- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Editor's note: The $50,000 Players' Championship will be broadcast on ESPN on July 27 at 8-10 p.m. ET
With the exception of the World Series of Poker main event, this week's Event 2, The Poker Players' Championship, may be the most prestigious on the 2010 calendar. With a $50,000 buy-in, an eight-game rotation, deep stacks, long levels and prime-time television opportunities, it's difficult to find a tournament that will provide its victor with a more impressive combination of payout, renown and respect of poker-playing peers.
While the Championship's paid attendance of 116 players was lower than expected, it has delivered in every other way since play began. Day 1 saw the elimination of Tom Dwan and Brian Townsend, bringing the question of whether the online crowd was ready to compete with the Bobby's Room/The Ivey Room guard in the more-diverse, less-practiced eight-game mix. Then, that old guard started to fall apart at the seams.
Patrik Antonius, David Benyamine and Chau Giang were among the Day 2 eliminations. Barry Greenstein, Phil Ivey and finally Doyle Brunson went home for good on Day 3. When Eli Elezra was eliminated on Day 4, one expected to see a sea of faces accustomed to playing poker from the comfort of home, but they were nowhere to be found. Instead, what was left was one true amateur, the third pair of siblings to share a final table experience in WSOP history and a collection of silent but deadly, hard-core professionals, each poised to take one giant step forward on poker's greatest stage. As Nick Schulman was eliminated in ninth place, he left this eight-player final table to battle it out with hopes of the $1.5 million top prize on Tuesday:
Robert Mizrachi, $3,125,000 -- While his brother Michael shot to stardom, Robert has worked his way up poker's pantheon. Robert has worked tirelessly on his game and in the process has transformed himself into an online cash game powerhouse with live tournament results to match. The eldest of the four Mizrachi brothers and ultimately poker mentor to his siblings, Robert has 13 WSOP cashes in the past three years, including his first bracelet win in 2007.
David Baker, $3,095,000 -- The lone remaining product of the online generation, David "Bakes" Baker has poise and accomplishments that transcend his age. He was just named FTOPS Player of the Series after securing three final table finishes there, adding to a résumé that also includes a SCOOP victory. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native is the youngest player at the final table, at age 25.
John Juanda, $2,620,000 -- Undoubtedly one of the greatest tournament players of all time, John Juanda's four bracelets include his victory at the 2008 WSOP Europe main event. Juanda no longer plays at the same furious pace that netted him six World Poker Tour final tables, but he seems to shine on poker's biggest stages.
Mikael Thuritz, $2,300,000 -- Thuritz, a 25-year old native of Stockholm, is one of the lesser-known names to have survived Day 4, but he's been playing poker professionally for seven years now. Making his bones in the online world, he keeps his nicknames under wraps to ensure privacy, but he's done well enough to have bought into this event from his poker bankroll.
Michael Mizrachi, $2,175,000- - The second of two Mizrachi brothers at this final table both chronologically and in terms of stack size. Better known as "The Grinder," Michael rose to poker fame with WPT wins in 2005 and 2006. More recently, Michael made headlines with tax issues that lead the U.S. government to seize his property. One has to assume that a win here would put an end to any connected issues.
Vladimir Schmelev, $1,925,000 -- The lone amateur still standing, the 37-year old native of St. Petersburg, Russia, has been playing recreationally since his university days. He's a bank owner by trade, but Schmelev's amateur status shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of ability. He achieved the chess rank of master at 9 years old and has played intellectually driven games over the entirety of his life.
Daniel Alaei, $1,705,000 -- Ask just about anyone to name the best all-around poker players in the world and Alaei is going to make the short list. His recent $1,428,430 score at the Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Classic only served to remind the poker world of this remarkable talent, who has collected more than $4,000,000 in tournament earnings. Alaei won his second bracelet in 2009 and will be making his fourth WSOP final table.
David Oppenheim, $460,000 -- The last remaining regular participant in the largest mixed cash games in the world, Oppenheim carries that banner into the final table with barely a quarter of Alaei's stack. Oppenheim has been making a killing in California and Nevada for almost two decades. Despite a remarkable record of success, he remains one of the most respected players in the world despite not yet owning a WSOP bracelet.
Here's what the final table will be playing for:
The final table will indeed be a great one and it won't lack for drama. Questions persist as to who will benefit the most by the shift to no-limit hold 'em. Grinder and Oppenheim are both looking for their first bracelets. Juanda and Alaei are both looking to further assert themselves as being among the best in the world. Amateur Schmelev will try to topple the assembled pros. Oppenheim will try to fight back from the short stack to protect the legacy forged by the Bobby's Room crowd, and of course, the Brothers Mizrachi could be poised to do battle for a bracelet. It's going to make for a fun finish as we determine who is ultimately most deserving of the title "The Poker Players' Champion."
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
4hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy