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Best of Dan Igo
The 30-person freeroll consisted of the November Nine, 18 Foxwoods players – selected via raffle -- and three "wild cards" (Bernard Lee, ESPN commentator Lon McEachern and ALL IN Magazine publisher Kasey Thompson).
A reunion of the previous World Series of Poker Main Event final tables had never happened in the history of modern poker. It was the brainchild of Lee, the professional poker player, media personality and spokesman for Foxwoods' WPT Poker Room.
The reunion was heavily marketed throughout the casino and kicked off right around 1:00. McEachern handled the introductions, noting that this was indeed a "historic event," and each player entered the poker area in the order in which they were eliminated from the Main Event. All November Niners, plus McEachern and Lee, wore matching Foxwoods Poker sweatshirts.
McEachern added his own twist to the entrances, as he provided a two or three sentence biography for each player. When it was Michael Mizrachi's turn to be introduced, McEachern noted that the Grinder's wife just had a major cash in an online tournament. He then moved to another member of Mizrachi's family.
"And I heard his son just won $20 off the school nurse in Chinese poker," he said as the crowd erupted in laughter.
The crowd at the beginning of the tournament was four-deep on the rail, as the entire poker room stopped and turned their attention to the reunion. Mizrachi and Main Event champion Jonathan Duhamel received the biggest ovation from fans. And Lee instructed the dealers at the three tables to "shuffle up and deal" to kick off the tournament.
Lee was a busy man throughout the day and it didn't help that he didn't fall asleep until 6:30 that morning. He was waiting for confirmation that the last member of the November Nine to commit, John Racener, was on his flight from Florida.
"I was up all night," Lee said before the event kicked off. "I was actually more nervous around midnight than I was at the beginning because if you lose someone at the beginning, well what can you do? But if you have all eight of them… then his flight meant everything. Being friends with him thank God he understood."
Three November Niners were at each table in the three-table tournament. Each table also had one of the three "wild cards." The other seats were occupied by the 18 Foxwoods qualifiers, who had each cashed in a Foxwoods tournament within the last few weeks. Their names were drawn in a raffle on Friday by November Niner Soi Nguyen.
The winner of the freeroll was a Foxwoods qualifier. Rhode Island resident Ben Hopkins, a 26-year-old carpenter, defeated Matt Jarvis heads-up to win the $5,000 first prize and a lifetime of stories. Hopkins also knocked Duhamel out of the tournament as well.
Hopkins, who finished in seventh place in an $80 turbo to earn his raffle entry, wasn't the most confident player heading into the tournament.
"I thought I was going to wake up with pocket aces on my first hand and lose to pocket kings," he said. "That's what I was thinking on my way in."
While the Foxwoods players had a lot of fun playing against the pros, the actual tournament felt like a footnote compared to the spectacle of the November Nine reunion. With players from Italy (Filippo Candio), Canada (Duhamel and Jarvis) and each coast of the United States, it wasn't easy for Lee to coordinate the event. But he got it done.
"I thought of this idea in 2008 when we first had the November Nine," he said. "You break for four months, and you bring them back together. Well, I thought, why couldn't we bring them back again? I thought it was going to happen sometime and it never happened. I signed with Foxwoods last year and it was always in the back of my mind."
"The possibility was there," he added. "It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to do it but I think it's absolutely worth it when you take that shot and you see all of them together again."
Nguyen praised Lee and his ability to accomplish the feat.
"I've told a lot of people this. If it wasn't for Bernard Lee, there's no way I would have came here. This is a great thing he did and to be honest I'm surprised he pulled it off," he said.
The weather outside Foxwoods was in the 20s, so it was a hard sell to get guys from California, Florida and Nevada to travel up to Connecticut. Somehow, Lee was able to do it.
"I'm not surprised about the event because we're Foxwoods and we're one of the best poker rooms in the world," he said. "We do get events like this all the time.
"Am I surprised I got all nine? To be a little bold, no. I'm not one to give up and I'm going to try my very best. Would I have been surprised not to get all nine? No, because it's not easy to put nine schedules together. It's not easy to put nine schedules for people in the same family. I'm ecstatic that we worked it all out and I'm just very proud to be part of this historic event."
Compared to WSOP Main Event prize pool, the $15,000 offered in Tuesday's freeroll seemed like pocket change, at least to the November Niners. However, the November Nine upped the ante with side action, including last longer bets and individual head-to-head bets.
Jarvis estimated he won about $30,000 in side action after his second place finish, but perhaps his most significant win occurred when fellow Canadian Duhamel was eliminated. Because of a last longer bet, Duhamel must wear a Canucks jersey with Jarvis' name on the back in three WSOP events this year.
Side bets like that one kept the chatter alive between the tables. Players constantly asked each other for chip updates, and players like Mizrachi, Jarvis and Duhamel traded barbs on Twitter during the event.
"It as a lot of fun just with the amount of prop bets I had with all of the guys," Jarvis said. "Running back and forth and seeing how the other November Niners were doing and checking their stacks was great."
Interest in the prop bets was so high players couldn't even get up without people wondering if an elimination had happened. About two hours into play, Joseph Cheong stood up to stretch his legs.
"Hey Cheong, you out?" Racener yelled from the other side of the room.
He wasn't out at that moment, but it didn't take him long to get eliminated. He was the first November Niner to be knocked out when Mizrachi's pair of jacks bested his pocket fours.
The eliminations came fast and furious after the first few levels as the fast blind structure caught up with players. Before long, the final table was set with three November Nine members (Jarvis, Duhamel and Mizrachi), six qualifiers and Lee taking to the felt.
Mizrachi finished in seventh place while Duhamel placed fifth. Lee finished in sixth.
The tournament ended right around 8:30, about seven hours after it started. Jarvis said enjoyed the entire experience, and should he be fortunate enough to reach the WSOP Main Event final table once again, would love to come back.
That's the type of reaction Lee would love to hear from everyone.
"Will I be able to do it again? I sure as hell will try," he said. "Somebody may try and steal the idea but I don't think anyone can say we didn't do it here first. End of story. No one's going to say otherwise. We did it here first. Would we want to make it an annual tradition? Absolutely."