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Player of the Year Race: Epilogue

Right Down to the Wire

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The Five Diamond World Poker Classic at Bellagio was billed as, among other things, the final countdown to the crowning of the 2005 Card Player Player of the Year competition.

Men "The Master" Nguyen steamrolled the fields in the preliminary events, harvested the P.O.Y. points, and by the time the main event was ready to kick off, had surpassed John Phan as the No. 1 tournament player in the world.

The Five Diamond was supposed to be the end. Just as it had the previous year, the final event held weight that could be measured in more than dollars and cents. With so many points for the taking, a top-five finish in the main event would all but crown anyone in the P.O.Y. top five as poker's M.V.P. A first-place finish by anyone in the top 15, perhaps even top 25, would likely mean the same.

However, as day one of the $15,000-buy-in World Poker Tour event got under way, a nagging question threatened to downplay the mounting drama. Would the Player of the Year leaders go to Atlantic City to play in the Trump Classic, an event that could only be attended by players who had already busted out of the Five Diamond?

Nguyen and Phan each said that they hoped they wouldn't have to go, but each also made it clear that he would not forfeit his chance at the title by letting the other pick up what in other sports are known as "garbage points." You know, when a team kicks that last field goal to cover the spread when a kneel-down or extra run play would have run out the clock? Or when Greg Popovich puts in the Spurs scrubs and lets the Atlanta Hawks pick up 15 points in the last five minutes of regulation to cover the over? Because a victory in any of the preliminary events at the Trump Classic was only worth 100 points and change, they were garbage points to everyone else in poker. But to Nguyen and Phan they were as important as the points attached to a half-court heave down 3 with the buzzer sounding in double OT.

Both Nguyen and Phan indeed made the eastward trek; Nguyen in the lead, and Phan trailing by 124 points. When they got to the Taj the real final countdown began. With day 3 of the Five Diamond just under way back in Vegas, both men entered the $300 buy-in no-limit hold'em event in Atlantic City.

Here's how the math looked: If Nguyen made the top seven, Phan could not win. If Nguyen finished eight or nine, Phan would have to win the event to take the lead in the race. If Nguyen failed to cash, a first- or second-place finish for Phan would give him enough points to edge out Nguyen for the number one spot.

Both players showed Player of the Year-caliber heart, jockeying for position all day and eventually finding themselves seated together at the final table. For the second straight year, it would be a final-event victory that sealed the Player of the Year honors. It was a photo finish: Phan came in third and picked up 104 points, but "The Master" showed that he is just that, winning the tournament, taking down 156 P.O.Y. points, and keeping a formidable John Phan at bay.

This comes as no surprise. Nguyen is hardly a stranger to the pressure. In 2001 he won Player of the Year after winning the final event of the year, the United States Poker Championship, an event that saw Nguyen and P.O.Y. runner-up John Juanda both make the final table.

The dramatic finish this year gave weight to an event that would have otherwise been an afterthought. But would it all be for naught? There was still the outstanding issue of Michael Gracz. Gracz was back in Las Vegas, sitting on $178,000 in chips as day three of the Five Diamond got underway (good for 30th place out of the 121 players remaining). Perhaps the real buzzer beater had yet to come - a top-four finish for Gracz would give him the lead, and a top-three finish would make him a virtual lock for the honor. Gracz spent day three accumulating chips. He turned his stack into $577,000 and jumped into 10th place overall in the tournament heading into day four.

Unfortunately for Gracz, he could not cap off his amazing season that saw him win both a World Poker Tour title, and a World Series of Poker gold bracelet, with the distinction of Player of the Year. He finished in 15th place at the Five Diamond, earning him 96 points; not nearly enough to catch Nguyen. He will finish the season at an impressive number four. Interestingly, Gracz was the Trump Classic defending champion, taking 764 P.O.Y. points in 2004 with his win in the $5,000-buy-in no-limit event.

As for John Phan, his season will end on a sour note. His accomplishments in the 2005 season include over $1.1 million in tournament earnings, nine final tables, including a fourth place finish at the $25,000 buy-in WPT championship event, and three tournament victories. His aggressive style and sharp reads made him a threat in every event and a feared opponent at the table. At times, though, his wild image worked against him. When Phan thinks back on the 2005 Player of the Year race, and the difference between first and second, his mind will likely focus on a single hand between him and An Tran at the WSOP Circuit event at Harrah's Las Vegas. Phan got into a raising war preflop with Tran that saw both men get it all in the middle. Although Phan is the type of player who is capable of pushing with any two cards, this time he had the goods. His pocket aces were way ahead of Tran's pocket jacks, but the result was all bad from Phan's vantage. His 4-to-1 shot quickly became a two-outer as Tran spiked a jack on the turn. The river brought a brick and instead of entering the final table with a hefty stack, he was sent to the rail out of the money, and the P.O.Y. points. Phan has lamented this turn of events on more than one occasion since. It may very well have been the difference.

There will be no postscript this time. No garbage points to fight over. Men "The Master" Nguyen is the 2005 Card Player Player of the Year. Nguyen showed consistency and closing speed in 2005. He cashed in events both big and small, making 16 final tables and pocketing close to $1 million. He had victories at three WSOP Circuit preliminary events, and like all great champions, showed his mettle with his dramatic victory to stave off John Phan at the Trump Classic. This will be Nguyen's fourth Player of the Year award. He also took home the honor in 1997, 2001, and 2003.


By Scott Huff