It was expected that the Five Diamond World Poker Classic, currently running at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, would be of critical importance when it came down to the Poker Player of the Year race. What hadn't been expected, though, was how many players would toss their hats back into the center of the ring with this highly prestigious title on the line! Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi has been able to maintain his year-long lead in the POY race, but he hasn't been able to add any points or cash to his 2006 statistics during the run of events at the Bellagio. This has allowed many players to creep within striking distance of him and could also affect what will happen during and after the end of the Five Diamond.
At the start of the month, only five players had a shot at taking the title from Michael. Showing the value of playing in preliminary tournaments (especially those as valuable as the tournaments at the Bellagio), several players have done well and expanded that number now to seven. It also will bring in two East Coast tournaments that could become the final battleground for the Player of the Year.
Poker professional Nam Le has closed to within 760 points of Mizrachi through two final table finishes at the Five Diamond and three cashes overall. Le leaped much of the Top Ten in the last couple of months to become the main contender to knock "The Grinder" off the top of the POY list. Nam has been in rare form at the Five Diamond and seems to be playing very consistent and strong poker.
J. C. Tran is another late season charger that is making some noise in Las Vegas. After debuting in the Top Ten at the start of the month, Tran followed up his $3000 championship at the World Poker Finals at Foxwoods in November with another $2000 tournament win during the Five Diamond in December (defeating such players as 2005 POY Men "The Master" Nguyen, David "The Dragon" Pham, online legend Justin Bonomo and Barry Greenstein at the final table). These two victories have put him only around 100 points behind Le and he has his sights firmly set on making a run in the WPT $15,000 Five Diamond championship.
Formerly second place Shannon Shorr has slipped down the list a bit, but it hasn't been because of a lack of effort. Shorr took a fourth place finish in the second $5000 tournament to get back in contention and also has two other cashes to build the bankroll. Even though he has been passed by two players, Shorr remains slightly over 1000 points behind Mizrachi and well within catching him with a final table finish in the World Poker Tour event starting on Thursday.
The runaway winner of the Rookie of the Year award for the 2006 poker season, Jeff Madsen, has stepped away from his studies in college and has also recast himself into the POY race. Along with John Hoang, Madsen has an outside chance of winning the POY title if he is able to win at the Bellagio. After the 21-year old wunderkind's stirring performance during this year's World Series of Poker, it is well within his abilities to make this startling move.
What will be interesting to see is, if the upper echelon players bust out of the Five Diamond Championship Event early, how many of these players will take their games east to the two $5000 events that begin very soon afterwards. The Trump Classic's Main Event begins on Saturday (the 16th) and the World Series of Poker Circuit event at Harrah's begins Sunday (the 17th), with both tournaments being played in Atlantic City. These tournaments could have an impact, especially if Mizrachi sees one of the other contenders driving deep at the Five Diamond or if one of the contenders wants to take a final shot at 'The Grinder'. By this point next week, though, the smoke will have cleared and we should know who the Poker Player of the Year is.
ED Note: Start your drive toward a 2007 Player of the Year award at Full Tilt.