Johnnie Craig had the brim of his white baseball cap pulled low, helping him remain unaware of his surroundings.
It wasn’t until three-handed play in the World Series of Poker’s $1,000 buy-in Seniors No-limit Hold’em Championship on Monday afternoon that Craig finally assessed his position.
“I was concentrating so hard on my hands,” Craig said, “I didn’t even realize how many chips I had until one point I looked up and I looked around the table, and I said, ‘I think I’m chip leader! How’d this happen?’ “
Craig, a 54-year-old restaurant owner from Baytown, Texas, used well-timed preflop aggression to build his chip stack and then dominated heads-up play against Jamshid Lotfi to win the Seniors event at the Rio Convention Center.
Craig earned $538,204 and his first career WSOP bracelet along with The Golden Eagle trophy that goes to the winner of the Seniors Championship, which is open to players age 50 and older.
The event drew 4,499 entrants, the largest field since the tournament’s inception in 2001, and took an extra day to finish. Play was halted late Sunday and the final six competitors returned Monday to determine a champion.
Craig spent 25 years in the Army and said he had several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to owning a restaurant, Craig operates multiple catering trailers that sell snowcones and ice cream in his hometown located about 20 miles outside of Houston.
Craig was fourth in chips when play resumed Monday, but he more than doubled his stack during the first two levels by repeatedly stealing the blinds and antes from his opponents.
“(Sunday) night, I told my wife (Annette), ‘If I can just get a couple breaks where I can get even with everybody else that’s got the chip lead, then I’ll have a chance,’ ” Craig said.
Craig won two key pots from third-place finisher Roger Sippl of Woodside, California, without a showdown during three-handed action and held a slight chip advantage over Lofti when heads-up play started.
Craig took a 2-to-1 lead early in the heads-up match when he caught Lofti bluffing and then turned up the pressure on his opponent over the next 45 minutes of play.
Craig ended the heads-up proceedings after 58 hands when his pocket fours held up against the ace-seven of Lofti. It was the only elimination Craig was responsible for at the final table.
“As soon as he pushed, I had (pocket fours) and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ ” Craig said. “I had the feeling I was going to win. I just had that feeling that he wasn’t going to hit. It worked out.”
Lofti, a movie producer from Lutherville-Timonium, Maryland, collected $332,413 as runner-up.
This was the fourth year Craig has played in the Seniors event. He also cashed in 2014 when he finished in 140th place.
“Once I made the final table … I lost a pretty big hand right off the bat,” Craig said. “From that point on, I decided I wasn’t going to make any big moves unless I had huge hands, and I was just going to chip away, chip away.
”Once I got a chip lead or up in the chips, then I was going to start applying pressure to the table, and that’s what I did.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at email@example.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ