The $1,050 buy-in razz — Event #23-H on this year’s WCOOP schedule — wasn’t a tournament Japanese poker pro Naoya “nkeyno” Kihara was expecting to play.
But he did. Once that decision was made, other factors (detailed below) might have caused him not to expect to win, either.
But he did! Kihara topped an especially tough 104-entry field to win the two-day event and a $25,480 first prize.
With help from Kihara, let’s explain.
Kihara is an old friend of PokerStars Blog, having been a Team Pro from 2012-16. While he remains a full-time player, he’s had to be a bit selective of late, particularly when it comes to WCOOP where many of the events he’d most like to play begin just after 3 a.m. his time. Helping his wife care for two small children — one nearly three, the other one year old — also means his time to play is sometimes limited.
In fact, Kihara was sleeping soundly the night Event #23-H got underway. Then he felt something.
“I was asleep, and my boy kicked me while he was sleeping,” says Kihara, referring to his almost three-year-old. “He woke me up! I was not planning to play this event, but because of that I changed my mind and played it.”
A good start led to a good finish on Day 1, as Kihara explains.
“On the first day I built up a really good stack,” he explains. But also at that final table were several of poker’s topmost talent remained standing between Kihara and the title.
There was mixed-game master Adam “Adamyid” Owen. “I think at the final table that Adam was the best player,” says Kihara. “He’s very good at all the games, but especially razz, no-limit 2-7 single draw, and Badugi.”
There was also COOP title collector Calvin “cal42688” Anderson and Mike “goleafsgoeh” Leah. “Both Mike and Cal are very good players… very good at mixed games,” Kihara notes.
Another player, Ian “sprocketsAA” Shaw, was well known to Kihara and others as a foremost razz specialist. And even players with whom he wasn’t previously familiar like “kidPokerX7” proved themselves to be tough opponents.
Of course, Kihara is himself an accomplished player of many variants. “I play a lot of games, all at almost the same level,” he explains. “I don’t specialize. Most players specialize at no-limit hold’em or pot-limit Omaha, but I don’t have a best game. I play at almost the same level at all of them, so the mixed games are often better for me.”
Indeed, his tournament results well demonstrate his prowess in different game types, with a WSOP bracelet in PLO a highlight.
It was Owen, though, who quickly took over the heavy-lifting once the final table got going in earnest. After ending Day 1 on top of the counts, Owen continued to thrive on the second and final day.
“Adam knocked out everybody at the final table — three or four players within two hours — and we were at four-handed really soon,” says Kihara. “That really helped me.” Indeed, Shaw (out in fifth) and Leah (out in sixth) were among the difficult foes who had been eliminated from contention.
Kihara continued to persevere, and while it’s never fun to battle against high-level opponents, he saw a bright side to the situation.
“There was one good thing [about the final table being so stacked],” he says. “Because all the players were such good players, I could just focus on how to play my hand the best. If there were a weak player, we would really have to think about how we should exploit him. But all the players were great players, so I didn’t need to think about that.”
Soon enough one great player, kidPokerX7, was out in fourth. Then another one, Anderson, was eliminated in third. And eventually Kihara KO’d Owen heads-up to capture the title.
It would have been completely understandable if Kihara had not expected to win. After all, when it comes to COOPs, he’d been in this spot before. A lot.
“It was my 22nd or 23rd final table in the COOPs,” he says, noting how he plays SCOOP, WCOOP, and TCOOP every year.
“It was maybe my seventh time getting to heads-up, too… but it was my first time winning! Crazy for me.”
What was the difference this time for Kihara? He’d gotten so close many times before… clearly he just needed a little kickstarter.
Big congrats to Kihara for his big breakthrough, and thanks as well to him for sharing his story of his first WCOOP win.
We got a kick out of it.
Lead image of Kihara at 2019 WSOP: pokerphotoarchive.com.
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