The age-old problem for people who are very good at poker is finding folk to play them — and, by unvoiced understanding, to lose to them. At the same time, there exists in the modern game a clutch of high-rolling recreational players, similarly enamoured by poker, but whose real skills lie typically in the finance and business world. They want to play for only the very highest stakes, where what they give up in skill, they haul back in financial clout. They also know that in tournament poker, every dog can have its day.
For the past six years or so, the Triton Super High Roller Series, founded by the Malaysian poker enthusiasts Paul Phua and Richard Yong, has made an unqualified success of bringing together these two halves of the high-stakes poker community. The world’s poker elite has crossed swords with high-rolling businesspeople in more than 75 tournaments since 2016, all with eye-watering buy-ins and multi-million-dollar prize pools.
The Triton Series has this month landed in Northern Cyprus, where the centrepiece of a 14-tournament festival took the essence of Triton’s success and placed it centre stage. The Coin Rivet Invitational demanded a $200K buy-in from all players, but its unique selling point was that it hung a velvet rope across the door to its poker room and placed strict conditions on entry.
Pros by invitation only
Organisers extended an invitation to its long mailing list of recreational poker players, all of whom would then be permitted to invite one poker pro to play the event as well. It guaranteed a field with a precise 50/50 split between businesspeople and professionals, and for the first day of the three-day event, the pros would play only against one another, while the VIPs played only against others in that side of the draw.
The field would combine on the second day and then play out in conventional fashion. “It was a collective effort from our founders to entice businesspeople to play, knowing there would be a level playing field,” said Andy Wong, CEO of the Triton Series.
Did it work? Phenomenally so. Within the first weeks of announcing the tournament, Triton was inundated by replies from both businesspeople and pros: the former confirming their interest in playing, the latter desperate to put themselves forward to be selected as a partner. (Some pros also listed their business dealings in a bid to join the former pool. A council was appointed to judge these applications and determine who really was a recreational, and who was clearly a pro.)
By the time everyone had assembled at the Merit Resort in Kyrenia for a lavish table-draw ceremony on the eve of the event, there were 90 confirmed players in 45 partnerships, putting an immediate $18 million in the prize pool. When registration closed after 10 levels of play, there had been 25 re-entries, pushing that prize pool to $23 million.
Flash forward another couple of days, and the 42-year-old British pro Sam Grafton – known as SamSquid online – was heads-up against Swiss prodigy Linus Loeliger for the title and a $5.5 million first prize – but only after the menacing French finance trader Karl Chappe-Gatien had finally been eliminated in third, having swaggered his way to the final table. He had eliminated many of the world’s best through fearless aggression – and bad beats – alone.
“He played with so much gamble, so much heart at the table,” Grafton, the eventual champion, said of Chappe-Gatien. “It was really, really fun to mix it up with him…[The tournament] was played with a special spirit. The day when it was the pros and the businessmen separate, and then the day when the two lanes came together, both of those days people were smiling like it was Christmas or their birthday. Everyone had a skip in their step. Everyone was really excited to get to the table to play cards.”
That, however, is skipping past three days of action, and it’s worth rewinding to see how it all played out.
Day 1: Leo’s land
Even in a world where millions of dollars are changing hands every day, it’s very rare for poker tournaments to generate a genuine sense of anticipation. It tends to be the case that emotion is kept in check; passion is out of fashion. However, the beginning of the Coin Rivet Invitational was markedly different. Even Fedor Holz and WSOP champion Espen Jorstad were filming on their phone cameras, like teenagers at a Taylor Swift gig.
One of the other ways in which organisers slipped their thumbs on the scales to level the playing field was the stipulation that all players had to be in their seats at the start of play. There was no way for pros to dodge one another by arriving late, as is typical in most major tournaments these days. There was only one optional re-entry too, with players required to take that within 30 minutes of busting. With everyone there at the start, the atmosphere crackled.
As an indication of what we were in for, Phil Ivey was knocked out within level one. He and Loeliger both rivered a flush, but Loeliger had the ace to Ivey’s king, and Ivey burnt through almost his entire allocation of time-bank chips before calling and finding out the bad news. Any event where Ivey is on the rail before the first break is, by definition, unusual.
Loeliger rode the big stack for the rest of the day, but Polish pro Wiktor Malonowski, best known as the high-stakes online cash-game player “Iimitless”, topped the counts for the pros. The overall leader came from the VIP lane. Leon Tsoukernik, owner of Kings Casino in Rozvadov, seemed to be paying more attention to his wine and cognac choices than he did the poker during the first day, but ended up with the chip lead as they bagged.
Day 2: Tears on the bubble
Tables were now balanced with half pros and half businesspeople, which at last gave the famished pros their chance to feed. But one of the other truisms about Triton’s cadre of “recreational” players is that they are pretty good at poker too, and “edges”, if they exist, remain small. The Triton Series also puts paid to the mistaken belief that elite pros are simply silent robots, lurking beneath sunglasses and hoodies, existing as barely animated solvers. There is far more conversation at these topmost tournaments than for medium stakes, where everyone is playing within their means – and where being friendly is important if you want to continue to receive invitations to play.
There had been rumours doing the rounds that Dan Cates, on a new mission to bring the fun back to poker, had a costume prepared for day two of play, and he duly showed up clutching something that wasn’t quite a triton, nor even a trident, and with a white robe best befitting an extra in an elementary school nativity play. He nonetheless declared himself a nautical god, at least until an exchange on one of the TV tables as the bubble approached cut him down to size.
“I am king of the oceans, saviour of the seas, protector of the fishes,” said the part-time Poseidon.
“I was sitting next to you at the buffet,” countered Chappe-Gatien, the sardonic French trader. “You were eating a sea bass.”
In addition to the hilarity brought on by Chappe-Gatien’s endless bon mots, there were tears from at least two other players as the bubble eventually burst – an unusually emotional moment in a tournament populated with so many seasoned pros and wealthy businesspeople.
The waterworks first began with Ebony Kenney, a self-confessed “crier”, whose dream trip to the super high roller tables continued to progress beyond her wildest dreams. The other damp eyes were on the face of the bubble boy himself, Chris Brewer, who endured an unusually turbulent end to his tournament.
With 19 players left – two to go until the money – Brewer was involved in a pot that would have gained far more attention had it appeared on one of the streamed tables. Horace Wei opened from early position and Kenney moved all her chips in from the button. Brewer, in the big blind with a stack almost exactly the size of Kenney’s, called the shove and immediately tabled his ace-jack. But when it was pointed out to him that Wei was still in the hand, a devastated Brewer said he hadn’t seen the opening raise and thought he was calling only a button shove. His ace-jack may have been ahead of a button’s open-shoving range, but was in terrible shape in the actual circumstances. Wei folded, Kenney showed pocket kings and won the pot, leaving Brewer with one big blind.
He hid his face behind his baseball cap, and muttered, “I’m out, I’m out.” Grafton, also at the table, went around to console him with a hug, as others said they could easily have done the same. But it was a sickening way to end a poker tournament, and Brewer seemed inconsolable. He was eliminated on the stone bubble soon after. “Bubbled, this one my fault,” Brewer later wrote on Twitter. “Didn’t see a [hijack] open and thought I was calling a button open shove. For anyone who bought action, I’m extremely sorry.” He later said that ace-jack, if he’d seen the open, was a snap-fold.
The tournament team opted to end day two shortly afterwards, with 16 players remaining, and the intention to play down to a winner the next day. Thanks to some clinical pre-bubble bullying, Holz took a chip lead into Day 3, but there were still eight players from the businesspeople side of the draw alongside eight pros.
Day 3: Grafton victorious
With everyone now in the money, action moved swiftly towards the final table. Tsoukernik and his friend Tony G had been in rumbunctious spirits in the late stages of Sunday, buying champagne for players and spectators, and swilling dark brown drinks from bulbous tumblers. But on Monday afternoon, a hangover of sorts had kicked in and both were among the casualties of a punishing couple of hours for the recreational players. Their number was cut from eight to only two when the final table assembled, even though Chappe-Gatien had now asserted his authority and blasted to a chip lead, taking chunks from Holz, in particular, en route.
The tournament paused to allow Triton to set up the room for a dramatic player walk-on, with players emerging from dry ice to take their seats as their bios were boomed across the convention centre. Even the most stoic of the poker players seemed to relish the occasion, while for the likes of Kenney, whose remarkable run was still alive, it was dreamtime. Kenney danced across the tournament floor, a documentary film crew following her every move, as it had all week, and then sat down at her biggest ever final table.
After pros Tom Vogelsang, Seth Davies and Aleksejs Ponakovs, as well as Finnish property mogul Elias Talvitie had perished from the final (most at the hands of Chappe-Gatien), Kenney was now guaranteed $1.7 million. Kenney had become the first woman to be invited to play as a pro in a major invitational such as this, and had already justified the faith shown in her by her partner Phil Nagy.
But she then became Chappe-Gatien’s latest victim, ending on the wrong end of another bad beat when her pocket jacks lost to Chappe-Gatien’s nines. The dream was finally over, but her prize was the second biggest ever won by a woman at a poker tournament – and the documentary now seems a sure-fire hit.
The day after the event finished, Kenney was still trying to process it. “It comes in waves,” she said, discussing what she described with a knowing grin as, “just a casual, two million dollar week.”
Asked what she thinks she will do now, Kenney said, “Whatever I want. It really feels like that. It feels like it has opened all the doors. Everything I had in front of me, emotionally, all the blocks have gone.”
It’s not to exaggerate things to say the week in Cyprus has changed her life.
Chappe-Gatien next accounted for Holz, with even the brilliant German powerless to stop his surge. But only when it was three-handed did the run-good finally run out with Grafton and Loeliger waiting to pick up the pieces. Grafton won a huge flip to double with pocket tens against Chappe-Gatien’s ace-king, and he applied the finishing touches soon after. In earlier table talk, Chappe-Gatien had said that he felt “nothing” when he was playing poker, even when involved in enormous pots for sums of money that would change most people’s lives.
It left Grafton with a significant heads-up chip lead against Loeliger, but they were now playing the Swiss’s preferred game. Loeliger, a “special animal”, according to Grafton, is arguably the best high-stakes heads-up player in the world.
However, it was Grafton’s day and he sealed the deal when Loeliger couldn’t hit with K♦️-6♠️ against Grafton’s A♣️-7❤️. The 27-year-old from Zurich had to make do with $3.3 million, and another step up on his learning curve.
A procession of the game’s established greats poured onto the stage to congratulate Grafton: Steve O’Dwyer, Henrik Hecklen and Jason Koon all offered hugs, as well as the billionaire philanthropist David Einhorn, who had joined Grafton’s rail. “How have I done this?” Grafton asked. “It was destined,” Einhorn said.
Grafton also found David Nicholson, a former poker pro turned Coin Rivet stakeholder, who had an invitation to the businessmen’s side of the draw, and nominated Grafton as his pro for the event.
“Thanks for the invite, bruv,” Grafton said, in typical understatement. “I wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been for you.”
$200K Coin Rivet Invitational final table results
Images: Joe Giron via Triton Poker