May 17, 2021
By Sean Chaffin
In interviews leading up to the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open, Veerab Zakarian realized he wasn’t the big story at the table. This regular guy wasn’t looking for a third title or to add to a deep poker resumé. However, Zakarian entered the final day as chip leader after battling in Atlantic City a year and a half ago. The final table was originally set for April 1 of 2020 in Las Vegas, but players experienced a delay much longer than anticipated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Zakarian, the finish was worth the wait.
With only two previous WPT cashes, and none higher than 40th, Zakarian grew his poker record significantly on Monday – adding his name to the Mike Sexton WPT Champions Cup. The $674,840 first-place money is twice his lifetime live tournament winnings. The 25-year-old player from Toronto, Canada, carried over a big final day in Atlantic City to Las Vegas on his way to the title.
“Waiting this long, you didn’t know what to expect,” Zakarian said after the win. “You don’t know, you keep waiting for it. Most people, after the pandemic, didn’t have anything to look forward to so I was glad to have something to look forward to.”
Some time during the wait for the final table involved studying and playing, and that routine paid off. Seeing himself play on Bally Sports will be surreal for the young poker player. He’s looking forward to the experience and the prestige that goes with playing on a WPT final table.
“When I watch, it will be something nice,” he says. “Everyone asks if you’ve been on TV. It’s going to be interesting to watch and be able to have forever.”
Reaching that point wasn’t easy. There were some big storylines playing out at the table. Hublot Player of the Year Brian Altman hoped to bring home his third WPT title. Runner-up James Anderson looked to top his runner-up finish in this same event in Season XI (2013). Zakarian shook all that off and focused on his own game – applying pressure when needed and making some nice calls late in the day. Zakarian went on to grab the biggest finish of his career and join the WPT Champions Club.
“Everyone always wants the bracelet, but these days it looks like the WPT is what everyone is chasing,” he said. “The bracelets – there’s so many of them. But the WPT is special, especially Borgata. When you think of poker on the East Coast, the first thing you think of is Borgata and winning something like this.”
For his efforts, Anderson takes home $449,904 and played well throughout the final table. It just seemed to be his opponent’s day however, and Zakarian eliminated four of the other five players including Anderson, Altman, Nathan Russler, and Andrew Hanna. His knockout of Altman, who finished third for $333,012, came with a particularly sneaky play. On a board of , he chose simply to slow play with and check the action before calling a bet of 1 million chips.
When the fell on the river, Zakarian checked-raised all-in to a bet of 2.8 million from Altman. That brought the two-time champion a huge decision for his tournament life and he used two time chips before ultimately calling with . The two pairs proved no good and Zakarian raked a big pot with his wheel straight.
The heads-up battle between Zakarian and Anderson saw both with deep stacks. Zakarian had a small chip lead after Altman hit the rail, but that flipped back and forth several times between. Another huge hand developed late that saw Zakarian make a huge call to surge ahead. With blinds at 300,000/500,000, Anderson raised to 1 million and Zakarian called with the flop coming . After checking, Anderson bet 600,000 and Zakarian raised to 2 million.
The turn brought the and Zakarian again bet 2 million holding . Anderson thought a bit and raised to 5 million. Zakarian called and the river brought , giving him a King-high flush. His opponent thought for a while and moved all in for more than 25 million – putting his opponent to the test.
Seeing the Ace-flush and full house possibilities on the board, Zakarian used two of his time chips before eventually calling. Anderson showed for a bluff and Zakarian raked a 9.7 million-chip pot. It was a critical moment that put Zakarian in the driver’s seat over the last few hands.
With vaccinations underway and mask mandates lifting, poker is slowly returning to normal. The WPT’s Season XIX kicks off this summer with the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Tampa running June 18-22, followed by the WPT Choctaw July 23-27. No with a bigger bankroll and plenty of confidence, the new champ is looking forward to more tour action on the horizon.
“Poker is starting to pick up with so many more tournaments and cash games around Vegas for the next month or two,” he says. “Maybe [I’ll play] the WPT here in July at Venetian or Tampa. I hope the WPT will go back to Borgata or Fallsview since I’m close to Canada. I’ll try my luck again and see what happens.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and his work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions.