Justo Avalos is 2014 Ante Up World Champion

August 13, 2014, Scott Long  

In a tournament field that featured November Niners J.C. Tran and Steven Gee, World Series of Poker bracelet winners Kenny Tran and Tyler Patterson, outspoken pro Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler and just about every solid player from the Bay Area to Reno, it might have been easy to overlook Justo Avalos.

But few will overlook Avalos ever again.

The native of Mexico who now calls Elk Grove, Calif., played a patient, methodical game and used a massive chip stack to win the Ante Up World Championship Main Event at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln, Calif. He quietly finished off his final five opponents during a final table that was live-streamed poolside with several relatives and friends ringing the table.

“I had a lot of people her tonight giving me a lot of support,” Avalos said just after taking down the title and $91,572 in the $1,650 buy-in championship. “I watch all the poker on TV and I’ve telling my family, ‘someday that’s going to be on there!’ “

“Someday” turned out to be Aug. 11, 2014 when Avalos King-10 held up against the J-9 of runner-up Jun “Yama” Zheng of Redding, Calif. Zeng, whose nickname comes from the name of this popular restaurant - “everyone in Redding knows Yama!,” he quipped - won $64,254 for second place. He came to the final table with least chips and aggressively chipped up throughout the final table.

“Heads-up, I decided to let him come to me and play my game,” Avalos said. “It worked out almost perfectly.”

But to get to heads-up, Avalos had to wade through a difficult final table, made only slightly easier by hi starting with almost 600,000 units more than any of his opponents. Avalos said he was mindful of his chip stack and built a strategy around it.

“I didn’t want to chip them up. For me, it was ‘slow, slow, grind, grind’,” he said. “But I kept getting good hands and good hands.”

Being annointed Ante Up’s second world champion is by far Avalos’ greatest accomplishment on the felt. He plays most often at Capitol Casino in Sacramento, but also play all the best events at Thunder Valley, including the most recent Heartlan Poker Tour. He tried to satellite into the World Championship, but finished 10th, just shy of a seat.

“I went home and say, it’s Saturday and it’s my birthday, and decided I was going to buy-in,” Avalos said. The 282-player field exceeded the $250,000 guarantee 14 minutes after it began.

“The structure on this tournament was great,” Avalos said. “I started Day 2 with 53,500. I was almost dead. Luckily, I had plenty of time to come back and never went down.”

The final table took place at Coconut Pool + Bar, Thunder Valley’s pool oasis, and was video-live-streamed with a full crew from Hold’em Radio providing commentary and player interviews. After the sun set an hour into the broadcast, the rest of the final table played out with a cool, comfortable breeze and players’ families and friends ringing the table.

It was almost a star-studded live-stream, as J.C. Tran, Patterson and Kenny Tran finished in the top 10, but just short of the live-stream table of six. J.C. Tran got Twitter abuzz not long before busting by pledging a portion of his winnings, as well as his winning side bets with players, to the local Shriners Hospital. Famed tournament director Matt Savage oversaw the Main Event.

But the live-stream table was not without its feel-good stories. Cedric Darrett, who bowed out in fifth, earned his way into the Main Event by first winning an $85 satellite into a $360 satellite, and parlaying the $360 into a seat in the big dance.

For Ben Erwin, director of poker operations at Thunder Valley, the success of the tournament and positive comments from players were validation of months-long meticulous planning to make the event stand out among similar events.

“It played like it was designed to - a true championship event,” Erwin said of the single-flight Main Event, which started players with 30,000 units and 40-minute levels that expanded to 60 minutes before the end of Day 1, and also allowed players just one re-entry. “A number of players told me they appreciated that every hand counted, and that was the goal.”

The one re-entry was arguably the most unique facet of the tournament, providing an equalizer between players with beefy bankrolls accustomed to firing multiple bullets in big events and recreational players, many of who won their seat via satellite.

While the Main Event was the signature event, the series comprised a total of 13 events plus the debut of the Western Seniors Poker Series. All guarantees were shattered, producing a total series prize pool that exceeded $1 million.

Event #2, a $425 buy-in no-limit deepstack event, set a Thunder Valley record for highest participation - with 836 players cycling through its three starting flights. Shawn Roberts of Rocklin, Calif., pulled off a technical daily-double, agreeing to a two-way chop in the Ante Only event and immediately entering the Six-Max event and winning that on chip-count after yet another deal. And the series saw the debut of the first Open Face Chinese tournament at Thunder Valley.

The Ante Up Poker Tour returns to Thunder Valley in November for the third annual Ante Up NorCal Classic, the final regional event on the AUPT schedule. Next August, the Ante Up World Championship will return to Thunder Valley, and the fourth Ante Up NorCal Classic in November 2015 will be another championship event, with the Main Event winner appearing on the cover of Ante Up Magazine.

Main Event - $1,650
Entries: 282, Prize Pool: $414,540

1st: Justo Avalos, Elk Grove, CA, $91,572
2nd: Jun “Yama” Zheng, Redding, CA, $64,254
3rd: Thomas Tran, Modesto, CA, $41,401
4th: Zak Gilbert, Reno, NV, $30,593
5th: Cedric Darrett, Rocklin, CA, $22,966
6th: Mike Riddle, Elk Grove, CA, $18,364
7th: Ying Vang, Sacramento, CA, $15,255
8th: Tyler Patterson, Seattle, WA, $12,229
9th: Khoa "Kenny" Tran, Sacramento, CA, $9,161
10th: J.C. Tran, Sacramento, CA, $6,674
11th: Dan Foster, Sacramento, CA, $6,674
12th: Kao Saevang, Sacramento, CA, $6,674
13th: Dan Husean, Alameda, CA, $4,684
14th: Allen "Chainsaw" Kessler, Las Vegas, NV, $4,684
15th: Anthony Lazar, Plymouth, MN, $4,684
16th: Jason Nguyen, Elk Grove, CA, $4,604
17th: Antonio Gutierrez, Lincoln, CA, $4,604
18th: William Chao, El Sobrante, CA, $4,604
19th: Jed Hoffman, Reno, NV, $4,204
20th: Allen Fernando, Elk Grove, CA, $4,204
21st: Candace Collins, Redding CA, $4,204
22nd: Michael Haas, Lodi, CA., $3,648
23rd: Casey McCarrel, Lafayette, CA, $3,648
24th: Thiaga Arumugam, Santa Clara, CA, $3,648
25th: Kevin O'Donnell, Petaluma, CA, $3,232
26th: Bob Mather, Redding, CA, $3,232
27th: Yegor Tsurikov, Walnut Creek, CA, $3,232
28th: Phu Ngo, Milpitas, CA, $2,189
29th: Steve Shaffer, Patterson, CA, $2,189
30th: Roy Armstrong, Rocklin, CA, $2,189
31st: Tona Katkuoy, Santa Rosa, CA, $2,189
32nd: James Glenn, Redding, CA, $2,189
33rd: Cy Williams, Davis, CA, $2,189
34th: Abraham Tannous, Sacramento, CA, $2,189
35th: Shawn Daniels, Placerville, CA, $2,189
36th: Cornel Cimpan, Sacramento, CA, $2,189