Defying the odds by coming off the short stack, Eric Afriat earned his second World Poker Tour championship on Friday by winning the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open in Atlantic City.
To say (and don’t groan) the deck was stacked against Afriat would be an understatement. He scraped into the final table with a 2.28 million chip stack and needed a telescope to see chip leader Zach Gruneberg and his 17.6 mountain of chips. There were also other obstacles for Afriat, including former World Champion Joseph McKeehen (5.955 million), Justin Zaki (5.565 million), Stephen Song (2.74 million) and local favorite Michael Marder (3.08 million), that he would have to overcome.
Things would get worse for Afriat from the start. After picking up some chips, he turned around and doubled up Marder to make his task more difficult. Afriat would rectify that by taking down Song in sixth place after flopping a boat against Song’s flush draw that didn’t come home. Afriat continued to be active on the felt as his chip stack fluctuated wildly as he tried to work his magic.
It would take more than 40 hands before the next elimination would occur and, when it did happen, the rich would only get richer in a stunner of a hand. After Gruneberg raised from the cutoff, Marder would call from the big blind to see an 8♣ 8♠ 6♣ flop. Marder would check-call another 300K out of the chip leader and, after a 5♠ on the turn, both players checked the straight possibilities. When the 9♣ came on the river, the fireworks would go off.
After checking the action on the previous two streets, Marder would suddenly wake up with a big 425K bet of his own. Gruneberg, however, was undaunted and moved all in over the top of Marder’s bet. Marder took a moment to ponder the situation, chucking a Time Bank chip into the hand, before making the call and showing his K♣ 3♣ for a King-high flush. That wasn’t good enough, however; Gruneberg turned up a 10♣ 7♣ for the stone nuts, the ten-high straight flush, to take down the hand and send Marder to the rail in fifth place.
At this point in the tournament, Gruneberg had nearly a 2:1 lead over McKeehen, more than a 2:1 lead over Afriat and a 2.5:1 lead over Zaki. It was going to be interesting to see who would come from the three pursuers to challenge Gruneberg, with any of the trio with enough experience to pull off a massive comeback. It almost turned out otherwise, however, as Gruneberg’ s “run good” continued.
On Hand 72, Gruneberg raised under the gun to 450K and McKeehen dropped his stack in the center from the button. Once again, Gruneberg wasted no time in making the call, tabling Big Slick to go up against McKeehen’s A-J (approximately a 70/30 edge). The Queen-high board never came close to giving McKeehen any options on winning the hand and, as he departed in fourth place, Gruneberg stacked up an even 20 million chips, more than his other two competitors had together.
That, however, would be the apex of Gruneberg’s final table. Over the next 20 hands, that 20 million in chips became 16 million as Afriat began to climb the standings. Just as quickly, however, Afriat would get knocked back as Zaki began to move up the ladder. On Hand 121, the tournament’s tide changed as Gruneberg’s mojo began to run out.
After raising the pot off the small blind, Afriat saw Gruneberg call his 525K bet and the resulting ragged rainbow 9-5-3 flop. As he had done the entire tournament, Afriat continued his aggressive play in firing another half-million pot bet, which Gruneberg called. On a turn four, another 750K came out of Afriat and, once again, Gruneberg called. The river seven put many straight options on the table, but Afriat continued to fire with a two million chip bet. Gruneberg, after a moment of pause, didn’t believe Afriat and called. He would then muck his cards as Afriat showed pocket sixes for a runner-runner straight as Afriat scooped the 7.6 million chip pot.
A few hands later, it was over for Gruneberg. Whether a slight bit tilted from the Afriat hand or what, Gruneberg pushed all in over a Zaki raised that Zaki wanted to see. Zaki’s pocket tens were ahead of Gruneberg’s A-9 off suit and the Jack-high flop didn’t do anything to improve Gruneberg. After riding high for most of the tournament, in the span of four hands Gruneberg was out in third place as heads up play was set.
After eliminating Gruneberg, Zaki was nearly a 2:1 leader (24.4 million) over Afriat (12.925 million). For almost 100 hands, Zaki maintained his lead but couldn’t lengthen it out. When the penultimate hand – the hand that truly determined the champion – came down, it brought the drama.
On Hand 224, Afriat made it two million to go and Zaki moved all in. Afriat immediately called and tabled his Big Slick, which dominated Zaki’s K-8 off suit. That domination held through the 7-3-2-9-K board as the 34.8 million chip pot was pushed to Afriat. With only scraps left from that clash – 2.5 million – Zaki would succumb to Afriat on the very next hand, his 10-5 off suit falling to Afriat’s K-2 after Afriat miraculously went runner-runner in rivering trip deuces to beat Zaki’s flopped pair of fives.
1. Eric Afriat, $651,928
2. Justin Zaki, $434,614
3. Zach Gruneberg, $321,533
4. Joe McKeehen, $240,251
5. Michael Marder, $181,329
6. Stephen Song, $138,254