Former Red Army officer scoops $749,610 prize at WSOP

24 June 2011

Russian poker pro Mikhail Lakhitov won a $2,500 No-Limit Hold'em event at the World Series of Poker, claiming the $749,610 first-place prize and his first WSOP bracelet in front of a rowdy and partisan crowd on Friday.

Perhaps you just had to be there to understand. Maybe there’s no way to reconstruct the raucous and rowdy atmosphere surrounding the most recent World Series of Poker tournament, which just ended at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Think of an international soccer match headed into overtime. Think of a heavyweight prize fight in the midst of the final round. Think of a jam-packed bar, during happy hour.

One media member, accustomed to covering dozens of WSOP finales over the last few years candidly remarked, "The energy is like nothing I've ever seen at the WSOP! Trouble is, it's giving me a headache!"

Another player, sitting in an unrelated tournament about 100 feet from the constant chanting said, "I thought this was poker. Not a scene from animal house."

Yet another bystander -- aligned with one of the opposing players said, "Can't you do something to make them all shut up?" That pretty much said it all.

Nearly lost in the celebratory atmosphere was some exceptional poker playing, most of it by Lakhitov.

The Cheborsary native overcame a huge starting field totaling 1,734 entrants. It took him four days to finally defeat his final challenger. The new champion is hardly a one-hit wonder. With this victory, Lakhitov cashed for fifth time at this year's WSOP. He now has nearly $1 million in lifetime earnings and has taken over the WSOP Player of the Year lead from Phil Hellmuth.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the tournament's final outcome and the winner's story of triumph is his unusual background. Prior to playing poker for a living, Lakhitov was on active duty in the Red Army. One of his friends in the Army was Kirill Gerasimov, who would himself go on to a successful poker career. During his down time, Lakhitov learned about poker.

“I had so much free time, that I started playing many different kinds of games," said Lakhitov. "One of the games I learned was poker.”

He spent many hours thinking about the game and playing with his fellow comrades. When he was discharged from the military Lakhitov decided to try and make it as a pro. He's hasn't regretted the decision, since.

Another irony is that Lakhitov's first visit to the WSOP was last year. He did not even know there was such a thing as a gold bracelet attached to each victory. When Lakhitov found out there was a luminous gold prize that came along with each championship, he vowed to win a gold bracelet and present it to his wife.

Mrs. Lakhitov should be very proud indeed, when he returns with a homecoming gift.

The runner up was Hassan Babjane, from Boston, MA. He settled for second place, which paid $463,480 -- an incredible accomplishment considering this is his first time to cash at the WSOP.

Thomas Middleton, from Slidsen, U.K., won $305,015 for third, Thomas Miller, from E. Hampton, N.Y., a former architect-turned-poker pro, was fourth for $219,885, Ed Sabat, a USC graduate and poker pro from Los Angeles was fifth for $160,949, and Matthew Berkey, a poker pro from Las Vegas, was sixth for $119,528.

James St. Hilaire, a 25-year-old poker pro from Glen Burnie, Md., was seventh, Conrad Monica, a casino dealer from Hemet, Calif., was eighth, and Kent (Lloyd) Padgett, a 67-year-old field technician from Spring, Texas, was ninth.

The top 171 finishers in the event cashed. Former gold bracelet winners who cashed in this tournament were: David “Dragon” Pham (37th), Andrew Cohen (49th), David Diaz (89th) and J.C. Tran (151st).

Tournament summary provided by Nolan Dalla, WSOP Media Director, reprinted by permission.

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