This is the second year that the IP has held a tournament series, but the $5,000 buy-in event is a first for the Gulf Coast. There appeared to be a case of sticker shock, considering only 41 players showed up to play, but plenty of value was built into the price tag for those who did pony up the cash. The front end of the structure of the tournament favored skilled players. The players began with 10K in chips, and the 70-minute levels advanced very gradually, giving the better competitors a chance to build a stack early. Players got to see 25-25, 25-50, 50-100, and 75-150 blind levels before an ante ever kicked in. The tournament staff also comped full dinners to all the players, and took care of any of their needs once the day was complete.
The new, bigger buy-in might not have attracted a huge field, but five players with a combined total of nearly $5.7 million in tournament winnings showed up to give the IP Poker Classic a little bit of pedigree. 1999 WSOP Limit Omaha champ "Captain" Tom Franklin traveled the few miles from his hometown of Gulfport to play, while 1996 Omaha Hi-Lo WSOP champ Adeeb Harb had an even shorter trip from his home in Biloxi. 22-year-old Jonathan Little, who scored over $300,000 for his 5th place finish in last month's PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, also had a short trip from his home in Pensacola, Florida. Bellagio Cup II winner Shannon Shorr came just a little further from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but the only true long-distance traveler was Bill Edler of Las Vegas, fresh off his 13th place finish in the Winter Poker Open at Borgata in Atlantic City. By the end of the first day, only Franklin would still have chips.
Play progressed slowly but steadily throughout the day, as you would expect from the structure. The first level didn't see a single player bust out, and only three departed by the end of the second level. The next three levels were played out before the dinner break and saw the field whittled down to 22. What's worth noting is that there was plenty of action despite the slow level progression; Bill Edler described it to me as "completely out of proportion to the blinds." Instead of leading to a lot of bustouts, though, it led to chips being pushed around the table like a game of hot potato. No big stacks appeared until well into the third level, and even then there was only one: Broc Segura of New Iberia, Lousiana, held about 35K in chips. (Segura played well at last year's WSOP Circuit main event in New Orleans, but he just missed the money when he finished 20th.) Already on the sidelines by that point were Shorr and Edler, neither of whom was ever to get much traction against the small field.
Once the dinner break had come and gone, play finally sped up thanks to the first significant jump in blinds and antes. At 200-400 with a 50 ante, each orbit at a full table cost 1050 in chips - twice as much as it had the previous level. With the average stack at that point coming to about 18,600, there was no more cheap poker for a good portion of the remaining players. Just halfway through the level, 18 players remained and play was condensed to two tables, with the average stack jumping to over 22,000.
About halfway through the 300-600-75 level, Jonathan Little was eliminated. He built a decent stack of about 26,000 relatively early but never picked up any steam after that. When the field was condensed to two tables he found himself to the right of three big, active stacks and tightened up accordingly. When he finally found a big hand to play he got in with the best of it, but the deck worked against him. He re-raised Shahran Mohajerin from 1600 to 4500 before the flop and Mohajerin called. Mohajerin checked and Little checked behind on the A-9-8 flop. When a blank hit the turn, Mohajerin moved all-in with A-4 and Little quickly called with A-K. He only needed to dodge three cards, but unfortunately for Little the 4 of spades on the river was one of them.
Little's departure left the field with 15 players, four more of whom were knocked out in the last 45 minutes of play. Among them was WSOP bracelet holder Adeeb Harb, who joined Little on the rail with only 6 minutes left in the day. After going card-dead all day, he found A-Q in the big blind and got all-in on a Q-J-8 flop; unfortunately for Harb, Shahran Mohajerin's rush continued when his K-K held up against top pair, top kicker. His departure left just one WSOP bracelet winner, "Captain" Tom Franklin, to contend for the title in the first $5,000 event ever held on the Gulf Coast. He joined the following players at 1 PM on Friday, February 2nd, to play the rest of the tournament out:
Seat 1 - Don Moseley 12,150
Seat 2 - "Captain" Tom Franklin 11,450
Seat 3 - LJ Naquin 27,025
Seat 4 - Anthony Battistella 67,800
Seat 5 - Tommy Mixon 12,875
Seat 6 - Jerry Connor 30,300
Seat 1 - Shahnam Mohajerin 67,700
Seat 2 - Herbert Kelso 30,525
Seat 3 - Del Walker 25,075
Seat 4 - Mark Wilds 71,800
Seat 5 - Broc Segura 53,300
Besides the action in the tournament, there's one other major thing about the IP Poker Classic worth mentioning. I talked about the pedigree of the players earlier, but the staff here is really more impressive. Jim Sterling runs the poker show at the IP and he has gathered what he calls an "elite crew" to make the IP Poker Classic a success. Sterling brought Ronny Prevost in from Harrah's New Orleans last year to run all the tournaments here at the IP, and for this event in particular he hired on some of the best talent in the business to make sure the ship sailed smoothly. Prevost, David Cobian, Tabatha Woodcock, Steve Goldstein, Jody Russell, John Cain, and Chris Spears all share a philosophy that puts the players' interests first, and the complete lack of player complaints - or even floor calls, for that matter - is the fruit that approach has borne.
*photos by Jason Kirk*