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December 20, 2014

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Matt Ashton ascends to $1.7 million win in WSOP Poker Players Championship

English professional wins $1.77 million months after taking time off from the tables

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Matt Ashton stands while watching play during the final table of the Poker Players Championship Thursday, July 4, 2013 at the Rio.

WSOP - Poker Players Championship

Matt Ashton stares at Don Nguyen while waiting for his move during the final table of the Poker Players Championship Thursday, July 4, 2013 at the Rio. Launch slideshow »

Poker Player's Championship payouts and results

  • Matt Ashton (1st): $1,774,089
  • Don Nguyen (2nd): $1,096,254
  • John Hennigan (3rd): $686,568
  • David Benyamine (4th): $497,122
  • George Danzer (5th): $388,523
  • Minh Ly (6th): $309,830
  • Mike Wattel (7th): $251,602
  • Jonathan Duhamel (8th): $207,630
  • Mike Gorodinsky (9th): $173,796
  • Michael Glick (10th): $173,796
  • Huck Seed (11th): $147,882
  • Bryn Kenney (12th): $147,882
  • Tommy Hang (13th): $128,620
  • Kevin Song (14th): $128,620
  • Troy Burkholder (15th): $111,893
  • Gary Benson (16th): $55,947
  • Joe Cassidy (16th): $55,947

Matt Ashton spent a large portion of last year in the wilderness, backpacking all over the world.

The only trail he was near at the Rio early Friday morning was one littered with bodies of tournament lives leading him to the payout window for $1.77 million. The mountain he climbed was poker’s most treacherous.

Ashton, a 25-year old from Liverpool, England, won the 2013 Poker Players Championship to get his name etched into the hallowed Chip Reese memorial trophy.

“My head’s still spinning,” Ashton said after putting his finishing touches on the five-day, $50,000 buy-in tournament. “It hasn’t really sunk in.”

Ashton is officially the breakout star of the 2013 World Series of Poker. Having already made three final tables previously this summer, Ashton passed Daniel Negreanu in the WSOP Player of the Year standings with the victory.

The hundreds of poker players who dedicated almost every waking hour to the game over the last several years might find Ashton’s ascent difficult to accept. Ashton didn’t play a single hand for more than nine months in 2012.

Growing tired of the days of staring into a computer screen playing online for hours on end, Ashton set out on a new journey. He wanted to go new places and see new things.

He visited 30 countries before resuming his poker career.

“It was something I always wanted to do,” Ashton said. “It may have held my poker game back if anything. I don’t think it helped it any way. But it helped in other areas of my life so I can concentrate more on poker now.”

Ashton’s Poker Players Championship experience played out more like a steady hike than an uphill sprint. He stayed in the middle of the chip counts for most of the tournament, surviving more all-ins than he could remember.

It wasn’t until three players were left at the final table that he captured the chip lead. Ashton, Don Nguyen and John Hennigan were all within a million chips of each other after one break Thursday night.

They came back to the eight-game mixed tournament with a pot-limit Omaha round, where Ashton made his rush. He won two pots that totaled more than 4 million chips by making flushes against Nguyen, and rivered a full-house against Hennigan during the same sequence.

“I was just talking on the break saying I should be avoiding playing big pots in PLO because I’m better at the other games and I want to get heads-up with a better chance,” Ashton said. “I just made some big hands at PLO and got paid. It was lucky.”

Ashton stumbled back down slightly after the PLO takeover during rounds of limit hold’em and 2-7 triple draw, but never lost the chip lead. When the rotation got back to PLO, Ashton quickly eliminated Hennigan, a two-time bracelet winner, by flopping two pair with 8s and 6s against his opponent’s pocket Queens.

He entered heads-up play with Nguyen, one of the most unknown quantities in the 132-player field, with an 8-to-1 chip lead but wasn’t comfortable with the game shifting to limit hold’em.

“You keep switching between games, so it’s hard to pick up reads on people,” Ashton said. “Playing the same game, you get a feel for the flow and how people are playing quicker. When the game keeps changing, that’s less of a factor.”

Those concerns had no effect. Seven hands into heads-up action, Ashton flopped top pair. So did Nguyen, who committed all of his chips on the river.

Ashton had a higher second card — King-10 to Nguyen’s 10-6 — to scoop the pot. He took a few moments to look down at the table in disbelief.

A few months after straying from poker, Ashton had just claimed one of the game’s most celebrated events.

“I don’t think winning one tournament makes you a great player all of a sudden,” Ashton said. “It just makes you more recognizable.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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