Benjamin Keeline was at his rock bottom.
Broke and desperate, the professional poker player recently started working as an Uber driver and was forced to do the unthinkable to pay his bills.
“I had to ask my father, who I hate asking for loans,” Keeline said.
But Keeline saw his struggles of the past few months disappear late Tuesday.
The 30-year-old resident of Westminster, Colorado, won the World Series of Poker’s “Colossus II” No-limit Hold ’em tournament at the Rio Convention Center and earned the $1 million first prize.
Keeline defeated Jiri Horak of Troubelice, Czech Republic, in a heads-up duel that lasted nearly three hours and ended a little before 11:30 p.m. with a thrilling, albeit slightly confusing, final hand.
“The two biggest scores of my life have come when I have been at the hardest points. And I’ve had a really hard time lately,” an emotional Keeline said. “I almost didn’t come to the series because I could not pay my bills if I didn’t have a winning series.”
The $565 buy-in “Colossus II” drew 21,613 entrants from 89 countries and is the second-largest live poker tournament in history. The event featured a $10,806,500 prize pool with the top 3,245 players cashing.
Keeline, who was down to a single 500-chip ante during Day 1B, started the final table in second place and entered heads-up play against Horak nearly even in chips.
Keeline won a series of small pots in the first hour before Horak, aided by a boisterous rooting section, won two big pots to take a 2½-to-1 chip advantage heading into the 10 p.m. break.
“I felt good heads-up. I felt like I had an upper hand a lot of the way,” Keeline said. “He was very value-oriented. He didn’t seem to get out of line much. It eventually became pretty easy to play, I just needed to acquire chips to make it happen.”
When action resumed 45 minutes later, Keeline quickly doubled up with pocket threes against Horak’s ace-king and then turned up the aggression to regain the chip lead.
On the final hand, Horak was all-in for his tournament life with ace-nine against Keeline’s pocket jacks. Horak sprinted to his friends when an ace came on the final card, seemingly unaware that it made Keeline a winning spade flush.
Keeline, who was not watching the cards come out, collapsed on to the floor in celebration after the ace hit the board, and his reaction created a few moments of confusion for many of the spectators in the Amazon Ballroom.
“My backer told me I won,” Keeline said. “He said, ‘Ace of spades.’ He’s dead to two aces, and he said ace of spades, and I just knew I won.”
Horak, a 28-year-old pro poker player, collected $618,000 for his runner-up finish.
This is the second major victory for Keeline, who won a WSOP circuit ring in 2013. But after a rough few months and being dropped by his backer in January, Keeline doesn’t expect to continue grinding on the tournament circuit.
“I might just go play occasionally and keep (driving for Uber),” Keeline said. “I keep saying how I wish I had been doing that for the last two years.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at email@example.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ