Our quest to determine the most memorable televised poker hand in history has been completed. After dominating performances in the final four and in the championship round, Justin Phillip’s 2008 WSOP knockout of Motoyuki Mabuchi became our champion.
It’s safe to say nobody expected Phillips to win this contest or even be a serious contender, but nobody expected Chris Moneymaker to win the 2003 Main Event so anything can and does happen in poker. Today we take a brief look back at how Phillips took the title and speculate on why he pulled off this upset victory.
Three Superstars – And Phillips
In three out of the four brackets, things went close to how we envisioned. In the Funny division, Phil Hellmuth managed to headline both videos in the finals with his hand against Earnest Wiggins on the PokerStars Big Game taking the title. Over in the Impressive division, Tom Dwan’s bluff proved to be the most popular in what was arguably the weakest of the four divisions in this contest.
Over in the Exciting division, Michael Mizrachi dominated every round and ultimately crushed Phil Hellmuth’s 1989 Main Event win to take the region. Mizrachi was viewed as the favorite to win it all and may have gotten there had PokerUpdate presenter Robbie Strazynski not gave him his Kiss of Death.
The Shocking Division saw a pair of unlikely videos work their way through to the finals. Justin Phillips royal flush defeat of Motoyuki Mabuchi managed to outrun the 2008 Main Event bustout of former Survivor contestant Jean-Robert Bellande.
The final four pitted Hellmuth against Dwan and Phillips against Mizrachi. Fans of both players made this a close match with Hellmuth just making the finals with 54% of the vote. It wasn’t even close in the Phillips-Mizrachi match. Phillips crushed “The Grinder” taking 79% of the vote and making the finals.
With Hellmuth in the finals, most figured the 14-time bracelet winner would easily walk away with the title. Instead, the Poker Brat suffered another bad beat as Phillips took the title with 64% of the vote. Better luck next time Phil.
When this contest started, there probably wasn’t a single person that believed that Phillips’ royal flush hand would win it all. After all, he was in a bracket that included Matt Affleck’s Main Event loss to Jonathan Duhamel, Connor Drinnan’s million-dollar loss with aces and even Moneymaker’s 2003 Main Event suckout on Phil Ivey.
However, as each round concluded, Phillips managed to advance to the next round. Ultimately, he took the shocking division to face off against Michael Mizrachi’s double suckout in the 2010 November Nine. The Robbie Strazynski Kiss of Death factored into the final four decision, allowing Phillips to advance to the finals against Phil Hellmuth’s loss to the King of Suckouts.
I have a couple of theories as to why Phillips was able to advance through the contest and ultimately dominate championship round. First, this was one of the earliest “brutal beats” that fans experienced on ESPN television. Certain hands, such as Andrew Robl’s loss with quads or Tom Dwan’s amazing bluff on High Stakes Poker, was seen originally by a limited number of poker fans.
Phillips’ brutal beat of Motoyuki Mabuchi was featured on the 2008 WSOP Main Event broadcasts and has been rebroadcasts hundreds of times since the original bad beat. Many of the other hands you never saw again after they were initially broadcast unless you watched it on YouTube or another streaming service.
Next, the players involved in the Phillips hand weren’t big name pros with inflated resumes and bankrolls we never could achieve. They were amateurs like the rest of us and this allowed us to sympathize with their plight. Phillips became the poster child for country boy that felt he could make a run in the Main Event. I actually ran across Phillips two years after his brutal beat on Mabuchi in an event at Binions in Las Vegas and he said that he was still approached quite frequently about the hand. And yes, he was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt like in the video.
Finally, this beat occurred during the early days of the largest live poker event in the world. This didn’t happen later in the event where the losers still walked away with money. Mabuchi shoved all his chips in with pocket aces expecting to double-up and make a run at the title, only to discover that he was eliminated. That’s $10,000 gone in one hand. Most of us would be sick in our stomach for a week if we experienced that type of beat and it is that type of emotion that I feel carried Phillips’ hand to the title.