It came down to the final tournament of the year, but Men "The Master" Nguyen rode a late season charge to first unseat Californian John Phan from the first place slot and then ultimately to take the Poker Player of the Year championship.
Most of the concentration by poker fans worldwide was the battle at the Bellagio in the Five Diamond Poker Classic. An astounding twenty five men had a chance at capturing one of the top accolades in the poker world, but only the top fifteen of them had a realistic shot at taking the title (with only 1,600 points separating the fifteen professionals). The $15,000 Championship Event would have many twists and turns as the five days played out.
Phan, who led the Player of the Year race for approximately three quarters of the year, was one of the first contenders that was dismissed from the proceedings at the Bellagio. Other contenders, such as Gavin Smith, Ted Forrest and Allen Cunningham (who had moved up to third place by winning the $3,000 No-Limit Hold 'Em event), were also among the 200 players whose dreams of a great Christmas present were dashed on Day One. Nguyen, perhaps more comfortable with Phan now out of the picture, left the Bellagio on Day Two of the tournament. Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, California State Poker Champion Tony Ma and Max Pescatori also saw their 2005 seasons end on the second day. But with "The Master" out of the picture, there was some other news that was brewing.
As the five day tournament ground on, there were two players left who had a chance to make a stunning, "Hail Mary" tournament victory and capture the POY title. Michael Gracz and John Gale were playing some excellent poker, but Gale's tournament ended with him in 77th place (earning a cashing spot, but far short of the all-important POY points) and Gracz became the last contender left standing. Michael, however, came up short in the run by finishing in fifteenth place and not earning enough points to impact the standings.
Just when everyone thought that the season was over, news came down that both Nguyen and Phan, after their early bustouts at the Bellagio, had streaked across the country to take part in the action at the 2005 Trump Classic in Atlantic City. The battleground thus shifted to what would prove to be the last act in tournament poker for 2005!
Both men warmed up for the $5,000 Championship Event by playing in the final $300 No-Limit Event before the big tournament. Incredibly, both showed that they were fresh from their battles in Las Vegas and their travels across the continent as Phan was able to take down third place and the all-important POY points that went along with it. "The Master", however, demonstrated why he has that nickname by topping Phan's effort and winning the $300 tournament, opening up a still vulnerable 176 point lead over his relentless foe.
It was perhaps anti-climatic as 126 runners came to the felt in Atlantic City for the $5,000 Championship Event of the Trump Poker Classic. Neither Nguyen or Phan was able to add to their points as both finished out of the money in the tournament won by North Carolina's Chris Bell. Chris Reslock, who captured the Showboat WSOP Circuit stop in Atlantic City, made a run as well in capturing second but in the end of the tournament trail for 2005, Men "The Master" captured the Poker Player of the Year title for the fourth time and his first time since 2002. Congratulations to Men for a fantastic finish in taking the title and additional congratulations to a man that we'll be hearing more about in the coming years in John Phan!
Ed Note: Start working on your 2006 Player of the Year Credentials at Paradise Poker