It has all come down to this. After fifteen events in the third season of the World Poker Tour, the Bellagio plays host to the WPT Championship. The most expensive buy in on the tour at $25,000, it is the crown jewel of the season long struggle that the players go through. The primary question would have to be who is going to be the players to watch for.
Last year, 343 players squared off for their share of over $8 million dollars in the prize pool. Sweden's Martin "The Knife" deKnjiff proved the power of the European players by taking the championship over Hasan Habib and young tournament pro Matt Matros. T. J. Cloutier was the biggest name American player to come within sniffing distance of the final table, coming up eighth before bowing out.
This year, you can look for a significant raise in the numbers of competitors. In three short years, the WPT Championship has become nearly as important as the World Series of Poker Main Event. Because of the size of the buy in, it will perhaps become the richest tournament of all time (that is, until this year's WSOP Main Event). I believe that you will see a player field of between 600 and 650, with 700 not out of the realm of possibility. This would drive the prize pool to over $15 million dollars and the payout for the next WPT Champion will be at or above the $5 million that Greg Raymer earned last year at the World Series.
Many players are coming into the tournament riding great streaks of play. Leading that list has to be last year's Player Of The Year, Daniel Negreanu. While he has yet to crack the winner's circle this year, he has played strong poker and is showing that, at any time, he has the potential to take any tournament. Negreanu has to be a considered a serious threat to add the WPT Championship to his mantlepiece.
Team Full Tilt continues to excel as we go through the early play in 2005. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson has won a World Series of Poker Circuit championship as well as the National Heads Up Poker Championship conducted in March. Erick Lindgren, Andy Bloch, Phil Ivey, Ted Forrest and Jennifer Harman have all shown that their games are coming into shape for this year's championship, with all of them contending or taking championships in the early going.
There are other professionals that are dangerous as well. Paul Darden and Amir Vahedi are both playing excellent poker and are in the hunt to become the WPT champ. Antonio Esfandiari has been coming on as well, as he finished third in a preliminary event on Friday night ($5,000 No-Limit Event) that was won by veteran Tony Ma and also featured Thomas "Thunder" Keller, Young Phan and Ron Rose at the final table. If all can overcome the strain of playing world class poker in back-to-back events, they have to be considered as contenders.
Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi has already demonstrated that he is a great young player that has the potential to become the next great tournament professional. With a win at the L. A. Poker Classic and a final table finish during the World Poker Open in Mississippi, he is ready to step to the top of the heap. Of any of the younger generation, he has to be considered the strongest of them all.
Of course, there are those "amateur" players that we have yet to hear from that are going to be at the final table. Count on at least three of them making it there. While the term of "amateur" is a apt description as far as knowledge of them by poker fans, they are far from being rookies as they normally have a wealth of experience that they will use very well to reach the final table at the Bellagio.
With all this said, I predict that the final table come next Sunday's final table will consist of three "amateur" players. A "dark horse" professional I will put in there, Scotty Nguyen (who has quietly been playing great poker this year as well) will join them with Erick Lindgren and Daniel Negreanu filling out the final table. Negreanu will leave early, though, if not in sixth position then the fifth. Nguyen will drop out in the third slot, leaving Erick Lindgren and an unknown amateur to battle off for the WPT Championship, with Lindgren taking the victory after an extended battle.
Lindgren is my pick as he has been playing the most consistent poker of all that are mentioned here. He is ready to step to the forefront of the poker world as the third World Poker Tour Champion, adding it on to his Player Of The Year award from 2004 in the WPT. Additionally, it would give him a strong push towards the POY for all of poker in 2005. Picking a winner is always difficult in events like this, but it isn't impossible. If all goes as written above, remember who told you everything before it started!
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