The Rio is buzzing about the big finale, but some of the greatest players pulled out their A-games to make the penultimate week a showstopper of its own.
Mo' Money, Mo' Players
The $50,000 Player's Championship is the test of all things superlative — the most skilled players, the biggest bankrolls, the craziest prop bets, and of course, the most inflated egos. The high-stakes contest is always the most fun tournament to watch for mix-game enthusiasts. How can it not be with so much money on the line with every draw?
Moving the $50k from the beginning of the World Series to the end was an inspired change. The scheduling switch meant people knew what they needed, or needed to sweat, to turn the tables in their fantasy pools. It also meant that a dozen or so players had the cash and the bravado to test their meddle in the $50k thanks to a stellar Series. Two people at the final table, Owais Ahmed and Ben Lamb, took advantage of their 2011 domination to bring new blood, new money, and a new tune to the Player's Championship. Add them to the familiar stars of poker like final-tablists Scott Seiver, Phil Hellmuth, Matt Glantz, and winner Brian Rast, and you're guaranteed a show worth watching.
Phil Hellmuth is known more for his own confidence in his poker skill than he is for his actual skill. But after this summer, and his killer performance in the Player's Championship, it's tough to trash the guy anymore. In one of the most watched, most exciting final tables of the year, Hellmuth was stuck with second place for the third time. But while he looked out of his element heads-up in the other two, he showed a new aggressive gear at the all-no-limit $50k final table that won him the respect of the younger generation. With his second-place finish and $1,063,034 in prize money from the Player's Championship, Hellmuth vaulted himself into the lead for the 2011 Player of the Year. He somehow missed his 12th bracelet for a third time, but he earned legitimacy with a new generation. That seems like a big win to us.
Poker players are supposed to have thick skins, but something about the Ladies Event brings out a level of bitterness and irritation not seen during the rest of the summer. No matter how people feel about an event restricted to women or about the men who play in it, every year the Ladies Event turns into an argument. Sure, it makes a pretty entertaining musical number when every opinion is sung in a round, but it never comes out sounding anything like what the composers intended.
This year, one of the rogue men who played the event took it seriously and made it all the way to the final table. He got a lifetime's worth of booing and jeering and even calls to abandon his chips and blind out. We're confused by the people who were angry at him for damaging the integrity of the tournament while calling for him to damage it further by sitting out or eliminating himself on purpose before the final table. Maybe he's a prick for playing, but at least we know one guy who takes the Ladies Event seriously.
Lykov It, Love It
Max Lykov, former European Poker Tour Player of the Year, demonstrated how to make efficient work of a final table. Lykov had close to a third of the chips in play when he sat down at the final table of the last $1k of the year, a monstrous event that began with 4,576 players. Cheered on by a wall of vocal Russian compatriots, Lykov eviscerated the competition in less than five levels. That's a short, loud shofar blast of a tune to get our attention for the start of the Main Event.
Bling for Binger
But wait, Lykov's win wasn't quite the end cap on a summer of rocking prelims. The absolute swan song was the $5,000 Pot Limit High-Lo Split tournament, an event that showcases some of the worst play you'll see all summer as people who are good at PLO, people who are good at O8, and people who are good at neither fumble their way through a game not spread at very many places.
Of course, all that awful play makes way for the best to rise to the top. Allen Kessler bubbled an impressive final table, Nick Schulman finished seventh, and Phil Laak was out in fourth. Nick Binger and David Bach made a show of their heads-up battle, dragging into a second day. Bach would have liked his second bracelet, but it was Binger who brought home the first family gold.
And now, finally, on to the number we've been waiting for all summer. Bring on the Main Event!
Remember to follow us on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news.