A Fly On The Wall At The Aria High Roller

A Fly On The Wall At The Aria High Roller

"It's like a home game but with the world's best tournament players and for huge amounts of money"

Let’s be real with ourselves, most of us will never play in a $25,000 poker tournament.  In fact, most of us won’t ever rail a $25,000 poker tournament.

While the first one is still a couple years of ‘run-good’ away from being financially possible for me,  I was able to check the latter off my bucket-list this past week when the Aria poker room in Las Vegas was kind enough to grant me access to their most recent $25k High Roller.

“It’s like a home game but with the world’s best tournament players and for huge amounts of money”

Aria Director of Poker Operations, Sean McCormack explained to me before the tournament.

“It’s not like an EPT or a WPT. These guys know each other, they love playing against each other, testing their skills.”

Walking into the VIP area at the start of the tournament is a bit like stepping straight into my youtube home page.  The tournament lists a ridiculously stacked cast of the games best and most recognizable players including Doug Polk, Justin Bonomo, Ike Haxton, Bryn Kenney, Ben Tollerene, David Peters, Tom Marchese and Dan Smith.  Erik Seidel represents ‘team old school’ and College Loan Corp CEO Cary Katz mans the ‘rich amateur’ corner.

I approach the table where Dan Smith and Cary Katz are locked in a hand.  Katz is facing a river bet after a turn check-raise.  He moves his chips in the middle for the call.

“Damn, I thought I was repping queen-jack” Smith shakes his head with a slight smile while mucking his bluff.

“You were repping someone frustrated” Katz replies with a friendly needle.

Friendly banter, laughs and some good-natured taunting–yep, feels more like a home game than a high stakes battle.  If it weren’t for the table talk about youtube empires, non-stop world travel and the pitfalls of trying to sell a 20,000 sq ft mansion, you’d never tell the difference between this and your own local game.

But while the environment is friendly and casual, there’s some serious money at stake here.  With 24 total entries the top 4 will be paid.  $288k will go to 1st place and the min-cash for over $40,000 creates a huge bubble.

Over the next couple hours I’m treated to some epic poker.  As we get down to 10 players the table talk dies down a bit as the players can start to smell the six figure score. Justin Bonomo decides it’s a good time to try and bluff Ben Tollerene.  It’s a mistake that he pays for with his tournament life, and we’re left with 9 players remaining.  The tables now combine into one, leaving Bonomo to finish his steak dinner in peace.

The final 9 are: Erik Seidel, Ike Haxton, Doug Polk, Ben Tollerene, Cary Katz, Tom Marchese, Bryn Kenney and Dan Smith.

9 poker legends fighting for $288k, an amount of money that takes most people 5-10 years to earn.  But despite the huge dollar amounts and even larger collective poker skill around this table, this one is decided by the same thing that decides many lesser poker tournaments: A hurricane of ‘run-good’ caught at the right time.

Today’s hurricane is called ‘Tom’. Marchese, that is.  With a middling stack most of the day Marchese lingered around long enough in this one and hit lightning in a bottle at the final table.  After knocking out Ben Tollerene and bursting the massive $40k bubble, Marchese found himself on the smart end of a pre-flop all in battle against Bryn Kenney when he picked up QQ against Kenney’s AJ.

With Kenney’s stack at risk, the flop came ace-high only for a deadly queen to fall on the river as table mate Doug Polk announced “That’s the Tom I know”.

No big deal, just a $40k 2-outer.

Doug then got to see that “Tom he knows” up close and personal a few hands later when he shoved his sixes into the brick wall of Tom’s kings. GG, $67k cooler.  No big deal.

With Polk out in 3rd for a measeley $88k , hurricane Tom didn’t waste much time blowing the roof off of Cary Katz’ chip stack.

Tom Marchese is one of the best tournament players in the world, and It’s really not fair when someone so good gets so lucky, but it sure was fun to watch. He picked up queens again and got it all-in agaisnt Katz’s AK. After an AKQ flop and a dry run-out all Katz could do is chuckle and shake his oppoent’s hand.

“I run too good.”

Hurricane Tom can’t help but smile as he takes another victory sip of his Budweiser.


Tom Marchese (right) took $288k for first and runner-up Cary Katz (left) managed a lowly $155k for second.  (The guy in the middle won $300 and 6 free Sam Adams’ playing 1/2 at Excalibur later that night).

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