The Big One for One Drop Extravaganza was a somewhat odd tournament. Other than the fact that no professional players were allowed, nothing was that much different from a regular poker event. But that stipulation made all the difference. The entire event had a different vibe to it. While there was more money at stake than just about any other event, the players seemed not to really notice. On top of that, we hardly knew anything about the top contenders.
Elton Tsang won the event, banking €11,111,111 which makes for the third largest first-place prize in the history of the game. Tsang already had some cashes on his poker resume and poker fans might recognize him from his participation in the big cash game at the Aussie Millions back in 2012, but he remained a bit of a mystery. This clearly wasn't his first rodeo, but we didn't really know all that much about him, let alone how he experienced playing the event.
Tsang had a coach, Mustapha Kanit, the Italian wunderkind with $7,735,689 in live tournament earnings to his name. Kanit also coached Mark Teltscher for a bit, but Tsang was his real "client" and the two spoke just about every break. PokerNews talked to both Tsang and Kanit to learn a bit more.
Everything Tsang's Way
Tsang started the final day winning multiple pots against Andrew Pantling, the start of day chipleader.
"Yeah, I was feeling good, feeling comfortable," Tsang said. "I was hitting cards, my bluffs were working, I was getting a good read on the table and everything was just going my way."
Kanit said they knew how to play the opening phase of the final table, which still had eight players left in contention and six paid out, because they had strategized.
"We discussed a lot of that openly; when to put the pressure on and when not to."
They even talked about certain players and their typical play. Kanit had played Pantling in the EPT's €50,000 and €100,000 events,.
"We discussed Andrew and his playing style a lot because he was one of the guys I knew the best," Kanit said. "I know he’s a really tough opponent. He’s really aggressive and he pushes back a lot. We had a lot of information and that worked to our advantage."
There was a lot of money on the line. When the day started, two players had to go before the bubble would burst. Tsang took advantage of that particular time by putting maximum pressure on Pantling.
"[Kanit] was telling me to just put the pressure on since it was bubble time," he said. "I was just loosening up and just started raising, raising, raising, raising, raising."
Kanit was pleasantly surprised with Tsang's level of play.
"I’m really impressed by his game," Kanit said. "I'm impressed with how he managed the final table and I'm impressed with how everything went."
While the cards worked out in Tsang's favor and the strategy was clear from the get-go, what really set the duo Kanit and Tsang apart was preparation.
"We worked hard, we put in a lot of hours," Kanit said. "In the end, we were more prepared. We did more than the others."
Tsang & Kanit Prepping
While some coaches had been paired just at the opening lunch minutes before the event started, Tsang and Kanit had started working together much much earlier. Tsang and Kanit were friends already well before the tournament started and took the player-coach relationship really seriously.
The real preparation began two weeks before the event started when Kanit traveled to Asia.
"We were in Asia together and we would do reviews," Kanit said. "I would send him videos, I would send him hands, we would talk about strategy, we talked a lot about poker. Every single break we spent together. We put a lot of work in."
Tsang was more than happy with his coach, having nothing but good words for his teacher.
"He was a really good coach and he gave me a lot of good advice," Tsang said.
While Tsang was anything but new to the game, the world of tournaments wasn't one he specialized in.
"I don’t play tournaments that much these days, but I used to." Tsang said. "I knew some strategies, but it was good to have someone to talk to in between hands. I think it helped a great deal."
Kanit was thrilled by Tsang's play, as one might expect after a €11,111,111-win.
"He played really well," Kanit said. "I can't say anything other than that he really crushed the tournament; he crushed the final table. He didn’t take any stupid risks. He managed it all pretty well. No one had a chance."
Kanit wasn't only involved with Tsang; he was also seen coaching Mark Teltscher in between hands on Day 1. That wasn't the initial plan, though, as Teltscher had "hired" Timofey "Trueteller" Kuznetsov initially. When he couldn't make it because he was playing in Asia, Kuznetsov asked Kanit to jump in and help Teltscher.
"Trueteller is a good friend of mine, so I asked Elton if he was fine with it and I helped him a bit too," Kanit said. "I just helped him here in this situation because Timofey wasn’t coming."
Cool as a Cucumber
There was a lot of money on the line. As the tournament started it's third and final day, eight players remained while only six would get paid. And even then, the first couple of prizes on the payout ladder were small compared to the buy-in. The top two was where the real money was.
Despite all that, Tsang looked as comfortable and relaxed the entire day as one could be.
"I'm pretty used to playing high stakes so it’s OK. It’s kind of normal for me," Tsang said with a mysterious smile on his face.
While his preparation was top notch and he had the added advantage of being used to the stakes, he didn't have everything within his control, he said. Poker is still poker and the cards can mess up any well-timed strategy. Whether that's years of experience talking or comes from working with a coach that belongs to the best players in the world, Tsang seemed to realize that.
"I was pretty confident but I mean, you still need cards to hit and stuff, right?" Tsang said. "In tournaments, you can’t just rely on pure skill, so I was pretty happy with the cards."
Tsang wasn't relying on good cards alone. He had so few showdowns that any observer wouldn't even be able to tell if he was just running hot or making all the right reads.
"I made some good plays and everything seemed to turn out my way, so I was very happy," he said.
While Tsang was calm and collected for most of it, at one point he dropped that and shouted at the top of his lungs. Heads up with the chip lead, he got it in with two-pair against top-pair. He was closer than ever to winning the €11,111,111 first-place prize right then and there, untilthe river hit and the two chopped with a straight on the board.
"I thought that was the winning hand; I thought I was going to take it down right then and there," Tsang remembered. "He only had like three outs and turned to six outs and. And then the seven hit..."
No Pros Allowed
This event was special because no pros were allowed. While Tsang has played a lot of poker in his life, the Canadian-born but Hong Kong based entrepreneur can't be seen as a professional player by any means.
"I run different businesses," Tsang said. "I invested a lot into various IT [companies], travel agencies, internet firms and some money lending [firms]. I have a bunch of various businesses."
Tsang does play poker regularly, but not as much as a couple of years ago.
"Before, I used to play much more," Tsang said. "For the last one or two years, I haven’t been playing as much and I’ve just been focusing more on my businesses."
In fact, this was the first event he played all year.
The stipulation that no pros could enter made for some uproar in the poker community. Some players that would have signed up if it was an open event vented their displeasure. Tsang didn't really want to add much to the discussion.
"I don’t have much comment about that," he said. "I think it’s good that a lot of non-professionals can come and take a shot at something this big."
Kanit, being a pro himself that wasn't allowed to enter but would've if he had the option, did have a strong opinion on the subject.
"If all the pros were like me, the pros would've been allowed," Kanit said.
That's mostly, probably, because Kanit is a fun guy to have at your table. Ask just about anyone in the Super High Rollers at the EPT and they'll tell you: Kanit is fun. He's talkative and because of his big smile, natural charisma and many jokes, he gets away with just about anything.
He takes jabs, he laughs, he banters, he jokes around - playing with Kanit is never boring.
"I just enjoy my experience and I enjoy playing," Kanit said. "If I have the chance to talk, to laugh, to enjoy my day, I will do it."
Not everyone is like that, and you can't really blame them. It's either in your nature to be outgoing or it isn't. And while Kanit said big money doesn't influence his play, not all are that blessed.
More than once, players quiet down when the buy-ins and payouts get big.
"The buy-in is so big that everybody takes it really seriously, and as a result, there isn't a lot of table talk," Kanit said.
And that, according to Kanit, is where the problem lies.
"The businessmen don’t want that. They want to enjoy their experience and have fun," he said. "And to be honest...they’re right. If everybody was [playing] like me, the pros would be allowed. If I could have played, no one would've said anything because they would enjoy it. They don’t care about money. It’s about the experience."
The lack of table talk might not even be the biggest issue for the recreational players. It's taking a lot of time.
"When you have these guys staring at you all the time and taking five minutes for every single decision, obviously you don’t enjoy it," Kanit said.
Tanking wasn't an issue in the Big One for One Drop Extravaganza. Maybe the players didn't face real tough decisions. Maybe they didn't think on a level that made decisions tough in their eyes. In fact, the event was incredibly speedy all tournament long.
"Today was really quick," Kanit said. "Everybody was playing very fast, took 20 to 30 seconds max."
And that, he said, made all the difference.
"They enjoy it; there was talking and laughing," Kanit said.
That wasn't to say that the money was no pressure at all.
"Of course, they feel the pressure," Kanit said. "But it was a completely different atmosphere. It was something we don’t see on the pro tour as much and I really enjoyed it too."
From No Pros Allowed to Invite Only?
The 'no pros allowed' rule wasn't enforced in the closing €100,000 event. As a result, players like Tom Marches, Mikita Badziakouski and Kanit entered. All three of them were as talkative as anyone, making sure the other players didn't mind their presence.
That might help Guy Laliberté make his decision to drop the 'no pros allowed' rule and instead make it a 'invitation only.' While that's pure speculation for now, Kanit was open to the idea.
"I hope so because if I think about it, I didn’t do anything wrong to not be able to play in this tournament," he said. "The last One Drop, every single businessman I had at my table enjoyed it. At the end of the second day, I had phone numbers of all the businessmen. I feel like I’m different than most pros."
It was still early when the tournament concluded. When all the photos were taken, all the interviews were done and the payout had been taken care of, it wasn't even 9 o'clock yet. So there was only one logical thing to do next.
"We’re probably going to go celebrate somehow, just go get drunk." Tsang said with a big smile, almost getting hugged to death seconds later by his coach Kanit.
* Photos by Neil Stoddart.