Ema Zajmovic and Her History-Making WPT Playground Championship Belt

Feb 14, 2017

Champion Ema Zajmovic

Fashionistas will tell you the importance accessories play in someone’s personal style. For partypoker.net qualifier Ema Zajmovic though, her accessory of choice highlights her personal accomplishment.

She wanted the championship belt. The Season XV partypoker.net WPT Playground Championship belt.

She got it.

As the World Poker Tour grew older and older, questions have been raised about why women have not fared better on the tour. Specifically in regards to a female player winning an open-entry event on the WPT Main Tour. Although Van Nguyen became the first female champion when she won the WPT Celebrity Invitational back in 2008, no woman had been able to accomplish what has already been done on the World Series of Poker, the European Poker Tour, and elsewhere.

Today, Ema Zajmovic gave the poker world some answers.

Zajmovic won the partypoker.net WPT Playground event, becoming the first female WPT champion of an open buy-in event. Zajmovic collected CAD $261,000 for defeating a field of 380 entries in the $3,500 buy-in event. As part of her prize, she gets a seat into the invite-only US $15,000 buy-in Tournament of Champions at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Hollywood this April.

Ever since Zajmovic saw two of her friends win WPT events at Playground Poker Club in Montreal and earn the belt, akin to the kind awarded in boxing and wrestling, it has been on Zajmovic’s mind. When she described her mindset at the final table, it was singularly focused on one goal.

“OK, I want that belt,” she said. “I want a picture of me with that belt. My belt.”

That is not to say she didn’t realize the historic impact of what she accomplished this evening. As play neared the final table, she could not help but notice how many women were paying attention to her run in this tournament.

“Honestly, I am really happy that I proved women can do it,” Zajmovic said of winning an open WPT Main Tour event. “The funniest and nicest part of this experience was all the women who came and were so supportive of me. It was amazing. When I started playing poker, there was so much competition between girls. It was hard to be good and be supportive of each other. Now it has evolved so much and it is nice to see I had support from older women, younger women.”

This is not the first time Zajmovic has given the poker world a sweat about an open-event female WPT winner. Last November, she made the final table of the Season XV partypoker.net WPT Montreal Main Event won by Mike Sexton. There, with the belt within reach, Zajmovic finished in fifth place after holding a chip lead during much of the late stages of the tournament.

Sexton praised Zajmovic’s play in that event, pointing out her aggressive style and how much she intimidated the rest of the field.

“I have the greatest respect for her,” Sexton said. “This is no fluke, in my opinion. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of her in the future. She’s that good.”

The legendary WPT co-commentator and fellow WPT Champions Club member to Zajmovic also made a comparison to the new winner’s play that pretty much every poker player would kill to get.

“She is a combo of Phil Ivey and Vanessa Selbst,” Sexton said.

Zajmovic was flattered by the comparison, but wasn’t sure if it’s necessarily accurate. She’s an aggressive player, but she said anyone at the final table could have won this tournament. This was a final table with numerous chip lead changes, a long day of action, and a heads-up battle with Jean-Francois Bouchard where she began at a chip disadvantage.

Zajmovic is a cash-game pro who currently lives in Montreal and normally plays live cash. She said lately she has been playing on partypoker.net more.

“It’s amazing,” she said of the online site.

But after winning an online satellite to this event and then winning the tournament, she is thinking more live events might be in her future.

Given that she is now fourth in the Hublot WPT Player of the Year race, she might consider some more stops in Season XV of the World Poker Tour. Now that she has made history, might as well try to make more.

In the meantime though, it’s time to enjoy her moment. She can appreciate the impact it has on female poker players, but what she will really appreciate is her belt.

Here are the final table results for the Season XV partypoker.net WPT Playground Main Event:

1st: Ema Zajmovic – C$261,000 ($200,769)*
2nd: Jean-Francois – C$169,270 ($130,208)
3rd: Eric Afriat – C$108,690 ($83,608)
4th: Tam Ho – C$71,670 ($55,131)
5th: Mekhail Mekhail – C$55,200 ($42,462)
6th: Jean-Pascal Savard – C$45,690 ($35,146)

*First-place prize includes a seat into the season-ending WPT Tournament of Champions.

The day began with 10 players left at a single table. Action got underway quickly with the elimination of the talkative Henry Tran, who was silenced after doubling up Danny Li and left with two big blinds. He exited in 10th place and was followed quickly by Ryan Yu in ninth a couple of hands later.

Bouchard dispatched of Carter Swidler when his kings held up against Swidler’s tens to send Swidler home in eighth. Then Danny Li abruptly busted in seventh place when a late-position shove ran his Heart KClub 10 into Tam Ho’s Club ASpade K.

That set up the official six-handed WPT final table with Ho leading the pack with 3.5 million in chips. Zajmovic was not too far behind him with 3 million, and the lone remaining WPT Champions Club member, Eric Afriat, was the short stack with just 11 big blinds.

Afriat doubled through Jean-Pascal Savard to climb the counts, then a few orbits later, Savard was the first to exit the official six-handed WPT final table.

Savard and Bouchard got it all in on a flop of Diamond 4Spade 3Spade 2 with Bouchard holding the Spade ASpade 4 for a pair, flush draw, and gutshot straight draw against Savard’s Heart JDiamond J. Bouchard turned a flush to take the pot and move neck and neck with Zajmovic in the counts.

With five players remaining, Afriat went on a winning streak, taking down streaks of five or more hands in a row multiple times. He eventually overtook Ho for the chip lead and crossed 4 million in chips, but doubled up Zajmovic in a massive pot where she flopped a set of tens against his pocket aces to send her to the top of the counts.

Zajmovic then eliminated Mekhail Mekhail in fifth place when his Club AClub J was no match for her pocket kings. She peaked at 5.1 million after that hand, but a long stretch without an elimination saw the chip lead change hands several times.

At one point, Afriat started to run away with things, getting up to nearly 7 million, but a Tam Ho double brought him back to Earth and kept the competition close. Bouchard was next to double through Afriat, picking up kings to Afriat’s ace-king, and suddenly the quiet amateur at the table, Bouchard, was the chip leader.

Ho eventually ended the long stretch without an elimination when he shoved the last of his chips in with the Diamond 9Diamond 8 and Zajmovic called him with the Heart AHeart 2 only to flop a flush on him, sending Ho home in fourth.

Three-handed play was relatively even in terms of stacks until a massive confrontation between Bouchard and Afriat tipped the scales immensely. The two got it all in on a board of Diamond JSpade 9Diamond 2Heart A with Bouchard holding the Spade ASpade J for top two and Afriat drawing dead with the Diamond AHeart 6. Left with less than a big blind, Afriat was eliminated one hand later, setting up heads-up play between Bouchard and Zajmovic.

Bouchard began heads-up play with a roughly 3-2 advantage, but Zajmovic chipped away at her opponent and it did not take long for her to take the lead.

The final hand of play was an interesting one, as Bouchard accidentally moved all in out of turn. After clarifying the rules, Zajmovic completed the small blind and Bouchard’s shove was binding. She quickly called and actually had the slightly worse hand with the Spade KSpade Q to Bouchard’s Spade ASpade 9. Zajmovic improved two pair on the runout and the rest was history, both for the tournament and for the WPT.

Photography by Joe Giron / PokerPhotoArchive.com

Champion Ema Zajmovic

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