$1,000 buy-in earns $771,106

Steven Sung didn’t like the way he played in the World Series of Poker’s Special Anniversary $40,000 buy-in, no-limit hold ’em event.

He was eliminated on the first day before the dinner break.

So Sung, a 24-year-old resident of Torrance, Calif., decided to pony up $1,000 and participate in the tournament’s “Stimulus Special,” a low-buy-in, no-limit hold’em event that attracted 6,012 players.

His performance was much better.

Sung outlasted the field over four days and earned his first World Series of Poker championship bracelet just before midnight on Wednesday at the Rio, taking home $771,106.

“Steven achieved the best return on investment anyone has seen in this city in the past year,” World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack said before handing Sung his championship bracelet. “It’s quite an accomplishment taking $1,000 and turning it into three-quarters of a million dollars.”

Sung, who has been playing professionally for three years, saw the $1,000 buy-in event as an opportunity to get back on his game and maybe collect some of the money he lost playing in the tournament’s first major event, which honored the World Series of Poker’s 40th year.

“I was really surprised at how strong the field was,” said Sung, who had cashed in four previous World Series of Poker events. Before Thursday, his best finish was third place in a seven-card stud event at the 2007 tournament, earning $51,222.

After his quick elimination at the tournament’s second-largest entry-fee event, Sung realized he needed to fix flaws in his game and thought a relatively low buy-in event would help. He also thought playing against a large field could sharpen his skills in preparation for the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em world championship, which begins on July 3. Last year’s main event drew a field of 6,844 players.

“I think this field might even have been stronger than the main event field because you get a lot of celebrities and such,” Sung said. “I told myself I had to start playing better. I was able to bounce back.”

Sung entered the final table in second place, trailing the leader by about 800,000 in tournament chips. The runner-up was Peter Vilandos of Houston. Sung won the final hand with pocket kings, concluding an 8-hour, 45-minute final table.

Sung was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States with his parents 17 years ago. Sung, who once worked at an In-N-Out Burger restaurant as a teenager, attended the University of California, San Diego. He left school one quarter short of the credits he needed for graduation. He intends to return to college and complete his education.

While he has won $949,476 in his World Series of Poker career, Sung has more than $2.3 million in career winnings through several tournaments. He placed second in March 2008 at the Bay 101’s Shooting Stars event in San Jose, Calif., winning $585,000.

For now, Sung plans on playing other World Series of Poker events, including the main event.

“I like to play some of the other games, especially the pot-limit games,” Sung said. “It keeps me a little more in control.”

The $1,000 buy-in event attracted the fourth-largest field of players in World Series of Poker history, trailing only the main events of 2006 (8,773 players), 2008 (6,844 players) and 2007 (6,358 players).

Pollack said similar events would be planned for the 2010 World Series of Poker.

“This was a smash opening weekend and brought a lot of first-timers to the World Series and Las Vegas,” Pollack said. “We’re looking at ways of making it bigger next year.”

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.

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