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Best of Aaron Todd
And that unique quality of the Main Event came to the forefront on the official "Day 6" of the tournament. The story of the day on Thursday wasn't how 78 players greedily gathered up poker chips to advance to Day 7 of the tournament. It was about the love shared between a father and son.
Gary Kostiuk, a 49-year-old optometrist from Grande Prairie, Alberta, finished 85th to win $79,806, and while he may no longer have a shot at being one of the nine players to advance to the final table, he will go back home feeling like a winner.
Kostiuk, who won a $350 satellite in a home game with a group of 44 friends to get into the Main Event, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago and now gets around in a wheelchair.
"It's progressing very fast," said Kostiuk's 27-year-old son, Ryan, about the MS. "This might be his last year to be able to make it out here. This is special."
Ryan, who lives in Vancouver, isn't the only one to think so. While Gary most likely ended up at ESPN's feature table on Thursday as a result of drawing the same table as one of the chip leaders, Matt Affleck, it quickly became clear that Gary was the star of the table.
He moved all in with a short stack with ace-king and was called by Sergey Rybachenko, who held pocket queens. When he spiked a king on the turn, Ryan and a few other supporters screamed in jubilation.
"That's like the fourth time I've almost thrown up," said Ryan.
Gary wasn't done making his son squirm. He lost about half his chips when he forced another player all-in with ace-queen with an ace on the board, only to be called and face two pair, aces and fives. A few hands later, he found himself all-in with ace-nine against Rybachenko's ace-10. A player in this situation will lose two out of three times, but Gary hit a nine on the flop to make a pair, and Ryan once again found himself dizzy in the stands, unable to process what he was seeing.
Six years ago, Ryan convinced his father to take up online poker. Two months later, Ryan had a $7,000 score in an online tournament, and both father and son were hooked.
"We were typical fish in the beginning, big-time losing players," said Gary. "Two or three years down the road we became break-even players, and probably in the last year and a half, I've been a winning player. Ryan's been a winning player longer than that."
Gary remembers knowing that there was some sort of poker event in Las Vegas called a World Series before he took up the game. Once he started playing, he took a greater interest in the WSOP, but he never thought he would be here, at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, in the top-100, and playing at the ESPN feature table.
"This is more than I could ever have imagined," said Gary. "We all think about how cool it would be to do that, but to actually realize it happening, it's going to all sink in at some point in the very near future, I'm sure."
That point came around 9 p.m. local time on Day 6. Gary had been patient all day, playing only premium hands, but the blinds and antes were slowly chipping away at his stack. After the dinner break, Gary found himself with just 15 big blinds.
In perhaps the most dramatic hand of the day, Rybachenko once again served as Gary's foil, attempting to steal his big blind with a measly nine-four suited. Gary found a real hand – ace-queen, and instantly called. But after the turn card paired Rybachenko's four, Gary found himself behind once again, just a 25 percent favorite to win the hand with one card to come. When the river delivered a jack, giving Gary an ace-high straight, the entire table screamed in disbelief. Everyone, that is, except Gary.
"How do you show no reaction?" asked another player, dumbfounded by how someone who just dodged elimination could be so cavalier. Gary just shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and started stacking his chips.
When he finished counting, he gestured to Ryan, telling him how many chips he now had in his stack. And that's when it hit him. Gary's eyes watered, as the enormity of his performance at the WSOP and the love his son has shown him over the last week, hit home.
"I could write a book about the memories that we shared from this week," said Gary. "We're very close; we love each other, and we talk poker every day. He's been so helpful and so loving. I don't think I could have done this without Ryan here, period."
Late in the day, Gary's run finally ended when his pocket 10s fell to an opponent's pocket kings. But the cards are really irrelevant to how Gary exited the tournament. To understand what this week meant to Gary Kostiuk, all you really needed to see was his son lean down to give him a giant bear hug in his wheelchair before rolling him out the door.