After five exciting weeks, the ESPN Poker Club on Sunday once again made four players jump for joy. Steve Barker, Brian Smet, Brett McCauley, and Noemi Agustin battled past 372 other players on their way to victory and Las Vegas.
The four players who qualified for the final tournament by finishing in the top 100 players of a Sunday qualifier during the previous four weeks or the Last Chance tournament are ready to go to Camp Hellmuth for the "Ultimate Weekend of Poker."
After Steve Barker won the Sunday qualifier in Week 3, he said, "I'm going to win the final." It was easy to dismiss Barker's claim, since most players will say they are going to win the finals and earn a trip to Vegas. But Barker followed through on his prediction.
Barker was equally confident this past Sunday. He knew he was untouchable, holding a gigantic chip lead with twenty people left, and he was relentless when it came to others trying to beat him.
"They all want to say that they beat the great 'Bluewolf'," he said, quickly adding, "This is really unbelievable. I'm the type of person who doesn't get big-headed that easy."
"I'm going to Vegas, and nobody is stopping me!" Barker shouted when asked if his job as a police officer in Harvey, La., would allow him time off. Although Barker played the game to perfection, he couldn't help but think there was some spiritual involvement. Barker surrounded himself with pictures of his mom who passed away in December and felt she had an influence on his every move. When he saved his tournament life by hitting two pair on the turn with 60 players left, he said it was a sign.
"I was playing and talking to my mom. I felt like my mom was there for me and she was helping me out. I just felt like I was going to win this thing."
Even though Barker believed he had his mom's help, his wife wasn't as confident. "[My wife] told me I wasn't going to win, so I told her to go away," Barker said.
Barker did the dirty work, but his friend Chris is responsible for getting him on the site. If Barker wins the tournament at Camp Hellmuth, it's a safe bet Chris will be asking for a finder's fee.
As remarkable as Barker's story is, Brian Smet's story might be just as intriguing. Smet was one of those desperate to get into the final tournament. He had never qualified through a Sunday qualifier and knew he needed to get into the Last Chance Tournament (LCT). The LCT was held on Saturday night and the top thirteen players would earn a seat in the final tournament. Just making the cut wasn't good enough for Smet; he finished first.
"After winning the LCT [Saturday night], I wasn't too sure of my ability. The further I got into it the more confident I got," Smet said. "As soon as it got below 100 [competitors], I knew I could do it … Once it got down to the last 15, I thought I had a darn good shot to get into the top 4."
Smet's reaction after the fifth-place player was eliminated is perhaps the most entertaining part of his story. Earlier on in the day, Smet's brother was discussing the tournament, in which he was also playing, when Smet told him, "If I win, you are going to hear me yell!" Smet's brother lives across the street and sure enough his nephew heard him yell and ran over to his house wondering what happened. Needless to say, neither Smet nor his brother could believe what had happened.
"I've been playing poker since I was a little kid … and I'm ready to play in the big tournament out there," Smet said excitedly.
The trip to Camp Hellmuth will be the first to Las Vegas for the Wisconsin native. Even so, Smet believes he is ready to sit down at a table with Hellmuth. "I think I might be able to catch him a couple times," he said with confidence.
For Brett McCauley, there were more pressing issues than poker on Sunday, and for good reason. A native of Beaumont, Texas, McCauley and his wife were about to find out the gender of their child, so focusing on poker was secondary - and he still earned a spot in the top 4.
The focus might not have been there, but the emotions were.
"I was screamin'! I couldn't believe it and neither could my wife! I'm more excited to find out my baby's gender, but I am very excited about this. This was a nice thing but if it's a boy today would be even more wonderful."
McCauley is relatively new to the game. He's only played poker for eight months and believes he already has reached his playing potential. At the top of his game or not, the other three winners have him to thank for knocking out the fifth-place finisher, Mike Beckman, and clinching the grand prize for the group of four.
"I learn quick, but I play faster," McCauley noted.
As for Camp Hellmuth, McCauley is ready to meet Phil Hellmuth.
"I'm definitely excited to meet Hellmuth. That guy seems to be a stud out there, so I definitely have a lot to learn. He's cocky, but so am I, and the guy has a lot more money than me, so I'll take a lot of notes while I'm out there. "
The fourth member of the Camp Hellmuth crew is Noemi Agustin, the first woman to claim a grand prize. Agustin, known as "Gege", is a Long Beach, Calif., native and could not be more excited to win this prize.
"I'm feeling very light-headed. This is very surreal! Somehow I could feel I was going to be in the top 4. This is unbelievable!
"This is the first time I've won anything like this. I can't win a $10 instant lottery and now I win this."
The fame may have cost her though. Her friends will play poker no longer with her: "They tell me I'm the best and don't want to play with me."
When asked if she'd ever consider becoming a professional player, she said, "I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."
Agustin stopped to catch her breath for a second before explaining she is ready to go to camp.
"I'd like to meet Phil just because its Phil and he's so scary. I love Phil, I'm very entertained by him."
Besides Phil, Agustin is also ready to meet Evelyn Ng, as they have a lot in common.
"She's a girl, I can relate to her! I'd, love to meet her and ask her about her experiences.
All four players are sure to have a great time at Camp Hellmuth and you can follow along the fun by reading the ESPN Poker Club's blog that weekend.
Do you want to be our next grand-prize winner? Of course you do. The ESPN Poker Club is pleased to announce that the next grand prize will be a $10,000 seat to the U.S. Poker Championships held at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, NJ. Do you want to be on TV? Here's your chance. Join the ESPN Poker Club today!
Andrew Feldman is the ESPN.com Poker Club's Tournament Director. To contact Andrew, please email email@example.com