It can sometimes feel like a relief when the best man wins. There were a few likely candidates when play began this afternoon, but it muddies the sceptics view when skill, talent and potential combine in a player and are so easy to spot. Sometimes it can be tougher to put your finger on, but it was punctuated nicely tonight by 18 year-old Canadian Mike McDonald.
His is a fledgling poker career officially just six months old and it’s hard to imagine him having already had a bad patch. He did, but it only last three months and in the last five weeks his upturn in form has involved five cashes now totalling over $1.5 million. And judging by the way he plays – calm, considered, with less gamble than most – it’s hard to see him returning to those ‘dark’ days.
McDonald took few negatives from this experience, playing live more and more and recording his first cash in the EPT Prague back in December.
Back then he seemed like dozens of other young players making their EPT debut, perhaps a little tidier and clean cut than most, but eager, aggressive and with little regard for the value of the chips he was playing with. He finished 14th in the Czech capital, collecting €20,200 before heading to Australia, the Aussie millions festival where a second and first place ignited his form. There was nothing stopping him and the EPT Dortmund was about to see that for itself.
So back to where we started today…
Seat 1 — Mike McDonald – Canada — 862k
Seat 2 — Diego Perez – Spain — 744k
Seat 3 — Thibaut Durand – France – 148k
Seat 4 — Johannes Strassmann – Germany – PokerStars sponsored player — 827k
Seat 5 — Christian Harder – United States – PokerStars qualifier — 339k
Seat 6 — Andreas Gulunay – Germany — 560k
Seat 7 — Torsten Haase – Germany – 369k
Seat 8 — Claudio Rinaldi – Switzerland – 276k
At the start of the day this one seemed straight forward. The story would be simple – Johannes Strassmann and Mike McDonald would gradually eliminate the rest of the field (McDonald in fact saw off five), the two would then shake hands and face a heads-up battle equal in chips with everything to play for. They seemed more confident and skilled than the others – both to people watching and to themselves. McDonald would later say that he had a visit from Strassmann at 3am the night before – with friendly rivalry Strassmann said he was determined to win his home EPT.
And no-one doubted him for the first few hours of the final. The 22 year-old German, likely to feature regularly on this tour in the future, was alive at the table – talking, cajoling, using table talk that was great to watch and harked back to last year’s final when Andreas Hoivold talked to the other finalists into submission without reply.
American PokerStars qualifier Christian Harder, or ‘Charder’ would go first. He was one of the short stacks and took his chance finding A-K in the hole. What he couldn’t predict was Mike McDonald holding aces. The inevitable happened and we were quickly down to seven with Harder picking up €85,500.
An hour later we were down to six. This time it was Frenchman Thibaut Durand pushing with A-4 straight after the break, called by Johannes Strassmann. So far the blue print for the final of McDonald and Strassmann seemed to be playing out. Strassmann held pocket eights which proved enough, sending Durand to the rail with €120,200.
But things would soon go wrong for Strassmann. Keeping his aggression in check ultimately cost him – big raises would be trumped by re-raises all-in and whilst he proved most entertaining, he was also most volatile. Up to over a million in chips he then went through a black period that would see him out earlier than anyone imagined.
Then for a while we hardly saw a flop. A hand would be folded or re-raised all-in and when it was it tended to be Strassmann who suffered. The first two players had gone within the first 90 minutes but now there was a sense of the long haul. Three players, McDonald, Strassmann and another German Torsten Haase were all within a few grand of each other whilst no one, with the exception of Claudio Rinaldi, was ever close to being so low that an all or nothing move was required.
Torsten Haase – Germany — 863,000
Diego Perez – Spain — 851,000
Johannes Strassmann – Germany — PokerStars sponsored player — 825,000
Andreas Gülünay – Germany — 643,000
Mike McDonald – Canada — 528,000
Claudio Rinaldi – Switzerland — 383,000
To the Strassmann demise, which started with a raise re-raised by McDonald. Painful as it was Johannes had to fold. Whilst Torsten Haase worked his way further ahead attention was still on the two favourites. Then another hand – Diego Perez raised, Strassmann re-raised and Perez moved all-in. He might have been ahead but Strassmann couldn’t risk it – another pot lost.
Then, two hours after Durand’s exit the hand came to send Strassmann out. A raise, a McDonald re-raise and an all-in move from the German – perhaps intended to put an end to this nonsense. But McDonald called, and why wouldn’t he? Holding kings he was way ahead of Strassmann who simply mucked. It was over. Like Michael Norinder in Prague – a million to none in quick time – Strassmann was out, for €152,000.
Strassmann in seventh had taken two hours to depart. Now the other players could relax a little. One of the major threats had gone – no more raising, no more table talk that could open them up at any moment for all to see.
Claudio Rinaldi, who had hung on well, went next. He pushed in against Andreas Gulunay with A-9; pocket sevens for Gulunay which did the honourable thing and held steady. Rinaldi out in fifth for €193,000.
As predicted it was not long before the next player was counting cash on the rail.
Diego Perez had spent a good deal of the week as chip leader, holding it on day three well enough to stretch it to the final, third in chips. That he didn’t advance any further was largely due to Mike McDonald. By now the Canadian had manoeuvred passed a few awkward hours and was in a good gear. He raised, Perez moved in and after a few analytical moments picked apart on EPT Live, the press room and McDonald’s head, he called. It was a good one. The 18 year-old only had deuces but was ahead of Perez holding J-T. We were down to three with Perez going out for €193,000.
It didn’t stay that way for long. Third place was taken a short while later by Torsten Haase. The German had become the dark horse of this final, slipping by the favourites to spend a pleasant few hours with the chip lead – the only player with a seven figure stack. But again it was Mike McDonald busy setting himself up nicely, calling Torsten’s all-in on a flop of Q-5-3. Torsten had made a pair of fives but McDonald had the better of him his K-Q giving him top pair.
Heads up McDonald held the advantage…
Mike McDonald — 2,900,000
Andreas Gulunay — 1,200,000
Was there a gulf between the two player’s outlooks? A solid player s he was Andreas Gulunay had achieved something he hadn’t expected a few days ago. He had survived a volatile final table, kept out of trouble, and secured himself a guaranteed €528,500, and soon his play began to reflect this.
A McDonald bet saw Andreas moved all-in. Not the gambling type, with the chip lead and feeling no rush, McDonald mucked. Cue the German supporters on the rail to begin chants of “Andy!” Gulunay raised a drink to them and said a few words, all lapped up by the rail. But all the while the flash moves seemed to be heading towards something ready to stop him in his tracks.
The best analogy I could think of was from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In it there’s a scene where Indiana Jones, in the midst of a chase to find the girl, runs into a mercenary in full battle dress who parts the crowds and prepares to destroy the hero. He puts on display of spectacular swordsmanship intended to frighten the bejesus out of Jones, impressing the crowd who await the final act of victory. Indiana Jones simply removes his pistol, shoots the man, ends the fight, and gets on with the chase.
Mike McDonald tonight performed the poker equivalent.
The hand was well underway – a flop of K-7-J. Andreas had checked allowing Mike to bet 120k. Andreas, perhaps underestimating the Canadian or perhaps ready to end this once and for all, re-raised – 300k more which McDonald called. This was now a big pot and the king on the turn would make it even bigger.
300k from Andreas who was reaching terminal velocity – again he was called. The river a deuce and the pot grew to over 1.4 million. Some hands go your way by accident but McDonald had played this one perfectly – Andreas moved all-in leaving the words “I call” the only thing separating himself from an EPT title. Andreas looked over. When McDonald called he simply said “you win”, mucking his cards.
Lee Jones, watching from the press room summed it up, “He played it perfectly – he let him walk right into it.”
Even with the crowd’s heavy preference for the German players there was nothing but applause for McDonald, not yet legally old enough to buy a victory drink in his hometown of Waterloo, Canada.
Gulunay accepted defeat graciously and was a worthy crowd favourite but he had been beaten by the better player – fact he acknowledged in a touching moment as the photographers swarmed around his victor, where he shook hands with McDonald and told him he’d deserved the win.
Some said Mike looked overawed with the result, not quite knowing how to react to the typical media onslaught that accompanies an EPT final hand worth €933,600. But I suspect this was all-in the original plan – that if he played well, didn’t go against his instincts and stayed focused, he could win and win well. He is after all no stranger to success, just the obligations to the press afterwards.
Regardless, at 18 there was something special with this win, the realisation that perhaps we’d seen something more than simply a new tournament champion – a tournament that will be referred to again and again in the future as the start of a career to be followed closely. With just three semesters at Waterloo University completed he may opt for a return to college life, but his short term future is one of more EPTs and poker, starting in Copenhagen.
Final table result of EPT Dortmund
1st — Mike McDonald – Canada — €933,600
2nd — Andreas Gulunay – Germany — €528,500
3rd — Torsten Haase – Germany — €307,000
4th — Diego Perez – Spain — €234,200
5th — Claudio Rinaldi – Switzerland — €193,000
6th — Johannes Strassmann – Germany — PokerStars sponsored player — €152,000
7th — Thibaut Durand – France — €120,200
8th — Christian Harder – United States – PokerStars qualifier — €85,500
Not yet out of braces, you have to wonder how better he can become. If this performance is anything to go by he may need to get used to the media attention sooner rather than later.