By around 7:20 Tuesday night, only two remained of the 42 players who entered the Big One for One Drop -- the three-day, $42 million charitable poker tournament that requires a $1 million buy-in.
Dan Colman, a quiet 23-year-old online specialist from Massachusetts, was about to go heads up with poker's most famous player, the tough but cheerful Canadian Daniel Negreanu, known as Kid Poker, the only two-time World Series of Poker Player of the Year.
They were competing for a custom-made World Series bracelet -- Colman's first or Negreanu's seventh -- and $23 million in prize money, with a whopping $7 million jump between the runner-up and the guy who would win the last hand: $8.3 million or $15.3 million.
Colman reportedly had only about 10 percent of his own action, with the rest going to investors, while Negreanu would keep (by some accounts) half his prize money himself. He could thus net more than double for finishing second what Colman could keep for winning.
The rest of the prize pool had already been distributed among places three through eight. Another way to look at it was that the One Drop Foundation -- the charity that the tournament benefits -- finished third when it received more than $4.6 million right off the top.
Boisterous Negreanu fans had packed the bleachers of the ESPN Thunderdome, an extravagantly lit microstadium with a black-on-black poker table at its center instead of a blond hardwood court. The much smaller Colman contingent was mostly 20-something poker wizards, some of whom had pieces of his action.
The two finalists had 126,000,000 chips between them -- Colman had 68.55 million, Negreanu 57.45 million. Negreanu fans whooped as he closed the gap, with cries of "Daniel!" as he raked in enough modest pots to move slightly ahead.
Neither player seemed nervous, let alone scared by the stakes, though it was obvious that Colman, who has made most of his money playing in private online, could have done without all the hoopla.
Another measure of their confidence was that neither wore a billed cap or sunglasses. Colman, in a black collarless shirt, jeans and sneakers, casually leaned back or onto the cushioned rail of the table. Negreanu sat mostly upright. He wore a natty gray suit adorned with patches of his sponsor's logo, a red and white checkered shirt, and brown dress shoes. Kid Poker turns 40 on July 26, though he still looks the part of his nickname.
As the two alternated between "small ball" and big pots, the lead swung back and forth. Negreanu got unlucky on a sizable pot when his ace-queen was beaten by Colman's ace-8 after the 8 of clubs spiked on the river. "I played it well," he said later. "I made a bet on the turn to get him out, he called and hit the eight. And from there, the wind got knocked out of my sails."
In the next big pot, slackened emotional sails might have helped Negreanu talk himself into an expensive bad call on the river. Colman, with ace-4, rivered 4s full of aces and bet 15,000,000 chips. Without even a pair, Negreanu called, apparently having convinced himself that his king-queen high might be good.
A few hands later, he pushed all in before the flop with an ace-4, tempting Colman to call him with a slightly inferior king-queen. After a flop of ace-4-jack, it looked like Negreanu would double through and have more than a fighting chance again. But a 10 on the turn gave Colman a Broadway straight.
The raucous cheering from the Colman crew was handily out-decibeled by Negreanu fans shouting for an ace or 4 to give their hero a full house. Many were probably thinking it would only be fair, given how Colman had rivered full houses on two recent hands -- that it was Kid Poker's turn to get lucky.
But that's not how the gods of randomness decide things, in the Thunderdome or any other arena.
After being awarded his bracelet, Colman made a very brief statement, something to the effect that One Drop was "a pretty awesome charity." Then he refused to answer questions from the media. Would the tournament he'd just won even exist, I asked, if it weren't for the philanthropic component? No comment.
As he and his posse of tough-minded quants headed to the cage to collect, one of his backers scoffed at the notion that the winner should do post-victory interviews or become an unofficial spokesman -- for One Drop, Harrah's, the World Series of Poker or anything else.
"He's a poker player," he told me, with not a pitchman clearly implied.
When Antonio Esfandiari won the previous Big One tournament, his open-hearted demeanor and willingness to support One Drop with his money and time set a standard that Negreanu may well continue, even as the event’s runner-up. He is now poker’s all-time money leader, though he shrugged off the accomplishment by noting that prize pools are much bigger these days than they used to be.
He cheerfully answered questions from the media of several countries for close to an hour. Again and again, he praised Colman's heads-up acuity and defended his right to keep his thoughts private. "He plays poker," he said. "That's his job and he's here to work. If he doesn't want to be interviewed, I respect it completely."
Meanwhile, Negreanu kept fielding queries, pausing to pose for selfies with dozens of fans.
Only after just about everyone had gotten what they needed did he eagerly saunter 100 feet across the Amazon Room to enter -- more than six hours late -- the $10,000 seven-card stud championship. He'd told me on Sunday he was going to play it no matter what went down in the Big One, but I hadn't believed him. I was glad I had not bet against it.
No cynical pitchman, Kid Poker is a terrific ambassador for the game, and one of its very best players.
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