Steven Holloway entered the Main Event of the Festival of Poker at Sky City Casino in Auckland last weekend. 86 players paid $1650 for a seat at the tournament (and 45 paid $825), generating a prize pool of $164,250 with $52k going to first place. This was his experience.

"Thank God he's being moved," the player in seat three mumbled to his neighbour.

"I just hate being in hands with him, especially out of position – you never know what he's going to do. He's a poker genius."

I'd been playing in one of New Zealand's biggest poker tournaments for eight hours when the players on my table admitted they were in the presence of greatness.

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Unfortunately, they weren't talking about me. I was on Struggle-Street, short-stacked, quiet and feeling sorry for myself, but to my immediate left Te Rangi Matenga had been operating on a different level.

The 25-year old from Tokoroa is one of the brightest minds in the New Zealand poker scene and this year made his third consecutive FOP final table, earning $8210 for his sixth place finish, to go along with his $21,390 from 2016 (third) and $55,490 from 2015 (first).

I only played with Matenga for a few hours on day two of the tournament but saw enough to understand why his results are so good; he has the perfect mix of timed aggression and fearlessness.

Te Rangi Matenga is one of New Zealand's top poker players. Photo / Sky City
Te Rangi Matenga is one of New Zealand's top poker players. Photo / Sky City

To make the final table of any multi-table tournament you need a combination of skill and luck, and the ratio of the two is often hotly debated. But Matenga's recent performances in the FOP main event paint a pretty good case for the former.

But we'll get to that later, here's my story:

Friday 7:15pm: Shuffle up and deal! I'm excited to be playing the last major New Zealand poker tournament of 2017 and allow myself to dream about what I might do with the $52k first prize. But reality quickly strikes as I lose 40 per cent of my stack in the first two hours. Oh dear. (Full breakdown of hands below)

* On a 44TKJ board I called down three streets with KT, and my opponent rivered a straight
* I lost with AQ to AK in a three-bet pot on an A247T board
* I lost with AA in a three-bet pot on a 36T82 board

8:15pm: Ahh crap, time to do some damage control. You can't win a tournament on the first day, but you can certainly lose it. I commit to a disciplined approach for the next four hours, no silly buggers.

12.15am: Last level of the night and I haven't been able to get anything going. With anything less than 20 big blinds you want to be looking for good spots to get your chips in and double up. I have 10 blinds and get it in with 99 against AA. That's what the pros call a bad spot. But a 9 on the flop allows the dream to live on.

12.45am: With 30 minutes of play left in the day, a shortish stack limp-shoves over my raise. I have pocket tens, but am troubled by the way the hand played out. I just can't see him pulling this move with any hands I beat. I engage my opponent in conversation and he immediately he gives himself away: "I can't be bothered anymore, I'm just trying to double up or go home," he proudly stated after playing patiently for six hours. Sounds like a statement on a Tui billboard to me. I show my pocket tens as I fold and he flips over his aces. I figure that's probably the highlight of my day.

Saturday 12.30pm: The good news is that 75 players made it to day two of the tournament and I'm one of them. The bad news is I have the third shortest stack.
I needed an early double up and got it when I got AQ all-in pre flop against KQ and held, but lost it all back two hands later when my TT was cracked by JQ on a 762Q3 board.

2pm: Busto. With 15 blinds I moved all-in holding 33 against an active opener. He called with 77 and I missed hitting a second miracle.

The 10 players who made the final table of the FOP main event. Photo / Sky City.
The 10 players who made the final table of the FOP main event. Photo / Sky City.

As I reflected on what went wrong for me, I started to think about what was going right for Matenga.

Sure, I may have been unlucky in some bad spots but I didn't have Matenga's focus in searching for good ones either.

Less than 10 per cent of the player pool makes the final table at these tournaments, yet Matenga has done it three times in a row.

His play is aggressive, but thoughtful. He's always looking for opportunities to put pressure on shorter stacks and is constantly thinking about what hands both he and his opponents are representing.

You need a certain amount of luck to go with your skill (Matenga won an all-in with 88 against AK for about 70 per cent of his stack early on day two) but three consecutive finishes in the top six represents a player at the top of his game.

The tournament was exceptionally well run, with a great structure and inviting environment.

When a drunken loser was asked to leave after getting out of line at one of the cash game tables, the whole poker room joined in a united version of "nah nah nah nah, heyyyyaaayy, goodbye".

Kiwi poker player William Han won the main event for $52,000 with a skilful display after heading into the final table with the second largest stack. But his win also owed something to the luck side of poker, he won an all-in with 12 players left for 70 per cent of his stack with AK against AA.

Second place finisher Henry Xu was one of 45 players that took advantage of Sky City's innovative day 1 entry fee. Players were able to pay half the buy-in for half the starting chip stack, and Xu entered the final table as chip leader.

Han credited one huge hand on the final table against Xu as the money-maker.

"Play was four-handed and I raised under the gun with ace king, and Henry (who had over half the chips in play) was in the big blind and he three-bet," Han said. "I called and the flop came Q74 with two diamonds. Henry bet and I called. The turn brought in two flush draws and I called his turn bet. The river was an ace, which missed both flush draws and he checked and I moved all in. He spent a long time thinking about the decision but eventually called before mucking his hand when he saw my ace king.

"I had about 30-40 big blinds at the time so that was huge."

Final table results:
1. William Han $51,000
2. Henry Xu $32,850
3. Jamie Sadlier $21,520
4. Geo Tislevoll $16,430
5. Trent Adams $12,650
6. Te Rangi Matenga $8210
7. Phillip Willcocks $6570
8. Radoslav Kopec $5750
9. Steve Smith $4930
10. Johnny Rakich $4340

Key hands:
Hand 1:
45 mins into day one a 40-year old Asian male who I have never played with before opens from the HJ to 200 at 25/50. I call on the button with KTcc and the big blind calls.
Flop comes T44 and he bets 500, I call, big blind folds.
Turn is a K, and he fires again this time for 1200. I call
River is a J. He bets 2400 and I call. He shows AQ for a rivered straight.

Hand 2:
Soon after I open AQcc to 250 at 50/100 from the HJ. A 60 year-old man on the button raises to 600 and the big blind calls. I call.
Flop comes A24. It checks to the button who bets 900. I call, big blind folds.
I check the 7x turn and it's checked back to me.
I check the T river and the button bets 1500. I call.

Hand 3:
I open AA from the CO to 250 at 50/100. Button calls, big blind calls.
Flop comes 36Thh. I bet 500 and the button raises to 2000. Big blind calls, I call.
Turn 8 gets checked around as does the 2 river.
I lose to 36.

Hand 4:
Last level of day one, short stack (older male, been quite tight) limps in at 150/300 playing off 5000. I make it 1200 playing off 8500 with TT.
He moves all-in. I fold.
He flashes AA.