September’s MSPT Running Aces Main Event became the largest in tour history with 383 runners (179 on Day 1A, 204 1B), besting the previous record of 367 set back in 2013. After two long days of play, 50-year-old local businessman and part-time poker player Jeff Birt emerged victorious to claim an $81,402 first-place prize.
“I thought I played pretty well,” said Birt, who is married with two daughters. “I was short stacked, I just had to pick the right spots, be patient, and let the cards come to me. It’s been a long time coming. It was a good time, enjoyable.”
Prior to the win, Birt had just one MSPT cash, that being $7,626 for finishing 11th in the Season 7 finale at Canterbury Park. All told he had $50,691 in tournament earnings, but more than doubled that over the weekend.
“This is my passion,” he said of poker. “It took over the game of golf. I suck at golf.”
Day 2 saw 68 players return to action, but with only 45 slated to get paid, 23 would leave empty handed including Kou Vang, Max Havlish, and last year’s runner-up Vic Peppe. Once Joseph Michael busted on the bubble in 46th place, the in-the-money finishes included defending champ Luke Bohnen (41st - $2,035), 2016 Minnesota Poker Player of the Year Saad Ghanem (35th - $2,220), World Series of Poker bracelet winner John Reading (25th - $2,590), and two-time champ Peixin Liu (19th - $3,478).
Another player to fall was Keith Heine, who not only earned $4,070 for finishing in 18th place, but also 200 POY points. He already sat atop the Kimo Sabe Mezcal MSPT Season 8 Player of the Year leaderboard, and he extended his lead to 2,967 points over the likes of Keith Block (2,500 points), Jason Ramos (2,250 points), and Al Hedin (2,100 points), who all failed to cash at Running Aces.
From there, two-time champ Jeremy Dresch (16th - $4,070), Day 1A chip leader Sam Topalovic (15th - $4,810), MSPT Grand Falls champ Ahmed Taleb (15th - $4,810), and Robert O’Connell (11th - $5,920) all hit the rail.
The first final table elimination came when Harold Brenden, who was fresh off finishing fifth in the MSPT Grand Falls, got his short stack all in preflop with ace-queen against both ace-jack and five-six. The ace-jack flopped Broadway, and that was all she wrote for Brenden, who jumped up to 1,100 POY points.
Not long after, Day 1B chip leader Alex Moua followed him out the door after check-raising all in with middle pair on the flop only to run into the top pair of Stan Webb. Next to go was the short-stacked Durwin Matuska, who shoved his last two bigs with top pair of jacks, got called by the king-queen of Tony Lacey, and saw a queen spike on the turn.
Freddie West earned his first MSPT cash of $12,210 after busting in seventh place, the result of three-betting all in with queen-jack only to run into the pocket kings of Vlad Tkachuk. Likewise, Steve Wazwaz, the cousin of poker pro and MSPT regular Rob Wazwaz, notched his first cash on the tour. He finished in sixth place for $15,540 after his ace-ten failed to overcome Webb’s Big Slick.
After a failed bluff, Xong Lee was left short and moved all in holding ace-ten and was called by Webb, who once again looked down at ace-king. The better ace won and Lee had to settle for fifth place and $20,351 in prize money.
Tkachuk bowed out next. The experienced player wasn’t afraid to make moves and apply aggression, but unfortunately for him he ran into bigger hands time and again. Eventually he shoved the button with queen-nine suited only to run into the ace-queen suited of Birt in the big blind. The board ran out clean and Tkachuk took his leave in fourth place for $27,011.
Three-handed play lasted quite a while with players taking turns holding the chip lead. Eventually the blinds and antes got up there (Level 32: 80,000/160,000/20,000) when Webb got it in on the flop with a spade flush draw against Birt’s bottom two pair. The spade escaped Webb, and he headed to the exit to collect $36,631 for his third-place finish.
Heads-up play began with Birt holding 4.675 million in chips to Wisconsin truck driver Tony Lacey’s 2.965 million. Still, it didn’t take long for things to come to a head when both players made a pair of aces on the turn. The chips went in and thanks to his kicker, Birt claimed the title.
“I know a lot of people would’ve shipped it with a lot of hands I laid down, but that’s not my style,” Birt said of his up-and-down journey. “I try to pick the better spots. The very next hand you could have pocket aces and double up, so I don’t always believe in getting it in. I had a couple of lucky spots, but I think I played well.”