For 13 years, the online tables of PokerStars have been both breeding ground and springboard for success in the most prestigious live poker tournaments in the world–specifically those of the European Poker Tour.
It is only fitting, then, that in the year that the EPT as we know it visits Barcelona for the final time, a 21-year-old Polish player named Sebastian Malec has become its final champion. Like thousands of players before him, Malec qualified for the €5,300 Main Event for peanuts and turned it into a life-changing pay-day.
It cost Malec precisely €27 to enter that online satellite. Today he picked up €1,122,800 and a trophy that is nearly the size he is. It was hugely emotional too.
“It means everything to me,” he said. “It feels good, definitely good. The money is amazing, of course, but heads up it is all about the trophy.”
On the final hand, Malec wandered away from the table while his heads up opponent, Uri Reichenstein, pondered a call that could end the tournament. Then, learning that Reichenstein had put the chips over the line, Malec sprinted back to turn over a winning flush, leapt up and down on the spot, and started weeping. They were tears of pure joy.
Although the EPT is re-branding at the end of this calendar year, it will return to Barcelona as a PokerStars Championship event, and one suspects that Malec will quickly become a fixture in this environment. And a firm favourite.
A self-confessed poker fan-boy, Malec was only 9-years-old when the EPT played its first tournament here in Barcelona. But he matured alongside the tour: learning the game from his chess instructor, visiting an EPT event in London a few years ago, trading checkered board for cards and chips and then finding himself in line for the title today. And when he closed it out, he was delirious.
In order to secure the trophy, he had to beat another graduate from the online tables. Reichenstein, 28, is a former winner of scores of online tournaments, including the Sunday Million and Super Tuesday. Although he was appearing in the deep stages of an EPT event for the first time, Reichenstein showed the nous of a tournament veteran. He is the very epitome of the kind of poker star that has become some dominant during the decade that the EPT has risen to preeminence.
Reichenstein pinched the chip lead late last night when he put the squeeze on a few less experienced players at the table. Then he picked his spots throughout an 11-hour final today to lead when they got heads up. But having beaten all but one of this record-breaking 1,785-player field, he couldn’t beat the young Malec.
To get there took some grinding from both of these guys.
Play on the penultimate day ended in the small hours of Sunday morning with Harcharan Dogra Dogra, the last remaining Spanish player, opting not to commit his final seven big blinds to a pot against Reichenstein. “Tomorrow,” he said, apparently happy to return to a tiny stack on the last day rather than risk missing out entirely. It meant he got to come back to pose for the final group shot.
However it also meant that although he could return to his home casino with a loyal band of supporters, all of them knew he would be up against it. The cards didn’t help him out in his bid to get something going, and when he posted a big blind and had only five more behind, he was given the mighty 3♥2♣.
All of the rest of his chips went in when there was a deuce on the flop, but by the time the river was out, Thomas De Rooij‘s A♥4♠ had improved to a pair of fours and Dogra Dogra was out. He won €230,950.
The early stages of the final table were brutal on more than just Dogra Dogra. Adam Owen, for so long a chip leader yesterday, couldn’t get any hand to hold up and he dwindled down to about 30 big blinds after losing a series of small pots.
But then he sighted a chance to play a big one after Andreas Chalkiadakis three-bet shoved after another open from De Rooij and Owen found A♣Q♣ in the big blind.
Owen pondered for a while. He was running cold and seemed to be concerned about De Rooij sitting behind him. But eventually he re-shoved, De Rooij folded and Owen had chosen the right move. Chalkiadakis had K♥Q♠ and Owen had made an unbeatable full house by the turn.
Chalkiadakis picked up €330,290 but won’t remember the final fondly. He played only one hand: the one that knocked him out.
With five players left, there was something of an imbalance. All of Owen, De Rooij, Reichenstein and Malec, who had the chip-lead, are either fully fledged professionals or on the way to it, while Zorlu Er, also still involved at that stage, was a pure recreational on a heater.
Er had refused to be bullied through five days of competition, though, taking his own time to make every decision even if it got under the skin of some of his more experienced opponents. But that made it all the more mystifying when his tournament came to an end in arguably the quickest hand he had played all week.
Er defended his big blind with A♠J♣ after Reichenstein opened with his 10♦4♦. But Reichenstein flopped a flush and Er top pair when the A♦K♦3♦ appeared. Reichenstein didn’t stop betting from there, setting up a shove on the river, and Er was unable to find a fold.
That was that for Er, who won €431,550 for fifth.
Reichenstein took the chip lead back with the elimination of Er, and the four players agreed to take a look at the numbers in a tentative bid to work out a chop. There was still more than €3 million on the line, and some deep stacks, but they could not come up with a deal that suited them all. They played on.
And they played on. And they played on.
The stacks at this stage were only a matter a few blinds apart and each of the remaining quartet had shown ample aptitude to make smart decisions. The first man to really put distance between himself and the pack was Malec, who won a series of pots against all comers, but then Reichenstein hit back with an enormous double up through Owen.
Reichenstein found kings and disguised it well. Owen had K♦Q♣ and a queen came on the flop. Reichenstein completed a full double-up to put him way out in front and leave Owen with the short stack.
However it was De Rooij who perished next. In a bid to eliminate Owen, De Rooij open-shoved with Q♥7♥ from the small blind, attacking Owen’s big. Owen made a marginal–but marginally correct–call with K♠2♠ and faded outs to double, leaving De Rooij perilously short.
When he got his last three big blinds in with A♠7♣, he couldn’t beat Reichenstein’s J♠3♦ when a three came on the flop. De Rooij had the most vocal of all the rails in the room, but they were silenced as they swept their man to the payouts desk looking for €535,100.
Owen still didn’t have an enormous stack despite the double up and, much like his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, his tournament ended with him in third place in the league table.
It was actually the very next hand after De Rooij was knocked out when Owen handed his 5.6 million chips to Malec, unable to beat A♦8♦ with Q♦J♠. Owen was the dominant force in this tournament for almost all of yesterday and demonstrated that he has a pretty good hold’em game to match his mixed game prowess. Third was worth €646,250.
That brought them to heads up and a slight lead for Reichenstein. But with nearly 180 big blinds between them, it was worth settling in.
It was an intriguing heads up battle: the seasoned online pro taking on the young upstart. Reichenstein has has won pretty much all the major tournaments online, but although Malec is only recently graduated from the chess tables, he is following the likes of his countrymen Dominik Panka and Dzmitry Urbanovich to an EPT final table.
No Polish player has ever lost heads up at a Main Event final table, and Malec didn’t seem prepared to become the first. He wouldn’t give up as the chip lead swung both ways.
There were many, many pots that fizzled out, but a few humdingers. In one, Reichenstein bluffed with queen-high into Malec’s quads; in another he filled an inside straight on the river and value shoved. It got paid off.
Reichenstein was absolutely motionless at the table, but Malec was the complete opposite, bouncing up and down out of his chair and playing at least an hour standing up. He talked to himself, sometimes he sung to himself, he sucked on a straw, he ordered more drinks.
It seemed on occasion as though he was slightly melting down, but it was also clear that he was keeping his wits about him. “My happiness grows exponentially the longer we play,” he said. He couldn’t get enough.
When he got super short, he managed to find another double and keep it going beyond midnight. And then he continued to battle until his A♥3♥ made a flush on a board of J♠6♥Q♥8♥8♦. It was rough for Reichenstein. He had a straight.
That proved to be the decisive moment. A shell-shocked and exhausted Reichenstein finally succumbed, leaving another extraordinary young talent under the ticker tape, hoisted aloft by his friends.
Read the blow-by-blow account to see how this all played out.
EPT13 Main Event
Date: August 22-28, 2016
Buy-in: €5,000 + €300
1 – Sebastian Malec, Poland, €1,122,800
2 – Uri Reichenstein, Germany, €807,100
3 – Adam Owen, United Kingdom, €646,250
4 – Thomas De Rooij, Netherlands, €535,100
5 – Zorlu Er, Turkey, €431,550
6 – Andreas Chalkiadakis, Greece, €330,290
7 – Harcharan Dogra Dogra, Spain, €230,950
8 – Pavel Plesuv, Moldova, €165,950