Thursday, July 7, 2011 | 4:45 a.m.
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Brian Rast turned a chance encounter earlier this summer into nearly $2 million and one of the year’s most highly regarded titles at the World Series of Poker.
Upon returning home to his Las Vegas condominium building from a trip to Brazil in June, Rast ran into Antonio Esfandiari, a friend and fellow poker pro. Esfandiari insisted Rast play in a $1,500 WSOP pot-limit hold’em tournament that day and even staked him in the event.
Rast went on to win it for $227,232. Because of the cash, the 29-year-old Rast felt he had a sufficient enough bankroll to buy into the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship.
Rast won the WSOP’s most expensive tournament after five days of play early Thursday morning at the Rio by beating Phil Hellmuth, 46, heads-up. He received $1.72 million and the heralded Chip Reese Memorial Trophy for the accomplishment.
“This bracelet means a lot,” Rast said. “It’s nice that I won a tournament where I can say I beat some of the best players in the world.”
The Poker Player’s Championship is considered second to only the Main Event, which begins Thursday at noon, in terms of prestige in the poker world.
Rast, who is mainly known as a cash game player, recovered from a more than 5-to-1 chip disadvantage against Hellmuth in less than an hour to win his second bracelet of the summer.
The two were nearly even — Rast had 9.9 million chips to Hellmuth’s 9.3 million — heading into the fateful final hand. The dealer spread out a flop of Jack-10-9 with two diamonds.
Rast bet out and Hellmuth pushed all-in with 8-2 of diamonds, a combination flush and straight draw. Rast immediately called with King-Queen for the highest possible straight. His hand held up to win the pot.
“It was very surprising to me that that was the play he decided to make because I thought he played really well the whole tournament and I don’t like that play,” Rast said. “I just think that he’s risking 9 million to win a million that’s in the pot and every time he gets called, he’s in really bad shape.”
Hellmuth was unlucky considering he twice had Rast all-in before that hand with four-to-a-flush after the flop. The first time, Hellmuth was actually a favorite to win the hand.
“It’s not like I ever thought I was going to win the tournament,” Hellmuth said. “I just stayed focused and kept playing, but I felt pretty good when he had 3 million and I had 17 million.”
For Hellmuth, it was a disappointing end to a memorable run for his record 12th WSOP bracelet. The $1.06 million was the biggest single payday of Hellmuth’s life, but “The Poker Brat” cares more about championships than money at this point in his career.
It was the third time this summer that Hellmuth, who famously won the 1989 Main Event for $755,000, finished as the runner-up in a tournament. He’s currently at the top of the WSOP Player of the Year standings.
“Player of the Year is kind of nice, but I’m after bracelets,” Hellmuth said. “It’s nice to fall back on.”
“I hear critics all the time, but I think I’ve put on a pretty spectacular performance.”
Some of Hellmuth’s naysayers point to all of his bracelets being in hold’ em variations of poker. The Poker Player’s Championship would have put a silence to that.
Even though its final table was all no-limit hold’ em, the event was an eight-game mix for the four days leading up to Wednesday.
“I’m probably better than most people think at the mixed games,” Rast said. “But by no means do I consider myself to be one of the top mixed games players. But (the tournament) does have no-limit hold’ em and pot-limit Omaha and the final table being no-limit hold ‘em I thought was a definite advantage to me.”
Below is the full list of payouts from the Poker Player’s Championship final table.
1. Brian Rast, Las Vegas, $1,720,328
2. Phil Hellmuth, Palo Alto, Calif., $1,063,034
3. Minh Ly, Temple City, Calif., $665,763
4. Owais Ahmed, Anaheim, Calif., $482,085
5. Matt Glantz, Lafayette Hills, Pa., $376,750
6. George Lind, Gilbert, Ariz., $300,441
7. Scott Seiver, Las Vegas, $243,978
8. Ben Lamb, Las Vegas, $201,338
9. Jason Lester, Miami, $168,529