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Persistence Pays Off: After 20 tries and six straight years at the JBWPO, Nick Yobbagy wins first poker tournament – defeats newcomer Hung Ly in epic four-hour heads-up marathon
In the before era, Limit Hold’em was king. All live hold’em games were limit. Limit Hold’em tournaments attracted the largest fields and generated the vast majority of tournament circuit prize money. No-Limit was a distant second in popularity, and was non-existent as an option inside virtually all cardrooms within the United States. From Tunica to Las Vegas, it was easier to find a professional full-time keno player than to find a No-Limit Hold’em cash game.
Then came televised poker – and everything changed.
After the revolution, No-Limit Hold’em became the game. Today’s poker neophytes are drawn to No-Limit. As proof, look no further than this year’s Jack Binion World Poker Open. The first two No-Limit events at this year’s tournament – comprised mostly of new faces -- set all-time attendance records. Indeed, No-Limit games of all sizes have popped up in cardrooms from coast-to-coast – including games with tiny blind structures all the way up to the biggest games in the world. Strangely enough, Limit Hold’em now seems to be poker’s proverbial stepchild, still part of the family of course, but no longer the most desired and loved of the bunch.
The winner of Event #10 at this year’s JBWPO was a throwback to the ‘before’ era. “I learned how to play poker when everything was Limit Hold’em,” said Nick Yobbagy, a former executive with Eastman-Kodak and now a newly crowned poker champion. “The first time I played was back in 1969 at the Stardust (Las Vegas). I grew up on limit poker. I like limit poker because I can manage myself better. I know what a hand is going to cost me. So, it’s a very different game than No-Limit where one hand can cost all of your chips. In Limit poker you can take more chances.”
There were 310 entries in this event, up 18 percent over last year. Following Day One, during which 301 players were eliminated, the nine finalists took their seats at the final table. Players were eliminated in the following order:
9th Place –Matt Overstreet came to the final table lowest in chips and went out within the first ten minutes. For Overstreet, a 21-year-old college student playing in his first major poker tournament, this was quite an accomplishment. He collected $5,810 for 9th place. Someone please whisper to Overstreet that it’s not always so easy to make a final table.
8th Place – Former JBWPO bracelet winner (from 2003) Jose Rosenkrantz was eliminated next. The Costa Rican industrialist who now lives in Miami, FL received $8,454.
7th Place – Matthew Palmer was low on chips and went out in 7th place. The 26-year-old Canadian took home $11,271 for a fine effort.
6th Place – Sam Oliverio, a business owner from West Virginia went out next. On his final hand, he started with the best of it – A-Q versus A-7, but lost when Nick Yobbagy made a straight with a board of 9-8-6-9-10. Oliverio, who made the final table at the Las Vegas Bellagio’s No-Limit Hold’em event last summer, earned $14,089 in prize money.
5th Place – Minh Nguyen was certainly one of the most accomplished players of the nine finalists. Nguyen won two WSOP gold bracelets back in 2003. However, the best he could do here was 5th place. Nguyen, now living in Lake Elsinore, CA, received $16,907.
4th Place – Norm Ketchum also won a gold bracelet at the WSOP, in 2004. Ketchum, who has made many final tables (he came in second in an event here in 2000, along with 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th in various events over the years), went out at the 4th place finisher. Ketchum, from Rockford, IL, took $19,275 in prize money and is way overdue for a win at this tournament.
3rd Place – Gene Bowden, a 65-year-old business owner from Yuma City, AZ won his way into this event by winning a single-table satellite. That proved to be a wise $120 investment. The dividend was $25,361 in prize money for 3rd place.
The heads-up match between Hung Ly and Nick Yobbagy lasted four excruciating hours. There were 299 hands played in all during the six hour final table. Two thirds of them were played head’s up. The duel was interesting from several unique perspectives, not the least of which was the mutual respect by the two players for each other. As it became obvious that a victory would not be fast or easy, the players dug in and played the best poker of their lives, carefully plotting one decision at a time.
It was a contrast of players and personalities. For Yobbagy, age 62, it was finally reaching the ‘promise land’ after many years of trying and failing to make the big dance. Yobbagy has entered 20 majors by his own estimate. This was his first time ever to make a final table. By grace of the poker gods, he earned this one. Hung Ly, age 30, on the other hand was entirely new to the tournament poker scene. He was eager to test his skills and play at the highest level. The money seemed to be a secondary concern to the experience he was gaining in the heads-up match.
In fact, the two men never discussed nor made a deal. With $40,000 the difference between first and second place, one might have expected some kind of financial arrangement. But it was Ly who insisted he wanted to play the game as it should be played to the end -- for all the money, for the gold and diamond bracelet, for the $10,000 buy-in into the championship finals, and for the satisfaction of declaring a bona fide ‘victory.’ Some things have no price.
At various points during the showdown, either player could have won the title. Ly was at a disadvantage much of the way, but staged a dramatic comeback when he won a critical pot by spiking a second pair on the river. Yobbagy had Ly nearly ‘all in’ and held A-5. Ly felt pot-committed with Q-6 after the turned showed A-J-10-6. Yobbagy had top pair with Aces. Ly had bottom pair 6s, with an inside straight draw. On the final card, Ly spiked a Queen (two pair) to stay alive.
That hand ignited a see-saw battle that would continue for another two hours. At one point, Ly had Yobbagy down 4 to 1 and was close to victory. But Yobbagy scratched and clawed his way back into the chip lead and was able to inflict the knockout punch just shy of the 300th hand. With blinds and limits high enough to swing the outcome, virtually all hands were playable. Yobbagy was dealt K-9 to Ly’s 9-5. Both players made top pair when the turn brought a Nine, but in the end – Yobbagy’s King was the better kicker.
In a noble and gutsy first-time effort, Hung Ly took $49,594 as the runner up. Perhaps just as meaningful, Ly won a lot of respect and encouragement from the crowd, including the winner Yobbagy.
“Hung is a very fine player and a real gentleman,” Yobbagy said afterward. “When you sit and play with someone for so long, you learn about a person. Hung sure has a lot of character and stamina.”
The victory had special meaning to Yobbagy, not just because it was his first time to break the barrier en route to a final table, but for a much more personal reason. “My wife is having surgery later this month,” he said. “I’ve made arrangements to have my 2005 main event entry here rolled over into 2006 to be with her. She doesn’t know it yet, but this win is my gift to her.”
Indeed, some things have no price. Whether it’s Hung Ly in his uncompromising quest for first place in a poker tournament, or Nick Yobbagy being able to call his wife and say that he finally ‘did it’ after years of trying – this was truly an epic battle of two poker champions.
2005 Jack Binion World Poker Open Results for Event #10
Horseshoe Casino Hotel and
Gold Strike Casino-Resort, Tunica, MS
January 16, 2005
Number of Entries: 310
Prize Money: $283,214
1. Nick Yobbagy
2. Hung Ly
3. Gene Bowden
4. Norman Ketchum
5. Minh Nguyen
6. Sam Oliverio Bridgeport, WV 14,089
7. Matt Palmer
8. Jose Rosenkrantz
9. Matt Overstreet
* plus a seat in the $10,000 buy-in championship event
10. Ronald Leo Surenkamp Indianapolis, IN 3,486
11. Bruce Harris
12. Frank Kassela
13. Stan Kusy, Jr.
14. Earl Holmes
15. Mark Bassham
16. Sammy Nooner
17. Janie Trevino
18. J. Benjamin
19. J.C. Tran
20. Jimmy Tran
21. Phi Nguyen
22. Davood Mehrmand
23. Chris Venne
24. Pete Ketzmer
25. Robert Ed Leger
26. Joe Davanzo
27. Andy Wynn
Final Table Started at: 4:00 pm CST
Final Table Ended at: 10:35 pm CST
Report by Nolan Dalla – JBWPO Media Director
Tournament Director – David Eglseder
Co-Tournament Director (Horseshoe) – Ken Lambert, Jr.
Co-Tournament Director (Gold Strike) – Robert McGovern