The loudest roar during the One Drop High Rollers tournament Saturday came five minutes in when Antonio Esfandiari was eliminated.
The final table of the $111,111 buy-in tournament — the largest of this year’s World Series of Poker — attracted a lively audience to the Rio Convention Center, with the majority there to see whether the popular poker pro could follow up his victory in last year’s Big One for One Drop, in which he won a record $18.2 million.
Instead, the $4,830,619 first prize came down to two former roommates who waged a brief, and slightly awkward, heads-up battle as Anthony Gregg defeated Chris Klodnicki after only 19 hands to win his first WSOP bracelet.
“Pretty much we have the same exact group of friends,” Gregg said. “He and I lived in the same house last year when we were in Vegas, so that’s why no one was really cheering for either of us.”
Gregg, a successful cash-game and online player from Columbia, Md., runs in an elite poker circle that includes 2012 WSOP Main Event champion Greg Merson. Klodnicki said he met the 26-year-old Gregg for the first time last summer, and they’ve been friends since.
“He was relatively unknown last year, but he was one of the top players,” said Klodnicki, 28, from Philadelphia.
Gregg didn’t play in last year’s Big One for One Drop and has been looking forward to the High Roller since it was announced in February. The tournament, which started Wednesday, attracted top online players and some of poker’s most recognizable faces along with several deep-pocketed businessmen looking to sit down with the world’s best players.
“As soon as I saw it on the schedule, I had high hopes,” Gregg said. “I kind of had plans to play the $1 million One Drop last year, but I just wasn’t very organized as far as selling action and stuff. But I was 100 percent sure I was playing this one, which is why I was so excited for it.”
Gregg’s chip stack dwindled to less than 20 big blinds during Day 2 of the tournament, but he was one of the final four remaining Saturday afternoon when play resumed after being halted in the wee hours of the morning.
Esfandiari busted out on the fourth hand in the afternoon as Klodnicki paired his ace on the final (river) card, drawing a huge crowd reaction. Gregg took the chip lead when his pair of jacks edged Bill Perkins’ 10s, and shortly after, Gregg eliminated Perkins by pairing a queen on the river.
On the final hand, a little more than an hour into the afternoon session, Gregg’s two pair held up as Klodnicki was unable to hit a straight.
It was the second runner-up finish in a WSOP event for Klodnicki, who took home $2,985,495.
“It’s a little annoying, but I can’t complain,” Klodnicki said. “I know Tony. I’ve played with him a fair amount, and I know he’s literally one of the best players in the world, so it wasn’t going to be easy to beat him. I was at a chip disadvantage, and it just didn’t work out heads-up.”
Gregg, who also has a World Poker Tour title, enjoyed this victory for about 15 minutes before he race-walked across the Rio’s Amazon Ballroom to play in the $25,000 buy-in six-max no-limit tournament. Gregg entered that event at the last minute — “I wanted to have a Plan B,” he said — in case he busted out early in the High Rollers tournament.
“It’s nice to win. It’s a great accomplishment,” Gregg said. “I’m sure I’ll be happier about it in the future looking back, but right now it’s just like, on to the next tournament.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at email@example.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.