
Bot had more than tripled up, and for the second time in two big tournaments, we’d all seen A-9 overcome A-Q on the river. If the ten hadn’t hit, the dangerous Phan would have had chips again, but he didn’t, and his move-in of his last 176k from the button wasn’t enough to scare Sun off his small blind hand. Sun made it 400k, just to make sure Colon didn’t want to mess around from the big blind, and the isolation play worked.
K-2 for Phan, K-Q for Sun, and the board came J-7-5-A-J. Young Phan was out, and in 15 minutes, Spencer Sun had taken down the two most dangerous and experienced players in the field.
30 seconds later, we were three-handed. Sun, following his pronouncement, brought a hand in for $100,000, and Bot moved all-in from the big blind, a raise of 140k. Spencer had enough chips and enough of a hand to call: K-10 for Sun, 8-8 for Bot, and a ten hit the flop. The last international player was out.
Sun had about 1.3 million, Colon $700,000, and Arieh about $310,000. Colon and Sun got tangled up in a pot where Colon bet $400,000 after the flop, and Sun thought a while, and then said, just before releasing his cards, “Regis, I’d like to poll the audience.” Everyone cracked up, but Sexton’s comeback line was probably even funnier: “I promise, they’d have voted for you to call, this crowd wants action!”
They got plenty.
Colon opened a hand for 100k and Arieh moved all-in. Alan called pretty quickly; Josh didn’t have enough chips to hurt him badly, and if he could take out #3, we’d have a horserace. A-10 for Josh, 6-6 for Alan, and the 4-8-9-J board gave Josh a little hope before the river, as he could now win with a seven, queen, or Ace, but a king came off, and we were two-handed, 1.4 million for Sun and a cool mil for Colon.
Heads-up, the action slowed a bit; even though it was costing 49k to see every two hands, that number was relatively small compared to the now huge stacks. On a limp-in flop, Colon bet 300k, Sun came over the top, and Colon threw his hand away. Another hand cut 200k more out of Colon’s stack and it seemed like the end might be near.
Colon drew closer, though, and another limp-in flop changed everything. The Jc-6d-3c came, Colon bet 200k, and Sun called. The Qs hit the turn, Colon moved all-in for 700k more, and after a long, agonizing thought process, Sun decided to call. J-7, top pair on the flop and second pair now, for Colon; 9-6, third pair, for Sun. The river was a blank, and suddenly Colon held the big lead, 1.8 mil to 630k for Sun.
As the antes moved to $3,000 and the blinds to $20,000-40,000, Sun’s stack had dwindled even further, to about 430k. On a limper, the flop came 9-7-7, Sun checked, Colon moved in, and Sun decided to call. A-2 for Colon, 6-8—an open-ender—for Sun. He could win with a six, eight, five, or ten, and the ten hit immediately to give Colon no outs. Sun was back to 900k.
The ebb and flow kept ebbing and flowing. Sun won several small confrontations, putting pressure on Colon after the flop that Colon was unwilling or unable to take, and moved back into the lead, when the big Ac-6c vs. Kd-Qc, king of hearts on the turn hand happened. And as you already know, Sun almost went for it the next hand, but decided to pick a better spot.
Sun continued his strategy of trying to outplay Colon on the flop, and it kept working—or at least, Colon never found any ammunition to fight with. Sun gradually drew almost even when the decisive hand came down. Colon led 1.3-1.1, and he made it 120k to go from the small blind on the button. Sun called.
The flop came Jh-9d-4h, Sun checked, Colon bet 200k, and Sun called. The 2s hit the turn, Sun checked, and Colon moved in. Sun’s sigh was audible. He thought and thought, and finally announced that he was calling.
He had picked the right spot. Colon held A-10, and Spencer had top pair with J-7. Unless an ace spiked on the river, Sun would have almost all the chips. A harmless seven fell, and two hands later, when the impossibly short-stacked Colon took J-8 up against Sun’s Q-8, we had our champion.
Colon is a successful CPA with his own firm, and while he wasn’t going to spit on $119,700 for second, it wasn’t going to change his life either, he related. He considers himself a seven-stud specialist, and usually plays in 30-60 games in Atlantic City.
The $239,400 for first does change things a bit more for Sun. He’s a programmer for a start-up computer company, and so “might score with that, but for right now, my house needs and is getting a new roof.” He’s also going to play in the Big One at the Series next year, something he hasn’t done before. He’s only been playing poker for four years, but has learned fast, and it was heartwarming to watch the support he got from his loyal RGP friends, especially those from the Bay area.
Novato, California, Sun’s hometown, is more easily identified geographically as part of Marin County, and as I watched Sun accept his trophy and accolades, my mind flashed back to a line from the Chevy Chase remake of “The Invisible Man.” Chase’s character has been hiding out in a Marin summer home, and although invisible, he still had to eat and drink, so he had stocked the house with plenty of gourmet food and alcohol.
When the owners came to visit, they saw the signs that someone had been in the home, but clearly, there were more possessions in the home now than before the break-in. “That’s what I like about Marin County,” the gentleman said. “You get such a higher class of criminal here.”
He’s no criminal, but apparently you do get a higher class of poker player from Marin County, and from now on, the once unknown Spencer Sun is going to be about as far away from an invisible man in the poker world as you can get. Congratulations to him, to the other winners and participants, and to Mike Sexton and Chuck Humphrey, for once again putting on a truly world class event.
Spencer Sun, $239,400
Alan Colon, $119,700
Josh Arieh, $71,820
Jean-Bernard Bot, $47,880
Young Phan, $35,910
Kevin Song, $29,925
Hassan Habib, $23,940
Russ Salzer, $17,955
Anthony Hamilton, $11,970
10th-18th, $10,000 each: Roy Thung, Fred Coleman, Mike Matusow, Hans Pfister, Henry Nowakowski, Bill Fain, Louis Asmo, Jan Boubli, Robert Mangino.
19th-27th, $8,000 each: Vasili Lazarou, Diego Cordovez, Simon Zhang, Gene Timberlake, Ray Greene, Takeshi Kobayashi, Laurent Besnainou, Bill Munger, Yoshihisa Saito.
28th-36th, $6,000 each: David Plastik, Chip Jett, Marc Durand, Tex Flaniken, Todd Bleak, James McDermott, Mike Shi, Andy Glazer, Alvin High.
37th-45th, $4,000 each: Sam Grizzle, Greg Sellgren, Tex Morgan, Jeff Shulman, Johnny Davis, Tom McCormick, Jim Pechac, Simon Trumper, and Steve Zolotow.