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Biggest Little Poker

Tournament Of The West

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Winner of the 2007 Arizona State Poker Championship, Steven "Packy" Paulson, and Talking Stick Poker Director Kent Odekirk, share memories of last year's event.
Talking Stick Resort Hosted The 8th Annual Arizona Poker Championship in Phoenix; Thousands Entered Yet Few Conquered The Competition  

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By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine

Aug. 17, 2012 — The 8th Annual Arizona State Poker Championships took over the Arena Poker Room at Talking Stick Resort and Casino last week, giving a diverse group of players from all experience levels a chance to compete for a share of over $1 million in the largest annual poker tournament in Arizona.

The tournament took place from Friday, Aug. 10 through Tuesday, Aug. 14. The first three days of the tournament served as "Day One" events, where the players that signed up competed against one another to try and secure a spot in the semifinals on Monday morning.

With such a large payout, the tournament drew some major players from the poker world, including Jake Balsiger, Karina and Chip Jett and Mike Wattel, said Talking Stick Poker Director Kent Odekirk.

“This is one of the best values on the West Coast,” said final round host and professional poker player Tiffany Michelle.

The big name players mingled with a slew of amateurs to create a diverse tournament field populated by players from all skill levels. It gave everyday players the chance to test their skill — and their relationship with Lady Luck — against bonafide pros.

And the female competitors, while outnumbered by their male counterparts, made a great showing in the championships. Three of the women remained in contention with only four tables remaining, said Michelle.

Participants could sign up on any of the "Day One" days. For a relatively cheap $1,070, an individual received $15,000 in chips. Participants who lost out before the final "Day One" had the opportunity to purchase $10,000 in additional chips as a re-buy in. The tournament allowed players to re-buy in a maximum of two times.

The reasonable buy in price created a diverse field that included everything from professionals to weekend players, said Odekirk.

"They all have the dream of $200,000," Odekirk said.

Last year's winner, Stephen "Packy" Paulson, was out in force at this year's tournament, hoping to add to his winnings. Packy was the chip leader on the first day before he made a self-described "stupid" decision and went all in. The mistake knocked him out of the tournament, but he bought back in and won a shoot out to secure his spot on Monday.

"I'm gunning for this," Paulson said.

A former four-time Arizona Golden Gloves boxing champ, Paulson now views the poker table as his boxing ring. The game gives him the same rush of adrenaline that boxing did, he said.

Paulson, an amateur who plays occasionally during the week, exemplifies the dream of the Arizona Poker Championships, where any player — through skill, guile, and a whole lot of luck — can come away from the table a few thousand dollars richer.

While the majority of the tournament's participants are from Arizona, players from 12 different states signed up in this year's event, said Odekirk. The high payout is one major draw for the tournament.

"For a $1,000 buy in, this is a great value tournament," said Michelle. "With such a great value, more pros get wind of it.”

Michelle also gave credit to Talking Stick and the locals for drawing in such a large number of players.

"I really enjoy coming here (Scottsdale and Talking Stick)," she said. "And everyone in Arizona is so lovely and fun to be around."

She also likes the food.

"The poker room at Talking Stick has to have some of the best food of any poker room I have ever been in," she said. "Sometimes I would go in there just to grab dinner; it is that good."

And Michelle knows what she is talking about, having participated in some of the largest poker tournaments in the world, including the World Series of Poker.
But it is more than food drawing players to the Arena Poker Room.

The tournament, which guaranteed a $1 million prize pool, had 1,233 entrants. That figure surpassed last year's total of 1,053 participants by a wide margin, said Odekirk.

Of the over 1,000 players, 214 moved on to the semi-final round on Monday. The top ten players who survived the semi-final earned a spot in the finals on Tuesday, an honor that also guaranteed each player a payout of at least $14,796.


When the dust settled, the top ten players split the bulk of the $1 million prize pot. Of the 10 finalists, eight are from Arizona.

Despite the multitude of big name players in the tournament, it was an amateur who rode the river to victory.

Casa Grande resident Eltorna "BG" Gant II, 29, outplayed the competition to earn the title of Arizona State Poker Champion, earning $233,696 along the way. Gant, an amateur and first time entrant, claimed the crown despite playing against seasoned competition, which included professionals and tournament regulars.

"Poker takes a lot of skill, but there is always a certain amount of luck involved," said Odekirk.

Gant took home the top prize money, a championship bracelet, and a first-place trophy after winning the final round in a relatively brisk six hours.

"I knew I was going to do it," said Gant. "I never stopped believing in myself that I would win, I just thought it would take longer."

Gant embodied the diverse and fun-loving nature of the tournament's participants. His sense of humor, and rather large entourage, brought a sense of charm and enjoyment to the final table.

"He (Gant) is really funny," said Michelle. "He made the final table hilarious.”

That humor was an important addition to the tournament, according to Michelle.

“Poker is a game that become too serious quickly, but he made the final round fun to watch.”

Matt Elsby of Chandler fell to Gant on the final hand, coming in second place and winning $147,960.

One out of state player cracked the top three. Adam "Whitey" White of Washington D.C. managed to hang around long enough to secure third place and earn $97,407.

The rest of the top 10 included (in order) Sal Musto III of Tempe, AZ ($72,747), Nathan Pfunger of Tempe ($59,184), William Yantis of Tucson ($46,854), Richard Saine of Phoenix ($34,524), Adam Singer of Paradise Valley ($28,359), Mohammad “Mo” Arani of Plano, Texas ($20,961), and Dylan Hortin of Anthem ($14,796).

With such a sizable pot, the tournament can make a world of difference to the finalists.

"It was life changing," said Paulson, who took home around $200,000 after winning last year's tournament. "I paid all of my bills off with that prize money."

Between its diverse field, generous payout, and excellent accommodations, the Arizona State Poker Championships is making a name for itself in the poker world.

Sure, it's no Vegas. But some might start calling it the Biggest Little Poker Tournament in the world.

Wayne Schutsky is a freelance writer living in Phoenix. Follow him @TheManofLetters.
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