Action is currently playing out at the Bellagio in Las Vegas in the World Poker Tour Championship, with 62 players still in contention for the title. What has been the buzz of the entirety of the scheduled run of the Five Star World Poker classic, however, is the low tournament numbers which have showed up for the events.
Attendance at this year’s event showed a significant drop from the 545 players who went to the felt last year. After two Day Ones were played out last weekend, only 338 decided to put up their $25,000 buy in and compete in the tournament this year for an almost 40% smaller field. This drop was not only reflective of the WPT Championship but had been seen throughout the run of the schedule during the Bellagio’s Five Star World Poker Classic, where most of the preliminary tournaments saw double digit numbers taking part in the tournaments.
Players were given an astronomical 100,000 in chips to start play on Saturday and Sunday and, as expected, there was little action in those two Day Ones. This was not only four times the buy in amount but also gave the players – with the blinds starting at 50/100 – one THOUSAND times the big blind. With such deep stacks, it could have been figured that there would be few eliminations over those two Day Ones and that held true; only 26 players were eliminated by the time the field combined on Monday.
Most surprising of the Day One action was the departure of eleven time WSOP bracelet winner and normally excellent player during the WPT Championship, Phil Hellmuth. After showing up nearly four hours after the action had begun – as Hellmuth is known to do – the “Poker Brat” jumped immediately into the fray. After tangling with Amnon Filippi in the previous hand and losing a sizeable portion of his 100K stack, Hellmuth and Filippi once again went to war on a flop of 10-6-3. Filippi checked, Hellmuth bet 5,000, and Filippi called. The turn came a deuce and Filippi once again checked. Hellmuth fired a 10,000 chip bet into the pot and Filippi once again called. The river was a queen and Filippi check-raised Hellmuth all-in. The “Poker Brat” made the call with 10-3 for a flopped two pair, only to see that Filippi had rivered a set of queens. In all, it took fifteen minutes for Hellmuth to be eliminated from the tournament.
After Day Two cut the field down to 162 players, play continued at a snail’s pace; fifty players would get a return on their investment and, as such, there was a great deal of strategy to attempt to get to that payout position. Players eliminated during the Day Three carnage included PokerStars sponsored pro Daniel Negreanu, Full Tilt Poker’s Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, former WPT Champion Martin deKnijff and former World Champions Johnny Chan and Berry Johnston. Even with such notable eliminations, the leader board as play begins on Wednesday still is very respectable.
Leading the pack is 2007 WSOP bracelet winner and record holder for the youngest player to win a Las Vegas WSOP bracelet, Steve “Mr. Smokey” Billirakis. Billirakis, who is quickly becoming known as a dual threat in both online and live poker arenas, has amassed 1.72 million in chips. What is also impressive is that this is the second straight year he has driven deep in the WPT Championship (finishing 23rd in 2008).
Chasing behind Billirakis are some of the strongest players in the game today. Veteran poker professional Mark Seif is stacked within striking distance with 1.32 million in chips and such players as Phil Ivey, Jennifer Harman, Nick Binger, Nenad Medic, Freddy Deeb and Justin Young are within a million chips of the leader and can inflict some damage. Those that are a little further back, including Scotty Nguyen, England’s Boatman brothers (Barny and Ross), Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier and tennis champion Boris Becker, will have some work to do to contend for the title.
Action will wrap up on the seventh season of the World Poker Tour with the conclusion of the WPT Championship on Saturday night. Tight Poker will continue to keep you updated on the Battle at the Bellagio until that champion is crowned.

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