It's one thing to call yourself the "Jovial Gent;" it's another thing to act like one. Twenty-one-year old Yevgeniy Timoshenko, looking like a kid wearing his big brother's suit under the World Poker Tour's lights, announced his presence to the poker world with style, substance and class this week as he took home that circuit's greatest prize.
The World Poker Tour's $25,000 end-of-the-year championship was at one time regarded as the second biggest tournament in the world. When the WPT's flame shone brightest, only the main event of the World Series of Poker loomed larger. Now the EPT Grand Final and the WSOP $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. event, among others, have leapfrogged the WPT Championship. With the WPT's TV numbers a shadow of what they once were, and with the world's economic crises putting the kibosh for many on the pricey $25,000 entry fee, Timoshenko has to content himself with understanding that this victory is not the status-builder it once was and focusing on the $2,149,960 he earned for his trouble.
That total sounds like an awful lot until one considers that the first prize in this tournament was $3.3 million in 2008. The $1.2 million difference represents a massive drop in attendance from 545 a year ago to 338 this past week, a perverse demonstration of the difference between $10,000 and $25,000 in this planet's suffering economic climate. That, combined with the drop in Vegas foot and air traffic and the resulting effect on that town's poker rooms, did massive damage to any attempts by the host casino Bellagio to deliver anything but a massive dropoff in the tournament's stature. That doesn't take much away from the accomplishment of winning it, however.
Timoshenko is no kid flash in the pan. The resident of Mukilteo, Wash., who emigrated from Ukraine a decade ago, had already managed four other six-figure live cashes in his brief career, including a $500,000 victory at last August's Asian Poker Tour in Macau. This win, however, will be North America's first real exposure to the young man who dominated the late stages of the tournament to the tune of more than a third of the chips heading into the six-player final table.
Once there, Timoshenko controlled the action beautifully, never seeing his chip lead threatened.
"Things just went my way," he said in the aftermath of his victory. "I'm really happy for that. The final table was extremely tough. All of the guys at the table could play, so I didn't expect to win, but hoped I would and it worked out."
His final victim was Israeli amateur Ran Azor, whose most memorable moment came when he eliminated Christian Harder and Bertrand "Elky" Grospellier in fourth and third places respectively in a hand that started with Harder moving all-in on the button with As-8s for $1.9 million. He was called by Azor's Ad-7s before Grospellier moved in for $2.7 million from the big blind with Ah-Jh. Azor called to see the board come Kd-7h-3d Qs 2c, giving him the lone pair among the three and the huge pot to go with it.
For Grospellier, it was a frustrating end to yet another successful tournament. One that resulted in him celebrating WPT Player of the Year honors. After winning the Festa al Lago Classic (also at Bellagio) in October, he managed a money finish at the LA Poker Classic before this finish allowed him to squeak ahead of John Phan to earn the exclusive title.
Grospellier also placed third at NBC's National Heads-Up Poker championship last month, won the $24,500 buy-in High Rollers event at the 2009 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and won an EPT at the same site a year ago. It's a phenomenal run that among other distinctions has joined him with fellow WPT Players of the Year Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Daniel Negreanu, Gavin Smith, JC Tran and Jonathan Little.
While Grospellier's presence in the NBC tournament meant that all seven WPT Player of the Year winners earned themselves berths, Shannon Shorr's fifth-place finish in the WPT Championship gave credence to the frustration he voiced when he was bypassed for the NBC honor. Shorr's blog entry that expressed his disappointment at being overlooked for the NBC tournament created waves of indignation and mockery in the online community, but this strong finish gives him over $3 million in lifetime earnings, a number that has to be taken seriously.
Sixth place went to Scotty Nguyen, for whom this should prove a solid warmup to an upcoming WSOP for which he's placed undue pressure on himself to perform. Scotty has been telling anyone who will listen that he'll quit poker if he doesn't win $4 million at WSOP this year; as a reference, only three players won as much in 2008 -- Peter Eastgate, Ivan Demidov and Dennis Phillips, the top three finishers in the main event -- and Nguyen himself was the top money finisher to not make the main event final table with $2,039,628. The guess here is that Scott won't make $4 million and will manage to play poker despite that failure.
While he didn't make the final table, Boris Becker proved himself more than just another former athlete trying his hand at poker. The Wimbledon champion finished 40th, scoring his first cash in a major event, a remarkable achievement considering some onlookers were calling this one of the toughest fields ever assembled. Becker, retired from tennis, has been pursuing poker full-time for over a year now. Barely missing the money, meanwhile, was Andy Bloch. Bloch was the most vocal opponent of a new structure for the tournament that saw $100,000 starting stacks, a $50/$100 starting level and blinds increasing from $2,000/$4,000 to $3,000/$6,000 to $4,000/$8,000 late on Day 3.
"[Tournament director] Jack McLelland is one of the best in the world, but the changes to the structure weren't needed," said Bloch, echoing sentiments he'd voiced through Twitter long before his elimination. "Last year's structure was perfectly fine, and the changes made the first the levels irrelevant while the blinds increased far too fast as we got close to the money."
At the beginning of Day 2, Gavin Smith announced the passing of poker media member and beloved friend Justin Shronk. He'll be sorely missed throughout the poker community.
Gary Wise is a regular contributor to espn.com. You can hear more of his poker musings on The Poker Beat at Poker Road.