I first saw Tony Ma play poker at the 1999 Rio Carnivale of Poker, as his worked his way into position to take the $5,000 entry no-limit hold’em Championship Event. As the hour grew late, and night become morning, the unflappable Ma continued to play with an intensity that convinced me his rivals were playing for second.
The next day (later the same day, to be precise), as his competitors dropped by the wayside at the final table, I grew more and more convinced that Tony Ma was an irresistible force, and I saw no immovable objects in his path. But then something happened: When play got three-handed, they cut a deal for the money, giving Ma the lion’s share, and suddenly a guy whom you couldn’t beat a spare chip out of with a stick was calling all-in pre-flop bets with hands like 10-J offsuit. Ma finished second.
Ma arrived at today’s final table of the World Series of Poker $2,000 entry fee Limit Hold’em Championship in third chip position, almost exactly $100,000 behind leader Hung K. Tran’s $244,000. Play resumed with only two minutes left at the $2,000-4,000 blind, $4,000-8,000 betting level, and when three hands later we moved to 3-6, 6&12, we all knew the short stacks were in trouble, and they were.
Scott Brayer, Reinhold Schmidt and Kevin Lewis had each arrived at the final table with $53,500 or less in chips, and the high limits got rid of them relatively quickly. Lewis, one of the final table’s more colorful competitors, had been annoyed by the cigarette smoke two of his competitors were producing, used his battery-powered fan rather proactively, and had asked Tournament Director Bob Thompson at one point if “I could have a plastic bubble to sit in, like they gave John Travolta in that movie.” His exit was particularly painful, as he got his last chips in with J-Q against A-8, only to get a seeming reprieve with a J-Q-8 flop. But another 8 on the turn burst his bubble, and the Auburn, California resident headed back to his home club, Dealer’s Choice, to play in a non-smoking venue.
It took a while longer to eliminate Jimmy Athanas and David Stearns, but after a couple of hours of play, we were left with four players:
Hung K. Tran, $343,000 Roman Abinsay, $238,000 Tony Ma, $225,000 Raymond Dehlcharghani, $198,000
With a prize breakdown of
1st, $367,040 2nd, $188, 480 3rd, $94, 240 4th, $59,520
and the blinds about to jump to $5,000-10,000, playing 10&20, the Final Four decided to take a break to talk deal, and the table was so quickly swarmed over by various backers looking to get in on the negotiations that it reminded me of one of those movie scenes where the piranha strip a cow bare in two minutes. Eventually Thompson cleared the area of all the money men, and the competitors agreed that everyone would get $163,000, except for Tran, whose chip lead bought him $220,000. The spare change was allotted to the dealers (who also got additional money from the competitors), meaning that the only thing left at stake was the gold bracelet.
When this happened, I got pretty annoyed, as once again it seemed like a tense and exciting final table was about to be ruined by a deal. Indeed, at that moment I thought my story was going to be all about the deal, and how since deals seem to get made in such a high percentage of events, the tournament directors should just go ahead and change the prize structure in such a way that deal making would not be necessary. I thought of Tony Ma at the Rio and wondered if once again his “A” game would get stowed away, now that the cash was locked up.
So much for my making a career move to replace Nostradamus or the Oracle at Delphi. Although many final tables get very loose after the deal is made, it took our remaining four players four hours of tough play to determine the bracelet’s ownership.
Dehlcharghani (hereinafter to be called “Raymond”) made a quick move after the deal was cut, and surged near the chip lead. But shortly thereafter, Abinsay (an easier name to type but I’m going to use his first name too, as “Roman” just gives me too many plays on words) won a monster pot from Raymond when his pocket fives started building seven hills of chips when the flop came down 5-5-6 with two spades. When spades came on the turn and river, Raymond found himself the unfortunate owner of the Ace of Spades for a very expensive second-place flush. Roman’s chip empire was building.
Roman, a Southern California low-limit player who can usually be found in $3-6 or $6-12 games, was on the roll of his life, and continued to build his stack at Ma’s expense, twice calling big bets on the flop and hitting inside straight draws on the turn. After the second one, I found myself hoping that no beginners were watching, because no one would ever later be able to convince them that drawing to an inside straight was a weak play. Roman continued to torture Ma when his pocket sevens found an Ad-7d-3d flop, and another 3 on the turn blew away any thoughts Tony had of winning with a flush.
Ma was down to $123,000 at this point, and although the vanishing chips seemed more a factor of Roman’s uncanny ability to hit flops than the loose play that characterized his Rio defeat, it seemed like Tony was going to go down again. Roman must have said, “Look, Ma, no hands!” a lot as a child, because he certainly couldn’t say it today.
Ma was almost finished when the cards finally gave him a break. Holding 9c-9h, most of his remaining money went in against Roman, who was holding a black A-Q. The flop came K-Q-10 with two hearts, and more of Tony’s dwindling pile of chips headed for the center. The 4h on the turn yielded another bet and call, and Tony had $23,000 left in front of him when the 10h hit on the river. Ma pumped $20,000 in, Roman raised him back his final $3,000, and flipped over his A-Q for two pair. Tony had been dead to a heart or a nine; the jack that would have given him a straight would have given Roman a bigger straight. But the 10h worked just fine, and suddenly Ma had a quarter mil in front of him. Roman, who would have had the chip lead had a blank fallen on the river, suddenly found himself even with Ma.
We lost Raymond shortly thereafter; he never recovered from Roman’s quad fives, and when the big blind was $20,000, he went ahead and put his final $6,000 in with it, in effect announcing that he wasn’t going to throw away his big blind investment no matter what his cards were. Tran and Ma folded, and Roman went ahead and added $16,000 to his small blind, and then the duo got their cards: pretty decent hands for no-look poker. A-J suited for Roman, 8-9 suited for Raymond. Raymond actually flopped an inside straight draw with 10-6-3, but blanks on the turn and river left us three-handed.
Roman then proposed that instead of playing the event out, they all play one hand of showdown. Ma counter offered to switch the event to no-limit. Hmmm, one player wanted to flip a coin, the other wanted to switch to the most skillful form of poker. These were not random suggestions, and neither wanted to play the other’s game, so we played on.
After an uneventful half-hour or so, the length of the session, perhaps combined with the lack of incentive, finally produced a weak play from Tran, who had been rock solid throughout. The blinds had moved to $15,000-30,000, and holding Ah-9d, Tran came out firing before the flop, raised Roman on a flop of 8c-3h-8h, raised again on a turn of the 7h, and got the last of his money in when the 6h came on the river, his speculative holding having turned into an ace-high flush. But Tran had been trailing throughout: Roman had held pocket sixes, and the 6h that gave Tran his flush filled up the Roman aqueduct.
Roman’s momentum seemed unstoppable; the king of inside straights kept taking hand after hand, and Ma, who had finished a deserving #1 in Nolan Dalla’s 1999 overall player rankings, had to be wondering if fate wasn’t to be on his side this day. Down to just a few chips, he got them in with A-10 against Roman’s 9-6. The J-Q-8 flop helped no one, but still left Ma leading, and a deuce on the turn changed nothing. Roman legions in the crowd started shouting “NINE” before the river card came, hoping for a pair that would (they thought) win for their Emperor, and just as surely as Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a 9 materialized on the river. Most of the crowd started shouting, thinking the tournament over, but Ma coolly waved the Ten in is hand, shaking it much like someone might shake a finger at a bad dog, and said, “Sorry, no, I have a straight.”
The king of inside straights had just been done in by one, and while Ma was still short on chips, the snatch-back of the apparent victory from Roman’s grasp seemed to knock some of the wind from his sails. After stealing a few blinds, and winning some smaller pots, Ma leveled the playing field. The chips were about even as the blinds moved to $20,000-40,000, playing 40&80. Roman repeated, for probably the tenth time, his offer to play one hand of showdown, and Ma repeated his counteroffer of no-limit.
The first hand after the step up, Ma snatched $200,000 from Roman when the 6-7-2-5-9 board gave Roman and his unguarded 8 yet another straight… only to find that Ma held 8-10 for a bigger straight. Roman now asked Bob Thompson how much the bracelet is worth.
“About $2,000,” Thompson answered.
“You want to give me $1,000, and you take the bracelet?” Roman asked. Thompson quickly indicated that the bracelet could not be made part of a deal. “Prestige!” he encouraged Roman. “The bracelet is worth a lot of prestige!” Roman had to know this already; he had been playing his best for almost four hours with “nothing” more than the bracelet at stake. I take his question to mean he feels beaten, that his run is spent, and he’s trying to squeeze some last piece of equity out of his remaining chips.
On the very next hand, Ma grabbed another $200,000 when Roman called an $80,000 bet holding 10c-7c and staring at a rainbow A-9-J-K board. Roman had hit so many inside straights, that he probably felt this call for a double gut shot (for a Queen or an Eight) was well worth it, but the $80,000 represented 40% of Roman’s remaining chips, and staring at this board, it wasn’t at all certain that a Queen wouldn’t split the pot. But the river brought a 3, and Ma’s pair of Jacks held up. In two hands, Roman’s $520,000-$472,000 chip lead had turned into a huge deficit. Roman had $120,000 left.
Roman doubled through once, but Ma had taken charge. Three consecutive hands he took $80,000 bites out of Roman’s stack. Finally, Roman was down to his last $37,000, holding the button, where he must post the $20,000 small blind. He didn’t even wait for his cards. He put the other $17,000 in, and the players took their cards face up. 3-6 offsuit for Roman, 2-5 offsuit for Ma, but the final board of K-K-5-J-Q give the title to the best player to make the final table, and ended the Roman Holiday. It was a great ride for a low-limit player, the kind of ride that encourages non-professionals to enter Series events, but after finally catching a break on the 9-9 vs. A-Q hand, Ma’s experience took over.
In the aftermath, I asked Ma to recall that final Rio table, and asked if that had been running through his mind here, in the post-deal stage.
“Yes, I did think of it,” he said. “I was playing very well at the Rio, but once I got the money, I lost my edge, my concentration, I didn’t really care that much about the title. I learned my lesson from that mistake, I told myself before the World Series, if I get into that position again, I will play hard, play my best to get a second bracelet” (his first was a $5,000 limit hold’em event).
I might not have been much of a Nostradamus or an Oracle in predicting an uneventful finish after the four-way deal, but I don’t think I’ll need the skills of Nostradamus to predict that Tony Ma will add a few more bracelets before he’s through. When someone as great as Tony Ma recognizes that he makes mistakes and determines to learn from them, more Series victories seem as certain as… as… as… heck, even as certain as that old rule about not drawing to an inside straight.