For the past six years, the European Poker Tour has been the most visible arena for a fundamental clash occurring in the game: the collision between the established live circuit and the freneticism of the online tables.
Internet sensations have buzzed into the bricks and mortar environment and won massive prizes in these major events. Likewise established pros and veterans of casino poker have frequently hit back, schooling the new kids with their instincts and obduracy, proving that there's life in these old dogs yet.
This week in Barcelona, though, we have seen an almost perfect analogue of an online tournament, only with real chips and chairs. It seemed today, as we went from 23 players to our final eight, that every player was going simply for the win, rather than just a final table appearance. The much-vaunted "three, four, five bet with air" was not just the favoured move, it was seemingly the only way to play.
There was no better example than what occurred nine-handed, when Carter Phillips and Marc Goodwin, the two chip leaders, had more than a million in the middle by the time four cards were out: 9♦T♥Q♦A♥. At that point, Phillips slid in about 700,000, and persuaded Goodwin to open fold ace-king. Phillips then showed 6♣8♣ in one of the most audacious moves we've ever seen.
But when you live by the virtual sword, you die by it. And so the day that rocketed the online dynamos Phillips, Matt Lapossie and Asa Smith to the final table also accounted for their brethren Roland de Wolfe, Mike McDonald, Jens Kyllonen and Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, among others. The hand that crippled the latter was also typical: in a raised and re-raised pre-flop pot, ElkY called for about 70 percent of his stack with pocket fours, fancying "Jeans" Kyllonen was making a move. He was: Kyllonen had Q-3 but spiked the queen to send ElkY tumbling towards the exit.
When they line up for tomorrow's eight-handed final table, it's Phillips (4,421,000) who has the dominant chip lead. He started as he meant to go on, making a breathtaking all in call on day one with king high. It was good, and Phillips never looked back. Although he dipped for a couple of brief periods, he has been in the top five for most of this tournament. And he'll be the man to fear tomorrow, especially after that hand late on.
Another PokerStars qualifier, Lapossie, is another one of the bully boys. We heard all about him at the end of day two, and little has changed since then. Lapossie has been irrepressible on the featured table for most of today and has never had anything less than shed-loads (2,938,000) of chips in front of him.
Goodwin, who separates those two with 3,100,000, also deserves special mention, despite the tangle with Phillips. The British player has been around the gambling scene for many years, but he's no old-school, outdated rock. Goodwin, in fact, has been picking his spots as well as anybody; one seemingly pre-meditated check-shove on a jack-high board against "Timex" McDonald really doled out a taste of the Canadian's own medicine. No one knows what he had, but the move came from the top drawer.
Goodwin also accounted for our ninth-placed finisher, when he outdrew Julien Nuijten's A-K with A-Q. Nuijten won the first LAPT event in his first tournament in that part of the world and he put on another unbelievable show in his first EPT. Normally we'd say that we're looking forward to seeing a lot more of Nuijten from this moment on, but a sociology degree at Amsterdam University's gain is very much poker's loss.
But that's that. Phillips, Goodwin and Lapossie will attract the most overnight attention simply because of those stacks. But don't rule out any of Georgios Kapalas (826,000), Asa Smith (1,380,000) and the three unknown quantities, Santiago Terrazas (546,000), Mihai Manole (410,000) and Toni Ojala (754,000). The EPT is all about surprises.
Read all about this fascinating day with our blow-by-blow accounts.
See the final table chip counts without any of the surrounding drivel over at the chip count page
It turns out that the former champions hoodoo continues -- all five of those returning this morning seeking a second EPT main event crown departed before the final eight. In a way it's good to know that something remains familiar. So much else is frighteningly, chaotically, fiercely fresh.
All pictures (c) Neil Stoddart.