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WSOP Main Event adapting on fly to get to finish line

The World Series of Poker has required flexibility in its quest to crown a 2020 Main Event champion.

That flexibility has continued even with the tournament down to two players.

Joseph Hebert won the U.S. portion of the Main Event for $1,553,256 on Monday night at the Rio. He was scheduled to play international winner Damian Salas of Argentina heads-up for the trophy bracelet and an additional $1 million on Wednesday.

However, the WSOP announced late Monday that the match was moved to Sunday “due to unforeseen travel complications presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The WSOP did not explain the reason for the move, but CodigoPoker.com reported that Salas was denied entry into the U.S. because of coronavirus travel restrictions. He is now set to arrive in the U.S. on Friday, the report said.

WSOP executive director Ty Stewart did not respond to a request for comment on Salas’ situation.

In a statement, Stewart said: “Certainly 2020 has been a year of challenges for so many, and we experienced them in organizing this unique format for a poker tournament on two continents.”

The Main Event, the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Hold’em Championship, was played in a hybrid online/live format this year because of the 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 705 players entered the U.S. portion, and the international portion attracted 674 players for a total field of 1,379.

The tournaments were played online until the final tables of nine were reached. Salas won the international event in Rozvadov, Czech Republic. The U.S. players convened Saturday at the Rio.

Before the U.S. final table, Hebert talked about the pressure of being a massive chip leader while having to wait two weeks for the tournament to restart.

“I’ve never had to wait for a tournament in my whole entire life,” he said. “I’ve never had to wait two weeks to play a tournament. It is kind of a building factor.”

It didn’t show Monday. Hebert maintained his chip lead throughout the final table, then won the event on the first hand of heads-up play when he hit an ace on the flop with ace-queen to beat Ron Jenkins’ pocket queens. Ron Jenkins, a real estate developer from South El Monte, California, received $1,002,340.

“I didn’t expect it to end like that,” Hebert said. “I don’t think anybody did. I don’t think the camera crew was even ready to film.”

Hebert has quarantined at the Rio since Saturday and will remain there all week, he said in a text message Tuesday.

Hebert, a 38-year-old poker pro from Metairie, Louisiana, dedicated the victory to his mother, Linda, who died unexpectedly in July from a pulmonary embolism. He said he planned to buy a car for his father, Jules, and a new pet for his 8-year-old son, Kole.

“He just called me and said he wants his bird,” Hebert said.

Seeing the emotion that Hebert expressed after his victory is the reason the WSOP persevered in putting on the event, Stewart said in a statement.

“Why did we do the World Series of Poker in 2020 during a pandemic? This is exactly why we did it,” he said. “We don’t want to see COVID win; we want to see the players win. We want to see the players change their lives.”

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