There's a great debate that will rage until the end of time about whether it's more skillful to win a massive, World Series of Poker main event-esque minefield of a monster event, or conquer an elite but small field. David Williams now has a good excuse to argue in defense of the latter.
Williams, who found international fame with his runner-up finish in the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, took down the second-largest score of his career this weekend with his $1,530,537 win in the Bellagio's World Poker Tour Championship. Long considered one of the crown jewels of the poker calendar, the Championship suffered massive losses in attendance for the third year running, with just 195 players putting up the $25,000 entry fee.
Williams triumphed over a star-studded final table that was almost as noteworthy for who was missing as it was for who was there. Deep runs by former WSOP world champions Phil Hellmuth and Scotty Nguyen had onlookers talking about either player joining Carlos Mortensen as the only players with both the WSOP and WPT crowns, but their twin ousters at seventh and eighth, respectively, left the focus on five remaining stars and one relative newcomer.
Williams defeated reigning Card Player Magazine Player of the Year Eric Baldwin (who won $1,034,715) in a final that saw Williams enter with and maintain a vast chip lead throughout. Baldwin's elimination was the last on a day that saw former WPT winner Shawn Buchanan ($587,906) finish third, 2009 WSOP bracelet winner David Benyamine ($329,228) finish fourth, poker Hall of Famer and seven-time bracelet winner Billy Baxter finish fifth and Irish online pro John O'Shea finish sixth as the first player eliminated at the final table.
For Williams, the tough lineup brought a surprising measure of comfort. "The lineup of name players who I've played before calmed me down," Williams said. "I knew what to expect from them because I'd played with all of them before. With new players, I don't know what's coming and there's a lot of pressure with the expectation to win. There was no pressure to win because if I lost, I mean, hey, I lost to a great player."
For Williams, the victory ended a drought of almost two years in which he failed to score a six-figure win. "It definitely boosts my confidence. I haven't had anything big going on for the last couple of years, so it makes me feel like I'm doing things right now. I've made a lot of changes. I'm very happy."
Among those changes was working with Sam Chauhan, the mindset coach who gained attention by working with Antonio Esfandiari prior to his deep WSOP main event run last year. "He taught me a lot about being positive, focusing, meditating and being thankful for what you have," Williams said. "It's amazing what that positive energy can do for you. I never went on tilt in the tournament. Frustration never affected me. I was able to stay calm and focus on my game."
In addition to the money, the victory ensures Williams a continued run in the spotlight that brought him his Bodog sponsorship. He doesn't seem too interested in the changes in lifestyle $1.5 million can bring.
"I'll just keep doing what I'm doing," Williams said. "It'll get me on NBC heads-up and all that. Poker's not as publicized as it was a few years ago, so having a televised win helps. Any publicity to me isn't bad. I enjoy the limelight. As long as I'm in the headlines I'm happy about that."
For runner-up Baldwin, the high finish serves as validation for his Player of the Year title. "It's a real big deal," Baldwin said, enthused. "With all the success I had last year, none of it was in super high-profile tournaments. I always have friends and family asking, 'When will I see you on TV?' and it'll be nice to finally have an answer for them. I also realize it's tough to make a name for yourself in poker nowadays because the market's really saturated with stars. The original generation is still playing. This helps, though, and I picked a great tournament to finally break through on TV."
Buchanan's elimination in third place put an end to the WPT's most wide-open Player of the Year race to date. While Faraz Jaka (the Player of the Year leader coming into the event) seemed poised to take the title when he held a chip lead with 18 players remaining, his 14th-place ouster left the door open for Buchanan, Hellmuth and Nguyen, each of whom needed to win the tournament to take the title.
"I think by day two, there were still several dozen people who had a shot had they made final table," said WPT live reporting team member BJ Nemeth. "Faraz was the point leader with 1,300 points. You need to finish seventh or higher to get points. There was like a 16-way tie at 1,000 between all of the season's champions and anyone who finished fifth or higher at a final table this year could have also caught him. It was pretty crazy.
"For Scotty, it would have moved him close to the top of the standings," Nemeth said. "Hellmuth would have won his first WPT title, a WPT championship and WPT Player of the Year in one shot. He called it a dream of his on Twitter. I think his ego would have found a whole other level. WPT would have loved it because he's so high-profile. Fans would have loved or hated it, but they'd definitely have noticed either way."
While it was a triumphant day for Williams, Baldwin and Jaka, this was not a triumphant moment for the WPT or the Bellagio. The 195 registrants were down from 338 a year ago, 545 in 2008 and 639 in 2007. While the world and poker economies, one large cloud of volcanic ash and the timing of EPT San Remo were all partially to blame, the Bellagio's unpopular decision to make preliminary tournaments at the annual Five Star World Poker Classic all rebuy events caused a sharp downturn in registration throughout the month. With so little action in-house, there was little incentive for players to attempt a parlay. With the EPT Championship in Monte Carlo this coming week and relatively little easy money in the field, there was little incentive for pros to make dual trips across the Atlantic.
The Bellagio is already atoning for its miscues. It was announced this week that next year's Five Star series would be moved to May in order to incentivize early arrival for WSOP players, but there are real questions about whether this crown jewel has now been permanently damaged. For Williams, however, the decreased attendance allowed him to topple one of the toughest player-for-player fields of the year. (Credit: ESPN)
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