It’s incredibly difficult to win a World Series of Poker gold bracelet. Even in an era where more than 160 will be added to poker resumes this calendar year, it still takes being one among tens of thousands of players who take their shot at winning one of the most coveted trophies in the game.
But as hard as it is to win a bracelet, it’s perhaps just as (if not even more) difficult to win the title of WSOP Player of the Year. There are maybe two dozen players at most that can be considered frontrunners with a realistic shot at being immortalized on a POY banner. The reasons it’s so difficult are many – from the mental fortitude of the time, as well as having a bankroll big enough to compete. And over the years, it’s only become more difficult.
The award was first introduced in 2004, with only 15 players yet to earn the honor. Daniel Negreanu is the only player to have won it twice and, without a live series in 2020, Robert Campbell was, famously, the last to win the award in 2019.
Here at the start of the 2021 WSOP, a number of players will once again have designs on winning the award. Five of the 15 took the time to talk about what it takes to compete for the WSOP Player of the Year race and what will get it done here in 2021.
“It’s just playing your A-game all day, every day,” said Shaun Deeb, four-time WSOP bracelet winner and 2018 Player of the Year. “You have to play 50-some-odd days straight. That’s a real grind. From my online background, I play every day. I’m good at that.
“And make sure you play everything. You can’t just play Mixed Games, you can’t just play No Limit. To win Player of the Year, someone’s going to play 50-plus events or 70% of the total events out there, whatever it ends up being.”
Daniel Negreanu agrees. The two-time Player of the Year (2004, 2013) says that no matter how many events you are willing to play, someone out there is likely looking to take even more shots.
“I think, if someone’s actually trying to chase Player of the Year, the most important advice is that if you’re serious about it, you really need to be willing to put in a ton of volume,” Negreanu said. “There’s no week off or two weeks off. To give yourself the best chance, you want to play the maximum number of events based on [the points system] and most importantly, one of your best chances to win, is going to be to learn Mixed Games.
“If you don’t play mixed games, it’s going to be tough for you to accrue really big amounts of points,” he continued. “Because in these big field No Limits, you can min-cash a lot but they’re also incredibly hard to make the final table and win. Whereas, if you play mixed games, sometimes you’re playing against a field of a hundred. So, if you make the final table or win you can include some pretty big numbers.”
Mixed games have become an important component of the Player of the Year. It’s been rare to have a POY that doesn’t accumulate crucial points through the variety of poker variants. But it has happened. Jeff Madsen did it in 2006 by winning a pair of NLHE events. In 2012, Greg Merson accomplished it was well after taking down the $10,000 Six-Handed No Limit Hold’em Championship followed by becoming the Main Event champion. However, as the points system has evolved, mixed games have become a more prominent factor. Winners have needed to be able to balance a schedule that includes whatever tournament is running on any given day.
“The Player of the Year was really, originally, established to help encourage the participation in all the events that weren’t No LimitHold’em. Specifically, to have a counterbalance to the WSOP main event,” said Frank Kassela, 2010 Player of the Year and three-time bracelet winner.
Kassela, who grabbed gold in the $2,500 Razz and the $10K Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo Championship that year, notes that competing in every event isn’t just a matter of having the knowledge of how to play those games well, but having the means to do it.
“I mean the most challenging thing right now for anybody that wants to try to win Player of the Year is the amount of expense they’ve added to being competitive because of all of the rebuys,” Kassela said. “Like when I did it, the year I won, was one of the first years that they were allowing even double rebuys in some of the events like No Limit Deuce and PLO.
“I feel like it got so crazy the end of the last year between Sean and Daniel. I mean, whoever could afford it was the one most likely to win it.”
Of course, last year, neither Deeb nor Negreanu won it. It was Robert Campbell who officially walked away with the title but only after it was awarded to Negreanu. An error in the points awarded was discovered and the title was “taken back” from Kid Poker and correctly assigned to Campbell.
“I think probably the most important part nowadays is to understand the point system, which I really didn’t focus on that when I won,” said 2007 Player of the Year Tom Schneider. “In 2013, I had a good chance of winning it had the rules been the same as they were before. I don’t even know what the rules are this year, to be honest. So understanding of the point system, determining how valuable cashes are versus winning.”
Knowledge of all the games. Check. Understanding the points system and what’s more valuable. Check. Having the resources to play as many events as possible. Check. But while all of those are important items to keep in mind, 2015 WSOP Player of the Year Mike Gorodinsky says it’s keeping the totality of the grind in check in order to be at your best is what’s really needed.
“My biggest piece of advice would be to simply not put yourself into a position where you’re likely to burn out,” Gorodinsky said. “Outside of a very small handful of guys who have the bankroll, skill-set, and love of the game to show up at the Rio every day and just blast through whatever tournaments happen to be that day, there aren’t many people that I’ve met over the years, myself included, who can spend 12+ hours at the Rio every day and come out at the end of the summer not feeling like they’ve aged 10 years.
“Remember that poker is supposed to be fun! Setting up a 40 tournament schedule may seem exciting and optimal a few months out before the series starts up, but the reality of that day-to-day grind, especially if you’re not making frequent deep runs, is pretty grim. So just pace yourself, play what you’re excited about/good at, and let the results come as they will.”
When Gorodinsky won it, he said he didn’t start the series with the intent of winning the title but “as the results started to roll in and the possibility of it actually became attainable, I definitely did play more tournaments than I otherwise would have.”
When Schneider went to the WSOP in 2007, he said he had a goal of playing an increased schedule but, more specifically, he wanted “to make three final tables.” The POY wasn’t in his sights at the start. He reached his goal of three final tables, winning two of them, and he said he did it by not getting distracted by the chase.
“I know that some people have a strategy of playing, entering three events at the same time, then going over playing a little bit. That was never my strategy,” Schneider said. “My strategy was to focus on the event that I was playing. I think a lot of times you can get distracted. And when you’re running really good and you got lots of money, it probably doesn’t hurt, but my strategy was more play the events that I felt like I had the best chance of winning.”
That mental strain can get to anybody, the feeling that in order to keep pace, you need to play everything. That includes the smaller buy-in, large field No Limit events that take up valuable time and mental energy away from being able to focus on the big-time events like the $50,000 Poker Players Championship (the very event that clinched the award for Gorodinsky in 2015.)
“The hardest part for me and the part that really doesn’t help me is, it’s frankly really easy to cash in these small buy-in events. Like the big, huge field events. You could late regs, you play for a couple of hours, and you’re in the money,” Negreanu said. “You get points for that. And, to add that to a schedule of all these big $10,000 and $25,000, that can be really taxing. I wish that wasn’t the case. I would prefer an adjustment to this formula where instead of counting, 30 cashes, you count your top 12 and go from there, for example. That way, these little min-cashes don’t really make the difference, because they kind of do now. So, that’s probably the hardest part is just having to play multiple events in a day and late [registering] and all that sort of stuff.”
“The toughest part of the WSOP/POY grind for me personally is always the lifestyle that’s required to do it,” Gorodinsky added. “I’m someone who both values their sleep, as well as their time outdoors, so while I definitely love playing tournament poker, doing it day in/day out for two straight months wears pretty heavily on me. Getting into the mindset of playing until 2-3 AM most nights and then coming back to Day 2 restarts 12 hours later or less is always the toughest part of it for me.
For Schneider though, any potential problems that took place while he was en route to his banner are pains that have subsided over time.
“It didn’t feel like a grind,” Schneider said looking back. “I mean, most poker players love poker and at the time I loved poker. The opportunity to sit in another tournament and play a tournament with big fields and big money, it’s not a grind. Just like I don’t think The Masters golf tournament would be a grind to golfers. I mean, I’m sure they would think that of course is tough and they got to think about every shot and all that, but that’s every time they go out and play. But it’s more of a privilege than that grind. That’s the way I looked at it.”
But Schneider, who continues his work as a CFO outside of poker, admits that he won’t be in the running this year, opting out of attending citing the WSOP COVID policies.
Gorodinsky also feels like it’s unlikely he’ll take another shot at it this year. He will be in Las Vegas with plans on playing the series this year including the majority of the bigger buy-in mixed game events. But he says he doesn’t want to prioritize playing tournaments when maybe a day spent rock climbing is what he’s in the mood for.
“Honestly, it isn’t really a goal for me to win it again,” Gorodinsky said. “Would I go for it if I had a strong start to the summer? Absolutely. I love poker and competition in general, so the POY chase with a few other guys sounds pretty fun, but it’s not an intention of mine to claim the title again.”
Kassela says that he’ll be back in town in early October with nearly a quarter-million of buy-ins on his schedule. That may or may not be enough to contend for the POY title but he thinks it would be a bad idea to count him out.
“Well, I mean, because of my style of play, I feel like even with an abbreviated schedule compared to other people, that I’m as much of a threat to win Player of the Year as anybody else, because I’m very streaky. When I get in the zone, I’ve had multiple times over my poker years where I’ll hit three or four final tables in a week. And I’ll get in those… And if you win a bracelet, win another bracelet, come in third…you just go, bam, bam, bam, a few things like that, you’re just kind of leading the pack.”
Then there’s the rivalry between Negreanu and Deeb. There was a time it was personal, but Negreanu has been public about how the pair have buried the hatchet. But in no uncertain terms, both players, once again, have their sights set on taking the POY in 2021.
“Yeah, I’ll be in the running,” said Negreanu. “I’m not going to be as insane about it, where I’m playing every $400 event or whatever. I’m going to see how the first half goes, but really my focus is actually to win some bracelets as well. And usually, when that happens, you have a good chance to win Player of the Year. But I’ll be grinding all the big, high roller events and big stuff like that. So, that bodes well for my chances, for sure.”
“I pretty much go out there and my goal is to win Player of the Year,” Deeb said. “I got second in 2019, got first in 2018, but I really want to win it again. And basically, that’s my goal. Try to be like Johnny Chan a little bit.”
But when it comes to winning Player of the Year, there’s really only so much one can control.
“The only other thing I was going to add, being just generally more open advice, is it’s important to get a fast start,” Kasella added. “I know the years I feel like I’ve got a shot at Player of the Year have those moments when you win your first bracelet in the first week or two. I think it was the sixth or seventh day in 2010 when I won $10K Stud 8-or-Better. And then I won the Razz bracelet six days later.
“When you get a ‘Bam-bam’…when lightning strikes early, makes it much easier.”