An Icelandic, a Canadian, a Romanian and an American walk into a casino...
It doesn't sound much like a joke, and it isn't. It's the line-up for tomorrow's final of the World Cup of Poker, decided today in the Gran Casino, Barcelona.
After five heats played over three gruelling days, we now have a line up for the main event here tomorrow. Today's two heat winners were teams Iceland and Portugal, but the latter won't be returning: the Portuguese team will join Ireland, Germany and Mexico in the bleechers.
There was everything to play for at the start of the day, with Romania peering down at the chasing pack and knowing that only a disaster of epic proportion could preclude their participation in the final. At the other end of the scale, Mexico knew they needed a miracle to progress, but everyone here knows that poker can often provide such things.
In heat four, which began at 3.30pm, Katja Thater, of Germany, was the star attraction. The World Series bracelet winner, and Team PokerStars member, needed to give her struggling team a boost by securing a top three place. But after running into Romania's aces, held by Cristian Tardea, Katja then had her A-10 outdrawn by A-8 and was out in seventh. The only man beating her out the door was Jody Thompson, of Canada, who had kings when Andri Arnthorsson found aces. Enough said.
That left Ireland and Portugal among those looking for a big result to promote chances of a final appearance, but they ended up being the next two sides sent to the rail, each the victims of Tyler Netter, the Team USA captain, who led from the front for his side.
Netter first busted Noel Peare, of Ireland, with A-K versus A-9. He followed up by winning a race with A-J against Luiz Freitas's 10-10. Team USA's chances had previously been in the balance, but when Netter also eliminated Cristian Tardea, of Romania (this time with aces against A-7), he was bossing this heat and looking good for the final.
Ricardo Rios, meanwhile, had been doing everything he possibly could to rescue something of a helpless situation for Mexico. He needed to earn maximum points and hope his team-mate could manage the same in the final heat. And though he tried his best, earning more points than his three previous team-mates put together, he perished in third - queen-ten not able to overtake ace-queen.
That left USA versus Iceland in the heads-up battle, and Iceland prevailed courtesy of two major pots. First, the Icelandic A-10 beat the American 4-4. Then J-3 for America wasn't good enough to beat ace-queen. It was over, and everything hung in the balance for the final heat.
Heat four results
Andri Arnthorsson, Iceland, 15 points
Tyler Netter, USA, 12 points
Ricardo Rios, Mexico, 9 points
Cristian Tardea, Romania, 7 points
Luiz Freitas, Portugal, 5 points
Noel Peare, Ireland, 3 points
Katja Thater, Germany, 2 points
Jody Thompson, Canada, 1 point
Overall standings after four heats
Romania - 43 points
Canada - 33 points
Iceland - 33 points
USA - 28 points
Ireland - 26 points
Germany - 19 points
Portugal - 18 points
Mexico - 16 points
It was party time in Barcelona for the final heat, especially if you were wearing a Portugal shirt and behind Nuno Coelho -- or "maniac" as he was soon known from the rail. Coelho knew that he needed big points from the heat, and also needed the others to fall in the right order.
He set about achieving the first part of that combination in dramatic fashion, shoving his chips into the pot behind any old hand and watching them accumulate. While the other players had abacuses under the table trying to figure out what permutations could earn their passage to the final, Coelho just went for the win, and it was great to watch.
He was assisted in the early exchanges by Christian Dragomir, of Romania, who was already in clover; Romania had qualified come what may. He shoved all in with 6-7 and couldn't beat Shaun Deeb's A-8.
Then Coelho took over. He crippled Mexico's hopes when his 5-3 outdrew Hector Rodriguez's kings. And he picked up any number of small pots with large bets. But when the next elimination came, Nuno was strangely absent. Instead, Shaun Deeb, of the United States, found queens and punished Mehmet Ogruk, of Germany. With Ogruk, who missed his flush draw, departed Germany's slim hopes of making the final.
And then it all really kicked off. In one monster pot, Coelho ended the hopes of Ireland, Mexico and, it turned out, Portugal. Micky McCloskey, Ireland's star, moved all in. Hector Rodriguez, who'd nursed a short stack for several rounds, joined in too. Then Coelho, who had them both covered, made the call with Q-Jc and hit his flush on the river.
Ireland and Mexico hit the rail and knew they were out. But it took a little longer for the news to sink in that Coelho had run on his own sword too: the eliminations had promoted Team USA to at least fourth in heat five, which would earn enough points to send them to the final.
So it was that the four remaining teams in heat five - Iceland, Canada, USA and Portugal - played out the remainder for just the money and pride. And the finalists soon departed: Ed Byrne, of Canada, went out in fourth ("You've done enough," said Daniel Negreanu); Shaun Deeb, of the United States went out in third. He'd also done enough.
And then Nuno soon polished off Magnus Johannesson, of Iceland, in the heads-up battle to have his day in the sun.
Magnus allowed himself a wry smile, though. He, and Team Iceland, ended up topping the heat table and will return tomorrow for a stab at the big money.
Join us - and Iceland, USA, Canada and Romania - for the World Cup Final tomorrow.
Heat five results
Nuno Coelho, Portugal, 15 points
Magnus Johannesson, Iceland, 12 points
Shaun Deeb, USA, 9 points
Ed Byrne, Canada, 7 points
Micky McCloskey, Ireland, 5 points
Hector Rodriguez, Mexico, 3 points
Mehmet Ogruk, Germany, 2 points
Cristian Dragomir, Romania, 1 point
Final standings after five heats
Iceland - 45 points
Romania - 44 points
Canada - 40 points
USA - 37 points
Portugal - 33 points
Ireland - 31 points
Germany - 21 points
Mexico - 19 points
Iceland, Romania, Canada and USA qualify for tomorrow's final.