It follows the World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic main event at Commerce Casino each year, and it is one of the most exciting stops for the WPT each year. In fact, the WPT Invitational is a thrill not only for the WPT, but for its players and the Hollywood celebrities that participate in it. Thus, when the 7th Annual WPT Invitational rolled out the red carpet on February 28, 2009, the place was packed.
The red carpet area was filled with everyone from local Los Angeles news media to Entertainment Tonight and the tabloids, to see everyone from A-list celebrities like Don Cheadle to C-list celebrities like William Hung. And with Mekhi Phifer partnering with the World Poker Tour to benefit his charity, The Vine Group, there was no shortage of Phifer or his friends at the tournament. And the poker pros were at the event en masse, with names like Freddy Deeb, Chris Ferguson, Todd Brunson, Mike Matusow, Gavin Griffin, and Barry Greenstein roaming the cocktail reception. The mix of poker celebrities and Hollywood faces demonstrate a mutual admiration society that is unique to the WPT Invitational.
After the red carpet went dark, the trays and buffets of food became sparse, and the open bar became a pay-as-you-go, the poker tournament began at 7pm. It was set up with a fast structure in order to play out in only three short days, but no one seemed to have anything but a good time. For the first time, the freeroll offered rebuys for $200, the entire amount of which would benefit the aforementioned Phifer charity, and the rebuy period found Phifer himself with a microphone, walking around to various tables and encouraging players to rebuy for a good cause, one that would help bring more educational resources to African countries in need. And it worked, as more than $77,000 was raised for The Vine Group.
It was said that 433 players competed in the WPT Invitational, though it was hard to tell in the beginning, as the tournament was overbooked and required a list of alternates to allow everyone their promised seats into the freeroll. And play was predictably fast, as most were there for fun, and there was only prize money set aside for the six final table players in the amount of $200,000 to be split according to their finishes.
By the end of Day 1, there were only 128 players remaining on 14 tables, but some big poker names were still in the game, including Ferguson, Deeb, Scott Clements, John Phan, Andy Bloch, and David Pham. Among the celebrity survivors were Phifer, Shannon Elizabeth, Marlon Wayans, Ricki Lake, Jennifer Tilly, and Jose Canseco.
The second day of play was another one that was fast and furious. Early eliminations included Alex Torelli, Maria Ho, William Hung, John Phan, Jose Canseco, Shannon Elizabeth, Jerry Yang, Billy Baxter, Chris Ferguson, and Ricki Lake. Later in the day, as action was reduced to just a few tables, players like Marlon Wayans, Marsha Waggoner, Ralph Perry, Joe Tehan, and David Pham left as well.
Down to two tables, it was Tom McEvoy gone in 16th place, Steve Sung in 15th, Paul Darden in 14th, and Mekhi Phifer in 13th, who by all accounts was proud of his deep run in the event that raised so much money for his charity. And as the final table got even closer, it was Teddy “Iceman” Monroe who busted in eighth place, leaving only one to go before action ended for the night.
Finally, the last hand began with a raise by Tom Hall, followed by an all-in push by Ali Nejad for 430K with . Hall called and showed pocket fives, and Nejad was at risk. The board ran out , and the pair held up, sending Nejad out in seventh place, just outside the TV final table and the money.
And the final table was set for the next day as follows:
Seat 1: Scott Clements 1,170,000
Seat 2: Freddy Deeb 1,190,000
Seat 3: Jose Tavares 1,390,000
Seat 4: Nick Gonzalez 1,190,000
Seat 5: Tom Hall 2,310,000
Seat 6: Ottavio Tassone 850,000
On Monday, March 2, the final table action began with blinds at 30K/60K and a 10K ante. Gonzalez was the last celebrity remaining in the tournament, and Clements and Deeb were clearly the most recognizable poker pros. But with an ever-steepening blind structure, anything could happen.
Jose Tavares began to fall and pushed his million chips all-in preflop on the seventh hand of the evening. Nick Gonzalez moved all-in next, hoping to isolate, which is exactly what took place when Freddy Deeb folded. Tavares showed , but Gonzalez flipped over the pocket aces. The board brought some hope for Tavares with the flop in the form of a straight draw, but the on the turn and the on the river allowed the aces to hold up and sent Tavares, a local Los Angeles player, out in sixth place with $5,000.
Not long after, it was Ottavio Tassone at risk for his last 820K in chips, and Scott Clements pushed all-in afterward to isolate, which again worked. Clements had pocket eights, and Tassone showed . The board came to eliminate Tassone, a Canadian online pro, in fifth place with $10,000.
The next few rounds saw Clements take some hits, as Gonzalez and Deeb both doubled through him. It didn’t take long for Clements to put the rest of his chips in again, this time from the small blind. It was after a raise from Tom Hall that Clements put his last 1.32 million on the line with , and Hall called with . The flop came an amazing , eerily similar to the last bust-out flop and nothing but positive for Hall. The turn came the , and the on the river gave Hall the full house and sent poker pro and former WPT champion Scott Clements out in fourth place with a complimentary $15,000.
Tom Hall went into three-handed action as a dominating chip leader, but Deeb was aggressive and eventually took a pot worth nearly 3.4 million chips from Hall. Only a few hands later, Hall led out with a raise but Deeb challenged again, this time with an all-in move from the small blind. Hall called all-in with , and Deeb turned over pocket sevens. The board ran out , and the turned full house was good enough for Deeb. Tom Hall, co-founder of the Asian Poker Tour, was out in third place with $20,000.
The heads-up chip counts were as follows:
Freddy Deeb 6,850,000
Nick Gonzalez 1,250,000
And it all went in on the first hand. Action began with that all-in move from Gonzalez holding , and Deeb woke up with pocket eights for the easy call. The dealer slowly gave them , and that was all it took to end the tournament.
Nick Gonzalez, long time poker enthusiast and last celebrity standing, took second place at the WPT Invitational. The actor who appears on Showtime in “Resurrection Blvd.” took home $50,000 for his showing.
Poker veteran and former WPT champion Freddy Deeb won the 7th Annual WPT Invitation, taking $100,000 for the feat. Earlier in the night, he pledged 50 percent of his winnings to Phifer’s charity, so it seemed like a win-win situation for all involved.