January in Australia means only one thing: The Australasian Poker Championships. For two weeks, players from Australia and abroad converge on Crown Casino in Melbourne for the largest series of poker tournaments in the southern hemisphere.
As you would expect, most players eagerly anticipated the main event ($10,000 buy-in No Limit Holdem). In 2005, there were just over 260 entrants, which meant that first prize reached one million dollars for the first time in Australian poker history. But the million dollar first prize was not the only “first” for Australian poker. Crown Casino was also treated to the latest and greatest form of tournament poker: Speed Poker.
Speed Poker Explained
Speed Poker is the brain child of Australia’s own Tim Heath and Keith “Bendigo” Sloan. At first glance it appears to be a regular no-limit holdem tournament. However, there are two important differences. First, the players are under pressure to make their decision very quickly. Second, the game is pot-limit before the flop and no-limit after the flop. To keep up the pace, two dealers are assigned to the speed poker table: one deals and one shuffles.
On every round of betting, the dealer allows each player five seconds to make a decision. If the player has not acted within five seconds, the dealer calls “time.” This activates a ten second countdown clock. Lights gradually illuminate on the table as the time clock counts down. When all the lights are illuminated, the ten second period has expired and the player is deemed to have checked if the player did not have to call a bet. If there was a bet, the player’s cards are folded if a decision has not been reached before the end of the countdown. Because of these stringent time constraints, the players and spectators see more hands per hour. Because the structure is pot limit before the flop and no limit after the flop, both players and spectators see more flops. This is a refreshing change from the typical no-limit tournament where most pots are boringly decided without a flop.
204 players fronted AUS$1600 (US$1240) to enter. They played speed poker until there were only 36 players remaining. These remaining players were then seated to into six semi finals tables with 6 players per semi-final table. The last man standing on each table would earn a seat on the speed poker final table and the chance of winning with title along with AUS$100,000 (US$78,000).
In the first semi-final, Emad Tahtouh dominated the table from the word ‘go.’ He arrived at this semi-final table with a massive $75,300 in chips. His closest rival held $26,200. Within 130 hands, only three remained with Emad holding $100,000 of the $160,000 on the table. When Emad eliminated James Potter (Australia), his chip lead was insurmountable. After brushing aside Liu Yadong of China, Emad Tahtouh of Melbourne Australia was the first player through to the final table.
The second semi-final was a much tougher affair. Four of the players on this table would be facing off against Peter “The Poet” Costa, who won the Aussie Millions Main Event in 2003; and Martin Comer, who is considered to be one of the finest tournament players in Australia. The chip leader at the start of this semi-final table was Ralph Burd of Australia with 70,400. Kevin Kelsall and Martin Comer started with approximately $25,000 in chips. Peter Costa, who started with less than $20,000, couldn’t catch a hand and was eliminated in forth place by Kevin Kelsall. Not long after, Kevin Kelsall eliminated Martin Comer and it was a heads up duel between Kevin Kelsall and Ralph Burd, both with approximately $78,000. While it took only 98 hands to eliminate four of the six starters, this heads up contest lasted for another 289 hands. Kevin kept chipping away at Ralph and eventually knocked him out and earned a place on the speed poker final table. Another local makes it through!
The third semi-final was won by John Dwyer (USA). John played terrific poker and he and his wife (who I had the pleasure of meeting) were enjoying the sweet smell of success on their visit to Australia. But John’s compelling victory overshadowed a miraculous performance by Australia’s own Mike Comer, who is a very well known and respected member of the Australian Poker community. Mike Comer arrived at the final table with the shortest stack – $5,100. The other five players started with stacks ranging from $11,000 to $41,000. Amazingly, Mike Comer managed to outlast the other four players and engaged in an enthralling heads up duel with John Dwyer. When the blinds hit 800/1600, Mike had $58,200 to John’s $56,700. But John remained composed and eventually put an end to Mike’s powerhouse performance. Just goes to show that you really can go on to do well in a tournament from a very short stack.
The fourth semi-final was a more straight-forward final table. After the short stacks were cleared away, three classy poker players remained: Andres Berg from Norway and Andrew McDermott and Gary Benson, both from Australia. Gary’s short stack was gobbled up by Andres and the heads up battle began with the Norwegian holding around $70,000 to Andrew’s $52,000. These players saw a lot of flops and each took their turn in bullying the other around. But Andres was able to gradually cut Andrew’s stack down and he was eventually eliminated. Andres Berg was through to the final table.
The fifth semi-final consisted of a number of very strong no-limit hold’em players. Adam Kwiecien of Canada arrived with the biggest stack ($36,800). The second and third largest stacks were Veiko Soot of Estonia (Western Side of Russia) and Richard Piper of England. Veiko found it difficult to find a hand that he liked and was eventually eliminated in third place. This left two supreme players remaining. Adam Kwiecien has a commanding presence at the table and is super aggressive. They were nearly evenly stacked, with Richard enjoying a slight advantage, Adam turned the tables with a superb bluff on the turn. The board was 10h-Kc-7s-8h, the pot was fairly big and Richard was in front with a pair of tens. Adam, with nothing but a gutshot straight draw, made a massive bet and picked up the pot. Adam appeared to have the ascendancy, but the calm and gracious Richard Piper would “have none of that.” He went a rampage, raising Adam’s blind regularly and picking up several big action pots. Eventually Adam succumbed to Richard’s poker prowess. The Brit was through to the final table.
Last, but not least, the sixth semi-final table. Tony Dunst of America and Michael Thuritz of Sweden arrived with the top two chip stacks. The other four players simply spectators, watching Tony and Michael push them out of pots and shorten their small stacks. It wasn’t long before Tony and Michael were heads up. What followed was fast, tough, aggressive and gritty poker. Amazing skills for two players who are both under 24 years of age. In the end, Michael was the more commanding player and started the heads up duel with the larger stack. Tony was eliminated, but must be commended for his fine effort.
The Final Table
At last we have the final table. Each player started with 20,000. Seat one: Emad Tahtouh; seat two: John Dwyer (USA); seat three: Michael Thuritz (SWD); seat four: Andres Berg (NOR); seat five, Kevin Kelsall (AUS), and in seat six, Richard Piper (UK). In the first 30 minutes, it was clear that Michael was there to win. He raised and pushed continually and after 40 hands, he was the chip leader with 27,000.
After 100 hands, Emad seemed to be holding steady, but had difficulty finding a hand in a big pot. Yet, with his trademark aggression, he was able to push opponents out of smaller pots and held 21,500. As TJ Cloutier says, you aim in tournament poker is to increase your stack by the end of every blind level. Emad has managed this in the first 100 hands.
John Dwyer was also holding steady with around 17,000 after 100 hands. John showed a lot of ‘heart’ in his approach to the game, but seemed to have difficulty finding a worthwhile hand.
Michael Thuritz was playing with fearless aggression. He was in complete control of the table and had amassed a whapping 48,000 after only 100 hands. He seemed to be in unstoppable, even at this early stage.
Andres Berg was short stacked. He got involved in a fair few hands and seemed eager to get it all-in against Michael. Unfortunately, he had to make many lay-downs after the flop, because danger cards fell and Michael persistently came out betting. It was as if Michael had a perfect read on Andres in every contest. After 100 hands, he was down to 5200.
Kevin Kelsall was playing a fairly tight game. However, he held around 17,000 after 100 hands and looked as if he was getting ready for the big all-in. Finally, Richard Piper. Richard is a high-caliber no-limit holdem player, but he had a lot of difficulty overcoming Michael’s stack and aggression. He was left with around 13,000 in chips after 100 hands.
Then the eliminations began. Emad took a large chunk out of John Dwyer, leaving him severely short-stacked. Several hands later, John moved all-in with Js-10s. Andres, who had accumulated some chips, called the all-in with As-9s in an attempt to eliminate John. The board came Kh-Kc-2h-8c. Just as John was heading for the door, a 10 fell on the river to keep his hopes alive. However, John only held 3,700 after this pot and Andres was left with 9,300. Two hands later, John moved all-in again with Ah-2h. He was called by Richard, who held pocket Jacks. The flop was miraculous for John: 9h-3h-2c. The turn was a 6d and the river (Jc) made trips for Richard and John was the first player eliminated. John collected $10,000 for a fine effort.
It wasn’t long before Andres moved all in and was called by Michael. Andres held 5-5 and Michael A-10. The board finished 4-5-10-9-10. Despite Michael making trip 10s, Andres survived with 5s full and doubled up.
Next to fall was Richard Piper. Unfortunately Richard was never able to gain momentum. He moved-in with As-Qh and was called by Emad, holding 10d-10h. The board finished 5h-2d-9c-5s-2c and Richard was gone. Richard demonstrated fine poker skills during this tournament and was rewarded for his effort with $15,000.
Fourth place went to Andres. Despite having a short stack early, he was able to pull together a few pots and outlast John and Richard. Andres showed a lot of determination, but his cards did the talking. And on hand 173, the cards were all that mattered. Andres went all-in with 9-8 when the flop came 9-8-3. Top two pair is a great hand to be all-in with. However, Emad called with J-10 for a straight draw and hit a queen on the turn. Andres failed to hit a 9 or 8 on the river and was eliminated in fourth place, collecting $20,000.
Emad now had a large stack and went on a rampage, winning several consecutive pots with sheer aggression. The short stacked Kevin Kelsall decided it was time to go all-in with A-10 and was called by Michael’s 88. Luckily, the board came A-K-7-A-5 and Kevin survived. Kevin was holding around $20,000, Michael held around 48,000 and Emad was chip leader with $52,000.
But Michael suddenly turned the tables. He chipped away at Emad’s stack and, after winning three consecutive hands, he eliminated Kevin Kelsall. Kevin went all-in with Ac-2c and Michael called with Ah-Kc. The board fell Ks-6h-8s-Qd-3h. Kevin played very patient poker in the semi-final and final; and was rewarded for his discipline with $32,400.
Finally we were heads up. Michael head $87,300 to Emad’s $32,700. What followed was an interesting contest, with each trying to outplay the other. At one point, Emad went on a roll and won four consecutive pots. In one of those, he held a Queen and the board was Q-3-Q-Q-2, but was unable to trap Michael. Just as Emad appeared to be back in contention, Michael won nine out of the next ten hands and the tournament was all but over. Then Emad moved all-in with 10-10 and Michael called with 9c-5c. The board came 7-8-J-10-K. Emad caught the ten that he didn’t want and completed Michael’s straight draw. Emad collected $50,000 for second place. Emad played terrific poker throughout this tournament and was duly congratulated by the local crowd, which included his mum.
Michael collected $100,000 for first place. Michael Thuritz of Sweden is only 20 years old, but has remarkable card sense, control and fearless aggression. There is no doubt that Michael will make many more final tables at big events in the future. He outlasted the field of 204 and from the start of the semi-finals, it seemed as if Michael was always going to win this tournament. A terrific effort from Michael and all the other players – well done!
The High Rollers Speed Poker Tournament
Crown held two “high-rollers” speed poker tournament. Both were very exciting. In each tournament, six players fronted AUS$20,000 (US$15,700) each for a single-table, winner-takes-all (AUS$120,000/US$94,200) no-limit holdem tournament.
The “Australian” High Rollers
The first of these tournaments was the Australian High Rollers Speed Poker Tournament. This table consisted of the following high-roller poker players from Australia (from seat one to seat six): Joe Meissner, Billy “the Croc” Argyros, Tino Lechich, Jason Gray, Sam Khouiss and Lee Nelson.
What followed was the fastest Speed Poker tournament in its short history. The winner was decided on the 120th hand – after only one blind level increase. Tino Lechich was eliminated in the second hand of the tournament when he went all-in when his 5h-6h improved to a straight on a board of 3s-4c-10c-7d-Jh. Lee Nelson called the all-in bet with the only hand Tino feared: 8-9.
Sometime later, Joe was knocked out by Lee. Lee was in terrible shape with AQ against Joe’s AK. When the flop came A-Q-5, Lee checked to Joe. Joe made a big bet and Lee went all in. Joe called and the turn and river didn’t improve his hand (10s-2h). The very next hand, Lee knocked out a short stacked Billy “the Croc” and we were down to the final three. Jason and Sam each held around $30,000 and Lee held around $60,000. About 15 hands later, Sam went all-in when three hearts fell on the flop. Sam had the flush, but Lee had the bigger flush and knocked him out. 10 hands later, Jason moved all-in with 88 on a flop with two hearts. Lee called with a flush draw and hit a third heart on the turn. Lee Nelson was crowned the Australian High-Rollers Speed Poker Champion of 2005.
The “International” High Rollers
The International High Rollers Speed Poker Tournament was the second ‘high-roller’ Speed Poker event. All of us who play tournament poker have come across some pretty tough tables in our time. But try this one on for size. In seat one, Mel Judah. Mel was born in Calcutta, but now lives in Melbourne, Australia – the home of Crown Casino. Mel has made the money 33 times at the World Series of Poker, in addition to many other cashes and wins in tournaments around the world. In 1997, Mel won a WSOP bracelet in the $5000 buy-in Seven Card Stud and, a few days later, came third in the Main Event, behind John Strzemp and Stu Unger (the winner that year).
In seat two, the flying Dutchman, Marcel Luske. Mercel came to Melbourne off the back of an extremely successful run at the 2004 World Series of Poker, which included a second place in the $5000 buy-in Seven Card Stud and 10th place in the main even. In seat three, Harry Demetriou from London England. Harry is one of the strongest European players in the world. Additionally, Harry came 18th in the Main Event of the 2004 World Series of Poker.
In seat four, Mike Sexton (USA). Mike is regarded as the international ambassador of poker and was co-host of the World Poker Tour. Aside from his promotional work, Mike is one hell of a player. He has made the money 37 times at the World Series of Poker and is as solid as they come. Tony Bloom (UK) was in seat five. While Tony boasts many poker accolades, he is the raining Australiasian Poker Champion, winning the main event in 2003. An aggressive and tricky player.
Finally, in seat six, Scotty Nguyen (USA). We could talk about the numerous poker titles and cash finishes that Scotty has achieved in his life, but as everyone in the poker world knows, Scotty won the Main Event at the 1998 World Series of Poker. Scotty has shown since that his victory was no fluke. He has had 26 cash finished in the World Series over the years, collecting around $1.9 million.
In the early stages of the tournament, Mel Judah bullied Marcel out of several pots, taking a good portion of his stack in the process; and Tony Bloom’s king high flush ran into Scotty Nguyen’s ace-high flush. Shortly after, Marcel knocked out a short-stacked Tony Bloom. Tony held 10-7 and flopped two pair. Marcel flopped a club flush draw with KcQc and the third club came on the turn. However, Marcel was still a little short stacked compared to the others at the table. From nowhere, Marcel began bullying the others around and slowly accumulating chips.
Eventually, though, Marcel got involved in a big pot with Mike Sexton. Up until this point, Mike had played very few hands. Mike suddenly came out raising before the flop and most players at the table would suspect the worst. But this did not concern Marcel, and nor should it have. Marcel had pocket aces and reraised. Sexton, with pocket Queens, put Marcel all-in. A flop of J-5-2 helped neither player. Unfortunately for Marcel, a Queen fell on the turn and a ten on the river. Sexton magically survived and sent Marcel packing.
Not long after, Mel Judah went all-in with KK against Harry’s QQ. The five community cards were all rags and Mel took a massive chip lead. Harry was left with a very small stack and was knocked out by Scotty Nguyen the very next hand. After several more hands, Mel held 56,000 in chips, Scotty had 37,000 and Mike had 27,000. But Mike and Scotty turned the tables on Mel and took turns pushing him out of the pot and chipping away at his stack. Before long, Mel was eliminated and it was heads up between Scotty and Mike. Scotty was charming and very talkative. He regularly cracks good jokes and appears to be a bit drunk. But something tells me that a serious, determined poker player lies underneath his table façade.
Scotty was able to push Mike out of a lot of small pots. However, Mike was able to survive several all-in and, all of a sudden, Mike starts picking up good cards (such as AA) and Scotty was calling his all-in bets. From a short stack, Mike was able to overtake Scotty: after 250 hands, Mike had 96,000 and Scotty had only 24K. The players returned from the break and Scotty was eliminated on the first hand back. Mike had KJ and Scotty had 10s-6s. The flop came K-10-7 and Scotty moved all-in. Mike called and Scotty did not improve. Mike Sexton was the International High-Roller Speed Poker Champion of 2005.
Speed Poker was filmed and is currently in postproduction for television. Keep your eye out for it.