Lee Watkinson bested the smallest, yet highest quality field, of the World Series of Poker, finally pushing through for a major tournament victory after several close encounters in the last two years. His WSOP $10k Pot-Limit Omaha title was good for $655,746 and a coveted first photo sitting behind chips holding four cards; every poker player’s dream shot at the end of a tournament.
On the path from 26 players to a final table, the rail was littered with some of the best players in today’s game from around the world. David “Devilfish” Ulliott, Kiril Gerasimov, Daniel Negreanu, Sam Grizzle, Jim McManus, Barry Greenstein, Patrick Antonius, and William Chen busted before reaching the final dozen. Three of the top 15 players hailed from Finland. Two veterans were the last players eliminated before reaching the final table. Galen Kester (11th, $24,590) is a veteran bracelet holder from Tunica, the American corner pocket of Omaha. Ben Roberts (10th, $24,590) is a pro from the UK, best known to WPT fans for his final table performance in the 2004 Paris tourney. The final table was a global affair reflective of the popularity of Omaha around the world. The roll call: three from the US, two from the UK, two from Finland, one from Israel, and the token Aussie, now a standard at any World Series final table. The defending champion, Rafi Amit, was ready to add another bracelet. Jani Vilmunen sat on $485k in chips, $135k better than Hasan Habib in second. Defending champ Amit and Mickey Appleman sat on $100k as the short stacks, with blinds at $4k/8k.
It had been 26 years since shaggy haired Appleman won the first of his four bracelets. The group with five WSOP wins includes Stu Ungar, Layne Flack, Ted Forrest, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Phil Ivey. Appleman couldn’t join them, staying in the Scotty Nguyen/Amarillo Slim group with four victories. He left in 9th ($40,984), out after the first hand. Two hands, later, Mark Dickstein doubled through chip leader Vilmunen as his flopped straight held up. Amit next tripled up through Vilmunen and Thomas Wahlroos, leaving Wahlroos with a small side pot but crippled. Amit finished off Wahlroos a few hands later, out in 8th ($61,476).
Vilmunen’s slide from the chip lead ended in a brutal fashion. In a crucial hand, Watkinson raised to $44k and Vilmunen called. The flop came , and the action went pot/pot/pot until Watkinson had all of his chips in the middle. Vilmunen’s hand seemed innocuous by NLHE experts, the being cards normally found in the muck before a flop. In PLO, these are often golden as they were here, putting Vilmunen way ahead with bottom two pair and draws to improve to a straight or boat. Watkinson’s seductive looked good in video poker, but it put him begging for a spade or one of his red outs. The turn gave Watkinson the nut flush but put him further behind as Vilmunen now had a full house. A red lady hit the river, , and the miracle full house handed survival and the chip lead to Watkinson. Mike Guttman knocked out the shell-shocked Finn a few hands later, spiking an unnecessary queen for a set on the river as an ironic reminder of the cards that will forever haunt Vilmunen (7th, $81,984).
Nick Gibson joined the exodus (6th, $102,460) - knocked out by Amit. Short-stacked Hasan Habib doubled and tripled up to stave off elimination, but Amit finished him off in 5th ($122,952). The defending champion had taken out the most players at the final table, but each of them was light in chips before they left. After he doubled through Mark Dickstein, it looked like Amit would challenge chip leader Watkinson for the title and a remarkable repeat. Watkinson decided not to wait, taking two monster pots from Amit and knocking him out in 4th ($143,444). Watkinson’s had almost 70% of the chips in play, but the end game has been the biggest struggle for Watkinson. He’s sat on the chip lead looking at a couple of opponents only to see the prize evaporate before his eyes. It looked like it would happen again. First, Mike Guttman doubled through Dickstein, earning the right to challenge Watkinson after he finished off Dickstein (3rd, $184,428).
Watkinson kept Guttman at bay until Guttman went all-in with to Watkinson’s . Guttman caught his diamonds to double up, now even in chips. Watkinson then won eight of the next dozen contested hands plus a handful of walks in the blinds, again moving to a 2:1 chip advantage yet not once showing his hand to Guttman. A flop of three deuces kept Watkinson’s pocket kings good to Guttman’s pocket sevens and moved Guttman to final hand territory. It ended as any good PLO tourney should, with all the chips in and draws galore. The flop came , and Watkinson called Guttman’s all-in. Watkinson held , for over cards and a straight draw, Guttman’s had him in the lead with his jacks but no draws. The on the turn made Watkinson’s straight, and Guttman a gallant runner-up ($360,659). For Lee Watkinson, it was sweet vindication for so many, many close calls. Today, through luck, perseverance, and skill, he had made it to the top prize ($655,746) and the WSOP bracelet.