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Family, Russians and the little Italian

6/21/2008

With 33 events in the books and another big-name bracelet winner taking his place in World Series of Poker history, the past few days in Vegas have been quite interesting. With only 22 events remaining, who will take home the coveted Player of the Year? And, how has a family changed the WSOP forever? Here's a look at what's happening:

Dario and Magic

When Wizards of the Coast, a gaming industry giant based in the state of Washington, introduced a collectible trading-card game -- Magic: the Gathering -- to the masses some 13 years ago, it couldn't have realized it was creating a tournament poker army. Magic's professional tournament circuit exposed mathematically inclined youths to the rigors of playing games in foreign locales for five-figure sums under the watchful eyes of the camera. The tournament circuit also introduced those youths to one another, creating a brain trust that's proven to be one of the most powerful in poker today.

Noah Boeken, Eric Froehlich, David Williams, Justin Bonomo and dozens of others have found their way from Magic to poker, but Dario Minieri may just be the most dynamic of them all. The youthful-looking 23-year-old Roman is a wolf in sheep's clothing, a blisteringly aggressive online monster who has racked up so many hands that he once purchased a Porsche with PokerStars frequent player points. Recognized for his "Harry Potter" scarf (actually an ode to his local soccer team back home, AS Roma) Minieri came to the attention of the masses a year ago, when he was leading the World Series of Poker main event at the end of Day 3 and was subsequently featured on the broadcast.

Wednesday night left Minieri's name added to the list of recognizable players winning bracelets at the 2008 WSOP. Entering the final table of Event No. 31 -- no-limit hold 'em/six-handed -- with a massive chip lead, he reduced the table to three players and held 70 percent of the chips. A sequence of hands that saw the underdog take the chips left Dario with the slightly shorter stack heading into heads-up play against Floridian Seth Fischer, but the poker gods evened things up. The pivotal hand saw him make a move with 4s-3s, only to get called instantly by Fischer's pocket kings. Two spades on the flop set the stage, but running fours on the turn and river provided the shocking ending. It wasn't long until Minieri had his bracelet. It very well may prove to be the first of many.

The brothers Hinkle

When Grant Hinkle won Event No. 2 - $1,500 no-limit hold 'em by triumphing over a live non-main event record of 3,929 players, he credited his brother Blair for the win. The elder Hinkle, who turned 28 on June 7, is an amateur player. Younger brother Blair, who had made a couple of deep runs on the WPT earlier this year, is the family pro at age 22.

Not to be outdone, Blair won his own bracelet on June 16, 10 days after Grant, in Event No. 23 - $2,000 no-limit hold 'em. In doing so, according to the WSOP's head of media relations and historian Nolan Dalla, the family made a little history. Dalla went back through the records and discovered that not only are the Hinkles the first sibling combo to win bracelets in the same WSOP, but they are just the third sibling combo to win bracelets throughout the event's 39-year history, joining the Lederers (Howard and sister Annie Duke) and the Pearsons (Puggy and estranged brother J.C.).

"We are the first family of poker now," said mother Lynn Hinkle, who was ringside for Blair's victory. "I was a mom who was not happy with the choice of playing poker for a living. Thank God they're smarter than their parents! I've reassessed my opinion of poker, and it's a great family game." With two more sons at home, aged 20 and 18, respectively, Lynn's not resting on her laurels. She told ESPN.com, "My ultimate fantasy is the brothers at the final table of the main event."

The Russians are coming! Or … they're here!

Every poker-playing nation must endure a certain evolution. As the game gains popularity in an area, play escalates to a certain extent, then the most successful players make their way to the WSOP, where they get thoroughly trashed by Darwinian principles. They go home, armed with the knowledge earned through defeat, and continue to evolve.

This year, the buzz all throughout the Rio has been about the massive strides made by Russian players. The Russians have had past success, with Alex Kravchenko and Kirill Gerasimov their most decorated citizens, but new blood like Alex Kostritsyn (four cashes, including a third-place finish in Event No. 14 -- $10,000 seven-card stud) and Nikolay Evdakov (whom we'll get further into in a moment) have shown that the Russians aren't there to be pushed around anymore. Tony Guoga and Jeff Lisandro, both of whom have fed off the caviar from Eastern European fish for years, are rumored to be crying themselves to sleep each night.

"The players in Russia are moving from blackjack and baccarat," Kostritsyn said. "We don't work together, but we are all friends and respect one another." The interesting question is whether this new Russian success will cause a mass migration from chess, and how prowess in that game of complete information will translate to this game of incomplete information.

The WSOP cashes record

One fundamental shift we've seen here in 2008 is the increasing number of WSOP marathoners -- players who play back-to-back-to-back events or even play more than one tournament at a time (Anna Wroblewski was playing three tournaments at one point last week). One result of that has been an assault on the "Most cashes in one WSOP" record of eight, held by Phil Hellmuth (2006), Humberto Brenes (2006), Michael Binger (2007) and Chad Brown (2007).

The assault is being led by Evdakov, whose 31st-place finish in event No. 34 - $1,500 pot-limit Omaha with rebuys was his seventh of the series. Evdakov has been practicing quantity over quality because those cashes have a combined value of $184,869, which doesn't account for the investment of all of his tournament entries.

Evdakov isn't the only one within reach of the record. Six other players had scored five or more cashes as of Thursday night:

• Kathy Liebert
• Tom Schneider (who continues to prove that last year's Player of the Year performance was no fluke)
• Alex Jacob
• Manelic Minaya
• Rolf Slotboom
• Roland Isra

Interestingly, Liebert is the only one among those six with more than $200,000 in winnings, while Schneider (tied for 20th) is the only one of these leaders to crack the top 20 in the Player of the Year race.

Gary Wise will cover the WSOP in its entirety for ESPN.com and in his blog at wisehandpoker.net.