During the 2006 World Series of Poker, I did a nightly podcast with actor C. Thomas Howell and when we opened the phone lines, half our callers would inevitably start their segments with the one word mantra of "Wolverines!" It was an ode to Howell's turn in "Red Dawn," a film set in a world where the Russians successfully invaded the United States and said Wolverines were a crew of young rebels fighting back from within occupied America for American freedom. Where are the Wolverines now?
The Russians have been invading the poker world for years despite their nation's relative inexperience as the American game goes. In 2007, Alex Kravchenko won a bracelet and almost took home the main event before finishing in fourth. In 2008, Ivan Demidov made twin WSOP main event final tables, finishing second in the states after countryman Nikolay Evdakov set the WSOP record for most cashes in a series with 10. In 2009, Vitaly Lunkin followed up a bracelet from the previous year with his second, this time in the marquee $40,000 no-limit hold 'em event. He almost duplicated the feat in the $50,000 HORSE, but finished fourth.
This time around, it's Vladimir Shchemelev who's stealing the show. Shchemelev, a banker who just happens to dabble in poker with all of his free time and then some, has only managed three final tables in his first three championship-level ($10,000+ buy-in events) events so far this year despite having less than $80,000 in career tournament earnings coming in. He doesn't have a bracelet, but only because Michael Mizrachi hit a river flush to avoid elimination heads-up. It's been a pretty remarkable display for -- you guessed it -- the Russian.
Of course, we're living in a kindler, gentler world where the Cold War is long gone and we all have poker in common. Nationality is only a secondary consideration on the felt. In poker, the two countries have to admit they're getting pretty consistent. Between Shchemelev, Demidov, Lunkin, Evdakov, Kravchenko, Alex Kostritsyn, Stanislav Alekhin and so many others, Russia is working its way up to powerhouse status. It's nice that we can admire such accomplishments and skill without fear these days.
Such appreciation is our "Wolverines!" How times have changed.
WSOP Update by Andrew Feldman
Seventeen events are in the books and some big names will have some final table attempts over the weekend. Here's a glance at the action in Las Vegas:
Event 18, $2,000 limit hold 'em: 2009 November Niner and main event fourth-place finisher Eric Buchman brings in the chip lead with 10 players remaining. Buchman will be searching for his first bracelet, but will have some tough competition at that final table including 2010 bracelet winner Matt Matros. First place in this event is worth $203,607, chump change to Buchman, who earned $2.5 million in November.
Event 19, $10,000 2-7 draw lowball world championship: David Baker (the one from Michigan), will most likely make his second WSOP final table this year as he brings in the chip lead heading into Day 3. Only 10 players remain including Erik Seidel, John Juanda, Daniel Negreanu and Andy Bloch. It's been a quiet year for all of them except for Juanda, who is looking for his fifth WSOP bracelet at his third final table in two weeks. $294,321 goes to the champion of this event.
Event 20, $1,500 pot-limit Omaha: Jonathan Little leads the remaining 95 players who are searching for a bracelet in the lowest buy-in pot-limit Omaha event of the 2010 WSOP. Joining Little at the top is Christian Harder and Nenad Medic, but others still alive include Jason Mercier, Jordan Morgan, Dan Kelly, Robert Williamson and Scott Montgomery. Only 81 players make the money so the start of Day 2 should be a rather slow one. They'll play down as far as they can today and the final table will play for the $256,919 first-place prize on Saturday.
Event 21, $1,500 seven-card stud: Scott Seiver leads the 128 players that remain out of the initial 408-player starting field. One of those players was Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who played in the event during Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Playing poker while the Lakers take center stage has become a tradition for Buss, who missed the championship parade in 2009 to play in a cash game at the Bicycle Casino. Buss failed to make it out of Day 1, but others like Carlos Mortensen, Chip Jett, Tom Dwan, Justin Young and Sorel Mizzi will all head back to the felt for Day 2.
Two events begin on Friday: the $1,000 Ladies no-limit hold 'em championship and the $2,500 six-handed limit event. The biggest field of the weekend will be found in the third $1,000 no-limit hold 'em event while the pros will most likely opt for the $10,000 Omaha high-low split eight-or-better world championship that begins Saturday afternoon.
Bertrand Grospellier defeated the nine-player sit-and-go for the final Tournament of Champions sponsor exemption seat. Grospellier defeated Mizrachi heads-up to earn the opportunity to participate in the TOC. The rest of the field will be announced next week. One interesting note from this tournament is that Tom Dwan, who was sixth in chips heading into Day 2 of Event 19, did not participate and was replaced by Gavin Smith.
Fantasy Update: Through 16 events Howard Lederer is in the lead thanks to Juanda's amazing job so far. Of course, Lederer will get some more points today as Juanda has already made the money in Event 19. Not one drafted player has a bracelet to their name, but given the field that remains in the deuce to seven, today might be the day that changes that unfortunate fact. Also, some transactions have been made. I dropped Ryan D'Angelo and picked up the streaking Russian Vladimir Shchemelev, Lance Bradley dropped Patrik Antonius and picked up Event 19 chip leader David Baker, Daniel Negreanu dropped Freddy Deeb in favor of Steve Billirakis and Howard Lederer dropped Thor Hansen for Brandon Adams. Here's a look at the standings:
Howard Lederer: 172 points
Mark Seif: 164
Daniel Negreanu: 129
Gavin Smith: 100
Andrew Feldman: 62
Gary Wise: 57
Chad Holloway: 57
Bernard Lee: 33
Dennis Phillips: 20
Lance Bradley: 12
Eric Baldwin: 7