The Triton Super High Roller Series doesn’t tend to be the place you begin your poker career. The stakes are enormous and the quality of play the best in the world. It’s not really the kind of environment to cut your teeth.
However, at the most recent no limit hold’em Triton main event, held as part of its two-week festival in Northern Cyprus, the game may have discovered a new breakout star. The $100,000 buy-in tournament was won by Triton first-timer Punnat Punsri, from Thailand, who earned $2.6 million for defeating a 99-entry field.
If you look closely enough at Punsri’s tournament record, it suggests he is more than just a flash in the pan, or a wealthy punter who got lucky. Punsri said he had a cash-game background as he described a couple of unconventional plays at the final table. But he also made the final, finishing third, in a $50,000 buy-in event at the World Series of Poker this summer, and cashed in seven other WSOP bracelet events. He also won two $10K High Roller tournaments on the PokerGO Tour, on consecutive days, at the Venetian in January, and made three finals at the WPT Five Diamond a month before.
The Triton success was certainly the highest profile, streamed live to an audience of thousands, but Punsri’s resume suggests proof already that the 30-year-old from Bangkok has game.
He is, however, still just a recreational player, who had signed up as a businessman to play in the Coin Rivet Invitational, held earlier during the Cyprus festival. A graduate of Bristol University and University College London, both in the UK, where he grew up, Punsri described himself as an “investor” but with a passion for community revitalisation and environmental preservation. He proudly detailed winning a UNESCO award for the restoration of a 150-year-old historic inn in the town of Chanthaburi, in eastern Thailand. He is not, in short, your average poker player.
Crushing opponents and storylines
There were countless other potential headline-grabbing storylines in the offing before Punsri hijacked proceedings on the final day. The last eight in the tournament featured both the defending Triton main event champion, Henrik Hecklen, who had won in Madrid in May, and the darling of the tour Jason Koon, who was aiming for a record-setting fifth Triton title.
The smaller player pool on the super high roller series makes repeat champions more common than on other tours, but Koon’s four previous wins, matched only by the Belorussian wizard Mikita Badziakouski, speaks to Koon’s particular affinity for tour on which he is a brand ambassador.
Both Koon and Badziakouski are happy to play short deck hold’em, the variant that appeals most to many of the Asian high rollers, and comprises approximately half of the Triton Series’ schedules. If the western players are content to embrace the volatility of the game, and accept that their edge is greatly reduced, the short-deck tables can be a happy hunting ground – especially as other members of the elite such as Michael Addamo, Fedor Holz, Christoph Vogelsang and Timothy Adams give the game a swerve.
For all his Triton chops, however, Koon fell in fifth in this one, earning $762,000, as he became one of Punsri’s victims.
The same fate befell Hecklen, but his topple from near the top of the chip counts to the payout desk in fourth was one in a series of dramatic moments that upended expectations in this tournament.
Hecklen came to the final with the second-biggest chip stack, but was on the wrong end of an enormous cooler against Punsri. The pair got everything in preflop when Hecklen had queens and Punsri had kings, vaulting Punsri into contention and ending Hecklen’s back-to-back hopes. Hecklen, a 31-year-old tournament hold’em specialist from Copenhagen, banked $946,000 for third, meagre only in comparison with the $2.3 million he won in Madrid. At least he didn’t have to find a solution to what would have been a unique problem had he won. Triton offers a glittering watch from the top-end American jewellers Jacob & Co to its main event champions, and Hecklen might have ended up with one for each wrist.
If Hecklen’s departure was a surprise, the implosion in third of Wiktor Malinowski was cataclysmic. Best known for his fearless exploits at the high-stakes online cash tables, where he plays as “Iimitless”, Malinowski had been a dominant chip leader for almost all of the second and third days in this three-day event. He was miles in front at the start of the final, and still held the lead after Hecklen’s exit. And then it all went badly wrong.
With Wayne Heung sitting with a short stack and looking on with glee, and ICM proponents cowering behind the sofa, Malinowski and Punsri got involved in an outrageous pre-flop showdown. Punsri four-bet jammed 70 big blinds with pocket tens and Malinowski called it off with ace-king. “Whatever happens will be good for you,” Punsi quipped to Heung. But when the board ran dry, it was even better for Punsri himself. Malinowski was crushed and out on the next hand, taking $1.21 million but knowing it could have been double that.
“It’s hard to analyse,” Punsri said in his postgame interview, describing the pivotal hand. He conceded that calling the three-bet and playing post-flop was probably correct, but he took the high variance line and came out smiling. It was one to get the pulses racing for fans of a tour who like to see poker played fast and loose and for millions of dollars.
Heung wasn’t able to put up much resistance when the pair got heads up, and lost with a dominating ace when Punsri found another good run-out. Heung won $1.825 million.
“It’s been surreal,” Punsri said, when asked by presenter Ali Nejad about his first experience on the Triton tour. He said that he had been lured to Cyprus by the Coin Rivet event and stuck around to play one last tournament before heading home.
He may just be a new national hero when he touches down in Bangkok. Although he explained that there are no legal casinos in Thailand, he said that more and more people are beginning to watch and play the game, with a couple of other Thai pros making a few waves on the Triton Series. “We’re in the stage where poker is booming in Thailand, and it’s nice to see,” he said.
Does Thailand finally have its Chris Moneymaker?
Triton Cyprus $100,000 NLH – Main Event
Dates: September 12-14, 2022
Entries: 99 (inc. 34 re-entries)
Prize pool: $9,900,000
1 – Punnat Punsri, Thailand – $2,600,000
2 – Wayne Heung, Hong Kong – $1,825,000
3 – Wiktor Malinowski, Poland – $1,210,000
4 – Henrik Hecklen, Denmark – $946,000
5 – Jason Koon, USA – $762,000
6 – Gregoire Auzoux, France – $595,000
7 – Artur Martirosian, Russia – $470,000
8 – Artem Vezhenkov, Russia – $366,000
9 – Horace Wei, Hong Kong – $280,000
10 – Seth Davies, USA – $225,000
11 – Paul Phua, Malaysia – $225,000
12 – Laszlo Bujtas, Hungary – $198,000
13 – Isaac Haxton, USA – $198,000
Images: Joe Giron via Triton Poker