Champion Alex Kulev!

The first six-figure buy-in tournament of the Triton Poker Series visit to Montenegro ended tonight in a duke out between two of this exclusive world’s sharpest young shooters.

Both Bulgaria’s Alex Kulev, 29, and France’s Thomas Santerne, 25, have only recently emerged from the hordes of young online whizzes to become new forces in the high buy-in live arena. And tonight, with all the other wizened old heads that comprised a 102-entry field having left the stage, Kulev and Santerne went head to head for the latest trophy.

Kulev was the man who remained standing as the clock ticked precisely to midnight. It was especially sweet given the circumstances: his parents completed a six-hour journey to watch him just as the heads-up match was heading in Santerne’s direction. “That was the turning point,” Kulev said, as he won a string of pots to wrestle into the lead.

He never looked back and picked up the $2.56 million first prize.

“I’m a little bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” Kulev said. “This means a lot to me. To accomplish this in front of my family is very special to me. I will cherish this for a long time.”

Alex Kulev begins celebrations with his girlfriend Rosi-Eliz

Kulev’s profession has taken him away from the country of his birth. He is based now in Dublin, from where he became one of the best known online tournament poker pros. But he has found an immediate home on the Triton Series, which he described as being the place that “the best play against the best”. After a number of recent final tables, he has now secured a first title and said he is here to stay. “I won’t miss another one for a long time,” Kulev said.

For Santerne, he banked $1.735 million and one suspects we will be seeing a whole lot of him as well. He is four years Kulev’s junior and has plenty of time to build on this performance too.


With a $100K buy-in, this tournament was always certain to be the biggest so far of the festival, and the 102 entries put more than $10 million in the prize pool. It was a two-day tournament certain to go the distance, and the steady journey to the business end was full of the usual thrills and spills.

There was all kinds of drama at the bubble approached, mainly featuring our four-time champion Mike Watson. He had been one of the short stacks, but won a huge pot from Stephen Chidwick when he turned pocket kings into a full house and earned the maximum, which left Chidwick with fewer than 10 blinds.

Up on the feature table, Jason Koon bust two from the money, and Watson moved up there to balance things out. It was there that Watson again played a massive pot, this time holding AhKs. Watson was fifth in chips while his opponent, Thomas Santerne was the tournament leader at the time. Santerne had pocket tens and all the money went in pre-flop.

The ace on the flop gave Watson considerable hope of not only getting into the money, but perhaps assuming the chip lead. But the river was a third ten for Santerne, ending Watson’s tournament and sending Santerne into the stratosphere.

A two outer stuns Mike Watson on the bubble

Around the room, Chidwick, Sean Winter, Nacho Barbero and Seth Davies were among the short stacks to enjoy the scenes. They crept into the money as Watson skulked away empty handed.

Santerne’s chip lead seemed unassailable until he ran kings into Xu Liang’s aces, resulting in a massive double for the latter. Meanwhile Danny Tang was running riot on another table and the four-time champion took over the ultimate chip lead.

When they reached a final, they lined up as follows:

Danny Tang – 3,775,000 (76 BBs)
Xu Liang – 3,695,000 (74 BBs)
Dan Dvoress – 3,290,000 (66 BBs)
Alex Kulev – 2,757,000 (52 BBs)
Thomas Santerne – 2,170,000 (43 BBs)
Dylan Linde – 1,905,000 (38 BBs)
Maher Nouira – 1,300,000 (26 BBs)
Bryn Kenney – 1,195,000 (24 BBs)
Aleks Ponakovs – 500,000 (10 BBs)

Triton Montenegro Event 8 final table players (clockwise from back left): Xu Liang, Aleks Ponakovs, Dan Dvoress, Danny Tang, Dylan Linde, Maher Nouira, Alex Kulev, Thomas Santerne, Bryn Kenney.

There was a healthy mix here of familiar faces and Triton newcomers, interspersed with some players who have been around a while but eyeing a breakout success. As the leader of the all time Triton Series money list, Bryn Kenney clearly belonged into the first category, even if it had been a while since he was at a final table.

This stay didn’t last long for Kenney. He managed to double through Danny Tang with nines beating AcKs, but two hands later slammed queens into the same player’s kings. That was that for Kenney, who took $255,000 for ninth.

Bryn Kenney: All time money list leader busts in ninth

Aleks Ponakovs is still looking for a first Triton title despite 14 cashes and more than $8 million in prize money. He also has a very healthy habit of running deep in the biggest buy-in events. Here he was again at a six-figure buy-in final, but he couldn’t turn the short stack into anything more significant.

He open/called all-in when Dylan Linde jammed, but Linde’s pocket jacks beat Ponakovs’ Ac8c and it was the end of the road. Ponakovs banked $342,000 for eighth.

Aleks Ponakovs hit the rail in eighth

By the standards of all other finals this week, this one was deep at this stage. The average stack was close to 40 big blinds, and there was play still for everyone. That soon included Maher Nouira too, who doubled his small stack through Linde. It left the American to try to cling on, but he could not do it.

Linde’s final hand was As5s and he was up against Liang’s AhTd. They got to a flop for only one raise and a call and both hit their kicker. After a low turn, the rest of the money went in and Linde called it off.

Liang’s tens were best, leaving Linde with $454,00 for seventh.

Dylan Linde made his second final table of the week

It turned out to be a bad few minutes for players from North America as Dan Dvoress lasted only one hand longer than Linde. In this one, Dvoress opened with AsQc, only to see Santerne three-bet. Dvoress jammed for 20 BBs and Santerne called. The Frenchman had pocket queens.

Dvoress needed an ace. He didn’t get one. So he left in sixth for $594,000.

Tough break for Daniel Dvoress, out in sixth

Santerne reassumed the chip lead with that pot, but he only held it as long as it took Kulev to find pocket aces and score a full double through Danny Tang, who had jacks. Kulev hadn’t been near the lead until that point, but he rocketed up to 70 big blinds and left everyone else in his wake. Of the five left, only Nouira had not been in the lead at some point in this final. The waves may only lap gently onto the exclusive beach of the Maestral Resort, but these were choppy waters inside.

The red light of doom was next illuminated when the last of Nouira’s chips found their way into the middle. He had pocket jacks and they needed to stay better than Kulev’s Kh8c. They did. Nouira doubled. While Kulev remained in the lead, the other four bunched up. And we were looking at another of those cagey battles — which got even tighter when Santerne doubled through Kulev.

Two big hands will always break an impasse, however, and Tang picked up queens soon after, taking on Kulev’s ace-king. “Big flip!” Tang shouted to his rail.

The dealer put an ace on the flop. “Come on ladies, you’ve betrayed me so many times before,” Tang pleaded. But he prayed in vain. The turn and river offered no further help and Tang was out in fifth.

Danny Tang is “betrayed” by pocket queens

Tang leads the Player of the Year race and in addition to the $752,000 payday, his fifth place earns another chunk of points in that freeroll. However, as Tang himself noted, his PoY rival Dvoress only finished one spot lower than him. That’s still a nervy race.

None of the four remaining players had ever won a Triton title before, so we were guaranteed a new champion. But the identity was still very much anyone’s guess, even though Kulev now had the lead again.

There was, however, now a flurry of big hands. Nouira picked up the queens very soon after Tang and he felt a similar betrayal. Santerne had aces, all the money went in, and Nouira bust in fourth for $933,000. It was nine times his combined total winnings on the Triton Series to date and reflected some success he’s been having of late on other tours. He is far and away the Tunisian No 1.

Maher Nouira tightens grip on Tunisian No 1 spot

The last three were guaranteed seven figures each. It was also an intriguing battle between two of European poker’s undisputed rising stars, alongside a lesser-known Asian player whose results nonetheless pointed to a sincere talent.

Santerne and Kulev were neck-and-neck, with Liang sitting with around half their chips. And it was in the spirited attempt to pull level that Liang ended up on the rail.

Yet another flip took place with Liang’s pocket sevens going up against Kulev’s KdQh. Two kings fell on the flop and the seven remained elusive. Liang’s race was run. He took $1,127,000 for third.

Tan Xuan, left, comes to celebrate a fine performance from Xu Liang, right

As tournament officials reset the table for heads-up play, the chip counts could not have been tighter. Kulev had 10,250,000, or 68 big blinds. Santerne had 10,150,000, also 68 big blinds. The stage was set for a heads-up duel for $850K.

The early going was all about Santerne. He built a big lead through a series of pots without showdown, so much so that when Kulev picked up pocket queens and played it cute to score a full double, he still only drew level. They each had a little more than 40 blinds and settled back down to play on.

Thomas Santerne was a close second

But now the momentum was with Kulev. He later said it was about this point he noticed his parents on the rail, keenly watching his every move. They admitted they didn’t know much about poker, but they were clearly sweating every card with their son.

He won a big one with Kd3d against Jc6c. And then another somewhat inevitable flip landed on the felt: Santerne had pocket sevens to Kulev’s AdTc.

There was a ten on the flop. Another ten on the turn. And the river was not a seven.

With his family still watching anxiously from the sidelines, Kulev had delivered the knockout blow. He took that $2.5 million and confirmed that he is on this tour to stay. As he left the tournament room, he bumped into Adrian Mateos, a winner from earlier in the day.

“Well done champion!”

“Thank you champion!” they said.

Alex Kulev credited the arrival of his parents for turning the momentum of the final


Event 8 – $100,000 – 8-Handed
Dates: May 18-19, 2024
Entries: 102 (inc. 62 re-entries)
Prize pool: $10,200,000

1 – Alex Kulev, Bulgaria – $2,566,000
2 – Thomas Santerne, France – $1,735,000
3 – Xu Liang, China – $1,127,000
4 – Maher Nouira, Tunisia – $933,000
5 – Danny Tang, Hong Kong – $752,000
6 – Dan Dvoress, Canada – $594,000
7 – Dylan Linde, USA – $454,000
8 – Aleks Ponakovs, Latvia – $342,000
9 – Bryn Kenney, USA – $255,000

10 – Sean Winter, USA – $209,000
11 – Stephen Chidwick, UK – $209,000
12 – Wiktor Malinowsli, Poland – $184,000
13 – Masashi Oya, Japan – $184,000
14 – Nacho Barbero, Argentina – $168,000
15 – Brian Kim, USA – $168,000
16 – Seth Davies, USA – $160,000
17 – Ben Heath, UK – $160,000

Photography by Joe Giron/Poker Photo Archive