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Last amateur standing ends Colossal WSOP run in ninth

3 Jun 2015

By Aaron Todd
LAS VEGAS — Anthony Blanda is the epitome of the recreational poker player. A 52-year-old father of two teenagers, Blanda grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Las Vegas for more than 20 years. He works at Home Depot as a kitchen designer.

Blanda plays in a home poker game with friends, might play in a small buy-in tournament every couple of months, and jumps into a lower-priced World Series of Poker event once a year.

He's had some success in tournaments with huge fields, finishing 381st in the 2009 "Stimulus Special," a $1,000 tournament that drew 6,021 players, the largest non-Main Event field in poker history at the time. All told, he had $8,021 in career WSOP cashes when he entered the WSOP's $565 Colossus event.

For Blanda and players like him, the Colossus was the perfect event. The lowest open-event buy-in offered by the WSOP since 1985, the Colossus drew a whopping 22,374 entries — including 14,284 unique players, 5,664 of whom were playing in their first WSOP event. The field shattered the previous record for both players and entries of 8,773 set by the 2006 Main Event.

Blanda, of course, was thrilled to make it to the final table and play on the ESPN main stage. Unfortunately, his final table experience lasted a grand total of six hands.

Down to less than 10 big blinds, Blanda moved all-in over the top of a raise by Brad McFarland with jack-10. McFarland called with pocket sixes, and Blanda's hand never improved. He won $67,681 for ninth place.

"(That kind of money) takes pressure off of anybody," said Blanda's wife Kendra, who was watching from the stands along with Blanda's mother, brother and brother-in-law. "We're an older couple. I'm looking forward to retirement and we have a couple kids who will be getting ready to go to college soon."

Anthony Blanda was the lone recreational poker player to make the final table.

Anthony Blanda was the lone recreational poker player to make the final table. (photo by Aaron Todd)

Blanda is an easy guy to root for. Even though he wasn't able to work his normal schedule at Home Depot because of the grueling demands of the poker tournament, he switched around his hours so he could still put in a 40-hour week. He's dreamed of playing in the Main Event since he started playing poker, and this year, as a result of his finish in the Colossus, he's going to do it.

"He would have never taken the family money (to play in the Main Event)," said Kendra. "It doesn't matter what he won today, family is most important. He woke up this morning and he was just so happy to be walking in here today. It was just an unbelievable feeling for both of us."

But the truth is, Blanda was lucky to get as far as he did. Despite the huge field of recreational players, Blanda was the only one to make it to the final table. Six of the eight other final table players had lifetime tournament earnings in excess of $100,000 before the Colossus. Three had won more than $500,000, with Kenny Hallaert just shy of $1 million and Ray Henson topping the list with more than $1.7 million. Of the two who hadn't reached six figures prior to the Colossus, Garry Simms owns a WSOP Circuit ring, and Paul Lentz is a California cash game specialist.

"I looked up the bios on the guys and most of them are professional or semi-professional," said Blanda. "I play one (WSOP) event a year."

The contrast was stark. Some of the other players at the final table spent the last three days going back and forth from the table to their rail, confirming with their friends and fellow professional players that they were playing hands correctly and often openly mocking their amateur opponents. Some of the other final table players knew each other well prior to the tournament, thanks to hours spent playing in the same games. Some of the other final table players had fellow pros watching the live stream to dissect their opponents' strategies and give them tips on how they were playing.

Blanda, meanwhile, patiently played his game and focused on the action at the table. During breaks he talked to his family and soaked up the experience. He acted like it was a privilege to make a deep run, not a right.

Jerry DeRosa was one of nine Poker Jokers to come from Riverside, Calif., for the Colossus.

Jerry DeRosa was one of nine Poker Jokers to come from Riverside, Calif., for the Colossus. (photo by Aaron Todd)

I came to Las Vegas this week to play in and write about this tournament. I wanted to cover this event in particular because I loved the WSOP's approach of catering to recreational players.

Because the tournament drew so many players, the final table was moved a day later that it was originally scheduled. I told Casino City Editor-in-chief Vin Narayanan that we should consider changing my flight because I might have to leave for the airport for my red-eye back to Boston before a winner was decided. He didn't think it was worth the added expense.

At first I thought he was wrong. I was here to cover a poker tournament — what's more important than the story about the winner? (For what it's worth, I did end up getting to see the tournament crown a champion.) But then I realized that what defines this tournament isn't some professional poker player winning $638,880 (and had Cord Garcia not won, the champion may have complained that it isn't enough).

The story of this tournament is nine players from the Poker Jokers Poker Club in Riverside, Calif., making the trip to play in their first WSOP event. The story of this tournament is a guy from Miami deciding to give the tournament a shot because his friend came to play and walking away with $19,566 after making a deep run into Day 3.

The story of this tournament is a middle-aged father who works at Home Depot taking his once-a-year shot at a WSOP bracelet and making the final table in a tournament designed for people just like him.

It's just too bad that there was only one Anthony Blanda at the final table.
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