Chris Leong Comes from Behind to Win WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open

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It seemed unlikely at the start of the final table, but local favorite Chris Leong – who started the final table as the short stack – was able to come from behind to defeat the start of day chip leader Rafael Yaraliyev to capture the championship of the World Poker Tour’s Borgata Winter Poker Open last night in Atlantic City, NJ.

Leong (4.23 million in chips) was looking up at several tough competitors when they came to the felt on Friday afternoon. Immediately in front of him was the defending World Champion of poker, Joe McKeehen (4.825 million), while Liam He (4.91 million) only held about 70K more chips than McKeehen. The top three players – Matthew Wantman (5.545 million), former WPT World Champion Yevgeniy Timoshenko (6.555 million) and chip leader Yaraliyev (9.945 million) – seemed to be the favorites of many of the fans gathered in the Borgata tournament arena when the cards hit the air on Friday.

The players were content to shuffle chips around for the first 25 hands with no player making any significant moves over their starting stacks. It wasn’t until Hand 29 that the first significant action took place, with Yaraliyev moving a bet in from the cutoff and Wantman three-betting out of the big blind. Yaraliyev, with the power of the big stack, tried to push Wantman off with an all-in, but Wantman made his stand in making a call. It was the classic race, Yaraliyev’s Big Slick versus Wantman’s pocket Queens and, unfortunately for Wantman, he would be left wanting. An Ace peeled on the flop, along with an eight and a seven, and nary a lady would be found on the turn or river to send Wantman out of the tournament in sixth place and shoot Yaraliyev over the 13 million mark in chips.

McKeehen had been quietly chipping up during the early proceedings and now seemed to get a bit more serious. On Hand 33, McKeehen was able to get three streets of action out of He on an A♣ 5♣ 3 6♣ 8♣ board, the last club actually saving McKeehen’s bacon when he was only able to show a K♣ 9 that outpipped He on the river. That 4.4 million chip pot pushed McKeehen over nine million in chips and into the second place position behind Yaraliyev.

The opposite was the case for Timoshenko. The 2007 WPT World Champion never found any cards as the day progressed, sending a three million chip pot to Yaraliyev on Hand 36 to see his stack slip under the four million mark. Two hands later, Yaraliyev would hit a Wheel against Timoshenko to drop the Ukrainian pro under three million chips. While he would fight valiantly, Timoshenko couldn’t catch a break as, on his final hand, he ran pocket fours into Leong’s pocket Queens to depart the event in fifth place.

After Timoshenko’s elimination, Leong and Yaraliyev held more than two-thirds of the chips in play. As such, it was difficult for McKeehen and He to get anything going against the monster stacks they faced. For McKeehen, it was a case of the shoe being on the other foot (he utilized such an advantage to win the World Championship during the World Series of Poker’s “November Nine” in 2015) as Yaraliyev knocked him out in fourth when his A-10 held over McKeehen’s K-Q. The very next hand, heads up play was reached when Leong took down He when Leong’s pocket fives found a set on the flop against He’s pocket sevens to take the pot.

Going to heads up play, both Yaraliyev (21.725 million) and Leong (14.275 million) were well aware it could take some time to determine a champion. Only two hands into the fight, however, Leong picked off a huge Yaraliyev bluff on a 20 million-plus pot to completely flip the leaderboard. It would take Yaraliyev nearly 30 hands to recover from that misstep and, by the end of Level 35, the two men were virtually equal in chips.

Yaraliyev retook the lead on Hand 131 when, on a board of K-6-4-Q-9, Yaraliyev’s measly pocket pair of sevens was able to stand against Leong’s holdings to take down a decent pot. Yaraliyev would stretch that lead out to nearly 2.5:1 before Leong woke up; on Hand 150, Leong would retake the lead when Yaraliyev decided he had enough of a K-6-5-5 flop and turn and folded his hand to Leong.

Leong actually expanded his lead, pushing Yaraliyev down to nearly a 4:1 chip deficit, before Yaraliyev fought back. Yaraliyev moved all in from the button and, after a quick glance at his cards, Leong made the call. It looked grim for Yaraliyev, his 10-9 alive against Leong’s pocket eights, but the 10-7-2 flop put Yaraliyev into the lead. The turn Jack brought the double up home for Yaraliyev as Leong was drawing dead (an eight would make a straight for Yaraliyev) and, just like that, the twosome were back within three million chips of each other.

Leong and Yaraliyev would play more heads-up hands (107) than the four previous eliminations had taken (92), but the final ten would be action-packed. On Hand 189, Yaraliyev was all in for his tournament with A-7 off suit against Leong’s pocket nines; when an Ace peeled on the flop, Yaraliyev took a 25 million chip pot and the lead. On the very next hand, Leong was all in and Yaraliyev called; this time, Leong’s A-J off suit survived against Yaraliyev’s A-4 off suit to bring the two players back to where they started.

On Hand 199, it all came to a close. Leong moved all in off the button and Yaraliyev, after a quick look, was more than happy to get his chips to the center. When the cards were turned up, it was easy to see why; Leong’s A-8 off suit was in difficult shape against Yaraliyev’s pocket Queens, but the A-6-4 flop changed everything. Looking for a Queen, Yaraliyev instead saw a Jack and a five on the turn and river, ending his tournament in second place and crowning Chris Leong champion of the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open.

1. Chris Leong, $816,246
2. Rafael Yaraliyev, $487,288
3. Liam He, $297,995
4. Joe McKeehen, $249,267
5. Yevgeniy Timoshenko, $206,160
6. Matthew Wantman, $166,803

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