Nothing is ever easy on the Triton Series, and you need look no further than the figure of Mike Watson to realise how difficult it is to secure a title on this incredible tour.
A much decorated player, with high-profile titles from across the world in all variants of the game, Watson came to Vietnam still in search of a maiden title despite 14 previous cashes.
However Watson is one of relatively few western players who have embraced short deck, the format of the hold’em that proliferates at the high stakes cash tables of Asia. And this willingness to experiment in poker’s newest tournament format finally unlocked the door for Watson tonight.
The 38-year-old from Toronto, Canada, took down the 50,000 Short Deck event here in Vietnam, banking 695K in the process and strapping a Shamballa Jewels bracelet around his wrist for the first time.
“It feels great,” Watson said of his first title. “I’ve played a lot of these events and had a lot of close calls. These are the biggest tournaments, the best series so it feels good to finally win one.”
On the subject of short deck, he added: “I think if more people played it they would find that they really liked it. It’s a gambling game, especially in cash. It’s a real fun, action game.”
Watson needed to defeat another North American tournament titan Isaac Haxton heads up to win this, but the main threat had previously come from Michael Zhang, who at one point seemed to have an unimpeachable stranglehold on the tournament.
However Zhang and Watson played an enormous pot on the final table that swung the pendulum in Watson’s direction. Zhang’s big pocket pair flopped a set, but Watson’s flopped a bigger one. That proved to be the pivotal pot and Zhang soon went out in third.
All credit to Watson, however, a player who has endured tough spells on the Triton Series, but who backed his talent to turn it around. He is now a winner too — and in great form heading into the short deck main event, which gets started today.
FINAL DAY ACTION
Ten players from a starting field of 44 entries returned after the first day’s play, with only seven set to be paid. They lined up like this to start proceedings:
Day 4 starting stacks
Michael Zhang – 3,285,000 (164 antes)
Jason Koon – 1,740,000 (87 antes)
Isaac Haxton – 1,590,000 (80 antes)
Tan Xuan – 1,340,000 (67 antes)
Phil Chiu – 1,190,000 (60 antes)
Michael Watson – 1,120,000 (56 antes)
Lun Loon – 950,000 (48 antes)
Rob Yong – 795,000 (40 antes)
Mikita Badziakouski – 605,000 (30 antes)
Leo Qin – 585,000 (29 antes)
The rapid departures of Leo Qin and Lun Loon left a couple of short stacks on the stone bubble, with players spread across two tables. Tournament director Luca Vivaldi instigated hand-for-hand play, but it wasn’t necessary. We ended up with a one-hand bubble.
One of those short stacks belonged to Rob Yong. And there’s nothing a short stack wants to see more in the circumstances than pocket aces. Yong got his chips in, and the massive leader Michael Zhang made the call with .
One gruesome run-out of later, and Yong was straightened out the door.
The last seven were therefore all in the money, and Zhang had 263 antes — more than 150 more than his closest rival, Phil Chiu.
FINAL TABLE ASSEMBLES — AND TAN XUAN BUSTS
China’s Tan Xuan survived the bubble with only 17 antes. That earned him a place in the dramatic boxing-style walk on to the final table, but he barely had a chance to get seated before he was knocked out.
Zhang, as ever, was the assassin. The British player just limped pre-flop in late position, and Xuan saw . That was enough to get those antes in, but Zhang had laid a trap with .
There was no miracle for the ragged under cards this time and the aces held, bringing the tournament down to six players and sending Xuan out with 116K.
NINE-TITLE DUO HIT THE RAIL
One of the neat sub-plots coming into the final was the presence of the two Triton tournament beasts Jason Koon and Mikita Badziakouski. Prior to the trip to Vietnam, the pair had four Triton titles each. But Koon’s victory in a 50K NLH turbo a couple of days ago edged him clear.
Badziakouski was on the short side coming into the final, so the prospect of him catching Koon were slim. Koon didn’t have many more chips, so at least Badziakouski could content himself in the knowledge that Koon was an underdog to open a two-title gap.
There were no surprises. Badziakouski and Koon departed one after the other in sixth and fifth place, banking 140K and 187K respectively.
Badziakouski’s chips went to Phil Chiu in an encounter pitting against and the better hand holding. Everything was in pre-flop.
Koon’s elimination was a little more complicated. He limped with and Zhang checked with .
The flop was huge for both of them. It came , giving Koon a straight and Zhang top two pair. Zhang bet, Koon raised, Zhang jammed and Koon called, but then the dealer put the on the turn and the on the river.
Zhang ended up with a flush and Koon was sent packing. He predicted two titles this week in Vietnam, and has two tournaments left to pick up a second.
WATSON TAKES CONTROL
To this point, Zhang had seemed unbeatable. He had the biggest stack and was hitting the biggest hands, relentlessly building to what seemed to be certain victory. But what followed was a reminder of how quickly things can change.
Zhang got involved in a massive pot against Watson, where the pattern of big hands continued, but there was a bigger on in the Canadian’s possession.
Zhang had pocket jacks and limped. Haxton called and Watson looked down at pocket queens on the button. He raised and only Zhang called.
This being short deck, the flop was full of possibilities. It came and the fireworks went off. Zhang checked, Watson bet, Zhang raised and Watson called. That brought the on the turn. Oh boy.
Zhang jammed for his last 3.2 million, covering the 2.3 million Watson had in his stack. Watson called off and his bigger full house earned him the full double. It vaulted him to the top of the counts and put Zhang to the bottom.
Watson only consolidated his chip lead when he sent Phil Chiu to the rail in fourth. This started out as a flip, when they got it in pre-flop and Chiu had pocket queens to Waton’s . However, Chiu went further ahead after the flop. And that made it all the ore brutal when the next two cards out were and .
Watson made the straight and Chiu departed with 242K.
Watson now had more than two thirds of the chips in play and was in cruise control three-handed.
ZHANG BECOME’S WATSON’S LATEST VICTIM
After the enormous cooler between Watson and Zhang, the latter might have been forgiven for capitulating and vanishing quickly. But a quick double up through Watson — beating — bought Zhang some time to try to get back into it.
However, the deck was no longer co-operating with Zhang and he trod water for an hour or so before Watson applied the finishing touch.
On what turned out to be Zhang’s final hand, he raised with and then watched Watson move all in, with . Zhang called but only saw Watson hit a set on the flop and never lose the advantage.
Zhang’s turbulent race was run. He hit the rail in third for 320K.
Watson was still in total command. His stack was 10.4 million (209 antes) to Haxton’s 2.7 million (55 antes), but the job still needed to be finished. Before today, Watson had cashed 14 times on the Triton Series without ever recording an outright win, so this was far from a foregone conclusion.
Perhaps the only salvation was the fact that Haxton had cashed 21 times without ever getting his hands on a trophy. So one of these long winless records had to come to an end.
They certainly didn’t keep us waiting.
On only the third hand of heads-up play, Watson open-jammed and Haxton made a mandatory call with . The board then ran and that cast-iron cooler put the winner’s tick finally beside Watson’s name.
It was as smooth a ride to the title as Watson could have possibly hoped for — and more may now be to come.
Event #12 – 50,000 Short Deck
Dates: March 11-12, 2023
Entries: 44 (inc. 19 re-entries)
Prize pool: 2,200,000
1 – Mike Watson (Canada) – 695,000
2 – Isaac Haxton (USA) – 500,000
3 – Michael Zhang (UK) – 320,000
4 – Phil Chiu (Hong Kong) – 242,000
5 – Jason Koon (USA) – 187,000
6 – Mikita Badziakouski (Belarus) – 140,000
7 – Tan Xuan (China) – 116,000
Photography by Joe Giron/Poker Photo Archive