By Howard Swains
We have clocked more than 13,000 miles on the European Poker Tour this season, crowning 11 champions in cities from Barcelona to the Bahamas, Deauville to Dortmund. And as the curtain comes down tonight on a season that shattered all previous records, the man with the widest smile and the fattest wallet is the 26-year-old Team PokerStars Netherlands Pro, Pieter de Korver.
Pieter de Korver
De Korver was the last man standing from 935 players who filed into the Salle des Etoiles at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo this week, and when he stacked all of their chips in front of him this evening, he could prop on the top a cheque written out for €2,300,000. Beside it were two cards - the [9s] and the [6s] - the hand with which he ultimately defeated the PokerStars player Matthew Woodward to become the EPT Grand Final champion.
But that hand represented only the ten-yard dash over the finishing line in what had been a marathon recovery from the brink of elimination. De Korver was down to only three big blinds at one stage of final table proceedings, but he rallied and scrapped and staged a genuine zero-to-hero comeback, becoming the second Dutch winner of an EPT main event in seven days.
"I was loving the atmosphere and enjoying playing cards," De Korver said. "I had a little bit of luck and I won. That's the best part of poker."
The last eight arrived today with Dag Martin Mikkelsen leading the way. And within the first level of final table play, there was nothing but clear, crisp Norwegian air between the youngster and any of his challengers.
The final table players (l-r): Alem Shah, Eric Qu, Daniel Zink, Pieter de Korver, Peter Traply, Dag Martin Mikkelsen, Matthew Woodward, Mikhail Tulchinsky
Mikkelsen knocked out Peter Traply, the Hungarian, who came to the final table second in chips, in what seemed certain to be a championship-defining pot. Mikkelsen took a chip lead of more than 11 million at that stage, and then eliminated Daniel Zink in seventh place.
The title seemed destined to be heading back to Stavanger - but we hadn't accounted for Lazarus de Korver.
Mikhail Tulchinskiy, from St Petersburg, Russia, momentarily took centre stage, picking off the short-stacked Alem Shah and Eric Qu in short order, but still trailing Mikkelsen by a country mile. At the other end of the leaderboard, De Korver had only 400,000, with blinds at 80,000-160,000. But when De Korver tripled up with Q-4, through Woodward and Mikkelsen, the momentum dramatically shifted. De Korver repeatedly shoved and repeatedly won, while Mikkelson couldn't catch a break. The Dane took a speculative all in shy at a board showing two sevens and a six, but De Korver was going nowhere with his full boat - he was holding pocket sixes - and vaulted into the lead at Mikkelsen's expense.
Dag Martin Mikkelsen
Woodward put Mikkelsen out of his misery soon after, leaving us three handed, and then the American, who had seemed at ultimate ease on the first final table of his career, took pocket threes up against Tulchinskiy's Q-T and sent the Russian out of the building.
But those skirmishes seemed like harmless bumps between dodgem cars compared with the juggernaut of momentum that was fuelling De Korver. Woodward battled gamely for close to an hour in the heads up joust, until he flopped middle pair and a flush draw, against De Korver's middle pair, bigger kicker, and a massive all in raise.
Pieter de Korver, left, celebrates the winning hand. Matthew Woodward, right, doesn't.
Woodward called, missed his outs, and sent the bar owners of Monte Carlo to the cash and carry to accommodate the legion of Dutch fans pouring out of the bleachers and into the party spirit. Woodward took €1,300,000 for his second spot - and a whole stack of credit. De Korver, however, takes the title, the plaudits, the two-point-three million big ones and a place on the front pages of newspapers and magazines across Europe.
That, then, is that from the European Poker Tour for another season. It started with Sebastian Ruthenberg's victory in Barcelona last August, and finished this week in Monte Carlo with the richest tournament in European poker history. I dare say we'll do something very similar next year -- only bigger, longer and better.
Thanks for tuning into the coverage at PokerStars Blog, where there'll be plenty more throughout the EPT close season, not least the World Series Main Event from Las Vegas in July.
All photography comes from the razor-sharp lens of Neil Stoddart.
Final table payouts at EPT Grand Final
1 - Pieter de Korver, Holland, Team PokerStars Pro Netherlands, €2,300,000
2 - Matthew Woodward, USA, PokerStars qualifier, €1,300,000
3 - Mikhail Tulchinskiy, Russia, PokerStars player, €800,000
4 - Dag Martin Mikkelsen, Norway, €600,000
5 - Eric Qu, France, €470,000
6 - Alem Shah, Germany, €350,000
7 - Daniel Zink, Germany, €250,000
8 - Peter Traply, Hungary, PokerStars qualifier, €170,000