South Florida players hoping for repeat success at WSOP

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As South Floridians sat down to cheer on the Miami Heat for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I couldn’t help but consider the possibilities of success for Florida poker players as this year’s World Series of Poker got under way for a seven-week run in Las Vegas on the same day. And while some will argue poker is a sport, I look at it merely as the king of all card games. One thing we know for sure: It is not a team sport.

Still, as a poker radio talk host on the southern tip of the peninsula, I wondered what Florida players would do for an encore this year.
We look to last year and the phenomenal accomplishments of the Mizrachi family, as the four brothers supported each other en route to all of them cashing in the main event. I guess that’s as close to a “team sport” as we’re going to get. Add to that the individual “redemption” of the Grinder and the appearance of three Florida players in the November Nine, and the Sunshine State found itself in a position of pride at the 2010 WSOP. So, will we see more of the same this year?

I hope the answer will be a resounding yes! With new Florida legislation lifting tournament buy-in restrictions last summer, 2011 ushered in a new era of major events as South Florida welcomed the WSOP Circuit in February and the World Poker Tour in May.
Both events attracted huge fields as big-name players flew in to take on eager locals in the sunny, attractive climate of South Florida. What they quickly found was a group of aggressive players unafraid to pony up the big cash, then get their chips in the middle at just about any opportunity.

Such maniacal play seems to be the norm in South Florida. While sitting in the office with the director of one of the area’s biggest cardrooms during the WPT Showdown at the Hard Rock, he received a text from someone at the tournament who was amazed that 25 percent of the field had been knocked out of the event in the first five levels.

He casually glanced over at his assistant and they said simultaneously, “Welcome to Florida.” Of course, overly aggressive play can often be exposed and defeated, but Florida players have held their own in this year’s two major events, winning six of the 10 WSOPC rings at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and two of the six final-table seats at the WPT Showdown, which airs on Fox Sports Net this month, went to Floridians.

One of those at the WPT final table was Abbey Daniels of Coral Springs, who calls herself a “part-time poker player and full-time band mom.” Her son is in the marching band at Coral Springs High. Her fourth-place finish netted her nearly $287,000.

“She was playing so well that I think a lot of other players were afraid of her,” WPT tournament director Matt Savage said, “and that doesn’t usually happen with someone nobody has ever heard of.”

Daniels was planning to play several early tournaments at the WSOP and then return to Vegas this month for a shot at the massive exposure and huge payday the main event can bring. Her good friend and neighbor Kevin Schaffel set the bar extremely high with a November Nine appearance in 2009 and Abbey hopes a final table might be in her future this summer.

You can bet the three Florida members of last year’s November Nine will be there looking for a return to glory. Michael “Grinder” Mizrachi earned his first bracelet along with that main-event final-table appearance and definitely will be hungry for more.

John Racener’s second-place finish last year set him up to be the subject of a major film documentary called On The Line: John Racener, which he expects to be released this year. The exposure of another deep run in the main event will lead to the success of that side project.

And how about John Dolan? He was a virtual unknown outside of Florida before his run to the November Nine. Now the guy with the evil poker face (one that might rival Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining) is recognized throughout the poker world.
As always, a few lesser-knowns will make their mark with a breakout performance, and here are a few names who might be on your radar besides Daniels: Richard Kirsch of Miami Beach (Top 200 last year), Steve Karp and Ebony Kenney of North Miami Beach, Ory Hen of Cooper City and Hayden Fortini of Vero Beach, who turned 21 this year and after years of online success, will make his WSOP debut this summer.

Florida has become the “Wild, Wild West” of poker and the cowboys (and cowgirls) of South Florida will be front and center trying to make a name for themselves. As Ante Up’s new South Florida Ambassador, I’ll be keeping a close eye on all of them.

— Big Dave Lemmon is Ante Up’s South Florida Ambassador. Email him at bigdave@pokeractionline.com.