If you think elite modern-day poker players don’t ever show their emotions, you haven’t watched Viacheslav Buldygin play. The Russian star contorts his features through every flop, turn and river, seemingly hauling in winners or losers with a grin or a grimace.
And tonight at the Merit Resort & Spa in North Cyprus, Buldygin was doing equal parts smile and scowl: the smiles because he was hitting every card he needed to become champion of the $50,000 7-Handed event on the Triton Series, and the scowls because he knew full well he was getting the run of the deck and seemingly felt he needed to apologise, or at least show some embarrassment.
He really didn’t. Buldygin is a great talent and he also didn’t put a foot wrong as he ran the final table. He managed to knock out six of his last eight opponents, banking $1,342,000.
Asked to describe his animation at the tables, Buldygin told Ali Nejad: “I don’t know what’s going on in my head. Please king come. Please seven come. Please fold, please fold.”
He claimed that he didn’t study poker too much — “Just intuition” — but was happy to reveal his secret as to how he has started cashing far more recently. “I did more rebuys,” he said.
Whatever the truth, there was no one who could match him tonight. Those players cast aside included Jason Koon, falling short in his bid for a seventh title; David Yan, at a second final table inside two days; Punnant Punsri, looking for a second Triton victory; and then Brian Kim, the fearsome American hoping for a Triton first.
Kim lost heads up, banking $920,000, which was more than double his previous best cash.
But today was all about Buldygin, whose name seemed etched on the title from a long way out, and who made sure it stayed there, indelibly.
FINAL DAY ACTION
A field of 104 entries amassed on the opening day, with fewer than 30 remaining when they came back to finish things off.
For the second time this week, we were denied the drama of a protracted bubble period by the simultaneous elimination of two players. With the tournament boards showing 17 players left and 15 due to be paid, both Ben Heath and Soon Ewe were all-in and called on neighbouring tables.
Both were knocked out. Heath’s couldn’t beat Artur Martirosian’s pocket kings. Meanwhile, Ewe’s was no match for David Yan’s pocket aces.
Just like that, we knew the identities of the final 15, each guaranteed a minimum $88,400.
At $50,000, the tournament boasted the biggest buy-in of the trip so far and as buy-ins increase, the willingness of players to stick around with sub 20-big-blind stacks goes up. It usually means that stacks get shallow as they crawl toward a final table.
Such was the case today, as players including Dan Smith, Danny Tang and Henrik Hecklen fell short, but we ended up flying through another crucial stage of the event when we went from 10 to eight in the blink of an eye.
Artur Martirosian and Justin Bonomo busted in 10th and ninth all but simultaneously, which meant the following lined up around the final table:
Brian Kim – 63 BBs
Sean Winter – 30 BBs
Punnat Punsri – 26 BBs
Viacheslav Buldygin – 24 BBs
David Yan – 24 BBs
Teun Mulder – 19 BBs
Jason Koon – 14 BBs
Mike Watson – 8 BBs
Stack sizes dictated the style of play once again, with the number of tricky middle-ranked stacks making ICM considerations paramount. Mike Watson, propping up the counts, no doubt knew his precise shoving ranges and doubtless was in there, especially after Punnat Punsri had open-shoved.
Watson called, saw Punsri’s pocket tens, but didn’t get any assistance from the dealer. The board bricked and Watson, on the very cusp of the dinner break, was able to pass by the payouts desk en route to the buffet. He won $184,500.
Sean Winter’s stack went on an upward trajectory, pushing him up alongside Brian Kim at the top of the counts and allowing them the freedom to play. That was in clear contrast to all of the others, still ICM-shackled.
However Winter tumbled back to join them when he shoved pocket jacks over Viacheslav Buldygin’s open. Buldygin’ called off with pocket queens, held and doubled. So now only Kim and Buldygin had room for manoeuvre.
Jason Koon usually enjoys the freedom of a big stack. His incredible talent for chip accumulation usually makes sure of that. However, he couldn’t get anything going at his second final table of the week, and was forced all-in from the small blind with . Kim found an ace in the big blind and snapped him off. Koon whiffed.
The Triton Ambassador’s title tally sticks at six for the time being, but he picked up $241,000 for his seventh place, further ammunition for battles ahead.
David Yan is another player who has enjoyed a highly profitable trip to North Cyprus so far, and here he was again gunning for the top prizes.
It wasn’t to be for the New Zealander, however, as he became the latest to find an underpair when Buldygin was sitting behind with something bigger.
It was sevens versus nines this time, but the result was the same. Yan didn’t hit and his day was done. He took $306,400 this time around.
Buldygin now had the big stack, big enough to open-shove with impunity and force the tough decisions onto everyone else. Even Kim now was in a rough spot, sitting to Bulgygin’s right.
This state of affairs was the direct cause of the next two eliminations, with Teun Mulder and Winter sacrificing their short stacks to Buldygin. They both got it in very good against the bully, but in hold’em there’s rarely such a thing as a lock.
Buldygin’s beat Mulder’s . Then his bested Winter’s . Mulder won $392,300 for fifth and Winter took $488,000 for fourth. Buldygin just kept on building.
Buldygin had more than 60 blinds while his two opponents had only 20 between them. But the Russian was able to sit back and watch the two bald men fight over the comb. Kim shoved with and Punsri called with . Kim hit both of his cards on the flop, and although Punsri picked up a straight draw on the turn, he whiffed the river.
Kim actually had the smaller stack going into the hand, so Punsri survived with just a couple of blinds. But the blow was all but fatal. The last few chips ended up with Buldygin, whose rivered an ace to beat Punsri’s , which had flopped a king.
Kim had the daunting task of attempting to overturn a three-to-one disadvantage heads-up, particularly difficult when an opponent is playing and running as well as Buldygin. At least it didn’t last long. Kim got his chips in with pocket jacks and Buldygin had .
There was a king on the flop. Of course there was. Buldygin was the champion, and takes the latest Shamballa Jewels bracelet alongside the trophy and the million bucks.
Event #6 – $50,000 NLH 7-Handed
Dates: May 14-15, 2023
Entries: 104 (inc. 41 re-entries)
Prize pool: $5,200,000
1 – Viacheslav Buldygin, Russia – $1,342,000
2 – Brian Kim, USA – $920,000
3 – Punnat Punsri, Thailand – $603,000
4 – Sean Winter, USA – $488,000
5 – Teun Mulder, Netherlands – $392,300
6 – David Yan, New Zealand – $306,400
7 – Jason Koon, USA – $241,000
8 – Mike Watson, Canada – $184,500
9 – Justin Bonomo, USA – $135,000
10 – Artur Martirosian, Russia – $109,000
11 – Henrik Hecklen, Denmark – $109,000
12 – Danny Tang, Hong Kong – $96,500
13 – Rachid Ben Cherif, Netherlands – $96,500
14 – Dan Smith, USA – $88,400
15 – Steve O’Dwyer, USA – $88,400
Photography by Joe Giron/Poker Photo Archive