Wednesday, July 17, 2019 | 4:10 a.m.
Throughout this summer’s 50th annual event, the World Series of Poker paid homage to its history in a number of ways.
Little did organizers know that one final throwback was in store to end the seven-week tournament series in the game’s biggest moment. Hossein Ensan, a 55-year-old Iranian-born German professional, became poker’s newest world champion early Wednesday morning at the Rio by winning the 2019 WSOP Main Event for $10 million.
His path to the top shared similarities with many of the $10,000 buy-in tournament’s earliest victors, such as inaugural winner and three-time champion Johnny Moss. Ensan had to hone his craft for many years by toiling in games totally devoid of any sort of glitz before breaking through on the biggest stage.
“This is the best prize after long time and very hard work,” Ensan said as he looked down and shook the golden, diamond-encrusted winner’s bracelet around his hand.
Unlike most winners of the modern era — the average age of the last 16 champions dating back to the “Moneymaker boom” is 29 years old — Ensan wasn’t a hotshot who found immediate success through online poker. He’s the third-oldest winner ever behind Moss, who was 67 years old in his final win in 1974, and Noel Furlong, who was 62 years old ahead of prevailing in 1999.
Ensan said he didn’t even start playing cards until he was 38 years old, and it wasn’t until at least a year after that when he decided it was something he wanted to pursue professionally. Ensan said he, “tried everything,” as a career before realizing poker was his true passion.
He began competing in bigger European tournaments in 2008 but didn’t register an in-the-money finish until 2013. In 2014, he had a breakthrough year — including an $860,091 win in a European Poker Tour Main Event in Barcelona.
He still felt he needed to boost his bankroll a little more before venturing to the WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas, but that was always his aim. This was the first year Ensan was finally able to make the trip.
“Barcelona was my big, big prize,” Ensan said. “After that, I was running along and now I’m here. I’m excited. I (did) everything on plan.”
For such a circuitous route to poker’s pinnacle, it would have felt improper if Ensan bulldozed the final table without any adversity. But that’s pretty much what he managed over the first two nights.
Tuesday night didn’t go as smoothly. Over the first 50 hands in the last session, Ensan lost more than 100 million chips and surrendered the chip lead for the first time at the final table.
He ran into a few tough situations and paid off value bets to his competitors, Italian Dario Sammartino and Canadian Alex Livingston, both of whom briefly sat in first before Ensan roared back.
Thirty hands after Livingston displaced him at the top of the leaderboard, Ensan dispatched the 32-year-old professional permanently with a dominant Ace-Queen against Ace-Jack. Opponents praised Ensan’s resolve throughout the Main Event, which began two weeks ago and featured about 83 hours of play not including breaks.
“Hossein is a boss,” Livingston said.
“He’s really tough,” said Sammartino, a 32-year-old high-stakes regular considered the best player to reach the final table. “He changed his game against my game.”
Sammartino pressured Ensan early in a heads-up match that lasted almost exactly four hours and spanned 100 hands. In front of a raucous environment with friends of both players chanting and signing like they were at a soccer match, Sammartino got ahead by as many as 28 million chips on Ensan.
But Ensan then started getting stronger hole cards and extracting maximum value, even forcing Sammartino into some questionable decisions to take control.
Sammartino was at around a 200 million chip deficit around 1:30 a.m. when he went all-in with combination straight and flush draws with his 4-8 of spades hole cards on a board of 10-6-2-9 with two spades. Ensan instantly called with pocket Kings, and the river Queen of clubs clinched the victory as friends of the new champion hugged him and picked him up in ecstasy.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had in all my life, in all my career,” Ensan said. “I can’t believe it. I’m so happy here with the bracelet in my hand. What can I say?”
Ensan had no concrete plans for the money, though he said he would play in more American poker tournaments going forward. He requested at least one night to celebrate with, “beer and some fun,” before thinking too much about the future.
Like so many of the players that paved the way as WSOP Main Event championships, Ensan endured a long journey before his victory.
“I must be asleep and I’ll wake up and know (it’s real) if I have a bracelet,” Ensan said. “Maybe it’s a dream. I don’t know.”