Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Recap: 50K Players' Championship on ESPN

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

The 50K Final Table

The WSOP returned to ESPN with the final table coverage of the 50K Players' Championship. 441 Productions, the crew responsible for putting together the WSOP broadcasts, are the best in the business. They don't get enough credit for their diligent work, and a lot of uninformed people mistakenly give ESPN accolades instead of 441 Productions.

Inherently speaking, poker tournaments are boring affairs, but the producers at 441 (Matt Maranz and David Swartz) are fantastic story tellers. They have a difficult assignment -- make tournament poker appealing to an audience that is comprised of players from different levels of poker acumen and expertise -- and they manage to rise to the occasion year after year. The WSOP on ESPN appeals to a wide range of demographics from hardcore junkies to the causal observers. As much as poker is sports entertainment, it's also a advertisement for the entire industry. For almost a decade, the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN have been an introductory course for many new poker fans. It's the most popular gateway and portal into the poker world for players aged 17 to 77.

Poker needs a constant flow of new players in order to survive, otherwise we'll become like the horse racing industry with many of their constituents in the twilight of their lives. When they die off, the racing industry is fucked. In poker terms, players die off when they go busto. Some reload, others are done for good, which is why we need a new stream of players. The WSOP on ESPN helps attract these new players by providing a friendly and non-intimidating environment.

Before cards went into the air of the final table of the 50K Players' Championship, it was pretty easy to guess that the main plot line would surround the Mizrachis after Robert and Michael (aka the Grinder) advanced to the final 8. And if one of them happened to win, especially the Grinder, it would enhance the story even more so and be the cherry on top of the sundae.

And let's look at this in broader terms with the November Nine. Considering that ESPN is only airing the 50K, Main Event, and the TOC, they couldn't have scripted a better story than what the Mizrachis accomplished during the Main Event -- all four brothers cashed, with Robert and the Grinder both went deep. Everyone in the poker media was thrilled because they had a sensational story to report on -- without having to hype it up. The story really wrote itself. With 7,319 runners in the 2010 Main Event, everyone had their fingers crossed about the potential final table. Would there be one or more familiar faces or will we have nine unknowns playing for $9 million? Last year, Phil Ivey advanced to the November Nine what seemed like a gift-wrapped miracle from the poker gods. As each day progressed in the 2010 Main Event, the list of "known pros" became smaller and smaller as the definition of what a "named pro" grew wider and wider. But one name on the list was circled -- Michael Mizrachi. In the back of everyone's mind, if the Grinder advanced it would be a sensational ending to what ended up being an epic summer for him and his family.

When I sat down to watch the first episode of the 2010 WSOP, I couldn't help but think about that the Player of the Year needs to be revamped. Frank Kassela is currently the Player of the Year leader. He can't lose it, but he can share the crown with the Grinder -- only if the Grinder wins the Main Event. Kassela played the best poker of his career and had a better all-around series than the Grinder, but how could the Grinder not win the POY outright if he takes down both the 50K and the Main Event? As is, Kassela is the top dog for now.

Moving on...

The 2010 version of the $50,000 Players' Championship shifted from the original HORSE format to 8-Game. The winner still gets awarded the Chip Reese Trophy, but the final table was exclusively NL instead of the 8-game. I wasn't thrilled with the decision to play NL at the final table. I know why it was done because NL is more appealing for TV viewers than Mixed Games -- but that doesn't mean I agree with it. Question to ponder -- we all know that the Grinder won the bracelet, but would he have still won if the final table was Mixed?

441 Productions is always enhancing their screen graphics and the information that they are providing. For someone who has to wear glasses, I appreciate the fact that I can distinguish a spade from a club without the benefits of an HD TV. They also did a better job with providing more chipcounts and letting the viewers know the position of the players still in the hand. They even added the kitschy "hijack" to the mainstream poker vernacular.

Random thoughts that I jotted down while watching the 50K Players' Championship...
- The episode kicked off emphasizing the word "players". I was too stoned to count the number of times, but it was a lot. Maybe I can get Kevin Mathers or Timtern to give me an accurate count?

- One of the dealers at the final table is someone that we nicknamed "Schecky Lite" because he's a doppelganger for John Caldwell.

- David "Bakes" Baker was playing this final table without his girlfriend, Maridu, to sweat him. The Team PokerStars Pro from Brazil had a prior work obligation and had to fly to South America for an event on the LAPT. Norm Chad mentioned that Bakes had hired Vanessa Selbst as a coach a few years ago. It obviously paid off.

- The Mizrachis held a family reunion in the stands surrounding the featured TV table. They couldn't even fit everyone in allotted area so many members of their vast entourage had to hang out in the beef jerky lounge. Both Robert and the Grinder are rather quiet players. They don't say much which would normally make for bad TV, but their vocal supporters picked up the slack. Mama Mizrachi's boisterous voice carries all the way across the room.

- A few of my friends in the media are in love with the Grinder's wife, Lily. She's a beautiful woman and when she got face time on cameras, she looked like a nervous wreck. Every year have an awkward experience with Lily. Here's what happens -- I spot her on the rail, but I don't immediately recognize her so as I struggle to recall who that is, I get caught staring at her. Of course, she thinks I'm scouting out her mountainous regions and I get the stink eye, which makes it even more frustrating because nothing is worse than getting caught by a hot chick sneaking a peak when you weren't sneaking a peak!

- On the first hand of the broadcast, the Grinder opened with A-10 and Bakes called with pocket sevens. Bakes was ahead on the flop despite one overcard, but check-called a C-bet from the Grinder. The turn was an Ace. Bakes checked and the sneaky Grinder checked behind his top pair. A seven spiked on the river, giving Bakes a set. He fired out and the Grinder insta-paid him off. Bakes wondered aloud what would have happened if he had checked his set... would the Grinder bet, and then call a check-raise? Who knows what would have happened if Bakes played the river differently. Maybe the Grinder loses more of his stack which affects the outcome of the rest of the tournament and perhaps alter the future of the November Nine?

- The Lone Scandi, Mikael Thuritz, had his ass violated in two tough hands. He was ahead with Jacks when he called an all in against short stacked Danny Alaei's Big Slick, but an Ace on the turn saved Alaei and he doubled up. Thuritz then got ambushed by a cooler when he four-bet shoved with Kings against Vladamir "Rich Russian Guy aka RRG" Shchemelev's Aces. Thuritz couldn't suck out and he got crippled. The RRG doubled up and rocketed into the lead, while Thuritz was down to the proverbial "chip and a chair." The Scandi eventually busted out in 8th place.

- I love a classic "suck/re-suck" and one such hand was aired. David Oppenheim got it all in with Aces on a King-high flop. Danny Alaei had called with K-Q. A Queen on the turn gave him the lead and Op was on the brink of elimination until an ace on the river saved his ass. Alaei was crippled and Op rocketed into the lead. He had started the final table as one of the shorties.

- The Grinder really came from behind in order to win. He was crippled to under 1M in chips after he overvalued his A-Q. He got it all in with TPTK against Oppenheim's set. Op improved to 9M on that hand while the Grinder had around 900K. That's how the first episode ended -- with the Grinder on the ropes and Op on top with 5 to go.

- You can call this one... Cain vs. Abel. The Grinder got involved in a hand with his brother where he had to call an all-in with Q-J. They were both low on chips and the Grinder was priced in. Robert was ahead with A-10 and was surprised that his brother called with such marginal holdings. A Jack on the turn put the Grinder in the lead. His hand held and he busted his older brother Robert in 5th. The final table lost a Mizrachi, but the cheering section gained another supporter.

- Rich Russian Guy's (RRG) pocket tens held up against John Juanda's Kd-9d. How come I always lose in that situation (running nines or a flopped flush is the usual outcome for me online when I have Jacks versus K-9 sooted). RRG's tens held up and Juanda bowed out in 4th. In his couch interview Juanda admitted that he was suffering from burnout and lost his motivation until Daniel Negreanu talked some sense into him. I wonder if Juanda is motivated by bracelet bets or if he really refocused himself?

- Ah the benefits of real time condensed for TV purposes! Change100 pointed this out in a hand between the Grinder and Oppenheim that took over ten minutes to complete with Op in the tank for over five minutes. Op made a bad call, well more like a cash game call with 7h-6h vs. Grinder's K-7 on a A-A-7-5-3 board with two hearts. Op flopped a flush draw but never got there. The Grinder bet on the river and an indecisive Op wanted to show the Grinder his cards to gauge a reaction. Robbie the floor guy told him that he'd get a penalty. You can do that in a case game, but not in a tournament. Anyway, Op called and was beat as the Grinder gobbled up more chips.

- When action got short-handed the Grinder seemed to have Oppenheim's number. The Grinder made an astute call on the river in a hand that was the battle of the blinds. The Grinder trailed with 10h-8d vs. Op's Jh-7s. The flop was As-Qd-8s and both players checked. The turn was the 5c. Grinder fired out 100K and Op called. The 4d fell on the river. The Grinder bet 300K, Op raised to 850K with Jack-high, and the Grinder called with third pair. He must have sniffed out that Op held Jack-shit.

- "Fuck it, I'll gamble." That's the mantra of so many players I know, but that's what the Grinder uttered as he called Op's all in. The Grinder held Kc-Qs versus 8d-8c and was flipping for his life -- in more ways than one. "What a call, man," mentioned Op who knew that although he was ahead, that he was about to die. The flop was 9-6-4 rainbow. The turn was a 7 and Op was still ahead, but the river was the Qd. The Mizrachi clan went berserk. Op shrugged his shoulders and made his exit in 3rd place.

- Heads-up battle was set between Michael Mizrachi and Vladamir Shchemelev. Shit, let's just say the Grinder vs. RRG. It was really the battle of the bling. The Grinder had his shiny collection of accouterments while RRG sported a pair of alligator boots that probably cost more than the Grinder's net worth (pre-WSOP).

- RRG's couch interview was in Russian, but one of the best from the final table players. I loved some of his quote like "I am only interested in first place." Ha, he's so rich that the money meant nothing to him -- he just wanted to win. He boasted that Russians excel at "intellectual games" and I would like to think that poker can be intellectual at times despite its pedestrian and egalitarian nature. RRG also said that he's always ahead at the end of the month -- thanks to the oil barons and mafioso types who lose millions of rubles to him in a game in Moscow where they play Pot-limit Stud.

- At the beginning heads-up play, it looked like RRG was going to cruise to a victory after winning a couple of sizable pots. He essentially silenced the Mizrachi clan. But that was just for show to add more drama to the Grinder's eventual comeback. Like any Hollywood action hero, he must overcome a last second obstacle before defeating the evil Russian bad guy dressed in a track suit with snakeskin boots more apt for a pimp than a businessman.

- Rigged? That's what the Russians in Schemelev's corner thought after a suspicious hand. Here's some back story that you couldn't tell from the broadcast -- this particular hand was the first hand played after a break, which is why the Russians called shenanigans. They felt as though a cold deck was set up during the break. The playing action was all-in preflop. RRG held a dominating Ad-Js against the Grinder's Ac-7s. The flop was Kc-10s-9c and the Grinder flopped a draw. His supporters unleashed furious chants of "Club! Club! Club!" The turn was the Qh as RRG improved to a straight. He failed to fade the flush when the 5c spiked on the river. Grinder was all smiled as he got smothered in kisses from his wife and mother. Afterward, he was mobbed by his brothers, fellow pros, and his boys. RRG and the Russians huddled and were not pleased. RRG's supporters called booshit. BJ was snapping photos nearby and overheard a heated RRG and the man in the mysterious satchel discussing the possibility of foul play. It wasn't the case, just a bout of lingering Soviet-era paranoia. Alas, the crowd woke up after the hand. The once sedated Mizrachi clan was rejuvenated. The Grinder knew that he got lucky, but sometimes that's what it takes to get you back on track. RRG had a 3-1 lead before the hand started, and still retained a slight lead after the Grinder doubled up.

- Ah the magic of TV. The Grinder all of sudden held a 3-1 lead. It happened over a series of uninteresting hands, otherwise it would have been televised. Let's just say that the Grinder lived up to his namesake and grinded out 3-1 lead over a stretch of 40 or 50 hands.

- RRG's hopes quickly vanished during a hand where he got runner-runner'd by the Grinder. He thought his Q-5 and top pair would be good enough to beat Grinder's 3-2, but, running treys became RRG's demise. The Grinder grossly overbet the river which worked because he induced a call from RRG. That was the beginning of the end of the RRG.

- On the 78th hand of heads-up play (I dunno how many they actually aired, ahem Mathers, a little help?), a winner was finally decided. The Grinder was behind with Qs-5c against RRG's Qd-8s, but everyone knew he was going to win the hand. The Grinder took the lead with a 5 on the turn and he never looked bacl. The Grinder won, shipped the bracelet, and defeated the unknown rich Russian businessman, Vladimir Shchemelev, who finished in 2nd place.
With the Grinder's victory in the 50K Players' Championship, his comeback was set in motion and he crossed his name off the list of outstanding debtors to the IRS and the list of "best players who never won a bracelet." Stay tuned for future episodes of the WSOP Main Event where the second act of his epic story gets played out in front of the cameras as he makes his journey to the November Nine.

$50,000 Players' Championship 8-Game Mixed Final Table Results:
1 Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi - $1,559,046
2 Vladimir Shchmelev - $963,375
3 David Oppenheim - $603,348
4 John Juanda - $436,865
5 Robert Mizrachi - $341,429
6 David "Bakes" Baker - $272,275
7 Daniel Alaei - $221,105
8 Mikael Thuritz - $182,463
* * * * *

In case you wanted some background info to accompany the broadcast, check out the Tao of Poker's coverage from the $50K Players' Championship...
Day 1: The Cold Open
Day 2: Not So Easy Rider
Day 3: Scandi Mafia and Donkulus' Comet
Day 4: Band of Brothers and Here Come the Russians Reprise
Day 5: Redemption Song - The Grinder Wins Player's Championship
Photos by Benjo.

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