- Gary Wise, ESPN Poker
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Tortoises and hares are analogies that are usually best-suited to individual competitors, but the shoe fits in comparing this year's and last year's World Series of Poker Player of the Year race.
A year ago, Phil Ivey, Greg Mueller and Brock Parker each won two WSOP bracelets, with Ivey making another final table in the main event (you may have heard about that). Ville Wahlbeck won a bracelet and notched second- and third-place finishes, while Vitaly Lunkin won a major bracelet in the $40,000 hold 'em event along with second- and fourth-place finishes elsewhere. None of them won the Player of the Year race, however, as Jeff Lisandro passed them all with his three bracelet wins.
2009 was the hare.
This year, we haven't been buried in magnificent individual performances as we were in '09. With 34 of 57 events completed as of Monday morning, we don't have any multiple bracelet winners and few of poker's glitterati have shone through.
It's been a quiet year on the Player of the Year front, but in the end, no matter how it plays out, we'll find ourselves a winner. It just may be the tortoise of a race after all. It won't be so quick and electric, but we'll get there, and the eventual winner will find a place in the record books next to Lisandro. None of Ivey, Wahlbeck, Lunkin, Parker or Mueller will be able to say the same.
With almost 60 percent of the events out of the way, we're looking at an incredibly crowded top of the heap that's looking for one repeat performance to break things wide open. You'll recognize some of those names at the top; you just probably didn't expect to see them there, especially in our three-way tie for first place:
Men "The Master" Nguyen (180 points) - The most controversial figure of the 2010 WSOP, the Master won his seventh bracelet in the $10,000 seven-card stud championship at the top of the month, then followed that up with a runner-up finish a week ago in $5,000 six-handed hold 'em event.
Nguyen's track record for volume is remarkable, with double-digit cash finishes for every year going back to 1992, so he can be counted on to fight tooth and nail for the title. His résumé is scintillating, with four Card Player Player of the Year awards, the seven WSOP bracelets and 70 lifetime WSOP cashes. However, his resurgence this year comes as a surprise because his high-profile results had slowed considerably in the past five years. He's also followed by a stigma from multiple accusations of dishonest play from the pro community, with Daniel Negreanu among those who have never been shy to voice his opinions on the Master. The allegations include team play, signaling, chip dumping, chip passing and even removing chips from tournament play to be used in more opportunistic future events. His continued success at this year's WSOP is sure to bring debates about the allegations to the forefront.
Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi (180 points) - Prior to the 2010 WSOP, Mizrachi was viewed as one of the more successful pros without a WSOP bracelet who was past his tournament poker prime. His most notable achievement of late was getting in trouble with the IRS. Amazing how times can change with a little success. Mizrachi started his WSOP by winning the year's second-most prestigious tourney, the $50,000 Poker Players' Championship. In doing so, he rendered those negative observations a thing of the past.
Mizrachi didn't stop with his big win. He's since scored two more final table finishes, both in $10,000 buy-in championship events (seven-card stud and limit hold 'em). With two World Poker Tour Wins, one CardPlayer POY title and his newly bolstered confidence, he has a good shot at staying near the top of the standings.
James Dempsey (180 points) - No one has come closer to claiming two bracelets this year than Dempsey. After winning his first bracelet in Event 9, $1,500 pot-limit hold 'em, he scored a second cash and finished second in Event 25, $10,000 Omaha high-low split eight-or-better, losing to Sammy Farha.
Amazingly, these three cashes give Dempsey a total of four on American soil. His tournament results date back half a decade, but they have come almost exclusively in England and the surrounding area. In fact, the two final tables were the first two six-figure cashes of his career. It was just a year ago that he finally made his first U.S. dollar at the WSOP. Now he's on the verge of the kind of financial security that will ensure he'll be back for years to come.
After our three-way tie for first, things don't disseminate much. New York law student Jeffrey Papola's win a couple of days ago, which denied the Master a second bracelet, put him right in the mix of things with 175 points. Like Nguyen and Dempsey, he's managed a win and a runner-up during the series. David "Bakes" Baker finished sixth in the Poker Player's Championship, then won a bracelet a week later. Steady pro Dan Heimiller's four cashes have him at 170 points, while David Chiu's three final tables have him at 160, just five points ahead of Vladimir Shchemelev who has three final tables of his own.
With respect to Papola, Heimiller, Chiu, Shchemelev and that David Baker, they're not the most deserving of attention among those in the hunt because of what's developing right now. We're watching the chip leaders of Event 37, $3,000 HORSE. With 25 players remaining in that tournament, two POY leaders are first and second in chips respectively:
John Juanda (160 points) - Only Heimiller leads Juanda among those who have not yet won a bracelet. Juanda has four WSOP bracelets to his credit, but none of them has come from his three final tables this year. Despite his inability to score a bracelet thus far in 2010, the consensus among pros is that he's playing incredibly right now. For a player of his caliber in all games to hold the lead in the HORSE seems to indicate a strong possibility of gold to come.
Dave Baker (105 points) - While "Bakes" is new on the poker scene, the man who some have unfairly referred to as "the other David Baker" has been a productive pro for some time now. A WPT final table alumnus, Baker is only slightly behind Juanda in Event 37. A win there would go nicely with his four other cashes this year, including a third-place finish in the 3,042-player Event 13, $1,000 no-limit hold 'em.
A strong finish by Juanda or a win by Baker in the HORSE would give them the lead, while a bracelet win for Juanda would more or less necessitate a repeat bracelet victory from the 2010 winners for the race to be contestable again.
If neither chip leader converts, however, the 2010 WSOP POY race is wide open for the taking. A race is a race, no longer how quickly it's run. While this one doesn't have the glamour of 2009's so far, if I remember correctly, the tortoise beat the hare. Get ready for a fun finish.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
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