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Best of Vin Narayanan

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Razz, Lunkin provide the entertainment at the 50k H.O.R.S.E. final table

1 July 2009

LAS VEGAS -- The final table for the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event at the World Series of Poker began at 2:43 p.m. It ended at 9:57 a.m. the next day when David Bach beat John Hanson after seven hours of heads-up play. The 480 hands played out over 18 hours and 44 minutes of poker made this a final table for the record books – it ranks second in elapsed time and hands played behind the last year's World Series of Poker Europe Main Event final table. But it was hardly the most interesting thing about the tournament.

The same is true for the grueling heads-up duel between Bach and Hanson. It's hard to find a more professional pair of H.O.R.S.E. players. Bach finished 11th in last year's 50K H.O.R.S.E. tournament, while Hanson finished third. But their entertainment value doesn't exactly top the charts.

So the medals for the most interesting things in this year's $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event go to Razz and Vitaly Lunkin – in that order.

I know -- most of you hate Razz. I love it, and that places me squarely in the minority among poker players and fans. But the simple truth is chips were flying around during Razz hands Tuesday (and this morning), and it was a lot more interesting to watch than Hold'em or Omaha.

Seed vs. Lunkin

Huck Seeds tries to figure out Vitaly Lunkin during a Razz hand in the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event.(Photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

About six hours into the final table, the H.O.R.S.E. tournament was getting a bit tedious. There was no energy in crowd, with the rail watching the Triple Chance No-Limit Hold'em tournament easily generating more noise and excitement than its more heralded counterpart. Fans at the triple chance event were standing on their chairs, yelling and screaming. Fans at the H.O.R.S.E. event looked like they were struggling to stay awake.

There were still six players remaining at the H.O.R.S.E. final table with over 14 million in chips in play. And what was qualifying for news at this point was a Scandinavian player – Erik Sagstrom – had actually folded a Hold'em hand.

Hold'em eventually gave way to Omaha 8, which saw a little more action. David Bach scooped a couple of pots and eliminated a short-stacked Ville Wahlbeck along the way, but there were no fireworks or drama for the crowd to hang on to.

Then came Razz – and everything changed. Chips started flying everywhere. In two hands, Sagstrom took over 1.6 million in chips from Bach to assume the chip lead. Lunkin kept firing at one pot even though it looked like Seed had him dominated. Seed made a stab at running Lunkin out of the hand on seventh street with a big bet, but Lunkin called beat Seed's eight-low with a seven-low. The Razz hand hurt Seed badly, and he bowed out of the tournament less than an hour later.

This is the beauty of Razz. This simple game – making the lowest hand possible – moves chips around the table in a hurry. Once a player commits to playing a pot, he's generally in it for a lot of money. And momentum swings.

This simple game generated a buzz in the audience as well. The ability to see four cards in each player's hand gave these poker-savvy fans plenty of opportunities to speculate on hands, and judge – without hole cards – whether a hand had been played well.

This simple game changed the momentum of the tournament. Here's the chip count from the early stages of the Razz round:

Vitaly Lunkin 3,870,000
David Bach 3,560,000
Erik Sagstrom 2,795,000
John Hanson 2,280,000
Huck Seed 1,770,000

Here was the chip count from shortly after the Razz round ended:

Erik Sagstrom 4,575,000
Vitaly Lunkin 4,370,000
John Hanson 2,700,000
David Bach 2,040,000
Huck Seed 590,000

That giant one-round swing is exactly why I love sweet, beautiful, uncomplicated Razz. Now if only the rest of the poker world would join me.

Unlike Razz, which proved to be all sorts of fun, Lunkin provided very limited entertainment value. But it was very high quality stuff.

Watching Lunkin play poker is a bit like watching Robin Williams perform stand-up comedy. You get to see a lot of strange faces and twitches. And you rarely see the same face twice. And given Lunkin's success at the 2009 WSOP, it's pure genius.

Vitaly Lunkin

Lunkin's interesting mannerisms make him a treat to watch at the WSOP.(Photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

At times, Lunkin looks like he's bewildered and confused. Sometimes it looks like he's talking to himself. And it occasionally it looks like the hand he's playing is causing him physical pain.

But his facial expressions never give away his hand. He wins hands when he looks bewildered. He wins them when he's muttering to himself. And he wins them when he looks like he'd rather not be playing the hand.

Lunkin doesn't have the traditional poker face – impassive and unmoving. But he has a variety of poker faces that work for him. He finished fourth in this year's H.O.R.S.E. tournament to take home $368,813. Combine that with his win in the $40,000 No-Limit-Hold'em tournament ($1,891,012), his second-place finish in the $10,000 Pot Limit Omaha World Championship ($419,832) and his 21st-place finish in the $10,000 Mixed Event World Championship ($16,649) and you get a $2,696,306 2009 WSOP for Lunkin.

That's more than the combined totals of his two nearest competitors on the 2009 money list.

What makes Lunkin's success particularly impressive is he's played only two H.O.R.S.E. events in his life – the $50,000 tournament he just finished fourth in and a $3,000 tournament (Event #21) earlier in this year's Series.

Lunkin also told Casino City through an interpreter that he was still "unsure of the rules of Stud."

In the largest buy-in tournament in the Series, a player who felt "unsure" in Stud finished fourth. Amazing.

Razz and Lunkin. Lunkin and Razz. Thank you for entertaining me at this year's H.O.R.S.E. tournament.

Razz, Lunkin provide the entertainment at the 50k H.O.R.S.E. final table is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.