In June this year, PokerStars launched the Czech and Slovak Poker Tour, a gentle four-event series costing about $750 a pop, with the intention of bringing affordable poker to a whole region of inexperienced players.
The thing is, a young student from Prague named Jan Skampa has clearly been putting the hours in already.
Two weeks ago in Portugal, Skampa, 23, became the first Czech player ever to make the final table of an EPT event. This week he is a champion. Skampa rode a wave of home support through one of the toughest EPT final tables ever gathered to claim the winner’s trophy this evening – and a cheque for €682,000.
“Winning a large tournament like an EPT in my home town is one of the greatest achievements anyone can have,” Skampa said. Although he’s a student and lives within a couple of miles of this venue – the Hilton Hotel in the magnificent Czech capital – we’re assuming he won’t be taking the bus home. Either way, Pot Noodles and snakebite-blacks are on him.
Skampa, simply, is a brilliant player – that much is already clear. His natural game seems to be precisely the kind that startles, confounds and bludgeons opponents, forces them into mistakes while he remains almost impossibly focused. Like the Cruyff turn or the Federer forehand, the Skampa stare-down is a thing of natural beauty. Often eschewing the option even to look at the community cards, he instead glares with eyes like a statue’s, laser beams reading minds and exploring souls in one glance.
“I used to stare at the table but now I stare at my opponents as I feel it helps me to pick up tells,” Skampa said.
It’s a measure of his opponents’ mettle that it took them more than 10 hours to melt. By the time Skampa willed the last of Eyal Avitan’s chips from the grasp of the obdurate Israeli player, the tournament clock had clicked into the 32nd level and it was beyond 10.30pm. The heads-up duel alone lasted three hours; Avitan too, on his first EPT appearance, earns much credit, alongside €454,000.
“Heads up was tough as it seemed we were both trying to avoid getting it in on a flip,” Skampa said. “But after a while I felt he was getting more tired than me and by then I had figured out his play.”
At the start, the final table evoked memories of the lightening swiftness of San Remo in season four. That match was over in less than four hours, and when the two short-stacks Sven Eichelbaum and Gustav Ekerot busted eighth and seventh within the first level here, we thought we might be seeing a repeat.
It also didn’t take long to lose the next couple, and if the first two eliminations were to be expected, so, in the worse possible sense, was the third.
Luca Pagano is without a serious challenger at the top of the EPT tournament leaderboard. He has made six final tables from 13 deep runs at EPT events and seems to cruise into the latest stages without any problem at all. But the winner’s trophy remains elusive to the Team PokerStars Pro and here in Prague he hit the crossbar again.
Clearly going for the all-out victory rather than just to edge up the payout ladder, Pagano raised from the button and then shoved over the top of Mattsson’s big blind re-raise. One problem: he’d run into queens and his ace-jack could not catch up.
Despite another entry in the catalogue of near misses, Pagano remained philosophical. “If I look back at what I achieved here in Prague, the glass is not empty, it’s actually quite full,” Pagano said. “It’s frustrating to keep trying but I know myself and I know that to miss the title again will give me even more energy and concentration for the next tournament. This quest for the trophy is giving me more strength.”
Pagano’s exit left five players, but Larry Ryan, the PokerStars qualifier from Ireland, was out so soon after that he ended up sitting beside the Italian at the cash desk. Ryan was only playing in Prague as a warm up to the PCA, for which he has also qualified online, but his poker education could probably have done without the first-hand experience of running jacks into aces pre-flop. Mattsson had poker’s biggest hand to oust the Irishman, and he also had a huge advantage going into the four-handed scrap.
This is where the brakes went on. Anthony Roux, Skampa and Avitan all took small slivers out of Mattsson and the stacks evened out a good deal. When something gave, as it had to, it was the shortest of those four, Roux, who perished. His pocket tens were out-raced by Avitan’s ace-king, all in pre-flop, and all of a sudden, this was turning into the kind of final where playing with fire, in the spirit of the always aggressive Skampa and Mattsson, was less effective than playing with monster hands.
Avitan, Skampa and Mattsson were all deep stacked when they went three-handed, and they merrily exchanged chips through level 28, then level 29 and even into level 30. Mattsson had suddenly become the man under most pressure, though, while Avitan had inched past 10 million.
Lo and behold it was those two who clashed to send this to the heads up stage. All in pre-flop, Avitan flopped a straight with J♦10♥ to outdraw Mattsson’s Q♦10♠. Mattsson headed to the cage to collect more than a quarter of a million euros, leaving Skampa and Avitan to do battle for close to three times that.
The chips went this way and that, but eventually Skampa grabbed a stranglehold. His relentless raising, then glaring, then raising and then staring eventually forced a mistake from Avitan. Skampa was waiting with pocket jacks when Avitan moved all in with jack-nine. Only then did the Skampa visage crack. His smile, to raucous cheers, capped one of those performances. No one deserved it more.
Yet again, then, we crown a new EPT main event champion – and this time from a whole new country. Skampa was already the highest-ranked player from the Czech Republic in the EPT database after his final table in Vilamoura. Now he’s simply one of the most monied from the continent – and on the basis of what we’ve seen here, this will not be the last of his wins.
Review the final table with the level-by-level coverage, which pretty much equates to a hand-by-hand account of Skampa’s triumph.
Very similar, only with added Eichelbaum, at the German blog. And there’s a definite Ekerot/Mattsson bias over there with those crazy Swedes. Meanwhile they might as well rename the Italian blog Luca Pagano.com. But you can never get enough Luca.
Our next stop on PokerStars Blog is Galway, Ireland, next week, for the inaugural event on the UKIPT. Then the EPT rolls into the Bahamas for the PCA. I’m guessing we’ll see Jan Skampa there. How about you?