$5,000 Seven Card Stud: "I May Never Play Poker Again"
The last time I wrote much about David Chiu, I was so dazzled by his brilliant play while winning the Tournament of Champions that (with a little help from Jeff Shulman) I was drawing analogies to Chiu as a Jedi Knight, using his big stack of chips like The Force to crush the breath from his opponents. Chiu was so likeable, though, that I said he was much more like a young Obi-Wan-Kenobee than a Darth Vader type.
In the interim, Star Wars I, The Phantom Menace, has come along, so I must keep up with the times, even if the times are a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Chiu is as likeable and cool as ever, but forget about Darth Vader. Chiu so utterly demolished the final table at today’s $5,000 Seven Card Stud event that I have to switch over to Darth Maul and that double-sided lightsabre of his.
Of course, Darth Maul did wind up cut in two in The Phantom Menace, so the analogy isn’t perfect. All Chiu did was cut in two the shortest amount of time it has taken to finish a final table here.
When we started play, the seats and chip counts, playing with $500 antes, a $1,000 low card bring-in, and $3,000-6,000 blinds, were:
Tony Cousineau, $52,500.
Mel Judah, $83,000.
Bob Feduniak, $97,000.
David Chiu, $78,500.
Larry Flynt, $33,500.
Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton, $97,000.
Jack McClelland, $18,500.
Scotty Nguyen, $45,500.
What a field! Three double-bracelet winners in Chiu, Nguyen, and Judah, another bracelet winner in Flaton, tournament poker’s all-time most beloved director in McClelland (who had played in this event three times while running the Series, making the final table once), the veteran Feduniak, at his third final table of this Series, up-and-comer Cousineau (who had made a big splash at Tunica and had already cashed here at the Series), the 1998 World Champion in Nguyen, and as if things weren’t interesting enough already, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt.
Flynt, who came accompanied by two burly bodyguards in black suits (who only needed the right sunglasses to fit perfectly into Men in Black), was rolled in his gold-plated, purple-upholstered wheelchair, and an 8.5x11 “player conduct” plastic barricade was set on the table between Flynt and Flaton, not because Flynt had violated any rules, but because his hands tremble slightly and he needs some protection to avoid exposing his cards to his neighbor.
Chiu won three of the first five pots, each of them multi-handed affairs. “These aren’t the cards you’re looking for,” he seemed to say with the fifth street bets that took each of the pots.
“These aren’t the cards we’re looking for,” repeated his opponents.
“You can let go of your hands now,” Chiu said.
“We can let go of our hands now,” his opponents repeated.
“Move along,” Chiu said.
“Move along,” his opponents told Chiu, and move along he did. Somebody should have warned each of his opponents, before they went into the final table area, to “Watch yourself, this place can get a little rough.”
(I promise, I’ll let up with the Star Wars stuff soon.)
For one brief moment, someone other than Chiu played a hand. Jack McClelland was forced to bring one in for $1,000, and everyone folded around to Flaton, who completed the bet to $3,000. McClelland raised him back, and Skyhawk (that’s Skyhawk, not Skywalker, I didn’t have anything to do with that one) pondered for a couple of minutes about what to do.
“Mike,” joked McClelland to press warden Mike “the Hutt” Paulle, “could you call the valet and have them get my car ready?” Flaton, who had been unable to decide whether Jack was just playing back at him or really had a hand, decided that this joke about an early exit must have meant McClelland was packing a fully-charged blaster, and folded.
(OK, so I lied about the Star Wars stuff being over, deal with it. You cover every World Series event for three weeks without getting a little delirious.)
Flynt lost most of his chips to Chiu a couple of hands later, when he called Chiu’s bets on third and fourth street, when Chiu showed Kh-Js and Flynt showed 2d-8d. Flynt caught the Kd, a third open diamond, on fifth street, and bet out $6,000. Chiu called with the 8s. Flynt bet out again on 6th street with the Qc, and Chiu called again with the 10s. Flynt led out for another $6,000 on the end, leaving him with only $1,000, and when Chiu called, Flynt mucked his hand, unable to make Chiu backa off with his diamond flush bluff. Chiu had been “the King of Kings” at the TOC, and showed that he had been betting/calling with kings all the way here, only to make a second pair, queens, on the river.
Flynt survived an all-in on the next hand when he caught a nine to make a straight on the river, but lost his remaining chips going all-in with Chiu and McClelland on the next hand. McClelland got his short stack all-in about halfway through, so we were able to see all three hands almost to the finish line:
Flynt: A-J-K-10-8-4-? (muck)
Jack: Q-9-Q-5-8-8-? (muck)
Chiu had started first, McClelland had taken the lead on sixth street, but when Chiu made aces-up on the river, his opponents went out simultaneously, with McClelland awarded 7th place money based on starting the hand with more chips than Flynt.
I caught up with Flynt and his bodyguards just as they were exiting. Flynt, it turns out, plays a lot of high stakes poker, but almost all of it in private games. This was his first World Series tournament. His appearance at the Series was mainly to help promote the opening of his new LA cardroom, The Hustler, in about three weeks.
With one swing, Chiu had sent the two main human-interest stories at the table packing, and with the bodyguards and legions of photographers gone, the tension level eased for the crowd, but not for the players, because in less than half an hour, Chiu had increased his stack hugely.
“He’s got more money than you can imagine,” a spectator named Luke told me.
“Oh, I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit,” I replied.
“OK, he’s got over $180,000.”
After Scotty Nguyen ran down Mel Judah’s two pair when his wired eights and a flush draw turned into trip eights on the river, my estimate of the chip counts was:
The buzzer went off, and we moved to $1,000 antes, a $2,000 bring-in, playing $5,000-10,000. No one suspected that not only was this to be the last limit, we weren’t even going to come close to running out the clock on it.
Chiu whacked Feduniak first. Staring into an A-4-A Feduniak board, Chiu called showing 3-2-4. The call of such an obviously strong hand slowed Feduniak down, and he checked when he caught a six and Chiu a seven, and also checked the river. Chiu bet $10,000, Feduniak called, and Chiu turned over the wired fives he’d started with and the second pair, threes, he’d caught on the river. Feduniak mucked, and Chiu’s stack grew higher. In 45 minutes he had collected half the chips, and I felt like the tournament was over, although no one was about to concede.
Judah picked up some ammunition when starting Q-7-Q-10, he got most of his money in against Skyhawk, who had started A-A-8-2. Mel only had $7,000 left to bet all-in when he caught another queen on fifth street, and Skyhawk called, not knowing he was up against trips. Skyhawk caught a second pair on the river, but it wasn’t enough, and Judah was back in the game with $65,000.
Tony Cousineau, a retired professional sports bettor, (“I made enough on the Florida State-Virginia Tech game last year to retire,” he told me), had just finished complaining to friends on the rail that it had been “84 _ _ _ _ ing hands without a pair” when he caught one and went all in for his last $12,000 against Scotty, who exchanged raises readily enough with K-K-9 against what turned out to be 10-7-10 for Cousineau. But Cousineau caught running fives on 5th and 6th street to stay alive… one more hand.
You get one guess whose hand it was against.
Cousineau, starting with a pair of nines and catching an open pair of deuces on fifth street, piled it all in against Chiu, who was happy enough to mix it up with a reasonably strong draw, Ac-Kc-Jc-Qc-4h. Chiu crushed the rebellion’s hopes with the 9c on 6th street, flushing Cousineau away with precisely the card he needed to fill up. Some days you get the Deathstar, some days the Deathstar gets you. Cousineau exited 6th.
“I was happy to move up the ladder two spots, seeing as I didn’t catch a pair that whole time,” said the now full-time poker pro. “It takes a lot of skill to make the final table, but once you get here, everyone plays every hand perfectly, and whoever wins is the guy who is going to get lucky that day.”
In the few seconds it took Cousineau to tell me that no one makes mistakes at final tables, something that a few of his more vociferous and opinionated opponents might dispute (not about Tony, just in general), Chiu was busy making another ace-high flush to flatten Nguyen down to about 40k.
Feduniak, I guess desperate to get into action against anyone other than Emperor Chiu and his legions of cardtroopers, pushed hard at Skyhawk, who called him down all the way after starting 2-4-2-4-J-10. Once Bob was all-in, we saw it had been a cold steal attempt gone bad, with A-3-K-2-9-7, leaving Bob no outs on the river.
We had four players left, each of whom owned prior World Series wins. When Linda Johnson mentioned this on the public address system, everyone started asking everyone else how many bracelets they had. Two each for Chiu, Judah and Nguyen, and one for the veteran Flaton, who said with a smile, “I’m supposed to have eleven, but I have one.”
The cream had risen to the top, and was about to get skimmed.
Flaton absorbed the first pounding. Pairing his doorcard 7 on 4th street, Chiu bet, and Flaton called showing Qd-6h. Both players caught kings on 5th street, and Chiu checked. Flaton bet $10,000, and Chiu raised $10,000 more. Flaton called. Both players caught threes on 6th street, Chiu checked, Flaton bet $10,000, and Chiu check-raised him for the second time in a row. Flaton called. Chiu bet $10,000 in the dark on the river, Flaton called, and Chiu turned over the 6-7 he’d started with and the fourth seven he’d caught on the river. We never saw Flaton’s hand.
At this point, Chiu’s stunning rush of cards had him up to almost $400,000, with his three talented but helpless opponents sharing the remaining $105,000 about equally.
Nguyen was the first to try to tackle Chiu, and hence the first to leave. In a memorable and almost unbelievable sequence, David and Scotty got all of the money in early, so we all got to see it happen. Scotty had started A-A-2-K-10-10, for aces-up on 6th street. Chiu started J-Q-Q-3-K-8, so his only out on the river was a queen. Scotty quickly verified that he hadn’t improved his own aces-up.
“Let me sweat it for you,” Scotty said to his familiar friendly rival, and Chiu, in an understandably agreeable frame of mind, tossed his river card face down to Nguyen without looking at it.
“If this is a queen, I may never play poker again,” said Scotty, who then squeezed the card very slowly and carefully. When his shoulders went limp, I knew what was coming next.
Scotty turned over the queen and gently tossed it to Chiu. If a moment can be both stunning and seemingly inevitable simultaneously, this was it. Scotty has been such a gracious champion and wonderful ambassador for poker, always willing to shake the hand of anyone who wants to greet him, I had to ask him if he was going to keep his promise.
“I said the last word very quietly,” smiled Nguyen. “I said, ‘I may never play poker again today.’ Back tomorrow.”
The Emperor now had about $415,000, with $60,000 for Judah and $30,000 for Flaton. Chiu’s momentum seemed so unstoppable, I was sure that Judah and Flaton were going to start maneuvering to climb that nice $50,000 ladder step between third and second. But Judah wasn’t in a mood to concede the title.
“I know a lot of people would be thinking about second then,” Judah told me afterwards, “but with $60,000, I was still thinking about winning the tournament.”
Judah paired his open jack on the same round, 6th street, as Chiu paired his queen. Chiu bet and Judah called, a scenario repeated on the river. Chiu turned over the 4’s he’d started with in the pocket, Judah saw his river card hadn’t improved him, and mucked what we assumed were jacks-up. Ken and Mel now had about 30k each.
No one stopped to talk deal, not even when Mel and Ken found themselves down to about $17,000 each. “It passed through my mind, and I’m sure it passed through his,” Judah said afterwards, “but it didn’t seem ethical to me to stop and talk about it there at the table, or to go away to take a break to talk about it. I’d probably have been willing to save $10,000 or $20,000, but we were here to play poker, so I played. I wanted to try to maneuver into second once I got very short, but I kept getting the low card, even when I had the ten, so I was forced into action.”
Flaton echoed Judah’s thoughts almost verbatim in a completely separate conversation. “It crossed my mind and I’m sure it crossed his,” Flaton said, “but we all came to play, not to make deals. It was a great final table in part because no one ever stopped play once to even mention the thought of a deal. We’re players, we play.”
Judah played out first. Starting 10-7-10, his last few chips went in against Chiu’s 6-6-K. Chiu caught another king on 5th street, and with Flaton exposing his folded cards to show he had folded a ten earlier, Judah had one out, and no one was going to hit a one-outer against David Chiu today.
With about $14,000 left, Flaton folded twice to Chiu’s forced bring-ins, leaving him with $12,000 for the final hand. Starting A-7-2-J, the money went in with Chiu showing 6-5, and Chiu announced a scary “I have six-high” before showing his 3-4-6-5. Flaton caught an eight on 5th street, and Chiu immediately caught a four for a pair that no doubt would have been enough, but a two for a straight on 6th street settled it, and Flaton turned his cards over, leaving Chiu’s han(d) solo.
It had taken David Chiu exactly an hour and 45 minutes to flatten a table full of some of the greatest players in poker. Chiu had busted every other player himself, except for Flaton’s takedown of Feduniak.
“They leave me to do all the dirty work myself,” Chiu kidded afterwards.
I asked Chiu if he’d ever had, or seen, a rush of cards like he’d held today. “No, I haven’t,” he said. “I could feel the rush coming, and didn’t want to let anyone breathe. But I tell you something, the best player at the table today was Ken Flaton, he made a great laydown at one point and I really learned something from him.” Be he the King of Kings or a Jedi Master, David Chiu is a classy guy.
Flaton proved equally classy. Like everyone else I talked to, a group of players who probably owned 400 combined years of tournament experience, he said he had never seen a rush of cards like what David Chiu caught today. “But that’s not the whole story,” Flaton said. “Anyone can catch a rush of cards. David Chiu extracted every possible dollar out of every opponent. He got more value for those cards than anyone else in this room could have. No one else here would have won as much with those cards. If anyone else had been sitting in that seat, we would probably still be playing.”
“Do not underestimate the Force,” Darth Vader told us. Heck, at this point, I think the Force had better not underestimate David Chiu.
By the Numbers
Total Prize Pool $505,000
David Chiu, $202,000 and turbo-lightsabre.
Ken “Skyhawk” Flaton, $101,000.
Mel Judah, $50,500.
Scotty Nguyen, $30,300.
Bob Feduniak, $25,250.
Tony Cousineau, $20,200.
Jack McClelland, $15,150.
Larry Flynt, $10,100.
9th-12th, $7,575: Barry Greenstein, Steve Zolotow, Wei Wei, Ronald Durante.
13th-16th, $5,050: Frank Mariani, Artie Cobb, Allen Cunningham, Mickey Appleman.