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Foxwoods poker players get the experience of a lifetime against the November Nine

9 Feb 2011

By Aaron Todd
MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — When Springfield, Mass., resident Phil Jackson showed up for a 30-person freeroll poker tournament at Foxwoods Resort and Casino on Tuesday, he didn't really know what he was getting himself into. He thought he was going to be up against 29 random Foxwoods players.

"I never turn down a chance to win money for free," he said laughing about 30 minutes before the tournament.

What Jackson didn't know at the time was he and 17 others were selected in a random drawing from a list of all the tournament players who cashed in events at Foxwoods over several weeks in January and February. The 18 raffle winners were being pitted against all the members of the 2010 November Nine, the group of players who made the final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event, in a tournament with a $15,000 prize pool, including a $5,000 first-place prize.

The reunion event, organized by Foxwoods Poker Room Spokesman Bernard Lee, created plenty of buzz in the World Poker Tour Poker Room. Before the tournament began, many cash game players took breaks from the table to take pictures and get autographs from the November Nine, including the reigning world champion, Jonathan Duhamel.

But it wasn't until ESPN poker commentator Lon McEachern, who, along with Lee, was a "wild card" entry in the event, started introducing the players from last year's final table that Jackson put it all together. As Soi Nguyen, the ninth-place finisher last year, approached his table, Jackson realized for the first time that he'd be mixing it up with the players he'd watched vie for the title on ESPN.

Phil Jackson (right) was surprised to see he would be seated next to Soi Nguyen when the tournament began.

Phil Jackson (right) was surprised to see he would be seated next to Soi Nguyen when the tournament began. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

"Wait a minute," Jackson said. "We're going to play against these guys?"

Jackson got plenty of ribbing from Lee, who was also seated at his table.

"I can see how you could have missed it, considering there are signs advertising it throughout the entire casino," Lee joked with Jackson.

Jackson typically plays in home games and online at Full Tilt Poker, and has only played at Foxwoods four times. Despite his initial shock at the prospect of facing the November Nine and an exit close to the money bubble in 14th place, Jackson says he had the time of his life.

"I've always said to myself 'One day I want to pay $10,000 and play in the World Series of Poker,'" said Jackson, a retired Marine and corrections officer who currently works as a business analyst at Bay State Medical Hospital. "Here I am, coming up looking to play in what I thought was a regular 30-player tournament, and I actually got a dream come true. I got to play against the people I see on TV, and that was fun."

Jackson's only regret was that he didn't get to play at the same table as Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, the famous professional player who finished fifth in November. Michael Hashim, a 60-year old attorney from Pittsfield, Mass., however, did have that privilege, after drawing perhaps the worst seat assignment in the whole tournament, with Mizrachi on his left and uber-aggressive Joseph Cheong on his right.

Michael Hashim (center) had the undesirable task of sitting between Joseph Cheong (left) and Michael Mizrachi.

Michael Hashim (center) had the undesirable task of sitting between Joseph Cheong (left) and Michael Mizrachi. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

"I was terrified to be between two guys who both have reputations for being somewhat loose and aggressive," said Hashim, who plays in tournaments at Foxwoods four or five times a year. "I've tried a number of cases, and I've got to say that I had butterflies in my stomach for a little bit longer than I do when I try a case. But once you get over the initial butterflies, then it's just poker."

The poker gods weren't kind to Hashim however. He flopped top and bottom pair from the big blind midway through the tournament, only to be eliminated by McEachern, who held top two pair. Despite the early exit, Hashim walked away from the tournament with a smile on his face.

"For me, it's a thrill to play, whether I'm playing with professionals or just with other amateur players," said Hashim.

An amateur did end up beating the pros to win the tournament. Ben Hopkins, a 26-year-old carpenter from North Smithfield, R.I., knocked Duhamel out in fifth place. The hand started as a race until Duhamel hit two pair on the flop with his ace-jack to move ahead of Hopkins' pocket fives. Hopkins, however, hit a five on the river to improve to a set and knock out the world champ.

"That felt pretty good," said Hopkins. "It made me feel like I could sit down with the best of them."

Ben Hopkins won the tournament when his ace-queen held up against Matt Jarvis

Ben Hopkins won the tournament when his ace-queen held up against Matt Jarvis' king-jack. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

Hopkins beat eighth-place Main Event finisher Matt Jarvis heads up for the title to claim the $5,000 first-place prize to more than double his largest previous poker payday. While Hopkins says he plays at Foxwoods about once a month, he wasn't intimidated by the professionals.

"It wasn't as overwhelming as I thought it was going to be," said Hopkins. "I sat down at the final table and it was just like I was playing cards on a Friday night with my buddies. It was just another game."

Regardless of their performance, or whether they knew who they were going to be playing against before they sat down, all 18 of the Foxwoods qualifiers who played in the freeroll on Tuesday walked away with an experience they'll never forget.
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