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September 2, 2014

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Smaller field, same stakes for Poker Players Championship at WSOP

Nearly 100 players show up on first day hoping to win Chip Reese Memorial Trophy

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Steve Marcus

Phil Ivey Jr. competes during the opening day of the World Series of Poker $50,000 Poker Players Championship tournament at the Rio Sunday, June 24, 2012.

Poker Players Championship

Poker legend Doyle Brunson competes during the opening day of the World Series of Poker $50,000 Poker Players' Championship tournament at the Rio Sunday, June 24, 2012. Launch slideshow »

There’s swimming in a vast sea among sharks, and then there’s diving into a pool flooded with a bloodthirsty school of them.

For a recreational card player, the former describes most events at the World Series of Poker. The latter is more fitting for the $50,000 buy-in Poker Players Championship, which began Sunday evening with 100 entrants through 5 hours.

Players are allowed to continue registering through Monday for the tournament, which lasts five days.

These aren’t some of the best poker professionals in the world gunning for the most coveted bracelet of the summer. These are all of them, confined to a space the size of a large living room in the northeast corner of the Rio’s Amazon Room.

“Because the best players play, this is definitely the tournament of champions,” local pro Brian Rast said. “'Poker Players Championship' is the right name for it.”

Rast earned $1.72 million for outlasting 127 other players to win the tournament last year. The first-place payout won’t prove as lucrative this year with the slightly diminished size of the field.

A couple factors contributed to the downturn. For only the second time in the Poker Players Championship seven-year history, ESPN will not televise the final table. That means the final table will stick with the eight-game mix played during the rest of the tournament, not switch to television-friendly no-limit hold’em like the last two years.

“Because I was defending my title and have a chance to go back-to-back, there was no way I wasn’t going to play,” Rast said. “But I don’t know if I’ll play in future years. If it goes back to being televised, I’ll play.”

“It makes a big difference because there’s added value to pros. You can get sponsorship deals and going to no-limit hold’em is extra value to me. That’s my best game.”

The $50,00 price tag has always served as one of the strongest selling points for the event. But with a $1 million buy-in tournament scheduled for next week, the 2012 Poker Players Championship seems to have lost some luster in that regard.

The WSOP isn’t treating it any differently, though. Officials attach more pageantry to the Poker Players Championship than the other 61 events of the summer.

Tournament Director Jack Effel addressed the players and fans moments before the tournament began and recognized all the past champions — Rast, Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi, David Bach, Scotty Nguyen, Freddy Deeb and the late Chip Reese.

“This event holds a special place to all of us at the WSOP,” Effel said in the speech.

Bach gave the famous “shuffle up and deal” command to start play. Mizrachi drew for which of the eight games would begin the tournament.

He came out with seven-card stud eight-or-better, one of his favorite poker variants.

“Man, I’m good,” Mizrachi proclaimed.

Mizrachi was excited even though the games alternate every eight hands. Nonetheless, “The Grinder” had seized the chip lead through two levels of play.

He had to fight through a challenging table that included mainstays such as Barry Greenstein, Allen Cunningham, Lyle Berman and David Singer.

There’s no such thing as an easy draw at the Poker Players Championship. Unlike other tournaments where a professional might recognize one or two players at the table, virtually everyone is familiar.

Rast had to deal with notables like Scott Seiver, Allen Kessler and Viktor Blom at his table.

“It’s definitely a different feel in this tournament,” Rast said. “You have a better idea about how to play against people and know to switch up your play. Normally when I play against people in a tournament, I make a lot of assumptions based on how they look and how they play for a 15 or 30 minutes. That changes here.”

Arguably the two best Canadian players in the world, Daniel Negreanu and Shawn Buchanan, were seated next to each other. Bracelet winners Eugene Katchalov and David Baker were at the other end of the table.

“The Godfather of Poker” Doyle Brunson was wedged in between two 2012 WSOP champions in John Monnette and Brian Hastings. 2010 WSOP Player of the Year Frank Kassela and online star Justin Smith flanked Phil Ivey, the man unanimously considered the best player in the world.

Ivey has lived up to that title this summer, making five final tables so far at the WSOP for a total of $572,000. The 35-year old is the favorite in any tournament he enters, not excluding the Poker Players Championship.

But it won’t be easy, not in this pool.

“This is the tournament that all the players believe crown the best all-around player,” Effel said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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