$1,500 Entry Pot-Limit Omaha “Not Just Another Player”
When four players remained in today’s $1,500 entry Pot-Limit Omaha tournament, the players took a break, and I walked over to Atlanta, GA’s Josh Arieh, whom I first met when he won a Limit Hold’em bracelet last year in his first-ever World Series event, and whom I’d then gotten to know a little better playing 20-40 HOSE when I returned to my old Atlanta stomping grounds.
“So what’s it like,” I asked, “having this guy (Johnny Chan) sitting on your right?”
“He’s just another player,” the 25-year old Arieh answered. “It’s no different than having anyone else there.”
A few hours later, after 90 minutes of heads-up play with Chan resulted in the two-time World Champion collecting his sixth bracelet, Arieh was singing a different tune. But let’s go back to the start of this terrific finale before looking at the dramatic conclusion.
Chan wasn’t the only former World Champion at the table. Jim Bechtel started the day as the chip leader, with $100,100, $31,500 more than LA pro Greg Hopkins had in second chip position. Minneapolis’s Howard Greenspan’s economic indicators had him at $57,700, and Arieh was 5th at $44,500.
The chip leaders ran into early trouble. Hopkins lost most of his stack when he got a reasonable number of chips in with the lead, holding A-A-K-10 double-suited against Greenspan, who called with Q-J-9-6.
Hopkins ran into one of the worst conceivable flops for his hand, rainbow Q-10-9, exactly the sort of flop that was likely to give a straight or a wrap to a pre-flop caller. He led out with a $32,000 bet, and Greenspan came back over the top at him with his two pair and open-ender. Hopkins called, the straight came, and we had a new chip leader. Although Hopkins survived a couple of all-in situations, Chan eventually finished him off in 8th place.
Bechtel got into trouble with two hands where he called big bets (once on the flop and once pre-flop) only to stare at absolute blanks on the board and be unable to call either time.
On the first one, Greenspan bet $17,500 at a flop of Jd-9s-2s, and Bechtel called. Calling for this much, but not re-raising, I was assuming something like A-Q-10 with spades, the kind of hand that the four of clubs on the turn wasn’t likely to help. Greenspan fired out a pot-sized $51,000, and Bechtel folded.
On the second, Stockholm’s Fred Wrang raised it to $13,500 pre-flop, and again Bechtel cold-called. When the flop came 5-5-8, Wrang fired, and Bechtel again declined to engage. These two big losses, combined with constant pressure on his blinds from Greenspan, kept Bechtel on the defensive, and one big hand with Arieh finished him.
Two players had tried limping in for $2,000 when Bechtel glanced down and found A-K-K-9, so Jim raised it $8,000 more. Everyone but Arieh folded. The flop came down Jc-8d-2c, Bechtel led out with a $16,000 bet, and Josh immediately moved him all-in, and when Bechtel called we saw Josh had Q-Q-10-9, an open-ended straight draw and an overpair that trailed Bechtel’s kings.
An ace on the turn didn’t change the lead, but when a queen hit the river, Josh had a straight, and the chip leader at the start of play was gone.
A little while later, Chan and Greenspan hooked up on one of those random hands that can change a tournament, although they wound up chopping the pot. A series of re-raises got all of Chan’s chips in: he held A-A-7-4 with spades, and Greenspan held A-A-2-6 with diamonds, virtually identical hands. Neither flush came, and we went on break a few minutes later.
I ran into Johnny in the elevator on the way back from the break, and said “It got kind of exciting on that hand with the aces.” (This clever remark seemed a bit better to me than “Hot enough for you?”)
“Well, what else can he have there,” Chan replied with a shrug. “Gonna be a tough little tournament.”
For everyone else, it turned out.
Shortly after the break, a big three-way hand gave Chan some ammunition. Johnny raised it to $9,000 under the gun, and Greenspan, still holding a big chip lead, called. “Cactus” Jack Duncan, who had started the day with only $9,600 in chips and who had improbably survived longer than the two chip leaders, came over the top from the big blind with his last $19,000 (a raise of $13,000).
Chan thought for a while. Greenspan’s presence in the hand complicated matters; he couldn’t simply call for the size of the pot and see the river. But call he did, and after some hesitation of his own, Howard called also, putting $58,500 at stake.
The flop came Kd-7h-6h, and Chan immediately shoved his last $45,000 in. Greenspan folded, Chan took his bet back, and we saw Duncan’s holding, A-A-Q-9, and Chan’s, Ah-Kh-Kc-Qs. Chan had flopped a set with a heart draw for back-up, and he made the hearts on the turn, a not irrelevant improvement, because the Ad fell on the river.
“WOW!” Chan exclaimed. “Good thing I made the hearts.”
As Duncan departed, Greenspan started talking. “I’m sure glad I didn’t hit anything on that flop,” he said. “Like two pair or something. You should have checked that flop, Johnny.”
“Why should I do that,” Chan replied coolly. “Why should I give you a chance to hit a gutshot? It’s not time to gamble yet.”
It indeed was not time to gamble. It was time for the Master to go to work. He was wearing both a baseball cap and sunglasses, and I was pretty sure this double protection wasn’t so much designed to keep people from reading him, as it was to disguise the effort he was putting in when he is NOT in a hand. When the other players were folding, they were walking to the rail, smoking their cigarettes, and making small talk. I stayed focused on Chan and saw how he stayed focused on the other players, watching intently for reads that might prove useful later in the game.
He reminded me of a lion gazing out at a heard of wildebeests, trying to ascertain which would be the easiest prey. He trailed Greenspan’s chip lead, but he was assembling all the data he would need to feast later.
A few minutes later, the blinds moved to $2,000-4,000, with five players left, and my rough estimate of their chip positions was:
Howard Greenspan, $140,000 Johnny Chan, $105,000 Willie Tann, $101,000 Josh Arieh, $50,000 Fred Wrang, $50,000
Almost immediately, the two short stacks got involved in another of those “random” A-A vs. A-A hands, but unlike the Chan-Greenspan duel, this one eliminated Fred Wrang. With all the money going in pre-flop, we saw that Josh held A-A-2-4 with diamonds, and Fred held A-A-3-7 with spades.
The flop came 9d-5c-4c. Another five hit on the turn, and a three hit on the river. In one of those classic “what the heck does everyone have?” Omaha moments, there was some brief hesitation, and then Josh whooped, “I have a wheel!” He then explained to some friends on the rail that the excitement was because at first he’d thought the three had given Waang a straight.
By knocking off the other short stack, Arieh had created a relatively equal division of the chips, and it was time to talk deal. Boy, did we talk deal. The last baseball Players vs. Owners labor negotiations (you remember, the talks that cost us that “other” World Series) went smoother and with less posturing. With prize money of $341,860 in play ($179,400-$89,700-$44,850-$27,910) and three stacks of just over $100,000 and one of $140,000, Josh proposed at 75-75-75-78 split, with the rest left in play.
Greenspan scoffed like Josh had threatened to increase the Federal deficit, and Chan walked away from the table. Greenspan countered with 75-75-75-88, and Tann and Arieh made faces like Greenspan had suggested they disembowel their parents. Howard considered and made his absolute final offer, “$85,000, that’s it, and we’ll leave the other $33,860 in play.”
Tann countered with 83, and Howard unfinaled his final offer by going to 84. “Let’s play,” said Chan, a bit tired of the haggling and also knowing his rivals really didn’t want to face him without some kind of deal.
“Ok, $83,000,” Howard said. Chan then made his move. “I got a couple thousand extra in chips, I want another thousand. $76,000.”
Greenspan sputtered, “Johnny, it’s only a thousand dollars!”
Chan shrugged. “Let’s roll the dice.” Nice to have the high ground in one of these negotiations.
“I wish I were a millionaire,” Arieh said, an honest enough wish, but perhaps a tactical error in that it made it more obvious a deal was important to him.
Greenspan became the third negotiator in four days to try to throw the bracelet into the deal, but once again Tournament Coordinator Bob Thompson quickly reminded the players the bracelet could not be part of a bargain.
“The extra thousand for Johnny is probably fair,” Josh said. “He’s a movie star and the best player.”
“Yeah, I play pretty good,” Johnny agreed. Johnny hadn’t bothered to make this obvious point himself, but was willing to agree when someone else brought it up. Greenspan wasn’t buying the extra money for better play argument. “I’ll play you heads-up anytime, Johnny,” he said.
Chan instantly looked more alert and interested than he had throughout the negotiations. “Really? Promise?” he asked.
Greenspan didn’t promise, but in the wake of Arieh’s observation that “he’s got five bracelets, maybe we should give him $200 for each one” Greenspan finally agreed to give $500 from his share if the others would give $250 each from theirs. This left the final settlement at $82,500 for Howard, $76,000 for Johnny “If you think a divorce lawyer is tough you should try to negotiate with me” Chan, and $74,750 each for Tann and Arieh. They then agreed to take $10,000 out of what was left for the dealer tip, and to give the first place finisher $13,860 and the runner-up $10,000. While this was all worked out, other negotiators reached peace in the Middle East, and the UAW also worked a deal with all Big Three automakers on wages through 2012.
Tournament Assistant Tom Elias made sure everyone was on the same page with the deal, got their OK’s, and noted “and Johnny, you have a private game after we’re done, I’m a witness.”
At this point everyone remembered we still had some poker to play, and play we did.
Chan muscled Tann out of the game in two big hands. On the first, with more than $80,000 already in the pot, and a board of Ks-3h-3s-2h, Tann checked, and Johnny made a little $8,000 “I’m trying to steal this cheap, why don’t you play back at me?” bet, and Tann complied with a $20,000 raise to put a pleased Chan all-in. Johnny showed his two kings and Tann, drawing completely dead, mucked his hand before the river was dealt.
On the next hand, Tann bet his last chips at a flop of As-10s-6c, holding only an unguarded ace, and Chan called with the Ks-Qs. The eight of spades sent the Londoner out in 4th place.
The next major confrontation came between Arieh and Greenspan. All of Josh’s $85,000 got in when a flop came down J-8-5. Josh held 7-7-6-8, for a pair and an open-ender. Greenspan held A-A-K-2. A six hit on the turn, giving Josh two pair, sixes and eights, and the hand held up for a back-from-the-felt $170,000 stack.
The pre-deal chip leader was now the short man, and Chan finished him off. All the money went in pre-flop with Howard holding As-Ad-Js-8c and Chan holding Qs-Js-10s-8d. Things looked good for Howard when the flop came A-7-2, but a nine on the turn gave Johnny a wrap and jack on the river wrapped up Howard’s End. Johnny hadn’t wanted to gamble with Howard back earlier in the tournament when Howard had the big stack and was chiding Chan for not trying to trap him, but Chan was more than willing to gamble late with the chips on his side.
The chips were dead even, and the players took a short break, during which Johnny noted that the bracelet was important “because I have six kids and only five bracelets.” They can save a lot of money on monogramming in the Chan household, if it’s cheaper by the half dozen, because all the young Chans sport the initial J: Jason, Jennifer, Jody, Joanne, Joy, and Joseph.
The chips were all even at this point, and Chan started to pull ahead, but one big hand changed that in a hurry. Holding Q-J-7-7, Johnny happily got Josh all-in on a flop of As-7c-6d. Josh turned over 7h-8s-9c-10s for big straight draw that arrived courtesy of the eight of clubs on the river. A blank would have given Chan the title, but instead he had only $90,000 to Josh’s $357,000.
A lesser player might have despaired or panicked, but we’re not talking about a lesser player here. “I wasn’t that worried,” Chan said. “He’s a good tight player, but I picked up my speed, and started raising a lot more. With the blinds at $5,000-10,000 you can pick up some chips that way. I felt very comfortable. I respect his play but I knew how to play this gentleman.”
Chan chopped away, picking up $10,000 here and $20,000 there as Josh was, understandably, a bit hesitant to get involved in a pot that could double Johnny up. Then with Chan up to $160,000, the duo got $60,000 each in pre-flop, and both checked the A-3-4 flop. Josh checked the 6 on the turn, and a $20,000 bet claimed the pot for Chan. Just like that, we were even again.
With $108,000 in pre-flop on the next big hand, Josh bet the pot when the flop came down Ad-3s-6h. Chan had $184,000 left in front of him and called the huge bet. The 5c hit on the turn, Josh checked, Johnny fired his last $76,000, and Josh folded, his bluff at the pot having been read correctly by the man who’d spent all that time studying who was doing what when they were bluffing three hours earlier.
Josh was gutted. His chip total hovered between $20,000 and $50,000 for a while, but eventually, with $10,000 of his remaining $25,000 sitting out there as his big blind, he called Chan’s raise. Ad-10d-Qs-9d for Chan, 6d-8h-9c-10h for Josh. The board came down 4c-Jc-2h-10c-5h, and Johnny Chan had come all the way back.
I spoke to Josh after it was all over, and reminded him of the question I’d asked when the players were four-handed, and how he’d said Chan was “just another player.”
“Well, now I know he’s not,” Josh admitted. “He plays really well.” Clearly Josh plays well too; not many 25 year-olds could play Johnny Chan heads-up for 90 minutes. With Josh’s second place finish here today, the poker world learned that his win in last year’s Series was no accident, and Josh Arieh learned that no matter how fearless you are, Johnny Chan is never just another player.
By the Numbers
Total Prize Pool (includes re-buys) $447,000
1) Johnny Chan, $89,860 (officially $179,400)
2) Josh Arieh, $84,750 (officially $89,700))
3) Howard Greenspan, $82,500 (officially $44,850))
4) Willie Tann, $74,750 (officially $27,910))
5) Fred Wrang, $20,180)
6) Jack Duncan, $15,645)
7) Jim Bechtel, $11,175)
8) Greg Hopkins, $8,940)
9) Jim Lester, $7,155)
10th-12th, $5,365: Chris Bjorn, Chan Gang, O’Neil Longson.)
13th-15th, $4,915: Jon Brady, Roger Easterday, Chris Truby.)
16th-18th, $4,470: Paul Sherr, Erik Seidel, Roy Thung)