05/25/2002 12:00AM

Amateur humbles pros in poker


Robert Varkonyi of Brooklyn, N.Y., is the new poster child for every casual poker player who sits around a kitchen table with his buddies and dreams of winning the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe hotel-casino in downtown Las Vegas.

Playing in the championship event for the first time, he walked away with $2 million and the most prestigious title in poker Friday night by outlasting a record field of 631 in the Texas no-limit hold'em event. Holding a huge chip advantage most of the final night, he clinched his title with a full house (10's over queens) to beat a flush by Julian Gardner of Manchester, England. Gardner settled for second-place prize money of $1.1 million. Las Vegas resident Ralph Perry finished third and won $550,000.

The buy-in is $10,000. The 40-year-old Varkonyi, who unabashedly called himself an "unemployed amateur poker player," earned his way into the field by winning a $1,000 buy-in satellite tournament May 18. In lieu of money, the first prize was an entry into the world championship, which was held last Monday through Friday.

"When I starting coming here seven years ago, I had no idea what I was doing," Varkonyi said. "I decided to give it a shot. I never imagined I'd win the whole thing."

He wasn't alone.

After being eliminated by Varkonyi on Wednesday, former World Series of Poker champion Phil Hellmuth, one of the most recognizable faces in the game, said, "If he wins, I'll shave my head."

Hellmuth was the last of the 13 former champions in the tournament to be eliminated. All were gone before Wednesday's final cut to the 45 players who finished in the money. None of the final 45 had even made it to the final table of the event. The final table of nine was determined after Thursday's action. Three of them - including Varkonyi - had never won a penny at the World Series.

After Varkonyi's victory, fellow Brooklyn native and tournament emcee Gabe Kaplan - of "Welcome Back Kotter" fame and an accomplished poker player in his own right - asked Varkonyi: "Are you happiest with the money, the championship bracelet, or getting to shave Phil's head."

The champ, who, understandably, seemed dazed and gave short answers to all media questions, said, "Shaving Phil's head."

Hellmuth proceeded to take a seat and allowed Varkonyi (and several other people) to use an electric razor on him. Kaplan said, "Phil is going to save his hair and sell it on the Internet. It's going to charity."

It sounded like a joke, but afterward Hellmuth handed a hair-filled plastic bag to a friend and said, "Put it on eBay. Binion's has promised to start the bidding at $1,000."

Hellmuth, trying to deflect attention back to Varkonyi, got on the public address system while getting his haircut and said:

"Let's not forget, this is Robert's day. I tip my hat to him. I tip my hair to him."