Last year, this is how I described the scene at the Bellagio:
I spotted a crowd of poker fans and enthusiasts milling around the front of the Fontana Room like a a rabid circle of vultures ready to devour a dying carcass. A few random poker pros smoked cigarettes near slot machines and I quickly realized that they were on a break. I spotted Jen Harman taking photos with a few fans as they whipped out their cell phones and took several blurry photos.As the WPT Season 5 comes to a close, I'm expecting the same circus-like atmosphere to surround the $25K buy-in championship event, which will officially kick off on Saturday at the Bellagio. The defending champ is Joe Bartholdi who took down over $3.7 million last April. The young gun is looking to make history by becoming the first repeat WPT World Champion.
"One more photo Jen, please! You're my favorite poker player!"
More fans circled around Marcel Luske, sporting a $4,000 tailored suit from London. Marcel always looks like a million bucks and always accommodates picture requests. He had his arm around two fans on each side of him as he blinked when the flash went off from one of the cameras. The Unabomber posed in front of a dozen tourists as they snapped photos like a drunken menagerie of Japanese businessmen. I elbowed and sidestepped my way past the carnage towards the entrance of the Fontana Room. It was a cluster fuck there too, with players leaving and entering and fans gawking and relatives of players trying to get quick updates. The geniuses who set up the tournament decided to place a souvenir stand right in front of the entrance to maximize profits, but made it almost impossible to get by. I walked past the embankment of star gazing tourists hopelessly clutching sharpies and random poker magazines and desperately seeking autographs from their favorite pros... More
This year's first place prize is expected to top over $4 million. Let me repeat that again since I want to emphasize the possible first place booty. The WPT is projecting a $4 million first place prize. Only Jamie Gold ($12M minus $6M), Joe Hachem ($7.5M), Paul Wasicka ($6.1M), Greg Raymer ($6M), and Steve Dannenmann ($4.25M) have won more money in a single tournament.
WPT Season 5 was the largest in its history with 18 events including the first ever event in Canada. The first stop on the tour began last May with the WPT Mirage Poker Showdown and since then 17 different players have won WPT titles including 13 first place winners who each walked away with at least $1 million. Over $76 million in total prize money has been awarded in Season 5 and some of the champions included WSOP bracelet winners such as Joe Hachem (1), Johnny World Hennigan (2), and Ted Forrest (5).
Joe Hachem added his name to an elite list of players who have won both a WPT event and the WSOP Main Event. That exclusive club includes Doyle Brunson, Scotty Nguyen, Carlos Mortensen, and Joe Hachem.
"How cool is it to be in a club with only four members?" mentioned Hachem after he took down the Bellagio event last December.
Here's a list of WPT Season 5 Winners:
Mirage Poker Showdown: Stan Weiss $1,294,755
Mandalay Bay Poker Championship: Joe Tehan $1,033,440
Grand Prix de Paris: Christian Grundtvig $907,066
Legends of Poker: Joe Pelton $1,577,17
Borgata Poker Open: Mark Newhouse $1,519,020
Festa Al Lago: Andreas Walnum $1,090,025
North American Poker Championship: Soren Turkewitsch $1,225,920
Foxwoods World Poker Finals: Nenad Medic $1,717,194
Bellagio Five Diamond Classic: Joe Hachem $2,182,075
PokerStars.net Caribbean Poker Adventure: Ryan Duat $1,535,255
World Poker Open: Bryan Summer $913,986
Borgata Poker Classic: John Hennigan $1,606,223
L.A. Poker Classic: Eric Hershler $2,429,970
WPT Celebrity Invitational: Adam Weinraub $125,000
Bay 101 Shooting Star: Ted Forrest $1,100,000
World Poker Challenge: JC Tran $683,473
Foxwoods Poker Classic: Raj Patel $1,298,405
WPT World Championship: ????
And here's a glimpse at the final tables and stats for the previous WPT Championships. Please note that the stats and numbers might be incorrect. My sources were the Hendon Mob's database and the WPT webiste. There were several instances when both sites published conflicting numbers. So take these stats as a rough estimate of what went down:
2003 WPT Championships
Apr 18, 2003
Buy-In $25,000 + $300
Number of Entrants: 111
Prize Pool $2,691,750
Final Table Players
1. Alan Goehring $1,036,886
2. Kirill Gerasimov $506,625
3. Phil Ivey $253,313
4. Doyle Brunson $159,987
5. Ted Forrest $119,990
6. James Hoeppner $93,326
2004 WPT Championships
Apr 23, 2004
Buy-In $25,000 + $300
Number of Entrants: 343
Prize Pool $8,342,000
Final Table Players
1. Martin De Knijff $2,728,356
2. Hasan Habib $1,372,223
3. Matt Matros $706,903
4. Richard Grijalva $457,408
5. Russell Rosenblum $322,660
6. Steve Brecher $232,660
2005 WPT Championships
Apr 24, 2005
Buy-In $25,000 + $500
Number of Entrants: 452
Prize Pool $10,961,000
Final Table Players
1. Tuan Le $2,856,150
2. Paul Maxfield $1,698,390
3. Hasan Habib $896,375
4. John Phan $518,920
5. Rob Hollink $377,420
6. Phil Ivey $264,195
2006 WPT Championships
Apr 24, 2006
Buy-In $25,000 + $500
Number of Entrants: 605
Prize Pool $14,671,250
Final Table Players
1. Joseph Bartholdi $3,760,165
2. David Matthew $1,903,950
3. Roland De Wolfe $1,025,205
4. Claus Nielsen $659,120
5. James Van Alstyne $439,375
6. Men The Master Nguyen $292,915
How sick are some of those final tables? Phil Ivey has made two of them. Quick side note: Phil Ivey is the best big buy-in tournament player in the world. In five events (four 25K WPT Championships and the 50K HORSE at the WSOP) with buy-ins over 25K, Ivey has made three final tables. As Daddy would described, "Pure sickness."
OK, let's get back on track. How about the first ever WPT Championships final table... Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Ted Forrest, Alan Goehring, and Kirill Gerasimov. The WPT doesn't make final tables like they used to. That might have been one of the episodes that helped thrust both poker and the WPT into the mainstream. Although that final table did not air on the Travel Channel until the Spring of 2004, the first WPT Champion was technically declared a couple of weeks before Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event.
Due to the popularity of the WPT, the number of entrants in the past years have increased at the WPT Championship. 111 to 343 to 452 to 605. I'm setting the line at 706. That's how many players participated in the EPT Championships earlier in the month.
Last year's WPT Championship featured a slew of online satellite winners. I'm going to find out just how many entrants qualified online this year. Due to the UIGEA, I wonder what the drop off will be for internet satellite qualifiers... 50%? 25% 10%? That interesting number could be an future indication of how many players will be qualifying online for the WSOP championship which will affect the overall numbers at this year's event.
So who should you be keeping your eye on at the WPT Championship?
The hottest player has to be JC Tran. He took down a $3K event at the Bellagio two weeks ago and left with a nice score of $272,320. He's free-rolling into the WPT Championship after winning a free seat after his victory at the WPT World Poker Challenge at the Reno. Indeed, JC Tran es fuego! He won the largest and most prestigious online poker tournament after a first place finish in PokerStars WCOOP Championship event. JC Tran is also one of the most prolific players on the tour. In the last few years, he has made five final tables on the WPT including bubbling out in 7th place twice (WPT TV tables are six-handed). Tran has also made four final tables at the WSOP.
There has not been a female WPT Champion in its five year history. Kathy Liebert and JJ Lui came close. JJ has won over 600K this year so watch out. You have to keep an eye on both of them. You can't help but think that Erica Schoenberg and Vanessa Rousso's performances at last year's WPT Championship helped secure them sponsorship deals. They both went deep and all of a sudden became hot property according to online sites. Don't forget about Liz Lieu. She won an event at Commerce in February during the LAPC and she'd love to add a WPT final table to her resume.
Men the Master sits between Erica and Vanessa at the 2006 WPT Championship
James Van Alstyne is at the top of several poker magazine's player rankings. He's won close to 600K this year and made the final table at the Season 4 WPT Championship. When he's on, Van Alstyne is one of the toughest players on the circuit. He's a very polite and mild mannered player which is why he rarely gets any ink or face time.
Paul Wasicka made the final table of the WPT LA Poker Classic and a few hours after the tournament ended, he drove out to Vegas to play in the NBC Heads-Up Championship. As a last minute replacement for Phil Hellmuth, Wasicka went on to win the entire event. Wasicka has over 1M in tournament earnings so far in 2007.
I watched Gavin Griffin outlast the best players in Europe to win the EPT Championship a few weeks ago. He also made the final table of a WSOP circuit event earlier in the year and has been running hot.
Don't overlook Marc Karam, the Canadian who took second place to Griffin in Monte Carlo. Karam also made the final table at the Aussie Millions in January.
The darkhorse has to be Jon Little, a young pro that most of you have not heard of. He lost heads-up to JC Tran during the 3K event at the Bellagio two weeks ago. He also made a final table at the Bellagio last week in addition to cashing in the EPT Championships and the LA Poker Classic. Little also made the final table of the WPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
In some regards, Season 5 of the WPT is their most successful to date. They introduced new hostess Sabina Gadecki along with a brand new set. They also shifted the focus on their coverage and featured more personal stories than just the poker action. The WPT also added new events while some of the older events featured record number of entrants and prize pools.
However, off the felt the WPT had to endure a lot of drama such as the death of an employee, two high profile lawsuits, ending their relationship with the Travel Channel, the dissolution of the PPT, and having French officials deny the WPT's cameras access to the Aviation club.
The most tragic downturn involved the sudden death of WPT photographer Paul Hanum in August of last year. The poker industry is a small community and his death affect many media reps and players especially his co-workers at the WPT. Although I was not friends with Paul, it does seem weird to not see him on the stage snapping winner's photos after the final tables have been completed.
How about those lawsuits? Former hostess Shana Hiatt sued WPTE in September. Her lawsuit sought immediate injunctive relief to allow Hiatt to take a job with NBC after the suits at the WPTE decided to cock-block her and claimed that she had signed a non-compete clause. Hiatt's suit also claimed that the WPT created a hostile work environment.
Then there was the lawsuit filed by some of the top pros in the game in which they claimed the WPTE and their partner casinos had conspired to eliminate competition and violated the intellectual property rights of every player. Some of the players listed on the lawsuit included Howard Lederer, Greg Raymer, Andy Bloch, Joe Hachem, Phil Gordon, Jesus Ferguson, and Annie Duke.
As Phil Gordon mentioned, "With an average of 13 big blinds at the final table, the WPT is a crapshoot."
The controversy surrounded the image release that every player had to sign to play in a WPT event.
Regardless of the outcome of either law suit, the WPT didn't come out looking too good. Of course, their run of bad luck continued when the WPT and the Travel Channel ended their five year relationship as the next season of the WPT moves over to the Game Show Network. The WPT has been the highest rated show on the Travel Channel, yet they decided to not pick up the option on the WPT this year.
According to Amy Calistri's article in PokerNews, "GSN agreed to pay $300,000 per episode for the upcoming season's twenty-three episodes. As part of the deal, GSN has also committed to spend at least $3,000,000 in marketing costs for each season."
The price per episode has decreased due to the over-saturation of televised poker programming. The GSN also has the highly popular High Stakes Poker which many poker purists prefer watching than the WPT.
Most recently, the WPT found themselves getting stiffed by France. There will not be a WPT stop in Paris at the infamous Aviation Club. The W in WPT stands for World and although there were only two events during Season 6 scheduled outside of the US and Caribbean, there is not much of an international flavor to the WPT once the French officals said, "Non" to VVP and Mike Sexton. The Aviation Club is still hosting their championship event, but they will not permit the WPT to film the final table. In January, French officials also told the EPT to screw off when they stepped in and forced the EPT to cancel their stop in Deauville.
Despite all the bad stuff that went down, the WPT has recently announced a stop in Barcelona, Spain as their European replacement to Paris for Season 6. Good news for Spanish poker fans and myself. Barcelona is way cooler than Paris. I had a ton of fun there when I covered the EPT event in Barcelona in 2005 and I'm looking forward to returning to Spain in October.
The WPT is hoping that their Championship event to end Season 5 will be another record setting tournament to cap off another epic year. I'll be at the Bellagio starting on Saturday covering the biggest tournament in Las Vegas outside of the WSOP. I'll be posting on the Tao of Poker regularly throughout the event and don't forget to stop off at LasVegasVegas to see Flipchip's WPT Championship photos. There's not a better photographer in the business.
I'll also be live blogging the action for PokerNews. John Caldwell and the Poker Shrink have assembled one of the best reporting teams that I had ever seen to cover the WPT Championships. I'll be at the Bellagio along with Amy Calistri, Change100, Tiffany Michelle, Shronk, and BJ Nemeth.
Yes, that's correct. BJ Nemeth is back and I'm fortunate that I get to work along side the best tournament reporter in the business. Like Matt Damon's quote in Rounders, I hope to... "fall into our old rhythm like Clyde Frazier and Pearl Monroe."
Stop by Poker News for our live updates, including videos of the WPT Championships.
Check out the Tao of Poker archives to read last year's coverage of the WPT Championships. I consider those posts to be some of the best tournament coverage that I've done to date.
And lastly... Happy 420 Day to all my stoner friends, old hippies, Deadheads, Phisheads, and all my pothead readers. Roll one up. Burn one down. And have a groovy day. After all, it's Friday...
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