Champion Paulius Vaitiekunas!

Even poker’s best know superstars had to start somewhere, and during the third tournament of the Triton Poker Series trip to Jeju, South Korea, it quickly became clear that we would be finding a new breakout star.

This was another record-setting field. There were 298 entries of $25,000 each in the tournament billed as the Silver Main Event. But by the time the tournament reached its business end, in the early hours of Saturday morning, three relative newcomers were the only ones left.

Paulius Vaitiekunas, of Lithuania, laid down a marker on the Triton Series, carrying a huge chip lead for most of the day, and then recovering to close out the tournament even after that lead turned to dust. He eventually denied Germany’s Alex Tkatschew a maiden title, with that pair having been two thirds of a deal that also included Aram Oganyan, of the United States.

All three won close to $1 million, with Vaitiekunas nosing ahead thanks to the $100,000 the three of them left to play for after the deal. Tkatschew banked $1,002,000 and Oganyan $989,501.

For each, it was the biggest win of their career.

Celebrations begin for Paulius Vaitiekunas, right, with Alex Tkatschew beaten heads up

It might be tempting to call out Vaitiekunas for having turned down an ICM chop four handed, when he was clear chip leader, that would have netted him more than his eventual prize. But he should be celebrated really for regrouping after surrendering that lead. He managed to regain focus and take down the dogged Tkatschew in a short-stacked heads-up blitz.

“I rejected a deal four-handed, not because I had an advantage in skill, but because of the chips,” Vaitiekunas said. He added clearly that he knew all of his opponents at the final were very good players, but knew that they were “hand-cuffed by ICM”.

Vaitiekunas fired numerous bullets at Triton’s last stop in Monte Carlo and came up short, but said it only inspired him to perform here. “I did everything I could to come to Jeju, and somehow I won,” he said.

“Poker is a game of doing as less mistakes as possible,” the new champion said. “I learnt a lot in Monte Carlo and I learnt a lot here and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.”

It was far from easy, despite the massive stack he held for long periods. Triton Ambassador Jason Koon was at another final table. So was Koon’s countrymen Dan Smith and Joseph Cheong. But this one turned out to be the tournament for the newbies. Or should we say the future stars.


The new record-setting field meant 47 players were due to be paid, a new high for a Triton tournament too. Seven tables were still in play as the bubble approached, with a system of soft hand-for-hand helping to smooth the process.

It was plenty smooth for everyone bar Biao Ding, who was seated at the fastest-playing table and who was knocked out in 48th place before some rivals at other tables had even played as many hands.

Ding got his last chips in with Kh8s and lost when Steve O’Dwyer’s QcJh rivered a queen. Even though there were still catch-up hands to be played across the rest of the field, and anybody busting would have meant a chop of the 47th-place prize money for Ding, the short stacks all wisely folded.

It meant Ding left the tournament floor alone in 48th, while 47 others were in the money.

Biao Ding stands to leave

At the beginning of this tournament, as players arrived in their dozens, tournament organisers briefly feared this was an event that might need an additional day to complete. But it soon became apparent today that stacks were shallowing rapidly, and players were knocked out about as quickly as they arrived.

Overnight chip leader Steve O’Dwyer was among those to be cast aside long before a final table. And even Benjamin Chalot, who took over the lead after a few levels of Day 2, was knocked out before they got close to a winner.

As the field condensed even further towards a final, luminaries including Ike Haxton, Jonathan Jaffe and Juan Pardo departed. And when two-time Triton champion Michael Addamo hit the rail in 10th, we could finally convene for the last stages.

Overnight leader Steve O’Dwyer couldn’t make the final

The two men who had played wrecking ball most effectively to this point, Lithuania’s Paulius Vaitiekunas and Germany’s Alexander Tkatschew duly found themselves at the top of the counts. But Vaitiekunas had 80 big blinds to Tkatschew’s 42, with everyone else even less than that. This one seemed to be Vaitiekunas’ to lose.


Paulius Vaitiekunas – 16,075,000 (80 BBs)
Alexander Tkatschew – 8,325,000 (42 BBs)
Joseph Cheong – 7,825,000 (39 BBs)
Dan Smith – 7,325,000 (37 BBs)
Maksim Vaskresenski – 6,725,000 (34 BBs)
Aram Oganyan – 6,725,000 (34 BBs)
Roman Hrabec – 3,150,000 (16 BBs)
Jason Koon – 2,200,000 (11 BBs)
Chen Guangcheng 1,200,000 (6 BBs)

Triton Jeju Event 3 final table players (clockwise from back left): Chen Guangcheng, Dan Smith, Joseph Cheong, Paulius Vaitiekunas, Alexander Tkatschew, Roman Hrabec, Aram Oganyan, Maksim Vaskresenski, Jason Koon.

It’s usually about this point that Jason Koon starts rising through the ranks. If Koon gets to a final, he has the most enviable habit of going on to win. But not this time. Twelve big blinds was too few even for a player of Koon’s extraordinary abilities, and it didn’t help running JcQc into Dan Smith’s pocket aces either.

Koon opened from under the gun, Smith shoved the big blind and Koon called. Koon ended up pairing his queen, but it was not enough. He was agonisingly slightly too late to register for Event 5 too, but took $149,000 for this one and a night off.

No 11 will have to wait for Jason Koon

Without question, the player who will have been most delighted by Koon’s demise was Chen Guangcheng. The Chinese Triton debutant had an even smaller stack coming into the final but had now laddered up.

He managed to pinch a couple of blinds with uncontested pre-flop shoves, but ended up on the rail when he got it all in good against the bullying chip leader. In what proved to be Guangcheng’s final pot, action folded to Vaitiekunas in the small blind. He had such a huge lead that he could shove with any two cards, and 9s6c was indeed any two.

Guangcheng woke up with Ad4s in the big blind and put his last chips in. However, the nine on the flop ended up being the killer. Guangcheng was out in eighth, landing a first cash on the series of $182,000.

Chen Guangcheng laddered one spot with his short stack

There were still a lot of medium-sized stacks out there, including the one in front of Smith. He had given some of the chips he won earlier to Joseph Cheong after the latter’s pocket sixes became a straight. And then another set-up earned Cheong another big pot, this time ending Smith’s participation.

Cheong picked up red pocket jacks and opened from the cutoff. Smith saw pocket eights in the big blind and moved all-in for 21 blinds. Cheong called. Smith flopped an eight to give him hope, but the turn brought a jack to swing it back to Cheong.

Smith won the big invitational in Monte Carlo last year and is clearly still in good form. But his run in this one came to a halt in seventh, for $248,000.

Dan Smith departs in seventh

Cheong’s profitable run at the final temporarily reduced the gap at the top of the counts. But nobody else could seem to mount a challenge — and even Cheong got pegged back when he lost a flip to double Aram Oganyan.

Similarly, Maksim Vaskresenski lost half his stack to double up Roman Hrabec, and he could not recover. Vaitiekunas was waiting in the wings to finish the job.

Vaitiekunas pushed again from the small blind with his mighty stack and Kc3s. Vaskrensenski called for his last chips with 6s7s. There was a king on the flop to all but end it, and Vaskrensenski departed in seventh.

Vaskrensenski, from Belarus, was another player making his debut on the Triton Poker Series here in Jeju and he scored his first cash with this performance. It earned him $337,000.

A rap on the table for Maksim Vaskresenski

The last five went on a 15-minute break and returned with an average stack of 24 big blinds. Vaitiekunas had more than double that and Hrabec had only a sixth of it, which meant the new significant pot was crueller than most.

Hrabec got the last of his chips in with AdQs and, after Cheong called from the small blind, Vaitiekunas ripped it in from the big. It persuaded Cheong to let it go.

Vaitiekunas only had Ah2c but the board ran AcJd6c8cJc to mean the 2c played. That was a flush for Vaitiekunas and another knockout.

Hrabec has cashed all three tournaments so far here in Jeju, finishing 18th, 25th and now fifth. The $441,000 was his biggest on the Triton Series since his first ever appearance in Vietnam.

A rough river for Roman Hrabec

With only three big blinds now separating the “other” three players (i.e., not the chip leader Vaitiekunas), they paused the clock to look at a potential deal. Negotiations didn’t last long but they were not fruitful. It looked as though Vaitiekunas’s demands were to steep for Tkatschew, so they played on.

As can sometimes be the case, Vaitiekunas may have ended up regretting the failure of the deal. In quick order, Oganyan doubled up through the chip leader, winning with pocket jacks against Vaitiekunas’ As5c. All of a sudden, the lead no longer seemed unassailable.

Vaitiekunas looked to steady the ship with the elimination of Cheong, his erstwhile closest challenger. Cheong moved in from under the gun with pocket sevens and Vaitiekunas found pocket tens in the big blind. That was a snap call and Cheong quickly learned from one of his opponents that he was drawing to one out. Another seven was already in the discard pile.

The board was blank and that was the end of Cheong’s tournament. The American player, with a whole string of enormous cashes from across the poker world, is taking a stab at the Triton Series for the first time in Jeju. He is $560,000 richer as a result.

Fist-bumps all round as Joseph Cheong departs

Vaitiekunas was only an observer as it became Tkatschew’s turn to double, winning a flip through Oganyan. This one was pocket fours against Ac9s, resulting in a switcheroo between third and second place. When Tkatschew then doubled again, this time through Vaitiekunas, followed by Oganyan doing the same, the last three had 26, 25 and 24 big blinds, respectively.

It was now officially anyone’s game.

The combined Triton earnings of these three players before this event came in at only around $60,000. All of them were set to beat that by large multiples. But they belatedly tried again to take some of the variance out of things by discussing another deal. This time they agreed on the following.

Alex Tkatschew, who was now marginally in the lead, locked up $1,002,000. Aram Oganyan guaranteed himself $989,501. And Paulius Vaitiekunas now made $977,499 certain. There was $100,000 left on the side for the ultimate winner.

The final three negotiate, and agree, a deal

Short-handed deal-making doesn’t always speed things up. In fact, sometimes the contrary can be true. With everyone now knowing their main payout, they settled in for what was essentially a short-stacked winner-take-all tournament for $100,000, the likes of which many of these players play hundreds of times a week online.

They played a few small pots. And they played a few more. The level went up and blinds got steeper, and Oganyan’s stack became the smallest.

He then had to get it in as an open-shove from the button with QdTd. Tkatschew reshoved from the small blind with KcQh.

Aram Oganyan locked up close to a million before busting in third

Oganyan picked up a straight draw on the turn, but by that point his opponent had two pair. Tkatschew filled a boat on the river and that spelled the end for the last American in the tournament. Oganyan settled for the $989,501 he had negotiated for himself earlier.

Tkatschew took a near three-to-one chip lead into heads up play, with 36 big blinds to Vaitiekunas’s 13. The German rail featured Leon Sturm and Tobias Schewcht; the Baltics were represented by Aleks Ponakovs and Dominykas Mikolaitis. After a brief repositioning, they got ready to settle it once and for all.

Alexander Tkatschew, beaten heads up

The first blow went to Vaitiekunas. He doubled up to even with Kh4c flopping a king to beat Tkatschew’s As3d. The second significant blow went in his direction too, and by this time he had moved back into a small chip lead.

Tkatschew got his chips in with JdQd and Vaitiekunas called with Ks3h. “Hold!” bellowed the rail. It held.

A packed rail for Paulius Vaitiekunas


Event #3 – $25k Silver Main – NLH 8-Handed
Dates: March 7-8, 2024
Entries: 298 (inc. 124 re-entries)
Prize pool: $7,450,000

1 – Paulius Vaitiekunas, Lithuania – $1,077,499*
2 – Alex Tkatschew, Germany – $1,002,000*
3 – Aram Oganyan, USA – $989,501*
4 – Joseph Cheong, USA – $560,000
5 – Roman Hrabec, Czech Republic – $441,000
6 – Maksim Vaskresenski, Belarus – $337,000
7 – Dan Smith, USA – $248,000
8 – Chen Guangcheng, China – $182,000
9 – Jason Koon, USA – $149,000

10 – Michael Addamo, Australia – $125,000
11 – Juan Pardo, Spain – $125,000
12 – Danilo Velasevic, Serbia – $110,000
13 – Vladimir Troyanovsky, Russia – $110,000
14 – Jonathan Jaffe, USA – $99,000
15 – Isaac Haxton, USA – $99,000
16 – Benjamin Chalot, France – $88,000
17 – Dong Chen, Hong Kong – $88,000
18 – Kayhan Mokri, Norway – $77,000
19 – Valeriy Pak, Uzbekistan – $77,000
20 – Steve O’Dwyer, Ireland – $77,000
21 – David Coleman, USA – $69,000
22 – Li Yuan, China – $69,000
23 – Yauheni Tsaireshchanka, Belarus – $69,000
24 – Chuck Chu, Vietnam – $61,500
25 – Punnat Punsri, Thailand – $61,500
26 – Adrian Chua, Singapore – $61,500
27 – Dan Dvoress, Canada – $61,500
28 – Dimitar Danchev, Bulgaria – $54,000
29 – Pieter Aerts, Belgium – $54,000
30 – Fazel Dawood, South Africa – $54,000
31 – Orpen Kisacikoglu, Turkey – $54,000
32 – Liang Xu, China – $48,000
33 – Dao Minh Phu, Vietnam – $48,000
34 – Jean Noel Thorel, France – $48,000
35 – Sergio Aido, Spain – $48,000
36 – Wang Ye, China – $48,000
37 – Ole Schemion, Germany – $48,000
38 – Thomas Boivin, Belgium – $48,000
39 – Keith Lehr, USA – $48,000
40 – Joao Vieira, Portugal – $42,000
41 – Ren Lin, China – $42,000
42 – Phil Ivey, USA – $42,000
43 – Romain Retiere, France – $42,000
44 – Vladas Tamasauskas, Lithuania – $42,000
45 – Paul Phua, Malaysia – $42,000
46 – Aleksandr Shevliakov, Russia – $42,000
47 – Winfred Yu, Hong Kong – $42,000

*denotes three-way deal

Photography by Joe Giron/Poker Photo Archive