ESPN kicked off coverage of last year’s World Series of Poker Europe, hosted by Lon McEachern, Norman Chad, and, as a sideline reporter, Kara Scott, with a telecast of a brand-new event, the Caesar’s Cup. Just as golf and tennis, which are largely individual sports, have the Ryder and Davis Cups, respectively, as team competitions where players represent their countries or continents, the Caesar’s Cup brought together two teams of poker stars playing for either Europe or the Americas, and promised to bring some fascinating action to the felt. For Europe, captain Annette Obrestad had a team composed of the top young guns on the continent, including Finns Patrik Antonius and Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies, Danes Gus Hansen and Peter Eastgate, Italian Dario Minieri and Frenchman Bertrand “Elky” Grospellier. They were joined by an Internet qualifier, amateur John Harvey, whose true profession is as a pipe inspector. Team Americas was represented by captain Daniel Negreanu, along with Doyle Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Barry Greenstein, Huck Seed, John Juanda and the two Phils, Ivey and Hellmuth.
The format was a best-out-of-7 match competition, beginning with four doubles matches and then, if necessary, up to three heads-up skirmishes. Spicing up the first two matches was the additional rule of them being “alternate bet,” where one player from each team bet pre-flop, then the other one came in post-flop, and they continued to alternate on the turn and river, just as in alternate shot Ryder Cup golf play. The second two doubles matches were played with each player playing two complete hands (one in each betting position) against one opponent on the other team, and then rotating the players until each one had played both members of the opposition.
Both teams sensed the need to jump out to the early lead, and the first match was loaded with talent, with Negreanu choosing Ivey and Seed, and Obrestad countering with Antonius and Sahamies. Although the Americans got off to an early lead, Chad noticed early on that Ivey, in particular, was choosing to play a much more passive style than usual, choosing to check and call rather than to raise in situations where he could have taken down pots. This enabled the Europeans to stick around for a number of turn cards that gave them winning hands as the match progressed.
With the blinds accelerating rapidly (although the event was highly entertaining, the blind structure did not really allow for a lot of play, with each team starting out with 100,000 chips and the blinds beginning at 1,000-2,000 and moving up quickly from there), Ivey took a shot for the Americans’ last 86,000 with 10-6 offsuit and Antonius called with K-2. Although Ivey picked up a gutshot straight draw on the 4-3-7 flop, Antonius spiked a king on the turn, and the river 4 ended the first match. 1-0 Europe!
Obrestad, now with the lead, decided to throw Harvey, the qualifier, into the fray in a more comfortable situation, and coupled him with Grospellier, who had been running as well as anyone in the world for the past two years. Negreanu then paired himself up with Hellmuth, as, despite his record for WSOP bracelets, both captains seemed to feel that Hellmuth was the weakest player of the professionals present.
This strategy backfired early in the alternate bet match. Hellmuth min-raised to 4,000 with 9-8 offsuit, only to have Harvey make it 10,000 with . Hellmuth then made a huge announcement to the entire table that if it were just he playing, he would fold the hand, but that Daniel was the master of playing this type of hand. This seemed to just scream “suited connectors” to anyone who has ever watched Negreanu play or read one of his books. Hellmuth called, and the flop came 8-10-6. Grospellier, certainly knowing from Hellmuth’s act that he was most likely ahead, bet 13,000, whereupon Negreanu raised to 41,000. Not to be outdone, Grospellier then shoved the remainder of his chips into the pot and Negreanu called. The turn of a 5 and a river 4 left the Americans with 16,000 chips, and took all the pressure off of the qualifier.
Although they doubled up with pocket aces soon after, the Americans never really got any traction in the match. Finally, Harvey put them all-in with A-3, and Hellmuth only looked at one card, which was an ace, before making the call. It turned out that he had another ace, but the 2-4-K flop, followed by a 5 on the turn (!), gave Europe the wheel and the match. 2-0 Europe!
As the doubles format changed to alternate hands rather than alternate bets within the same hand, Jennifer Harman and Doyle Brunson sat down to do battle with Obrestad and Minieri. After the early skirmishes went mostly the Americans way, the Europeans doubled up when Minieri raised to 20,000 with A-8 and Brunson pushed all-in with A-6, which the young Italian star called. Although two high cards and an ace came by the turn, the river 5 gave the Europeans the pot and a stranglehold on the match.
This match, however, was far from over. Harman went all-in with pocket jacks, and Obrestad snap-called with fives. No help arrived for Obrestad, and the Harman-Brunson team stayed alive. Obrestad then went all-in with 10-8 and Brunson looked at one card, which was an ace, and called. And sure enough, there was another ace! This time, Brunson flopped a set and turned quads, and now it was the Americans who took a commanding lead in the match, 152,000-48,000.
An interesting little talk took place right after this, as Brunson and Harman discussed how big a hand they would need to call the inevitable all-in coming from the other side. Brunson suggested any jack or better, which seemed to surprise Harman, but which she quickly agreed to. Obrestad then went all-in with J-5, and Harman called with A-4. The flop of 2-3-9 took away half of Obrestad’s outs, as her fives would now give the Americans a wheel straight, which then arrived on the river. Europe 2-Americas 1!
The final doubles match featured Hansen and Eastgate against Juanda and Greenstein. From the beginning of the match, the combination of the Americans’ tighter play with the fact that they were getting terrible cards put them at a big disadvantage against the aggressive Danes. Hansen and Eastgate got off to a lead that they never really relinquished, and with the chips standing at 123,000 to 77,000, Greenstein raised to 10,000 with K-J, only to have Hansen make it 32,000 with A-8 offsuit. Greenstein, knowing that Hansen is capable of making that play with many different hands, decided to go all-in, and Hansen called. The board played out 5-7-9-5-7, and the Europeans had won again. Europe 3, Americas 1!
For the first heads-up match, Obrestad decided to take the responsibility of trying to finish off the competition for her team, and chose herself to play. Negreanu picked the only player to have cashed every year in the Heads-Up championship, Huck Seed.
Seed got off to a quick lead, but in the defining hand of the match, Obrestad raised to 5,000 with , and Seed called with . The flop came J-2-K, with two diamonds. Seed checked, and Obrestad bet 7,000. Seed then raised to 31,000, and Obrestad pushed all-in confidently. Seed called with middle pair and the flush draw, and was astounded that Obrestad made the call with middle pair-top kicker. Obrestad said that she read Seed for a flush draw, and thought she was ahead. Two small clubs on the turn and river left Obrestad with 174,000 of the 200,000 chips in play.
Seed battled back to almost even after catching a pair of kings in a K-7 vs. A-3 showdown and winning a few other pots when Obrestad folded to his all-in bets. However, he went all-in once again with A-3, only to run into Obrestad’s A-7. When the board came 9-7-9 and Obrestad turned another 7 for a full house, Seed’s last hope was a 9 on the river to chop, but it was not meant to be. Europe 4- Americas 1 and Europe wins the Caesar’s Cup!
The format was highly entertaining; with the other team players (with the conspicuous absence of Ivey, who pretty much disappeared after his match) cheering one another on throughout the matches, and lots of interesting trash talk on the side. One can only hope that this concept can be expanded into a full-on Poker World Cup, ideally incorporating a true “duplicate” format, where a number of different nations can go up against one another while playing the same cards that are being played at other tables.
See you next time, as the Main Event coverage begins!