In just four-and-a-half hours time, Ben Tollerene single-handedly cleared the PokerStars Championship Panama Super High Roller final table. All five of the players that started the day, directly handed their chips to the high stakes online player as he knocked out each and every single one of them.
"Yeah, I can't really imagine a smoother final table than that," Tollerene admitted when asked if this is as easy a high-stakes live tournament win can get. "I think I lost one all in against [Daniel Dvoress] for like 10 blinds and won every other one. I can't remember actually even losing a significant pot, which is pretty rare."
Tollerene, who had already cashed for $422,114 this year and really seemed more focused on playing live as of late, took home well over half a million, the richest poker tournament ever on Panamanian soil.
Timothy Adams started out as the shortest stack but doubled early on with pocket threes to Orpen Kisacikoglu's ace-ten. In the end, it wouldn't be enough as he was still first to bust. Adams got it in with ace-queen to Tollerene's kings and the latter made a full house to send the former packing.
Just before sending Adams to the rail, Tollerene had also won a big pot off O'Dwyer. Still, it was Orpen Kisacikoglu to go out first. In a battle of the blinds, Tollerene pushed from the small with queen-nine. Kisacikoglu called with ace-deuce but saw his neighbor hit a nine.
Next up with his head on Tollerene's chopping block was Steve O'Dwyer, whom he had crippled shortly before. O'Dwyer shoved for eight big blinds with jack-nine off suit and big blind Tollerene called with king-six. The board paired both but Tollerene's turned king was sufficient to get the tournament down to three players.
Three minutes later, Justin Bonomo hit the rail. The former online superstar, who started out as the second to shortest stack, signed for a payday of $237,680 as he didn't manage to dodge a six. He had gotten it in good with king-jack to Tollerene's jack-six, but the six on the river got him.
Tollerene had knocked everyone out and started heads up with a 10-1 lead over Daniel Dvoress. Dvoress, though, wasn't just going to roll over. The infamous "Oxota" doubled early on with king-nine to Tollerene's jack-deuce suited. A small comeback followed but after an hour or so, he dipped under the ten big blind mark again as he had to muck to a nine-high flush shown by Tollerene in a sizable pot.
Five minutes later, Tollerene finished the job. A pre-flop all in with king-five (Tollerene) to ace-nine (Dvoress) didn't end well for the player favorite going in. The flop and turn were all blanks but the king on the river sealed the deal for Tollerene.
Coming from an online cash background, where he built one of the most titanic reputations in the game, Tollerene's forte falls in far deeper-stacked play than he experienced here at PokerStars Championship Panama.
A growing list of tournament accomplishments indicates he's gaining more familiarity with the nuances of the tournament game, something Tollerene confirmed. He admitted he still runs into some spots where he's unsure how to play optimally against opponents hovering around 10 big blinds, but it was all smooth sailing in this one.
"Some of it I feel really good about, and sometimes I'm kind of racking my brain figuring out what to do," he said. "Today, luckily, I ended up in spots where I knew what to do and didn't have as many of the hard ones.
"It seemed like all of them were committed to being pretty tight and laddering up the pay jumps. That allows me to really put the pressure on, make them show up with a good hand and go all in a lot. Also, I just had good cards a lot. I kept looking down at a suited ace or a small pocket pair, so it's really easy."
Tollerene expects the transition to more live tournament play to continue in the near future. Much of his online cash action has dried up — folks are understandably wary of giving action to a man with north of $11 million in tracked online profits — so Tollerene expects to play a fairly busy upcoming tournament schedule.
"I'd probably be happier with online cash action, but I think that game's changing and perhaps dying a little bit," he said. "So, I'm gonna play all of the ARIA stuff in Vegas and play the World Series and keep doing this."
Shortly after the last card had been placed on the felt to secure Tollerene's win, he walked over to the rail and embraced good friend Jason Koon. Koon took down the $100,000 Super High Roller at PokerStars Championship Bahamas and graciously paused his heater so Tollerene could win this one.
Tollerene joked that he would do the same for Koon in the next event they play.
"I guess it's his turn, now," Tollerene said with a smile. "He can get the next one, then it'll be my turn again."
When poker first hit the TV spotlight, producers needed gregarious characters to capture audience attention and draw them in to the game.
Few players hammed it up for the cameras more successfully than Humberto Brenes. The outgoing Costa Rican found a natural fit as the centerpiece of many a televised poker moment. His thick but charming accent, garish tropical wear and clever use of card protectors made him a fan favorite.
Brenes frequently employed a small shark to guard his station at the table, moving it forward to figuratively gobble up the chips he would take from opponents. The shark was notably missing from his side as he made a run into the money in the $1,100 PokerStars National Championship.
"The shark is in the room, still sleeping," Brenes confided after he busted in 110th for $1,920. "I'm saving it for the big tournament."
It also helped Brenes' celebrity that he could play a little. Brenes rode a famously tight playing style to considerable tournament success, racking up more than $6 million in cashes. He has lapped his Central and South American compatriots many times over in that regard — next best is Argentinian Ivan Luca with just a little over $4 million.
Brenes has also collected two World Series of Poker bracelets, both in $2,500 events in 1993.
However, he has slowed down considerably in recent years, with just $20,000 in cashes since 2015. He booked his first cash of 2017 with aforementioned cash here at PokerStars Championship Panama, and that's no accident. According to Brenes, he devotes most of his time these days to interests outside the felt.
For instance, Brenes owns a cafe called El Tostador that he proudly boasts has 27 locations in Costa Rica. He and his family also operate a large import/export business centered around shipping nuts and fruit. Brenes' son Jose — who graciously helped translate for this piece — recently graduated from college, and Brenes' focus at the moment is preparing his heirs to run the family's interests.
That's been a four-year project for Brenes, one that has taken him away from the felt more than he'd like. He still finds time to play the occasional home game with friends, but trips to play events have been few and far between. PokerStars Championship Panama represented a rare chance to fire in an event an hour away from home, and Brenes jumped at the chance.
"I'll play every day, and he'll work every day," he said with a laugh, nodding at his son. "It's perfect for me."
What Brenes sees when he sits down at the felt here in Panama is a reflection of years of poker's growth in Central America. Brenes pointed at the likes of poker legend Erik Seidel — whom Brenes once defeated for a $500,000 win 2002 — competing here along with dozens of players from the region as a sign of how far things have come.
When asked about his role in helping foster the growth of poker in the area, Brenes deflected responsibility from himself and praised the efforts of PokerStars, which sponsored Brenes for years.
"I feel I was just the image, so a lot of Central Americans can see themselves succeeding on PokerStars," Brenes said. "PokerStars made a lot of contributions developing Central American and South American players, like Andre Akkari."
That spotlight from PokerStars, augmented by Brenes' natural charisma, allowed his Q score in the poker world to be commensurate with his on-the-felt success. Most of his opponents still recognize him immediately and have asked where the famed shark is at, he said.
He hopes those players will see more of him in the coming years as he begins to turn more business interests over to his children.
"I'll never retire," he said. "When my sons take over the business, I can play a little more. I'll have all day to play poker."
Brenes' infectious love for the game hasn't diminished at all. In fact, he'd like his final business in Costa Rica to be "Shark Poker Room," a special club for retired people complete with a nursing staff where the retirees can battle each other at the felt all day long. Brenes believes it helps keep a person's mind sharp in old age.
But before that, Brenes has one more goal he'd like to accomplish in poker before he fades into the sunset. He plans to take a break from the business grind and play a solid WSOP schedule this year in hopes of accomplishing that goal.
"I have two bracelets," he said. "But, I have three children. I want to win one more, so I can give one to each of them."
So, Brenes will be there this summer. He wasn't as visible as usual at PokerStars Championship Panama, donning muted tan and denim garb. But if he wants to capture that third bracelet, expect his reliable sidekick make a return, the one who comes out to play when it matters most.
If you read the recaps of big live poker tournaments, you'll notice it's all about the poker players. This player wins another big title, that player is in an excellent position for his or her next bracelet, and another player got knocked out in cruel fashion. Rightfully so, as players are front and center in live poker tournaments, but there are equally important people working hard behind the scenes.
A tournament room is crowded with people with all sorts of jobs and from all walks of life. First and foremost, you have the dealers. You also have floor staff, tournament directors, masseuses, poker reporters, technicians, photographers, camera operators, producers, people that man the information desk when you enter and plenty more.
In the PokerNews' Behind the Scenes series, we want to take a look at some of these people involved in the poker world that are, well, more "behind the scenes."
Today's spotlight is on Dana Perianu who works as a massage therapist at poker events all over the world. She got poker famous when a photo of her massaging Phil Ivey went viral, but there's a lot more to tell than that one instant in Monaco.
A Mall Masseuse
Like so many people that find themselves in the world of poker today, Dana Perianu had no intention of making a living surrounded by card players. After finishing high school, Perianu had no good idea on what to do next. Her mother suggested going to university to study physical therapy and since she enjoyed making people feel good, so she did.
"They were superstitious and thought I was the reason they were winning"
She became friends with girls who were doing massage classes besides studying physical therapy. She joined them and ended up massaging in a mall for some income while studying. Set up with a massage chair in one of the corridors, she would massage anyone willing to spend a couple Romanian leu to get refreshed.
Poker wasn't a thing in her life at all, but that would soon change. While hanging out with some of her Italian friends, some of them turned to poker. They would play while Perianu was present, and they would win. It wasn't just a single instance — they would win whenever Perianu was in the room.
"Every time they were playing online and I was around, they were winning," she recalls. "They were superstitious and thought I was the reason they were winning."
They were poker players and they were superstitious. And not just a little bit. In fact, they were so superstitious that they wanted her to be around whenever they played. Perianu was their lucky charm and they repeated their beliefs so many times it truly became a shibboleth — a belief repetitively cited but untrue.
As her Italian poker-playing friends got more successful, they planned a trip to Monte Carlo for the European Poker Tour Grand Final to play. For them, it went without saying that Perianu had to come along, or they would certainly fail. And while she wasn't too thrilled at first going to an expensive place like Monaco, she would eventually succumb and come along. She had been a mall masseuse for over a year and a half at the time, but she had no idea she would eventually become one of the most in-demand poker masseuses in the world.
Monaco and a New Career
She had been around players for some time before her first poker trip, but she wasn't well versed in the world of poker at all.
"I had no idea about poker, I didn't even know the hand rankings," she said.
Still, she hung around for a few days, bringing luck to the group she was with. She wasn't giving massages to the players she was with but did go from table to table to see if her luck would rub off on them.
"I had no idea about poker, but at one point I started believing myself that I brought people good luck," she said. "I became superstitious as well, since my friends kept winning."
Maybe her friends were just good players, but being able to be good in a card game wasn't something Perianu knew was possible at the time.
"I just visualised all the chips coming their way, I could just see the dealer pushing the chips towards them," she said. "As that tended to happen a lot, I said to myself, 'OK, I'm attracting good luck.'"
"Phil Ivey once paid me €1,000 for a 3-hour massage."
Fascinated by the new world she found herself in, Perianu met Sookhee Hallberg, the owner of Thee Best Hands, the massage company that is hired by organizers from all over the world to exclusively bring massage therapists to their poker tournaments. Perianu, with a year and a half experience as a masseuse in a mall, asked Sookhee if there was a job opening so she could join the team.
The job interview consisted of Perianu giving Hallberg a massage. When that was done she was hired.
"She said OK, I'll bring you to the next tournament and give you a chance," Perianu said. "So, really, I wasn't their lucky charm but they were actually my lucky charm, as coming along with them to Monaco brought me a lot."
Excited at the prospect of going to another poker tournament, but now to make money doing so, she pushed Hallberg to give her her first assignment. The first big tournament Hallberg would go to herself was EPT Kiev after the summer, but she did have World Poker Tour Barcelona in between, where she would be sending masseuses. Initially, Hallberg wasn't thrilled to send a new masseuse on her own to her first event, but after some pushing, she agreed and Perianu was on her way to the Catalonian capital for WPT Barcelona 2009.
A New World, A World Where Money Doesn't Matter
Perianu was exposed to a new world where money didn't seem to matter to a lot of people. For Perianu, originally from Brăila, Romania — one of the poorest city's in one of the poorest countries in Europe, this was like finding El Dorado. In a couple of hours time, she made more than she did in a month back home. As soon as she started working, she couldn't stop. She even skipped dinner.
"I didn't want to go eat," she remembers. "Fifteen minutes of work was €25, plus I would have to spend money on food, so not only would I miss out on money, going to dinner would even cost me money. That was insanely expensive for me, so I decided I wasn't going to eat."
At 1 a.m., after a day of non-stop work and nothing to eat, she just about fainted and did grab a quick bite. Not eating wasn't happening anymore, but she kept working extremely long days for the remainder of the trip.
"Two hours of massaging was equal to my dad's salary — I just had to work!" she said. "I was a robot. I would work till the casino would close each day."
The next event for Perianu to work was EPT Kiev, the EPT Season 6 opening event eventually won by Maxim Lykov.
"When she saw that I was working 15-hour days, she was shocked but impressed."
"The other girls at the time did not do as good as I did, and Sookhee didn't expect that," Perianu said. "When she saw that I was working 15-hour days, she was shocked but impressed."
From that moment on, Perianu was in the core team and welcome to come along to all events Thee Best Hands was hired to be at.
Like all masseuses, Perianu is an independent contractor hired by Hallberg to work the events. She gets a cut from the €1.50 clients pay per minute. Being in high demand, she didn't have to ask anymore if she could go to certain events.
"I was her best seller, I had the most clients," Perianu said. "It was great."
She quickly built a packed Rolodex of regular clients. Now, eight years later, she rarely massages someone totally new. "Most of my clients take massages that take a couple of hours, so I only have room for a few clients a day. They don't give me time for new faces."
Perianu gets Facebook and Whatsapp messages all the time but has to disappoint quite a few as there are only so many hours in a day and when she starts, she won't quit until the client has had enough. One client, two-time Belgian Poker Challenge champion Arne Coulier, might be the craziest of them all. His massages often take 10 hours or longer, depending on how long he lasts in an event. Fortunately for Perianu, Coulier goes deep often, and she doesn't leave his side when he does.
With so many clients on the waiting list and not enough time to get to them all, Perianu introduced her friend Anka to the world of poker massaging and directed some of her clients to her. The two have known each other for sixteen years and are inseparable. Where Perianu is, Anka can often be found.
Living From Her Suitcase
Perianu does have a place back home in Romania, but she's hardly ever there.
"I go from tournament to tournament, and when there's no tournament, I often go on vacation somewhere," she said. "I live from my suitcase."
"I became a gambler. At one point I was playing online 12 or 13 hours a day"
She visits home quite literally just to change clothes, and that's once per season to swap wardrobes. Besides Anka, who naturally lives the same lifestyle and is wherever Perianu is, she doesn't have friends back in Romania. When she does go home, it's to see her parents. But more often, she brings them to a poker tournament or on holidays.
Hopping from tournament to tournament, averaging over two different countries per month, is the jet-set life she could only have dreamed of when she was young, but it also comes at a cost. Being on the road so much makes it hard to engage in a relationship.
"I always tried, but in the end, it never works out," she said. "I've taken my boyfriends with me to tournaments and vacations, but in the end being away so much never works. While two weeks together is a lot, being away the other two weeks of the month is difficult for them. Because I'm working so much, time passes quickly for me, but for them, just waiting for their partner is tough."
There was an unwritten rule that massage therapists couldn't date poker players, but that wasn't enforced strictly at all.
"Come on, I mean I work in this world for eight years so that's impossible," Perianu said.
She was seen with Sorel Mizzi for some time, but she's never had a true long-term relationship with a poker player.
"First of all, poker players only talk about poker," she said. "Besides that, it's difficult to maintain a relationship as you're always in the same place."
Perianu got into the world of poker knowing next to nothing about the game. But as she visited more and more events and got to know more and more poker players, her interest in the game grew. Often allowed to see what cards players were playing, she picked up the basics of the game soon enough. She bought some poker books and started to play herself a bit here and there.
"I'm a person that loves to learn new things and have new experiences," she said. "I really loved getting the hang of poker."
When she started, things went extremely good. She didn't only bring others good luck, it seemed, she was lucky herself as well it turned out.
"I have an addictive personality so when I started, I couldn't stop," she said. "I became a gambler. At one point I was playing online 12 or 13 hours a day."
She started out running hot, but that didn't last. While she bought more poker books and talked more with poker players, the downswing hit hard:
"I broke a lot of laptops and I excluded myself three or four times because I had no self-control."
Perianu won playing live, but "online it was a disaster."
As contractors aren't allowed to play during work, Perianu often plays the last day of an event.
"At PokerStars events, I play the $100 hyper-turbo and the $300 turbo on the last day," she said. "In some other places, like Cyprus, I play cash games. I really play all the time, I'm a gambler!"
While she enjoys playing the game of poker a great deal, she by no means pursues a career as a professional poker player herself. And really, she doesn't have to. Of all the people surrounding a poker table, she might just average the highest hourly.
Like in any job in the service industry, massage therapists sometimes get tips. And because poker players are the clients, some are exorbitant.
"The biggest tip I ever got was from Phil Ivey," she said. "He once paid me €1,000 for a three-hour massage."
Massaging Phil Ivey wasn't only good for a fat Christmas bonus, it also gave Perianu celebrity status among a subset of the poker world. A photo by French poker site ClubPoker of Perianu massaging Ivey at the 2010 EPT Grand Final went viral on TwoPlusTwo. After user "jaybeee" posted the thread "Phil Ivey Photoshop potential" in the News, Views, and Gossip subforum, creative minds soon fired up their image-editing software to alter the photo. The thread quickly got hundreds of replies, and now, seven years later, the thread still exists with 1,691 comments and tens of thousands of views.
While some of the comments in the thread weren't as gentle and subtle as could be, Perianu wasn't disgruntled by it at all.
"I liked the attention — I'm a girl what do you think?" she said. "I enjoyed reading the pages. TwoPlusTwo was going crazy, I remember that. But then people tried to pay me to wear a T-shirt with that photo and it got a bit weird."
Perianu isn't sure how much Ivey liked the photo.
"He doesn't like to be too much in the spotlight, so I'm not sure if he'd think the photoshops were funny," she said.
She can take a joke, but some poker players go further than that.
"There are some very rude people," she said. "Some of them talk to me in a very sexual way and I don't appreciate that."
Other than rude comments, Perianu doesn't have any gripes.
"I treat everyone the same, as long as they aren't rude," she said. "They can even be smelly, that doesn't really matter to me, it's only logical after playing poker for an entire day."
More Than Just a Job
Being on the road all the time, working extremely long days and being surrounded by poker and poker players all day means that right now, poker is Perianu's world.
"It's more than just a job, it's my life," she said.
She has thought of doing something else, but it's never been more than flirting with the idea.
"I find it hard to stay away from it," she said. "When I stay in the same place for two or three weeks, I get bored and I need to leave. All my friends are here. There are no people that I know at home."
"It's more than just a job, it's my life"
Not only does she not know anyone back at home anymore, she's not interested in reconnecting at all.
"I don't even want to know those people at home," she said. "I come from the worst city in Romania, the mafia kind of way. There's nothing good left, it's all rotten."
The plan is to earn enough money to take her parents out of Romania as well. Her sister, former tennis pro Anda Perianu, lives in New York and Dana sees herself based there as well in time.
"I'm 30 now and I need a change," she said. "I still love this job but I think I need a fixed place to live for a bit. Hopefully, I don't grow bored of it again."
While some changes might be at hand, Perianu would've never missed the adventure for the world.
"I consider myself a very lucky person," she said. "All my life I've been lucky. This opportunity I got has brought me great things. I love to be a masseuse. It's tiring for me but I still enjoy the atmosphere and I still enjoy massaging people."
* This interview was conducted at an earlier PokerStars event
In two hours time, the final table of the inaugural PokerStars Championship Panama Super High Roller starts. Six players remain, all guaranteed $110,920. They'll aim for the first-place prize of $538,715.
You won't find any live updates and chip counts on PokerNews.com today, we'll leave that to the PokerStars Blog. Our partners in crime have a battalion of reporters ready to cover each and every step of all the players in today's event. So head over to PokerStarsBlog.com for live updates and chip counts when the event resumes at noon.
From the Main Event on, PokerNews.com will be your one-stop shop for all the updates one can wish for. We'll be on top of all the action for all the big events and will feature the live stream on a dedicated page so you don't have to miss a thing.
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