There were two questions that were on the minds of all as the World Series of Poker started in late July. One, how much would the Player of the Year leader board be shuffled by the enormous events at the Rio and, two, would Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi still be in the lead once the event ended. As the Player of the Year race heads into the last quarter of 2006, both of those questions have been answered as Mizrachi continues to dominate the year-long battle and many successful players from the World Series have climbed into the fight.
Mizrachi was a player who didn't have a great World Series of Poker. He has been able to keep nearly a 2000 point lead over the field, however, by performing well at the Bellagio Cup II tournaments, which followed on the heels of the WSOP. During those tournaments, he cashed in four events and won his fifth tournament of 2006. "The Grinder" continues to amaze in 2006 with ten final tables during this year, which have earned him almost $2.5 million in 2006 alone. With the large lead that he built up over the early part of this year, it does seem that the POY race is his to lose.
Poker professional Nam Le has silently crept up the POY leader board and finds himself sitting in second place on the list. The 2006 WPT Bay 101 Shooting Stars champion has been a stalker of Mizrachi for much of the first half of this year and, after a second place finish in a preliminary event at the Legends of Poker at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles, has been able to make a charge to the top of the POY list. Le is potentially the largest threat to Mizrachi as Nam will play pretty much any tournament anywhere. This gives him plenty of opportunity to earn points and, perhaps like 2005 POY winner Men "The Master" Nguyen, could allow him to close the large gap that "The Grinder" has on the field.
Coming in third place is 1989 World Champion and ten time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth. "The Poker Brat" displayed that he is one of the most dominant players in poker with an outstanding World Series where he made four final tables, cashed in eight events and picked up bracelet #10 just before the Championship Event. Because of the size of the World Series fields, he has picked up plenty of points and bypassed players who have played throughout the year. Because of his propensity for only playing larger buy in tournaments, however, it will be difficult for him to make the run at the top of the list. Don't count out Phil Hellmuth, though; he is only slightly less than 200 points behind Le and, with another major victory in 2006, could make a run at Mizrachi at the top of the list.
Fourth place is being held down by the champion of the Bellagio Cup II events, Shannon Shorr. Shorr may be a mystery to some, but the Tuscaloosa, AL resident has shown that he has plenty of skills to be a threat to the POY race. He finished fourth at the Aussie Millions back in January and, along with a couple of World Series cashes and his Bellagio championship, is now primed to take a shot at winning the 2006 POY race. Shannon is also a player who will play any event, so there is a definite threat to both Le and Hellmuth that they could get passed, as Shorr is only around sixty points behind Hellmuth.
Fifth place is held by the true breakout story of the 2006 World Series in new Team FullTilt member Jeff Madsen. Four final tables, two World Series bracelets and nearly $1.5 million in winnings has thrust the Los Angeles college student into the mix when thinking about who can take this year's POY championship. With his college studies, however, he may not make as many events as the other players, which will make it difficult for him to take the crown. Madsen still will easily take the Rookie of the Year award when the year comes to an end, a highly deserved award for perhaps the best story of this year.
The Top Ten is rounded out by other players who played outstanding poker during the World Series. John Hoang (sixth), Allen Cunningham (seventh), Erick Lindgren (eighth), David Williams (ninth) and double bracelet winner William Chen (tenth) round out the men on the top of the heap and set up for an excellent fight as the final three months of 2006 play out. While Mizrachi has his huge lead, second through tenth are only separated by 833 points, which means that the fight to see who will challenge "The Grinder" will be an interesting one to watch.
There's plenty of action in September that will potentially give some of these players a chance to make their mark. With the World Poker Tour event at the Borgata in Atlantic City, two World Series of Poker Circuit tournaments (at Lake Tahoe and the Grand Casino in Tunica) and the California State Poker Championship all on the schedule for the month, Mizrachi cannot rely on his huge lead to carry him. The World Series of Poker definitely has streamlined the field, but there is still plenty of poker to be played before we can crown the 2006 Player of the Year.
Ed note: The Grinder grinds away at the tables of Absolute Poker