February may be the shortest month of the year, but it was packed with plenty of poker tournaments that completely changed the Poker Player of the Year race. There were not just one but two tournaments for the World Series of Poker Circuit as well as a major World Poker Tour event in the L. A. Poker Classic. Add in some smaller regional events that were well attended and it made for an active month. At the end, however, there's a new leader of the pack as we enter into March.
Longtime professional player J. C. Tran assumes the lead in the POY race after an excellent start to his 2007 season. In January, J. C. was at the final table of the WPT event in Tunica and the L. A. Poker Classic was a chance at redemption for Tran. In 2006, Tran came up short when Alan Goehring took down the title via a bad beat, sending Tran home in fifth place. The Sacramento poker pro played an inspired tournament during the $10,000 Championship Event at the Commerce Casino, leading most of the way, but only was able to hit the runner up spot once again. With these two final tables, however, Tran has jumped out to the lead, albeit a slim one, over the rest of the field in the POY race at this point.
Joining last month's leader, John Hennigan, in the second place spot is the victor at the L. A. Poker Classic, Eric Hershler. Hershler was playing in his first ever live tournament at the Commerce and adeptly worked his way to the final table (which, in addition to Tran, also had 2006 WSOP Championship Event runner-up Paul Wasicka and expert cash game player Chau Giang). After starting the final table in the middle of the six player pack, Hershler was able to withstand the assault of the professionals and capture not only one of the biggest prizes in tournament poker but also land in a tie with Hennigan for second in the POY.
The biggest mover of February was veteran professional James Van Alstyne. After two cashes during the WPT's stop at the Borgata Winter Poker Open (including one runner-up finish), Van Alstyne was quite active during the preliminary events of the L. A. Poker Classic. A championship was James' when he took the title in a $1500 buy in No Limit event and he also took a third place in a $500 short handed Turbo No Limit tournament. These two finishes catapulted him up the charts to land in the fourth spot on the POY list. With Van Alstyne's proclivity for playing many tournaments, he could be a stalwart on this list throughout the entirety of 2007.
Chuck Kelley, the runner up at the Borgata in January, and Gioi Luong hold down the fifth and sixth spots respectively with a group of three players amassed behind them for the seventh place spot. January champions Ryan Daut, Gus Hansen and Magnus Petersson are all tied for seventh and they have a very close pursuer in the man in tenth place on the chart, Randy Holland. Holland was very active during the L. A. Poker Classic, cashing in five events during the six week run at the Commerce with three final table appearances. Holland leads the entirety of the POY race with five final tables so far in 2007 and the experienced California poker pro will be a regular on the tournament circuit throughout the year, giving him a very legitimate shot at ascending the rankings.
Sitting just under the Top Ten are some other players who will be "ones to watch" as this year develops. Bill Edler bubbled out of the televised final table for the WPT's L. A. Poker Classic stop, but the points he earned for his seventh place finish (along with his championship at the Crystal Casino's first ever Heads Up Championship) have placed him in the hunt for the POY championship. Along with Edler, John Gale, Daniel Negreanu and "The DevilFish", David Ulliot, are all lurking in the waters and attempting to make their strike on the players ahead of them.
All in all, the POY race is very tight in the early going. The Top Ten are separated by barely 600 points and the Top 25 is still grouped together by just around 1000 points or so. With major events in the month of March (including three WPT events, two WSOP-C tournaments and three European Poker Tour stops), by the time we finish this month and head to the WPT Championship in April, the Poker Player of the Year race could look entirely different and contain a whole new cast of characters to watch.