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After long journey, Damian Salas wins WSOP Main Event at Rio

Updated January 4, 2021 - 2:07 am

Damian Salas certainly put the “world” in World Series of Poker champion.

The Argentine played parts of the WSOP Main Event on three continents, finally claiming the title late Sunday at the Rio in a heads-up duel with Joseph Hebert. Salas collected his first WSOP trophy bracelet and another $1 million on top of the about $1.55 million he already received for winning the international portion of the event.

“I don’t play for the money,” Salas said through an interpreter. “I play because of the challenge, because of the love of poker. I play to be better every time, to compete. To get this achievement, I’m very proud of myself because of all the work I’ve done and mainly because I’ve persevered.”

Salas, a 45-year-old lawyer, had to persevere just to get to Sunday’s heads-up duel. After playing the early stages of the Main Event online in Argentina, he had to travel to Rozvadov, Czech Republic, for the live international final table Dec. 15. After winning that, he then had to come to Las Vegas for the heads-up finale.

That proved troublesome. He said he was twice denied passage at airports because of coronavirus protocols related to his recent travel to Europe. Salas said he changed his flight three times before finally making it to the U.S., delaying the heads-up match from its scheduled Wednesday start to Sunday.

“I don’t deny that I was stressed out,” he said. “But I tried to accept the situation and resolve the problems in that moment.”

Salas faced more problems early in the match against Hebert, a 38-year-old poker pro from Metairie, Louisiana. A failed bluff by Salas allowed Hebert to take a 3-1 chip lead that he eventually extended to 9-1. On the verge of elimination a couple of times, Salas managed to double up and eventually even the match.

“He went all-in 15 times and I never had a hand,” Hebert said.

The blinds got so high that players were either going all-in or folding. In the final hand, Hebert went all-in with ace-queen. Salas called with king-jack and hit a king on the flop and another on the river to seal his victory.

Hebert still walked away with the about $1.55 million he got for winning the U.S. portion of the event. He had dedicated his performance throughout the tournament to his mother, Linda, who died unexpectedly in July from a pulmonary embolism. Hebert said that in their final text exchange, they talked about his winning a WSOP bracelet one day.

Hebert said she wrote: “I keep hoping and praying that what will be, will be. Things will work out.” He echoed those words Sunday: “What will be will be, as my mom said.”

The Main Event was played in a hybrid online/live format this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Because of U.S. online poker laws, two tournaments had to be held, one for U.S. players on WSOP.com and one for international players on GGPoker.

A total of 1,379 players entered the Main Event. Hebert prevailed in a field of 705 in the U.S. portion, and Salas beat a field of 674 in the international portion. The tournaments were played online until the final tables of nine were reached. Hebert won the U.S. final table Dec. 28 at the Rio.

The victory came three years after Salas made the Main Event final table and finished seventh.

“I don’t see it as I took revenge for 2017,” he said. “It’s more like just something wonderful that happened to me.”

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.