A First-Hand Account of the Madness of a Final Table With $5.1 Million on the Line
Frank Op de Woerd
For the final table of the PokerStars NL Holdem Players Championship, I sat in the tournament room all day to keep an eye on the action. I was there before the players made their entrance. I left after all the festivities were done and a winner was crowned. Our extensive recap of the day’s action can be found here including details of all the hands. In this piece, I want to share a first-hand experience of all the madness that transpires on such a day; a day where $5.1 million is on the line with just eight finalists in contention.
The Imperial Ballroom at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas was empty. At 9:30 in the morning, the start of the final table of the biggest-ever $25,000 event was still three and a half hours away. A massive poker room full of empty tables makes for a somewhat surreal sight.
Not much later, at the final table stage, the production team got underway with their preparations. The crew, all dressed in black, were busy talking through their receivers. They all seemed to know exactly what to do. Two of them hauled a dolly in, another was busy moving chairs at the final table. The lighting was tested, the crane operators did some test swoops through an empty room.
The first finalists entered the room. While the action was still some time away, they were asked to arrive early. They wandered around a bit before one of the producers reached out and explained what was expected.
Usually, I cover poker tournaments that are getting captured by cameras for the world to see. But when it’s the final table of the PokerStars Players Championship, things are the other way around; it’s at times more a tv show where they happen to be playing poker. The finalists are asked to, one by one, pose for establishing shots. Look at the trophy, look top right, walk around the trophy, can you explain what it means to you’virgutis’ data-zone=’sponsored:post’>
The finalists, just a short time away from playing for $5.1 million, get a boot camp experience of making a tv show.
It’s probably all a bit of a blur to them. They all do what’s asked. This seems not the time to argue. They look where they’re asked to look, they walk as requested, and they answer the questions as well as they can. One day they’ll look back on the footage and it’ll probably all come back. But for now, they look focused on what’s ahead and just silently undergo all that’s required.
More players enter the tournament room. The $1,100 PCA National Event gets underway with hundreds of players. The finalists are done with their tv duties and talk to friends and family or wander around looking for something to do. For all of them, this is by far the biggest final table of their lives, even for millionaire Talal Shackerchi who’s played some big events before. It’s the quiet before the storm. Soon, there will be millions on the line. All eight have half a million guaranteed, but it’s the $5.1 million that they’re looking for.
They’re asked to come to the table. Their chips are there, as they unpack their bags and start stacking. No hands are trembling, but inside they must feel nervous. Every pay jump is worth as much as winning most other tournaments. It’s not hundreds of thousands on the line, but millions. There are other events where such sort of money can be won, but they’re few and far between. And for the two Platinum Pass winners, a greater ROI isn’t possible.
Every pay jump is worth as much as winning most other tournaments. It’s not hundreds of thousands on the line, but millions.
We can’t look in their heads; we can only learn a bit from their bust-out interviews when they’re done. But it must be nerve-racking. All eight have experience. The true novices were weeded out some time ago. But still, one might know a specific play is the one a situation asks for, but following up with it is another task. You could just fold instead of shove, and you might ladder up a spot. Laddering would mean another house if one were to invest in real estate. But then there’s the issue of the cameras. Everyone can say they won’t be bothered by the people at home and their opinions, but in the end, most are affected. Making mistakes while playing is bad enough; making a mistake with thousands of people watching is something else. It must play through their minds that the Twitch chat and YouTube comment section might be going berserk with every move they make.
As they are introduced and the shuffle up and deal has sounded, it’s back to the good old game for them. The cameras are buzzing, a team of four cameramen handle cameras on rolling tripods. Two more mobile camera teams hover around, and a stabilized camera makes for those nice flow shots. The camera on the crane zooms along. There are rows of seats for fans of the game and railbirds cheering on their loved ones. The last selfies are made as host Joe Stapleton is heard doing the introduction for the live stream that’s broadcasting on a half hour delay.
The way Day 4 played out made for some shallow stacks. The chips are flying. The players must try not to constantly think about the stakes they’re playing for as every chip might not be holding the value in dollars that’s displayed on it; it’s closer to the chip-value than ever before. Every pot is worth thousands of dollars.
Talal Shakerchi drops out first. He gets unlucky with aces as he loses to ace-queen suited. Shakerchi quietly gets up and shakes hands with the one who did him in. The bad beat costs him hundreds of thousands in EV, but he doesn’t seem too upset. Of course, we know, Shakerchi is no stranger to these numbers. Still, it must hurt to go out in such fashion. But it doesn’t show. He hops straight into the $100,000 Super High Roller.
While the $1 million added to first makes for one of the biggest payjumps in the history of the game, no talks about a deal take place.
Farid Jattin follows him out the door, with hanging shoulders. The stacks still shallow, players bust out at a rapid pace. When they exit, they’re asked for a reaction one last time by the PokerStars tv crew. And then, usually, PokerNews‘ Jeff Platt stands ready with his cameraman. Other outlets sometimes follow, making the players answer the same questions on repeat. Despite having just won hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions, none seem overly excited. Maybe things haven’t sunk in. Maybe it’s still all kind of a blur. They were there, it happened, they were making conscious decisions, but it still feels surreal. Playing for such stakes, even the more experienced players must have a bit of ‘Is this real life’ thought going through their heads.
When down to heads up, Julien Martini leads by a landslide. While the $1 million added to first makes for one of the biggest payjumps in the history of the game, no talks about a deal take place. They just play like it’s down to two in the Big$11. One big setup later, Ramon Colillas makes a backdoor full house against Martini’s flopped flush, and the tables have turned. Colillas is in the driver’s seat, but still, no deal is discussed. Half an hour later, the tournament is over.
Dozens upon dozens of people flood to the stage. Fans of the game, but tv crew as well. PokerStars’ Danny McDonagh and Joe Stapleton join Colillas next to the golden trophy. Martini, in a bit of an awkward situation, is asked to stay as well as he’s getting a round of applause too. As Stapleton takes the word, some hundred or so phone screens are seen shooting photos of the whole ordeal. Some turn around to make a selfie of the scene.
For the two Platinum Pass winners, a greater ROI isn’t possible.
Stapleton, with an interpreter helping him out to get the questions across as Colillas doesn’t speak much English, asks him how he feels. Via the translator, Colillas says he can’t really fathom all of it yet. He’s stunned. A confetti canon explodes to give the scene an even more extreme feel. The professional photographers click like their lives depend on it. With hundreds of photos shot, there should be at least one where everything just works.
Colillas and his friends cheer. He grabs and kisses the trophy. At one point, his friends start chanting as they lift him in the air and start throwing him higher and higher. It’s like in the movies, but this is real.
Soon after, most of the crowd goes back to their daily business. Colillas is asked to pose for some more winner photos with most of the onlookers now gone.
It’s eerily quiet again. The $100,000 Super High Roller is played some tables over, as is the $1,100 PCA National and some cash games and sit & go’s. Not much more than the riffling of chips and the sporadic level-up announcement can be heard.
Colillas does some more interviews before he asks the PokerStars representative to call it quits; he’s tired and some unlucky reporters get no quotes from the newfound millionaire.
It was an honor to be a witness of all of it: history was made.
It’s back to normal again. For him, it probably hasn’t set in yet, but the world seems to go back to business as usual. The reporters are hastily writing their recaps. The other media starts working on their feature articles, and the video crew starts cutting, exporting, and uploading.
Colillas has just won a staggering $5.1 million in five not even too long days of work. He got into the event for free. We’ll see what Colillas decides to do with the money. He might play a bit more poker. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw him show up in some high rollers. It’s a given he’s going to the WSOP Main Event; he won a package for the event last year through a national poker competition.
I’ve been going to poker events for 12 years now, and I’ve witnessed hundreds of big final tables. I’ve been to half a dozen November Nine finals, and I’ve seen players battle for millions. It never gets normal, though. It remains such a weird situation; people playing for all that money having mastered a card game. One bad river makes the difference between going out first and no one remembering you or going on to win and seeing your face plastered over poker websites from around the world.
Colillas will surely realize how big a moment it is for his life soon enough. This changes everything. It was an honor to be a witness of all of it: history was made.
The Stars Group owns a majority shareholding in iBus Media. Professional photos by Carlos Monti and Neil Stoddart. Other photos by Frank Op de Woerd.
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