When you think of poker in Italy - and on the boisterous EPT these days you rarely have the opportunity not to - you probably think of the Team PokerStars Pro duo Dario Minieri and Luca Pagano, with notable mentions to Max Pescatori and Dario Alioto. But as from this evening, and the second-longest final table in the tour's history, there's another contender proudly draped in Il Tricolore and drowning in chips. His name is Salvatore Bonavena and he is the latest EPT Prague champion, €774,000 richer.
Our champion, Salvatore Bonavena
The 44-year-old Bonavena emerged victorious after 264 hands of play over 12 hours in the Czech capital, beating an Italian-heavy final table from which Massimo Di Cicco finished second and Francesco Cirianni fifth. All three were vociferously supported from a now fully-expected packed rail of supporters, and their success can only further inflate the extraordinary bubble of interest in Italy.
They already have the best food, some pretty spectacular scenery and a habitually world-beating football team. Can they seize the upper hand in poker too? Or is it already too late?
Certainly Bonavena played a terrific game today, riding waves of fortune, ill-fortune, and then fortune again to go from chip leader overnight, to short stack, and then chip leader once more. By the time he emerged as our winner, he had overcome all the inherent variance attendant on this game and turned in a thoroughly skilled performance. Congratulations to him, and well played.
The final hand came at 1am local time, when Bonavena's 7-8 beat Di Cicco's A-4 on an eight-high flop. By that point, the final two Italians had outlasted Raul Mestre, of Spain, who busted on the second hand of the day, then Nasr El Nasr, of Germany, whose K-J couldn't beat Andrew Chen's 10-10.
Nasr El Nasr
The lone Nordic representative at the final table, Fredrik Nygard from Finland, then busted in sixth, running a two pair (kings and sixes) into the flopped quads of Konstantinos Alexiou and then perishing when his A-8 was outdrawn by Chen's Q-2.
Chen had the stack by then to make the move with such a meagre holding and for a good while both before and after that, this arena indisputably belonged to the young Canadian. At only 20 years old, Chen was giving away decades in worldly wisdom to the majority of his adversaries, but was arguably the most experienced poker player of the bunch.
Chen recently made the final table on an LAPT event in Costa Rica, and was the class act for long periods here. One call in particular, against the aggressive and impenetrable Alexiou, was inspired. Chen took a near million-chip pot with ace-high when he correctly put Alexiou on a busted draw. It looked like the kind of moment to encourage engravers to etch Chen's name on the trophy. But there was still much, much more action to follow.
Cirianni had allowed himself to get short-stacked, but continually showed a fighting spirit by repeatedly moving his short stack all in during level 26. However by the time he did so for the third time in quick succession, Chen had found a genuine hand. The Canadian's A-Q was unthreatened by Cirianni's A-8 and one Italian fell; two to go.
Alexiou was the next out, but it would be profoundly unfair to dismiss his contribution to this tournament in a few flippant words. The Greek player had been one of the railbirds' favourites throughout the final couple of days, always having chips, always having a smile, always having a manner around the table that fascinated, confounded, entertained and baffled players and spectators alike.
Alexiou's duel with Minieri yesterday kept everyone engaged, and his glasses schtick today - switching spectacles whenever he was about to announce all in - belied the tension of a tournament boasting a million-euro prize pool.
Perhaps his big mistake was not to alternate the specs when he shoved for his final 600,000-odd holding pocket threes. Bonavena, who was by then wielding a sizeable stack of his own, made the call with K-Q and spiked a king on the river. Alexiou took his leave.
Three handed, we might as well have been in a Roman coliseum. The plucky Canadian Chen was surrounded by hordes of rambunctious Italians and they threw everything they had at him, baying for blood. They had already wounded him - Bonavena's A-5 had outdrawn Chen's kings all in pre-flop, which would have given the Canadian the chip lead. And in the end, he simply could not overcome the numerical advantage, or Bonavena's A-6 armed only with K-Q.
Chen departed and we were left with a guaranteed Italian winner, the first ever on the EPT. Bonavena had three-to-one chip lead as they entered heads up play, and definitely had the momentum after his fluctuations throughout the day belatedly took a steep upward slant. But Di Cicco, the lone PokerStars player on the final table, undoubtedly had the game to rescue the situation, and take play past midnight and into the early hours.
He doubled up once, emulating Doyle Brunson when his T-2 bettered Bonavena's Q-T on a board of Tc-4c-2h-7d-5c, and the stacks were level for an extended period of heads-up play. But then Bonavera found pocket eights and swung it back into his favour, and then as the 12th hour ticked around the players got to a flop of 8h-3h-2h, which was ripe with bluffing potential. Di Cicco seized the initiative and stabbed at it hard, but Bonavena was going nowhere and made what turned out to be a championship winning call.
Di Cicco had A-4, no heart. Bonavena had 7-8d and top pair. And as soon as the turn and river bricked, that 7-8d was being waved around Bonavena's head as the winning hand of the first Italian EPT champion.
Bonavena got there ahead of Messrs Minieri, Pagano, Pescatori, Alioto, Ferrari, Bugatti, Dante, Garibaldi, Marco Polo, Antonioni, Botticelli, Canaletto, da Vinci, Pavarotti, Maldini, Pasta, Pizza, Linguini, Spaghetti, and Caesar. "I'm really happy; I feel like up going to cry," Bonavena said. "I've done something no Italian has ever done. I feel very proud."
And rightly so.