With a flurry of activity, the 2007 Poker Player of the Year race is already being hotly contested. The leader board after the plentitude of January poker tournaments brings poker fans some familiar names and also highlights the efforts of the previously unknown players who may have an impact on the game over the next eleven months.
At the head of the pack after the first month of 2007 is a familiar face but one that hasn't exactly been at the forefront of recent tournament poker history. Poker professional John Hennigan's WPT championship during the 2nd Annual Borgata Winter Poker Open in Atlantic City brought in enough players (and the resulting prize pool) to place him atop the POY list at this point. Hennigan hasn't exactly been on the minds of poker fans after a couple of disappointing years, but the cash game specialist showed during the Atlantic City event that rumors of his demise had been greatly exaggerated! While he is currently at the top of the mountain, the lead is a slim one and there are several significant players in the rankings behind him.
The WPT Winter Poker Open was big enough that the second place finisher in the event, Chuck Kelley, is able to hop into the second place spot on the list. The previously unknown player had career earnings of only about $100K prior to his runner up finish to Hennigan but demonstrated during the run of the Atlantic City event that he has significant skill in the game. Now flush with a bankroll, the former stockbroker from Virginia can actively pursue the tournament poker circuit and we should see him keep a steady presence in the POY race throughout the year.
There is a logjam of three January poker champions that land in the third place spot on the POY list. Collegian Ryan Daut (WPT PokerStars Caribbean Adventure champion), Swedish poker player Magnus Petersson (EPT Copenhagen champion) and longtime poker fan favorite Gus "The Great Dane" Hansen (2007 Aussie Millions champion) have all earned exactly the same amount of points and could be players to watch through 2007. While Daut is occupied with his PhD studies, the successful online player could use some of the roughly $1.5 million he won in the Bahamas to pursue a more active role in the poker world. Petersson is a formidable player in Europe who also placed well (438th) in last year's monstrous WSOP Main Event and Hansen is another player who, like John Hennigan, seems to be returning to his winning form in 2007. The player to watch out of this set could be Hansen, but don't be surprised to hear Daut and Petersson's name mentioned more in the poker world during the coming year.
Bryan Sumner was the winner of the WPT stop at the Gold Strike in Tunica and it was good enough to put him in sixth place in the early going of the POY race, but the story in January would have to be Joseph Cortellino. The Lewiston, ME, resident used the Borgata Winter Poker Open as his private "coming out" party to the poker world. Cortellino cashed in three of the events during the run in Atlantic City, making the final table twice (a first and a second) and ending the $10K WPT event in 30th place. After only making cashes at Connecticut's Foxwoods Casino over the past couple of years (and doing well there, with a 2005 WPT final table to his credit), his performance at the Borgata was powerful enough to put him in seventh place and could signify that there is a new player to be concerned about over the coming year.
WSOPC Tunica champion Dennis Perry is in eighth place with his early season victory, but he is closely pursued by two veteran poker players in WPT and WSOP champion John Gale (ninth place) and Lance Allred (tenth). All of these players in the Top Ten have to look beneath them with some trepidation, however, as such professionals as Daniel Negreanu (14th), David "The DevilFish" Ulliot (15th), Gioi Luong (16th) and Andy Black (tied for 17th) are all playing excellent poker and looking to ascend to the top of the POY race.
While success this early in the season doesn't win the Player of the Year race, it can serve as a jump start to an excellent season overall and perhaps the POY title. Last year's POY, Michael Mizrachi, used his January performance to go wire to wire in winning in 2006. It will be interesting to keep an eye on some of the men who have jumped to the head of the 2007 Player of the Year class to see if they can repeat "The Grinder's" success.