Saturday marks the beginning of the fifth WPT Championship, the finish of the Bellagio's Five Star World Poker Classic in Las Vegas and the end of the fifth season of the World Poker Tour. With its pristine location at the Bellagio, the cream of the poker world in attendance and the opportunity to get in a good groove for the upcoming World Series, the WPT Championship has grown into one of poker's top two or three events (the WSOP Main Event, and the emerging EPT Championship come to mind). A simple look at the history of the event and the players involved shows how important the WPT Championship has become.
From its inception in 2003 and its 111 player field, the WPT Championship has blossomed into a 605 runner mammoth that had a $14 million prize pool in 2006. This year's event may have a slightly higher number of players, but the quality of the 2007 final table will probably be the same as in year's past. There have been legends (Doyle Brunson, David Sklansky, Men "The Master" Nguyen), current greats of the game (Phil Ivey - twice at the final table, Ted Forrest, Roland De Wolfe) and surprising newcomers who made their mark on the game (John Phan, 2005 champion Tuan Le and defending champion Joe Bartholdi) at the final table in the past five years.
Predicting who will be at this year's final table is about as difficult a task as there is, but if you look at performance up to the event, you can get a possible idea of what will happen. With that said, here are five players that seem to be peaking at the right time.
1) J. C. Tran - With a victory at the WPT's World Poker Challenge in Reno back in March, J. C. is in on a freeroll for the WPT Championship. Tran has also been on fire lately, with three WPT final tables and a victory in one of the preliminary events during the Five Star. Look for him to continue his strong play and be one of the players at the final table. If he has a big stack, he could even take the title down.
2) James Van Alstyne - Van Alstyne will have to buy his way into the WPT Championship, but he certainly won't mind that. So far in 2007 he has garnered over $500K in earnings, made four final tables and cashed in nine tournaments. He has a history of strong tournament performances and should be in the running when it comes to the final table of the WPT Championship.
3) Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi - While not off to the same stratospheric start as he had in both 2005 and 2006, "The Grinder" has been quietly amassing excellent tournament finishes through the early part of 2007. Last year, the crush may have gotten to him after finishing as a runner up in one WPT event and winning one. This year, the hubbub around him is a bit calmer, which should allow him to concentrate exclusively on playing the tournament.
4) Patrik Antonius - Patrik consistently performs well at the tournaments that are held at the Bellagio. He cashed in last year's WPT Championship and was runner up in the December 2005 WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic there. He definitely has the skills to be a contender for the crown and could make his first major title with the WPT Championship. Other foreign contenders could be Roland De Wolfe, Gus Hansen or Andrew Black (who has been having a great 2007 and would be good to see in the WPT Championship).
5) Kathy Liebert - While some may have thought she wasn't doing anything, Liebert's game seems to be coming around just in time for the WPT Championship. Runner up finishes at final tables in Foxwoods (during the run of WPT preliminary events for Foxwoods Poker Classic) and the Five Star indicate she is getting in shape to be a force at the tables. Other female players who have to be looked at as well include Joanne "J. J." Liu (freerolling off her Ladies' Night win) and potentially Jennifer Harman or last year's breakout star, Vanessa Rousso, who just missed last year's final table, finishing seventh.
Now, the game begins. From Saturday to the final table on April 27th, the WPT Championship will once again deliver the finest in poker battling it out for the coveted WPT Championship title and the millions that come with it. PokerNews.com will be there covering all the action live in our 'live reporting' section. Come the end, we will learn whether it is a professional or a "newcomer" who will take one of the grandest titles in the poker world.