With the completion of the World Poker Tour Championship at the end of April, the first third of the 2006 poker season has wrapped up with a sizzling battle beginning to rise regarding the Poker Player of the Year race.
Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi has been at the point of the race since it began back in January, which now seems like it was years away rather than just a few months. Mizrachi rocketed out to his early start with two WPT final tables (and one championship) in the month of January and continued on his hot streak as the L. A. Poker Classic played out in February. While he has seemingly cooled off since that time, it could be a simple factor that Mizrachi is saving his energies for the marathon that the POY race is. He may realize that there is still a great deal of poker to be played and may also want to make a better showing in this year's World Series of Poker after a less than stellar performance in the 2005 gathering of the tournament. Although he earned seven cashes last year, "The Grinder" wasn't within striking distance of a final table during the 2005 WSOP. The fire to perform on the grandest stage in poker is there within the Floridian and it could very well be that he is concentrating his efforts towards July and August in Las Vegas. Of course, with his wife Aidily's recent delivery of a daughter to the growing Mizrachi clan, perhaps diapers have been on the table for Michael more than the cards!
As "The Grinder" continues to pace the field, the challengers are lining up behind him to take their shots. Leading that list is popular poker professional Kenna James, who has been quietly playing the best poker of his career. A win at the L. A. Poker Classic, coupled with his runner-up finish at the PartyPoker Millions V, has placed the "California Cowboy" in second place at this point in the season. He hasn't earned a points paying finish since his cruise on the PartyPoker ship, though, and this has allowed other challengers to creep close to knocking him from his perch.
The WPT Championship, the Five Star World Poker Classic and the inaugural Foxwoods Poker Classic in April brought much of the field closer to the top two contenders for the POY crown. Third place has been seized by the new WPT Champion, Joe Bartholdi, who also earned points earlier this year at the WPT Gold Strike event. With the over $3 million that the 26 year old former dealer made from winning the WPT crown at the Bellagio in April, he will at the minimum have the ammunition to make a serious run at taking the top spot away from Mizrachi, although he has to look way up to see the top two players. Bartholdi is currently 192 behind the second place James and a stunning 1,457 behind "The Grinder" (perhaps showing how significant Mizrachi's early start was to the overall season).
Victor Ramdin played excellent poker throughout the month to capture the fourth place position on the POY list. With his victory at the WPT event in Connecticut and a strong eleventh place finish in the WPT Championship, the Bronx, NY resident has added his name to the list of players that are vying for the Player of the Year championship. Another familiar name from the 2005 race, Erick Lindgren, also was able to take a preliminary championship at the Five Star as well as a cash out in the WPT Championship and has worked his way into the fifth place slot on the POY list.
The players ranked from sixth to tenth show how quickly fortunes can change with the multitude of high dollar offerings that the tournament poker world has become. WPT Season Four champions Nam Le (Bay 101 Shooting Stars) and Alan Goehring (L. A. Poker Classic) join Mike Schneider (PartyPoker Millions V champion) in a three way logjam for seventh place behind the interesting story of David Daneshgar, who has seized the sixth place slot by playing exceptional poker in preliminary events of poker tournaments on the West Coast, including the championship of the Bicycle Casino's Winnin' O' The Green tournaments. Journeyman professional Jason Stern rounds out the Top Ten, but these positions are quite unsteady as the five men listed here are separated by less than 100 points in the rankings.
For the first time this season, fan favorite Scotty Nguyen is on the outside of the Top Ten and is looking to rejoin the battle. The WPT Gold Strike champion is joined by a host of formidable players, including David Plastik, An "The Boss" Tran, and William Edler (who is among the leaders with five final table finishes in 2006) in the Second Ten on the Player of the Year list. Lurking just off of this level are two seasoned pros, Barry Greenstein and John D'Agostino, who should have a significant impact on the season long race.
Just when the players think they can take a break, the 2006 poker season swings back into full throttle very quickly. Not only is Season Five of the World Poker Tour set to begin in May, but the final events of the 2005-6 World Series of Poker Circuit events will wrap up in May and June, with the start of the World Series coming at the end of June. There is still a significant portion of the season to go so, even with "The Grinder's" scintillating start to 2006, there is no clear favorite for the Poker Player of the Year race.