Jesse May's Premier League III preview - 21/11/2008
Stunned. Elated. Tingles in my hands and toes. These are the feelings that I've been having when contemplating the line-up for Premier League III. All I can say, is this tournament has finally arrived.
Spence among line-up in very strong field
Give credit where credit is due. The Premier League has reached this point because of Matchroom's commitment that it will be for the best poker players in the world. This is harder than you think, because that goal must be balanced by demands of the broadcaster and sponsor. It's not easy, but Eddie Hearn created a wish list and then went out and got those players personally. On the plus side, almost no invitations go rejected. The exposure of the tournament, its growing prestige, plus the value of the added prize money is such that you must be thick in the head not to want to play in the Premier League.
Of course there is also the ego factor. If you think you've got game, if you think you can hang with the best and perhaps even dominate them, the Premier League is the arena. The format may not be perfect, the skill set may be tad specialized, but the Premier League is an arena where greatness is on display and genius happens.
This year, the Premier League has not just been infused. It's been turbo injected with serious poker skill, and I think this is the first year where there will be absolutely no way to make the final table without playing poker a cut above the rest. I think this is where the six seater one table format gets its legs kicked out from under it and its clothes ripped off, naked as a bird on a wire. The definitive question will be answered once and for all, who can play under these conditions best. What skills win?
What else makes the Premier League unique is drama and conflict. The fact that they are all cooped up in a hotel for eight days, all the big egos, thrown together like Big Brother, means there is no escape. It's 24/7, what with the prop betting, the bar, the Chinese poker, the fights and the arguments. And every year people crack up. If you have a sick sense of voyeurism, this is the can not miss that adds to poker perfection.
In that vein, I've made notes on each player in a predicted order of finish. In addition, I've listed what I think will be the two biggest personal dynamics each player will have to deal with. First, who is most likely to get under their skin, to be the cause of them boiling over. And second, which player they most have to watch out for in the game itself. The potential fireworks are off the chart. Whether I'm right or wrong, it's no matter. I'm just glad to be able to watch it unfold.
12. Vicky Coren
Kind of lost in the blur between Vicky Coren's results and expectations is the fact that since the time when she won the half million pounds at the London EPT, she is one of the most improved players on the European scene. She did have ground to make up, and I say that with all due respect. Vicky's a gamer, she has never shied away from the competition and it just goes to show that the best way to improve your poker is to match up with the best on a regular basis. I think Vicky can be compared with former world champion Bill Smith. TJ Cloutier once told me about Smith, he said, "When sober, Bill Smith was way too tight, and when drunk he was hopeless. But catch Bill Smith when he was half drunk, and the man was the most feared poker player in the world." Vicky needs to be careful of the ever prevalent bar. On no wine at all she can be too timid. And once she gets beyond three glasses, she loses focus and just starts calling. But between one glass of wine and three, Coren is a demon destroyer who has well timed aggression and a nifty talent for getting her chips in first.
Sparks could fly: Vicky vs. Andy Black. Andy made Vicky angry with his comments in the first Premier League that she didn't find out about until it came on TV. They managed to avoid each other for most of the last Premier League, but it's far from over.
Player to beware of: Vicky vs. Devilfish. The Devilfish has owned Vicky in the previous two Premier Leagues. He has run her over like a train with his charming chauvinism, if you can call it that. She gives him way too much respect. The fact that she genuinely likes The Devil doesn't help one bit, and if Vicky wants to succeed in this tournament she must take an attitude of no mercy no quarter when it comes to Dave Ulliott.
11. Juha Helppi
This man is out of form. Pound for pound, I believe he has played the best and most consistent poker of anyone from the first two Premier Leagues, but a lot of good it will do him now. Juha has been running bad, and it's starting to affect his mindset. He actually believes that he will be unlucky, which is a recipe for disaster. It's a shame because when he is on, he plays this format near perfection.
Sparks could fly: Juha vs. Roland de Wolfe. This one is in the cards. The two have teased each other for years, and as long as one or the other are going well it's all in good fun. No more. Roland will step over the line, and the machine will snap. Believe me, this will get ugly.
Player to beware of: Juha vs. Phil Hellmuth. For two years, Juha has been playing well and owning Phil Hellmuth. Phil has bided his time, and believe me revenge will be served cold. Phil has been waiting to grab the upper hand on Juha and will waste no time kicking him when he is down.
10. Andy Black
The defending champion can play. He is tight early and aggressive late and this formula usually gets steady points. However, Andy's Achilles heel is that he can't stay away from a battle of the egos, and there are just too many egos in this line-up for him to succeed. I'm afraid his heart will get the better of his head.
Sparks could Fly: Andy vs. Tony G. Andy needs to be table captain, and almost always gets the last word in edgewise, especially against an out of form Tony G. Not this year. No matter who Tony G bullies, Andy will try to butt in and this year Tony is ready for the challenge. Tony has his sights set on the man who robbed him last year of the Premier League title and will try to have Andy on his bike and back at the ashram.
Player to beware of: Andy vs. Andy Black. This never gets old. Andy has eleven players to beware of in this Premier League and they are all named Andy Black. Over the course of seven days, Andy will crack up. It's only a question of when and how much it will cost him.
9. Tom Dwan
The buzz around the internet phenom known as Durr is a roar. The hype is deafening. Six million dollars this year alone. Soft spoken but a maniac at the table, everyone is excited to see the facets of his game. However, every time he talks about poker or is talked about, it involves him playing a lot of pots. I am not aware that he has the desire or ability to play the tight gear, and unfortunately here it means a lot of early exits.
Sparks could fly: Tom vs. Phil Hellmuth. Of course you've watched the video on YouTube. We all have. But even though Tom beat Phil on the table, Phil slaughtered him in the verbal. And will continue to do so. Tom might be the better player in a cash scenario, but here Phil will dominate him in the play and crush the poor twenty-one year old with the abuse. Tom can only gain satisfaction with a heads up cash match-up. Phil is smart enough to never let this happen and instead take the avenue of baiting him until he pops.
Player to beware of: Tom vs. Annette. This is an interesting match-up. The most aggressive internet cash player against the most aggressive internet tournament player. The last time I looked, this is a tournament, and Annette will get it over on Dwan all day long.
8. Roland de Wolfe
How the giants have fallen. Two years ago the hottest poker player in the world, now just a formless mass reduced to drinking smelly bottles of wheatgrass to purge his system. On the bright side, Roland is immensely talented and is able to raise his game when playing against a world class. He plays outside the box and can utilize every gear in the book. He plays so far outside the box, there is no box. If he plays his best poker, he should win. Right now, though, emotional odds are stacked against him. I think we are more likely to see his demons than his poker. Both make good TV.
Sparks could fly: Roland vs. Nenad Medic. Nenad is the person Roland once was and now hopes to become again. The hottest tournament player on the planet. This bothers Roland, that someone has taken his mantle, and something Nenad casually said in one of his interviews on the Internet gave me the feeling that he has very little respect for Roland de Wolfe. Roland is a man on edge, and this rivalry could be one of the hidden gems of this year's Premier League.
Player to beware of: Roland vs. Tom Dwan. Roland likes to be the fanciest player making the fanciest plays, something Tom Dwan owns here and anywhere else. If Roland tries to outplay Tom Dwan, and you know he will, Durr will have that extra trick up his sleeve to put egg all over Roland's face.
7. Phil Hellmuth
He is the Premier League. He is Phil Hellmuth. And he got pulverized last year, laughed off the map. I saw Phil just before the WSOPE and I've been reading his blog and he is in good form. He seems a happy man. But it's been a long time in Hellmuth years since he won anything major. If he comes in last during this Premier League people will talk. People will cackle. He can slay so many demons by doing well this year. Upstart threats like Durr and Eastgate, old rivals like Helppi, the Devilfish, and Tony G. He needs to just make the final table, but I still don't see it. A little jetlag and Chinese Poker distractions and Phil will be mid table and beat in the heads up by someone who will taunt him forever. It's part of the drama that is the Poker Brat.
Sparks could fly: Phil vs. Peter Eastgate. Phil loves his records as much as he loves himself. Is that possible? Eastgate is the man who broke Phil's record of twenty years and may hold it for another twenty himself. I seriously doubt Phil can sleep at night with bother for what Peter has done. Eastgate could be the silent assassin in such a way that only a smirk will make Phil explode and for real.
Player to beware of: Phil vs. Tony G. Everybody laughed at Tony G for the way he played last year, none louder than Phil Hellmuth. I think Phil will be guilty of underestimating Tony's play this year and could pay the penalty.
6. Nenad Medic
I've never met Nenad, but from what I've seen he is quite impressive. Big man, gently humble, quietly confident, and with a string of results in the last two years that could be a career. He's the kind of guy that always travels in a posse, and leads a team many strong. He appears to have the game to succeed here, but how he will react to the verbal intensity of this group of players remains to be seen. He has a temper, I'm sure of it, and we'll just have to see what happens when he's had enough. Belongs in the Premier League by anyone's criteria and has been tipped by those who know to make a big impact. I can't wait to see if he's the real deal.
Sparks could fly: Nenad vs. Andy Black. This has to break big and ugly. Talk about polar opposites. Nenad is the embodiment of the macho man, and Andy is Mr. Let's Talk It Out. He eats macho for breakfast. Nenad is a cool dude and a low boiler, but he will only take so much of Andy before he's had enough. I'm predicting fists to fly by Day 5.
Player to beware of: Nenad vs. Devilfish. I saw both these guys in the big cash game in Vegas during the WSOP. Nenad was running hot and the Devilfish wasn't. If Medic is guilty of underestimating the Fish, Devil will give him his due. Don't ever think the Devilfish can't play with the big boys.
5. Annette Obrestad
Though some of the hype surrounding Annette15 has blown over, there is no question in anyone's mind that she is at the top of the poker world to stay. Annette is just too good a tournament player, and of all the players in the Premier League I think this format perfectly suits her strengths. Though it appears to many that her game is based on naked aggression and little else, she has flair that is so extreme as to be borderline destructive. Look for her to play first position like it's the button and to get paid off like a clock. I'll be very surprised not to see her on the final table. One of the great subtexts with Annette is her confidence. She respects no one, and knows no fear. Annette is still young, however, and how she handles the cauldron that is the verbal pressure factory will be exciting to see.
Sparks could fly: Annette vs. Vicky Coren. Annette has had a few publicized run-ins with other female players, Isabelle Mercier a prime example. Obrestad is very confident, arrogant even, and Vicky and she have absolutely no chance of getting along. I can't wait for this one.
Player to beware of: Annette vs. JC Tran. Against Annette you must be prepared to make the big call. Call it a hunch, but I think JC Tran will be her Kryptonite.
4. Peter Eastgate
I'm proud to boast that I saw this one coming. Peter Eastgate played several times on TV before his run this year in the WSOP and he several times displayed the raw genius that promised big things to come. Twice he played lights out in the Poker Million, once running rings around the Devilfish, and at the Irish Open a few years ago were it not for Aces cracked just off the final table he could easily have been the champion. Jealous forum merchants who claim he got hit with the deck at the WSOP this year have obviously been guilty of only watching the ESPN coverage and not going through the hand by hand from the blogs. From several tables on down, Eastgate was in and out of tons of pots. He got big action precisely because he was so unpredictable, and he had Demidov absolutely tortured from where I sat both in November and July. The heads up matchup lasted not two hands, as television would have you think, but over a hundred hands during which Eastgate picked Demidov apart and then demolished him. He's got nine million in the bank and this Premier League is his coming out party. I will be the second least surprised person to see Eastgate win this. Believe me that's what he thinks he's here for. Peter likes to do his talking with his chips. Whether that's enough in the Premier League, though, remains to be proven.
Sparks could fly: Peter vs. Tony G. This is like grade school for Tony G. He picks out the guy least likely to defend himself, and paws him like a cat with a dead mouse - just for sport. We'll find out just how much backbone Peter has based on when and how he chooses to respond.
Player to beware of: Peter vs. Roland de Wolfe. Roland is the kind of guy that feels a need to put people in their place, poker wise. He wants to prove something to the world, that he can put a play on the WSOP champion. Peter had better be ready for Roland coming with a plan of attack.
3. Tony G
For a man who wears his heart and soul on his sleeve, Tony G has only been a shadow of his self during Premier League seasons I and II. The picture of him from last year's final table said it all. Tony G, head in his hands, sad and embarrassed, after making an amateur mistake in the final three by turning his cards over too soon and costing himself half his stack. And that, just after lacking the heart and commitment to follow through against Roland de Wolfe. Tony G without heart and commitment? It was sad to see.
Cheer up, Tony G fans, I can happily report that the man is back, full of confidence, life, and the abusive wit that makes our sides ache. When he is on you he is playing his best, and he is on right now. He's been in London for a month already getting ready for this Premier League, and if you read his blog he knows he's ready. He played pretty much the best I've ever seen him during the recent UK Open, and even had the audacity to claim in his blog that he didn't play well. Read through the lines. He's so confident that he's underplaying his game. And Tony G has probably got the biggest axe to grind in the whole Premier League. They laughed at him last year. They laughed at him bad. I have the feeling at one point soon, he will stand on his chair and say look who's laughing now.
Sparks could fly: Tony G vs. Devilfish. Devilfish knows just what buttons of Tony's to push. Tony knows how to abuse without getting personal, with the Devilfish it's always personal. One fat joke too many and they may start pulling hair. Oh, it will get loud.
Player to beware of: Tony G vs. Peter Eastgate. Tony will not be ready for Peter Eastgate's game. Of that I am certain. Take this kid lightly and you will end up walking.
2. JC Tran
You've got to like this guy. If you don't know him, you are in for a treat. He's where the Vietnamese American meets the California surfer dude. His tournament record over the last three years puts every single player in this league to shame. He is no one hit wonder, and it is impossible for him to just be a very good player on an unbelievable run. He has so many final tables in big events over the last three years it's just mind boggling. And now, he has started to more regularly close the deal. I've watched plenty of his interviews and JC is a guy who is a bit hurt that he is not getting the recognition he deserves. He's not out there beating a drum, and still has faith that the fame and sponsorship will come if he continues to do his thing. I can see him taking this event more seriously than anyone else in the field. He has the most to gain.
JC said something in one of his interviews that makes me think he will succeed here. He said that he used to push things too hard and has now learned how to let the game come to him. I think that's a really good attitude for this league format. There's so many in this field who will do the pushing. JC might just let this title come to him.
Sparks could fly: JC vs. Tony G. JC is friendly and easygoing. Tony comes on friendly and then hits where it hurts. This is where the rubber meets the road. Tony will be on the guy from Day one and there will be no love lost in the corners.
Player to beware of: JC vs. Juha. If there is one guy who JC could easily size up incorrectly, it is Juha Helppi. He looks tight but he is not. Juha will identify JC as the guy he can pull a move on, and he is probably right.
I should be shot for my faith in the Devilfish, condemned for my insistence that he has the package that makes him the best player in history for this particular format. But the fact remains that the Devilfish does have it all. When he is on his A game, he has the technical skills to slash everybody in the field. He has the verbal weapons to hammer the psychological edge, and he has the wit and camera presence to own the show. Ulliott has only one knock against him, and that's his habit of slipping into negativity when things start to go wrong. This is a big problem. However, the last five months he has looked the happiest that I've seen in seven years. The last two times he's played this format he turned in his two best performances ever. If he brings that attitude to the table, I honestly believe Devilfish will be the champion when the smoke has cleared.
Sparks could fly: Devilish vs. Phil Hellmuth. Phil has always owned the Devilfish. Hellmuth is the Devilfish's walking bad dream, he has him spooked. If this ever changes than all is not right with the world. The most entertaining of all the rivalries, as sure as death and taxes.
Player to beware of: Devilfish vs. Annette. Devilfish always gets outplayed by strong females, because he shows them no respect. Liz Lieu hammered the Devilfish in Premier League I, and she's not half the player Annette is. Look for Annette to make him feel foolish in many pots.