Poker Moments: Sebastian Malec’s Miracle at EPT Barcelona
In the summer of 2016, one of the most bizarre and exciting final hands of any tournament brought a controversial PokerStars EPT Barcelona Main Event to a close. Sebastian Malec defeated Uri Reichenstein to claim the title he’d imagine winning his whole youth. The ultimate fan of the European Poker Tour won the most coveted title of his dreams.
EPT Barcelona, however, was no ordinary EPT. PokerStars had halted play before the first card was dealt to break the news to fans and players alike that the EPT was being closed as a brand, and that the new PokerStars Championship (PSC) was the way forward.
James Hartigan, presenter, commentator, and senior editorial manager of the EPT and many other PokerStars shows, remembers the moment well.
"I don’t think there’s any harm in anyone saying, 'OK we made a mistake, we never should have ended the EPT, and we’re bringing that back.'"
“It was difficult,” says Hartigan, “I make no secret of the fact that I never wanted to say goodbye to the EPT. I found it a curious decision. One of the reasons why I drank the Kool-Aid and bought into it was that I thought the EPT wasn’t ending; I thought it was expanding and transitioning into the PSC which would be taking the EPT global. Bizarrely, when we got to the end of 2016, we were saying it was the end of the EPT the beginning of something new. That confused me because that’s not what I thought was going to happen. It’s obvious that it didn’t work, and I don’t think there’s any harm in anyone saying, ‘OK we made a mistake, we never should have ended the EPT, and we’re bringing that back.’”
Looking back, everyone has 20/20 vision in retrospect, but at the time, Hartigan thinks that the ‘final days’ element helped created one of the most unique Main Event winners the EPT has ever seen.
“I think it played into Sebastian Malec’s emotions at the time. He’d heard along with everyone else that there were going to be three more - Barcelona, Malta, and Prague - and then it was going to be something else. To him, he was going to be one of the last EPT champions.”
Malec was young, just about to turn 21 when EPT Barcelona Main Event rolled around. Malec was almost unheard of, yet strangely had been in the winner's photo for an EPT previously.
“In a remarkable piece of foreshadowing, at the EPT Dublin final table earlier that year, which Dzmitry Urbanovich won, on his rail, there were a number of Polish players... among which was Sebastian Malec. In the winner’s presentation when Urbanovich lifts the trophy, Malec is there as part of that contingent cheering. Fast forward six months, and he’s lifting that trophy, and the polish poker community is celebrating his victory.”
No-one has ever won an EPT like Sebastian Malec did. From bathroom habits to a pantomime every time he was in a hand, Malec was like an excited child on Christmas Eve. He was going to get the present of a lifetime.
“He was such a one-off. We identified him when we were down to four or five tables at the end of Day 4. He won a huge pot on the very last hand of the day. We didn’t see it on the stream, but the crew out in the field noticed that after winning that hand, he got really emotional and broke down in tears. The fact that he made it to the penultimate day, the final 24 or 16 players and obviously had a huge stack, he was someone who was very invested in it.”
No-one had any idea how invested. But Hartigan and the team interviewed every player on the eve of the final table, and the picture became clear. Malec was a fan. A superfan.
“We only made TV shows of the final tables of the EPT that year, so we interviewed everyone who was at the final table. We heard Malec’s story and found out about his background as a chess prodigy [who] discovered poker.”
"It was a combination of nerves and excitement that made him behave the way he did."
It turned out that Malec was a student who had visited the EPT tournament while studying in London.
“He was this ultimate poker fanboy. He’d come to have his picture taken with people like Jason Mercier and to see Liv Boeree play. To be in the position where he could qualify for the EPT, play in the EPT and then go deep and potentially win what at that point was the biggest EPT ever held, it clearly meant so much to him. It was a combination of nerves and excitement that made him behave the way he did.”
Malec’s final hand was the poker moment of his life, and possibly that of his opponent, Uri Recihenstein too, just for different reasons.
“The reason I love the hand is because it has a bit of everything. You’ve obviously got this ridiculous cooler, and you’d had this back-and-forth heads-up battle where both players had enjoyed a dominant chip lead. Sebastian needed to go to the bathroom several times, and they were almost dead even in chips. I sat there thinking ‘This will go on until five in the morning!’ and then: Cooler Alert!”
Malec turns a flush, with Reichenstein making the nut straight with the same card. Malec goes all-in on the paired river, and Reichenstein then proceeds to deliberate the call which would end the tournament in his opponent’s favor, while Malec prances, dances and prowls around the table. Malec even left the table to take a selfie with the crowd on the rail, to raucous laughter.
“Malec walks away from the table. Part of you loves it, part of you knows that the tournament staff probably shouldn’t let him leave the table and sit in the crowd and letting someone take a sip of his drink. But it was so fun to watch. More than that, Sebastian Malec goes through every human emotion from the moment Uri Reichenstein throws in that single chip to call. The sheer excitement as he jumps up and realizes that he’s got to get back to the table, flips over his cards, he’s jumping for joy, then the emotion hits him, and he realizes ‘Oh my God, I’ve won!’ and he just bursts into tears.
"He’s in the corner crying his eyes out, then the celebrations start again, his friends and the other Polish players are around him and lifting him up and he realizes ‘I’m the winner. The last hand is hilarious, fun, and ridiculous. And what follows afterward is probably the best winning moment we’ve ever had in any live event ever.”
Better players have won EPT Main Events. Bigger names have never even got close to achieving what Malec did. It was clear that his EPT win was the biggest moment of the young man’s life.
"To see the TV set, all those tables, the pros, and then play on the tour and win it, is just an incredible journey which encompasses everything about why we do what we do."
“I think he’s very lucky by the way, with everything he was saying and doing, he was exuding so much strength to the point where Reichenstein said ‘Everything you’re doing right now tells me that you’ve got it, that you’re really strong.’ It’s absolutely telegraphing his hand, but somehow he still gets a call.”
We can all identify with the pain Reichenstein is in. He’s turned an improbable straight heads-up and knows that it’s a huge hand and he should be winning. But his gut is screaming at him to fold. He has to know if his gut is right or wrong.
“It’s something we can all relate to. Granted not for the same stakes with an EPT on the line, but we’ve all been 100% they’ve got it, but we can’t help ourselves but put the chips out there. We need to see it, to be proved right, but the cost [to Reichenstein] was an EPT title and a huge difference in prize money.”
Sebastian Malec will always be remembered, and for many reasons, so will the 2016 EPT Barcelona festival. Hartigan believes that Malec’s miraculous moment in the sun is something that brings together the aspiration and organization of the EPT.
“He’s taken that journey from poker fanboy to EPT champion. For someone who’s grown up watching the shows on TV, followed the live stream and came to an event to see what it’s like, to actually walk into that room, it’s amazing. To see the TV set, all those tables, the pros, and then play on the tour and win it, is just an incredible journey which encompasses everything about why we do what we do.”