Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sun Expanded Coverage
Beyond the Sun
Even when the momentum shifted in his direction toward the end of the World Series of Poker final table, Peter Eastgate never acted as if he had the tournament title locked up.
He has played enough poker since taking up the game four years ago, at age 18, to know that funny things can happen in tournaments, particularly on the heads-up level.
Until the final hand, Eastgate never felt as if he had it made.
Then, he did.
Capping the longest main event final table in World Series history, encompassing more than 15 1/2 hours of play spread across parts of three days, Eastgate, 22, became the youngest player to win the no-limit Texas hold ’em world championship event early Tuesday morning at the Rio.
Eastgate, of Odense, Denmark, earned $9.1 million in first-place prize money and the coveted, tastefully garish gold-and-diamond World Series of Poker world title bracelet.
He outlasted a field of 6,844 players who entered the $10,000-buy-in event back in July and a final table of nine that reconvened Sunday after a 117-day break designed to hype the tournament and boost TV ratings.
In the heads-up portion of play, Eastgate went mano a mano with Ivan Demidov, the eventual runner-up, for more than four hours onstage at the Penn & Teller Theater, temporarily transformed into a high-stakes, high-energy poker arena.
Demidov, of Moscow, collected $5.8 million for second place.
Playing with poise but never overconfident, Eastgate controlled the tempo of the match against Demidov, keeping a steady supply of pressure on his opponent and inducing several ill-advised bluffs from Demidov when the Russian had nearly hopeless hands.
“I was kind of sad to play Ivan heads-up because he was one of the most competent players at the final table, but I kind of expected it as well,” Eastgate said. “I didn’t know what to expect from heads-up (play). It’s very different to play a guy heads-up (as opposed to) at a nine-handed table. I just took it hand by hand and tried to pick up on his tendencies and tried to let him make some mistakes.”
Eastgate seemed to take nearly complete control toward the end of the tournament when he won a pot of more than $40 million in tournament chips with a diamond flush. Even though it gave him a chip lead of $128 million to $28 million, Eastgate wasn’t buying the notion that the hand all but sealed it for him.
“There was no hand that was a turning point,” he said. “There were a lot of turning points. I won a big hand against (third-place finisher) Dennis Phillips, and before we got three-handed there were six at the final table. Just getting down to three, that’s three more turning points right there.”
With his tournament-clinching hand and in his postgame comments, Eastgate channeled a bit of Stu Ungar, the poker legend who won the World Series of Poker main event in 1980, 1981 and 1997.
Ungar, who died 10 years ago this month at age 45, won his world championships in 1980 and in 1997 by making a “wheel” — a 5-high straight — on the final hand of the tournament, just as Eastgate did Tuesday.
After his 1980 championship, Ungar was asked what he planned to do with the prize money. His response has become part of poker lore: “Gamble it!”
Likewise Eastgate, perhaps modestly, claimed to rely mostly on poker instinct throughout his world championship run rather than on any form of advanced game theory.
“I’m just a gambler,” Eastgate said. “The way I learned to play poker was by putting a lot of hours in (primarily online) and learning from my mistakes. I like to gamble.
“I was introduced to poker in high school and I got fascinated by it right away. I like the game and I like the psychological aspects of the game. I learned it over time.”
Demidov, who also honed his poker chops playing on the Internet, felt at times as if he was up against an Ungar-like force as Eastgate steadily increased his chip lead.
“Peter made way fewer mistakes and he was playing better poker than me,” Demidov, 27, said. “He did better than me in every respect. I wasn’t able to do anything. My chips kept going down and down and down.
“I was playing too passive at times and I made some bad calls when I should have folded. I was thinking he was going to try to bluff a little bit more than he did. Then, it cost me a lot of chips also when I made a few big bluffs at the wrong time.”
The nationalities of the two finalists reflected the global flavor of the World Series of Poker. The final table also included natives of Canada and Indonesia as well as five American players.
The entire 2008 World Series, 55 tournaments including the main event, had participants from 118 countries and territories, a 36 percent increase from 2007 (87 countries and territories).
In 2006, 54 countries and territories were represented, up from 41 in 2005 and 24 in 2004.
“You’ve seen in the past few years that there are a lot more European players, especially Russian players, in poker,” Demidov said. “I think you’ll see more Europeans, South Americans and Asian people doing it. Poker is growing around the world.”