- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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NASSAU, Bahamas -- The strewn-about bodies written about here are gone. The Coral Tower lobby at the Atlantis resort is no longer infested by laptops occupied by drunken millionaires. Children run free again as their parents smile amidst a sea of normalcy. They'll have that privilege for the next 350-some days. Then the party will begin anew.
The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure is more than a series of tournaments -- it's an event. One that's turned into an institution. When the boom came, anyone and everyone had a tournament, but now that fiscal reality is setting in, the cream rises to the top and those myriad events streamline. PCA is proving to be one of those few must-attend poker events that no travel docket is complete without.
"As time has gone on, this event has gotten a closer feel to the WSOP," said Barry Greenstein, one of the few players held in high esteem by both the live and online communities. "I think this is becoming one of the grand slam events."
With 1,347 competitors, the PCA main event set a record for most players in a $10,000 (and up) buy-in event held outside the United States. The $3 million first prize went to a young man who least expected it.
Poorya Nazari, a recently graduated 22-year-old from Toronto, Canada, walked away with the oversized check and the change of lifestyle it represented. He triumphed over a final table that saw five countries (Canada, USA, Germany, Brazil, Netherlands) represented by the last five survivors, providing a microcosm of what the PCA has come to be: a gathering ground for members of the poker world, with the game serving as the one binding commonality.
Nazari was one of 749 who qualified via an online satellite after winning a $33 tournament with rebuys to win the package deal of travel, accommodation and entry fee provided for each of satellite winners through PokerStars. His win came despite almost tasting the felt on the second-to-last day of the tournament.
Despite the multi-cultural feel of the final table's result, it was a decidedly American affair when the day started. Second-place finisher Tony Gregg, 22, was the only American to survive the early goings. Online monsters Kevin Saul (eighth) and Dustin Dirksen (sixth) and long-time live pro Dan Heimiller (seventh) rounded out the American presence. Germany's Benny Spindler was the top-ranking European, finishing third, while countryman Jan Collado was ninth. Peter Tielen of the Netherlands rounded out the final table. Interestingly, none of the final nine was younger than 22, yet another sign that those players who are too young to attend live tournaments in the States may have been focused on other things. Let's just say a good time was had by all.
Nazari's name was previously unknown, but his victory was the capper on a week that saw a number of professionals thrive. Most notable among them were three PokerStars-sponsored players. Amongst those three, the biggest accomplishment came from 2008 WSOP champion Peter Eastgate.
ESPN predicted last week that in Eastgate we'd see a playing champion and a measure of success -- so far he's making us look pretty good. The 22-year-old Dane has been playing non-stop, enjoying the fruits of his WSOP victory with a number of high-profile appearances, including a taping last month of High Stakes Poker. This though, is his first major victory since the WSOP win.
While Eastgate already seemed to have the approval of the online poker community from which he emerged, his victory here in a 278-player $5,000 buy-in event should solidify his standing as a new star of the game and more than just a one-hit wonder. Eastgate triumphed over Germany's Florian Langmann in the end at a final table that included Americans Terrence Chan and Justin Bonomo.
Some might have believed that Eastgate had something to prove during one of his first major tournament stops since becoming champion. On the other hand, France's eminently likable Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier entered the PCA with no such burden. Defending champion in the main event here, Elky followed that up with his $1.4 million win at the WPT's Festa Al Lago Classic in Las Vegas in October. A quick exit from the 2009 PCA main event left him with nothing but time. He used that to his full advantage.
Grospellier was one of 48 players to put up the $25,000 needed to play in the High Rollers Event and outlasted the elite field. The win was worth $433,500 to the former pro of the computer game StarCraft. For Grospellier, the reward came as much from the accomplishment as it did from the payout.
"Last year I beat 1,136 players, then at Festa 368 and now 48," Elky said. "I'm happy I've been able to adjust my game to the fields. I'm glad I was able to get in good spots against the good players. You have to be pretty lucky to win a tournament like this one. So far, I've been pretty lucky."
Grospellier wasn't the only Team PokerStars Pro member to take a title down. Hevad Khan, who has truly turned the page on the character we saw on television in 2007, took home $200,000 for winning the 439-player $2,000 buy-in tournament held simultaneous to the later days of the main event. Khan, thoughtful and friendly in person, knows that the public memory is long, but he said his final table finish at the 2007 WSOP is a chapter in his life that has passed.
"There's no doubt this victory is going to increase the outlook of the public on me in positive manner," said Khan after the victory. "It's great to win here. PCA is the family reunion for the online community. The majority of competitive online players start when they're 18 and can't play in the states. They're young and want to explore the world and what better way then to qualify for the main event, get a free package and come and play?"
It's a sentiment that seemed shared by the entire attendance of the event. Over now, the bodies have been cleared out, and life returns to normal here as the players return to wherever they came from. For guys like Nazari, Eastgate, Elky and Khan, wins made the trip a successful one. For the rest, the good times with good friends amidst the warmth of the Caribbean sun and the cool of ocean waters had to do. Regardless, the denizens of the poker world left with only one regret: they had to leave.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.
The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure proved to be a successful trip for the online poker community and some of poker's biggest names.