As the tournament poker world wraps up the first quarter of the 2006 season, Michael 'The Grinder' Mizrachi maintains his lead over the field in the Poker Player of the Year race, thanks to his success in recent $10,000 No Limit Hold Em Tournaments. With that said, however, several new faces have entered into the battle and are demonstrating that this could very well be a tough year-long fight instead of the runaway that Mizrachi threatened to make it.
As Mizrachi continues to set the pace, new faces have raced into the Top Ten on the list this month. One man who has quietly entered into the mix is California professional Kenna James. Long known as one of the most genial and entertaining players on the circuit, in 2006 James has demonstrated his poker skills as well. With three final tables in the first three months of 2006, Kenna also finds himself in the second slot on the POY list. With a victory at the L. A. Poker Classic back in February and, most recently, his second place performance at the PartyPoker Millions V, James has driven into firm control of the second place slot this month and finds himself only around 1,200 points behind pacesetter Mizrachi, the closest anyone has been since the start of the year.
There's a logjam for the third slot on the list with three tournament champions holding down that slot. PartyPoker Millions V Champion Mike Schneider joins fellow tournament winners Alan Goehring (L. A. Poker Classic) and Nam Le (Bay 101 Shooting Stars) in the three way tie for the third slot. All are a threat to be players who will keep their names firmly entrenched in the POY list for the long run in 2006.
Demonstrating that you don't have to only play the high dollar events to make a name for yourself, journeyman professional Jason Stern makes his first visit to the Top Ten this year in sixth place. Stern, whose five final tables in 2006 sets him atop the leaders in that category, is a player that will play any game at any time and for any stakes. As a reward for this perseverance, Stern has earned over $500,000 in the early part of this year and, after finishing second at the World Poker Tour's World Poker Challenge event in Reno, NV in March, has earned his way into the Top Ten in sixth place. While he has a long look up at the top of the list, with his tireless devotion to play and quite a few months to go, look for Stern to continue to assault the upper echelons of the POY list.
Rounding out the Top Ten are several players who have played extremely well in the tournament action during the first quarter of 2006. Scotty Nguyen, the champion at the WPT Tunica event in January, leads these players in seventh place and the Top Ten is rounded out by An "The Boss" Tran (eighth), Michael Woo (ninth) and Daniel Quach (tenth), who have all had excellent finishes in the early part of this year.
One thing that has made the early part of 2006 interesting is the lack of what might be considered "big" names on the POY list so far. Even players who demonstrated a great deal of success in 2005 aren't near the top of the list either. Other than Mizrachi and Nguyen, no other member of 2005 Top Twenty is even remotely close to the top of the early going here in 2006. Such players as 2005 POY Men "The Master" Nguyen (no points in 2006), John Phan (ditto), Allen Cunningham (zip) and Michael Gracz (nil) have yet to crack the seal for points in 2006. While the Player of the Year race is a year-long battle, early season success sets a player up for a good drive in the twelve month race, as Mizrachi has shown in both 2005 and 2006.
April promises to be an interesting month as a couple of high profile events take center stage. The WPT will be at the wheel of these events, with the inaugural Foxwoods Poker Classic leading into the Five Star World Poker Classic and the WPT Championship at the Bellagio later this month. The World Series of Poker Circuit will not have any action until the completion of the WPT Championship but some smaller events, such as The Sport of Kings tournaments at Hollywood Park and The Stars and Stripes event at the Bicycle (both in California), could provide some new names to look for on the tournament circuit. As we head into the second quarter of the 2006 season, the Player of The Year race is continuing to heat up and we'll see if "The Grinder" can continue to control his destiny.
Ed Note: WPT host Mike Sexton proudly endorses Party Poker ...Can the Ambassador of Poker be wrong?