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With players such as German crusher Nils Pudel and American high roller Michael Rocco both making the final nine, ustrina Max Neugebauer’s victory in the $11,000-entry WSOP Europe Main Event came as a shock to some. But the gigantic basketball player saw off all the competition as he won the top prize of $1.63 million and the all-important gold WSOP bracelet – the first of his second career at the felt.
Going into the last day of action in this WSOP Main Event at King’s Casino, the largest casino in Europe, just eight players remained. That was because the penultimate day saw Bulgarian player Yulian Bogdanov busted in ninth place for a score of $125,400, a result that put everyone else in line for a final day appearance.
Once the final eight assembled and the flash bulbs that come with the final table popped, everyone was ready for a race to the title. Taiwanese player Eric Tsai was the chip leader, sat on 95 big blinds, a position way clear of nearest challenger, Lithuanian Kasparas Klezys (56 big blinds). Austrian former basketballer Max Neugebauer (41BB), German player Nils Pudel (40BB) and American high roller Michael Rocco (32BB) were all in hot pursuit and with every chance of striking gold if they had the best of the action to come.
Less than half an hour into the action, Swedish player Alf Martinsson, who began the final table with just seven big blinds, lost those to the Italian player Michele Tocci. Martinsson moved all-in with ace-three, but Tocci held pocket tens, and after a flop of K-K-6 landed, the queen on the turn meant only an ace would save the Swede. A ten on the river instead gave Tocci a full house and sent Martinsson home with a score of $160,500.
Next to go was the Ukrainian player Ruslan Volkov. All-in with pocket tens, he lost in unlucky fashion with pocket tens to Kasparas Klezys’ ace-ten, the board of 8-4-3-A-Q eliminating Volkov for a score of $209,900 in seventh. Soon after, Tsai began losing chips, who slid from being chip leader to having just 14 big blinds to his name. His fight back was not to be the only one as the drama ramped up with six players remaining.
Half a dozen hopefuls pushed for glory, but the hoops… ahem, hopes of one player were about to change dramatically. The 6’ 8” former basketball professional Max Neugebauer,moved all-in with ace-eight and was at risk of losing his tournament life. However, he doubled through Michele Tocci’s king-queen to move himself back into the match and soon after, the field was down to five.
German player Nils Pudel shoved for 13 bigs with ace-five but was unlucky to run into Michael Rocco’s pocket aces. A ten-high board saw Pudel crash out in sixth, cashing for $277,400. Soon after, Rocco himself was on the rail. All-in with ace-seven, he ran into Tocci with pocket tens. The pocket pair won, as a seven on the flop was all Rocco could hit, as he slid out of contention in fifth place for $370,900.
Four-handed play saw Neugebauer make vast steps forward in his battle for the bracelet, twice winning important hands against Eric Tsai. The basketball star had the goods both times and doubled his stack at the expense of Tsai, as the chip lead went from belonging to the Taiwanese player to being in the hands of the Austrian.
Neugebauer had 70 big blinds and with that amount being more than his three opponents combined, the champion-in-waiting was in powerplay.
“When I stopped playing basketball, I started playing poker.” ~ Max Neugebauer, WSOP Europe Main Event 2023 champion.
The Lithuanian Kasparas Klezys was the next player to bust, cashing for $504,700 in fourth place. Committing his chips with queen-eight offsuit when short-stacked, he was behind Neugebauer’s king-jack and stayed that way through the J-8-5 flop, along with the king on the turn and ace on the river. Klezys hit the rail and that only strengthened Neugebauer’s credentials, allowing the Austrian to open up his range and attack his opponents’ pre-flop ranges further.
Italian player Michele Tocci was the man who just missed out on heads-up poker, and he was unlucky to do so. All-in with pocket jacks, he lost his stack to Neugebauer’s king-four when a three-outer king hit the river, with all the chips having gone into the middle pre-flop. Tocci’s cash of $695,000 was a great result but he missed out on the battle for the bracelet.
That began with Neugebauer in a chip lead of almost 4:1. Tsai came back a little, but when he shoved the river on a board of Q-8-7-A-4 with just jack-nine in a suit unrelated to the board, Neugebauer had the opportunity to hero-call his way to glory, holding jack-eight. It was only middle pair, but perhaps the strength of his stack and knowing that if he was wrong he would still be in with a chance made the decision for him.
Neugebauer called and won the tournament, taking the bracelet and $1.63 million top prize. As Tsai consoled himself with the runner-up prize of $969,100, reporters asked him how his basketball career ended and when poker took over.
“I had huge knee problems,” he told them. “When I stopped playing basketball, I started playing poker. The competition part and the part of improving and working on your game was really important to me and I felt like there was some void that needed to be filled. Poker was that for me.”
The opportunity to win a WSOP bracelet comes around so seldom – even for great players – that it was clear Neugebauer had a huge amount of gratitude for the moment in poker history he was inhabiting.
“It means a lot,” he admitted. “The bracelet itself means a lot. That it’s the WSOP Main Event means even a bit more. What means the most to me, honestly, is my friends being here and cheering me on. It was really wonderful. I don’t know what the experience would’ve been without them.”
Thankfully, after the poker moment of his career in the game so far, Max Neugebauer doesn’t need to wonder. His future in poker looks as assured as his performance at the biggest final table of his life.
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