Semana de celebración del Bellagio: dos décadas de grandeza en el póquer

Por Sean Chaffin Televisar póquer en vivo en un escenario masivo con algunas de las apuestas más altas imaginables fue un concepto completamente nuevo en 2002. El juego había sido televisado antes, pero nunca mostraba cartas ocultas y nunca en un ambiente tan elegante. Esos primeros días del WPT presentaban una audiencia de estudio, valor de producción hábil, comentaristas expertos,...

Matt Clark
Mayo 10 del 2021

By Sean Chaffin

Televising live poker in a massive setting at some of the highest stakes imaginable was a completely new concept in 2002. The game had been televised before but never showing hole cards and never in such an elegant environment.

Five Diamond Season 1 Final Table

Those early WPT days featured a studio audience, slick production value, knowledgeable commentators, entertaining players who were mic’d up, and plenty of action. The show glamorized poker and brought plenty of prestige to winning an event.

Even from those early years, the tour featured some of the biggest and best casinos around. And the Bellagio was a huge part of that first season as one of the most recognized gaming properties in the world. The casino remains a major part of the tour 17 seasons later.

Two Decades of Big Names and Big Payouts

That first WPT broadcast and season even kicked off with the WPT Bellagio Five Diamond World Poker Classic. Right away the tour captured poker fans and the casino backdrops added to that considerably.

The unique characters at that final table also added to the excitement: Gus Hansen, John Juanda, Freddy Deeb, John Hennigan, Chris Bigler, and Scotty Nguyen. The idea of buying in for $10,000 and winning over a half-million dollars was a completely new phenomenon to many viewers checking out the action from home. Hansen came out on top for $556,460 and continued wowing audiences for years to come with his unorthodox play, big raises, and massive bluffs.

The Great Dane’s win helped spark the poker boom of the 2000s, and the event and property have become synonymous with poker. A year later, the Bellagio’s signature event ballooned from 146 entries to 314 and more than a $3 million prize pool. The event began what would be a long list of $1 million-plus payouts with Paul Phillips scoring that first seven-figure payday. Hansen’s legend continued to grow after making yet another final table.

Season III brought even bigger fireworks with players battling for an almost $1.8 million top prize. Viewers were treated to some major poker names at the final table including Humberto “The Shark” Brenes and Jennifer Harman. In the end, Daniel Negreanu rose to the top to win $1.1 million and his second WPT title. He’d already won a title earlier in the season at the Borgata.

Daniel Negreanu Golpe ganador de cinco diamantes

The next season saw an even bigger payout with Rehne Pedersen taking $2.1 million. That final table featured poker legends Doyle Brunson and Patrik Antonius, who would become regulars in Bellagio’s “Big Game.” The game is regularly played in Bobby’s Room, a VIP enclave featuring some of the biggest cash games in the world.

Those early seasons featured other Bellagio events such as the WPT Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship (formerly named the Festa Al Lago) and WPT Bellagio Cup. Those events paid out huge sums as well with Carlos Mortensen scoring $1 million in Season II and Minh Ly winning $1.1 million in Season III in the Brunson Championship.

The $25,000 WPT World Championship was also part of the mix with Alan Goehring winning that first event for $1 million. Martin De Knijff won the second event for $2.7 million and Joe Bartholdi won the third for $3.7 million.

Carlos Mortensen won the largest first-place prize in Season V when he won the WPT World Championship for $3.97 million against what was then the most entries ever in a $25,000 buy-in event of 639 runners.

It seemed as if every event paid huge amounts, which helped draw poker’s elite. Fresh off his World Series Main Event victory in 2005, Joe Hachem scored a Five Diamond win Season V (2006) for $2.2 million. The big crowds just kept coming to Bellagio events – and the poker spotlight continued to shine on the property.

Winner with the hosts and xyience

“The Bellagio is a very iconic part of poker and the poker boom,” Hachem (pictured) says of that time. “It has hosted thousands of tournaments over the years and some of the world’s best.

“Personally the Bellagio and WPT Five Diamond will always correlate to my validation. Winning the Five Diamond was such an important event in my career. Having won the WSOP 18 months prior and having had numerous close calls but no cigars since, to be able to beat out almost 800 of my peers at $15,000 a pop was exactly what I needed and wanted.”

The Place to Play and Dream of a Win

For New York’s Eugene Katchalov, the Season VI Five Diamond stands out as the most memorable experience in his 14-year professional poker career. He scored $2.5 million at a final table that also included Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott. Katchalov’s record now includes $9.4 million in tournament winnings.

“While I already had a few small wins under my belt, this catapulted my bankroll into being able to travel and play all over the world,” he says. “I remember being on cloud nine for a month afterward. It was also memorable because my family and friends were able to fly out from New York and watch me at the final table.”EUGENE KATCHALOV Winner Shot

The property hosted so many great champions and adding his name among them would be a huge bullet point for Katchalov’s poker career. The cachet the property and poker room carries in Las Vegas also meant a lot.

“Bellagio was actually always my favorite place to play poker,” he says. “It was the place I always looked forward to most and obviously even more so after my win. It’s just a beautifully designed property that always puts me in a good mood being there.

“Being in the middle of the Strip was also nice as you’re close to some of the best restaurants in town. The poker room there has been synonymous with some of the most famous tournaments. Bobby’s Room was especially famous for having all of the best players in the world.”

The coming years brought even more. David Chiu won the WPT World Championship at the property in Season VI for $3.4 million. Season VII saw Mike Watson win the Bellagio Cup for $1.7 million and Bertrand Grospellier take down the Festa Al Lago for $1.4 million. Chino Rheem won the Five Diamond the same season for $1.5 million, the first of his three WPT titles.

Rheem added another Bellagio title in Season XI (2013) when he won the WPT World Championship for $1.2 million. The Five Diamond also continued bringing big names. Daniel Alaei joined the Champions Club in Season VIII for $1.4 million and Ravi Raghavan got there in Season XI for $1.3 million. The million-dollar paydays continued including:

Dan Smith (Season XII) – $1.2 million

Mohsin Charania (Season XIII) – $1.5 million

Kevin Eyster (Season XIV) – $1.6 million

James Romero (Season XV) – $1.9 million

Plenty of poker fans sweated Ryan Tosoc’s two-year Five Diamond run in Seasons XV and XVI. He produced a runner-up finish in 2016 to Romero for $1.1 million. A year later, he topped a field of 812 for almost a $2 million payday – beating poker superstar Alex Foxen heads-up.

“It feels unreal,” Tosoc said afterward. “I kind of feel like I’m in a dream right now.”

Many poker players dream of being mano a mano for a title. For Tosoc, that dream came true two years in a row.

Back to the Action, Returning to Bellagio

With the return of live WPT tournaments, no doubt many players are ready to head back to Bellagio. The Five Diamond World Poker Classic was last played in 2019 – still part of a COVID-lengthened Season XVIII. Foxen was back in the field and brought another major performance in a year that reached a record 1,035 entries.

This time Foxen bested his runner-up finish only two years earlier, adding his name to the Champions Cup for $1.7 million. For a player who’s won on some of the game’s biggest stages, taking the Five Diamond World Poker Classic proved quite a career highlight.

“It’s surreal – it’s kind of hard to put into words,” he said after the win. “It feels amazing. The last time I got to this spot I was a little bit disappointed in how I played heads-up. It’s just incredible to get the opportunity again and be fortunate enough to pull out the win.

“Winning the WPT trophy in this event particularly is definitely the biggest thing to me. It’s the most significant tournament win to me so far. It’s awesome.”

Just a year earlier, Las Vegas resident and poker pro Dylan Linde scored the Season XVII Five Diamond title for $1.63 million. He fired five bullets to get there and needed to finish at least 24th just to make a small profit.

"The win completely made my career,” Linde says. “This was my first title in a live major and the amount of money involved was far larger than any other score I had previously.”

Not only did Linde accomplish a goal of winning a huge tournament, but did so at a casino that means so much to poker. He’s hoping to see the event return to the schedule in Season XIX and can’t wait to play.

“The Bellagio is a foundation of poker,” he says. “We’re talking about the home of Bobby’s Room, where some of the largest cash games in history have been played. Some of the most prestigious tournaments in the world have been run from this property – the Bellagio is a poker icon.”

Sean Chaffin es un escritor independiente en Crandall, Texas, y su trabajo aparece en numerosos sitios web y publicaciones. Sígalo en Twitter @PokerTraditions.