The most captivating tournament in world poker tonight crowned a new, breakout star as its champion — and made two purely recreational freeroll players into millionaires.
The PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship (PSPC) wrapped at the Baha Mar Resort in the Bahamas, with Aliaksandr Shylko, 26, from Belarus, claiming $3,121,838 and the enormous trophy. He was one of the last three players who negotiated a deal for the biggest share of the prize money.
The player beaten heads up, Germany’s Max Menzel, was one of 418 players in the Bahamas clutching a Platinum Pass that allowed them to play for a fraction of the advertised $25,000 buy-in.
Sixty-eight Platinum Pass winners made the money in the 1,014-entry tournament, cashing for $7,794,690 between them. Another German player, Niclas Thumm, rode his Platinum Pass to sixth and won $1,001,200.
But the happiest man in the Bahamas tonight is Shylko, who traded chilly Minsk for the Caribbean — and ended up with by far the biggest win of his career. Back in May, he was winning a side event on the Eureka Poker Tour in Rozvadov, but now he is sitting beside the biggest trophy in poker. He is a famous champion.
“It was an amazing experience,” Shylko said. “I had a lot of fun, I met a lot of good people, and winning such a big tournament, it’s amazing.”
Shylko was in the right place to accept all the riches offered by the poker gods. He won a number of coolers at the final table, and was also the beneficiary of an uncharacteristic blunder from one of the game’s top pros, Nacho Barbero.
But Shylko barely put a foot wrong en route to victory — and that included a quick run over to Ramon Colillas, the 2019 PSPC champion, from whom Shylko wanted to gain some positive vibes.
Shylko said, “When I was in the poker room I saw Ramon, I thought I needed to touch him. I said, ‘Please, I need your energy’. He said, ‘That doesn’t exist, but OK.’ But it worked out well for me. I’m happy to win.”
FINAL DAY RECAP
At the start of play today, the tournament field was perfect balanced between elite pros, breakout stars and Platinum Pass winners, riding the freeroll of their lives.
The Platinum Pass winners, Menzel and Thumm, had the two shortest stacks, but they had absolutely nothing to lose. They had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams already.
- Nacho Barbero (Argentina) – 19,325,000
- Aliaksandr Shylko (Belarus) – 12,200,000
- Philipe Pizzari (Brazil) – 11,975,000
- Pedro Marques (Portugal) – 10,475,000
- Max Menzel (Germany) Platinum Pass winner – 5,025,000
- Niclas Thumm (Germany) Platinum Pass winner – 1,800,000
The first significant pot pitched the two of them against one another, with Thumm finding a double-up with ace-king against Menzel’s smaller ace.
That sent the rail, packed with Twitch streamers and mods, plus assorted family and friends, into delirium. There was a heavy German presence, and they were also supporting Menzel, but Thumm was their main man.
BARBERO SENDS THUMM HOME
Unfortunately for all of them, Thumm couldn’t build up any momentum after that double. He became the first to be knocked out, banking $1,001,200.
“I’m over-the-moon excited by all the opportunities this gives me,” Thumm said. “I will stay the same guy as before. I’m not going crazy, but I think I can do good stuff with the money.”
He talked about driving to the border with Ukraine and delivering some food and water to the war-torn region. And he also referenced his incredible support from the rail, including his boyfriend, who has been among his most vocal supporters.
“That’s what I want to bring to poker,” Thumm said. “Everyone has the right to play.”
Thumm’s final hand came about after he open-shoved 14 big blinds from the small blind with A♦ 2♥ and Barbero called with K♦ Q♦ in the big blind. There was a king on the flop and another on the river to seal Thumm’s fate.
One gets the feeling we will be seeing much more of Thumm over the coming months and years. He’s a true star.
MASSIVE DOUBLES AS STACKS SWING WILDLY
Barbero was cruising at this point, despite the aforementioned error in which he gave a gift of 5 million chips to Shylko.
That particular hand will likely be replayed often. Barbero didn’t notice that Shylko had opened a pot from early position, and put in a huge raise from the small blind — ostensibly to put Menzel, in the big blind, to the test for his whole stack.
Menzel didn’t call, and Barbero went to muck his cards, thinking his nominal shove had got through. But then the dealer pointed out that Shylko was in the hand, with a huge stack as well.
Shylko, with every belief that Barbero didn’t have much, was able to shove with his pocket jacks. Barbero had to let his 9♦ 3♦ go, and watch the 5 million chips pot go to Shylko after what amounted to a misclick.
“I made a mistake by not seeing the raise, so it’s my fault,” Barbero said later. “I was very tilted, but I said, ‘OK, whatever.'”
Even so, Barbero still had a ton of chips. Until he suddenly didn’t.
Barbero, Pizzari and Shylko got involved in a pot where they all loved a flop, which came A♠ 6♥ 5♣ . That’s because Barbero had A♣ 6♠ , Pizzari had A♦ 10♠ and Shylko had 7♦ 8♦ .
Shylko was disciplined enough to lay down his straight draw after a bet and a raise from his opponents, which then took them to the 10♣ turn. They now both had two pair, and everything went in. Pizzari ended up scoring a massive double through Barbero with the bigger two pair.
But the Brazilian also couldn’t hold on to the lead for long. That’s because he lost another sick one to Shylko, with Shlyko’s A♥ 10♥ rivering a straight to beat Pizzari’s A♣ K♥ , with all the chips going in pre-flop.
Shylko now took over the chip lead, and went beserk with his Belarusian rail.
REAPER CALLS FOR MARQUES
Throughout all of this carnage, the one player who had managed to avoid it better than most was Pedro Marques. The Portuguese pro had mostly been a spectator, looking on as his opponents traded huge piles of chips.
But with the tournament shallowing out significantly, Marques couldn’t avoid the wrecking ball forever. And his first major skirmish cost him his tournament life.
This one too was pretty gross. Marques raised the button with A♦ K♥ and Pizzari found A♦ 6♦ and moved in from the small blind. Marques called it off, but then had to watch as the dealer put a 6♣ on the river.
Marques made it to the final table on his 30th birthday yesterday, and kicks off his fourth decade with a $1,251,500 payday. But the former EPT Barcelona final table player had surely hoped for more.
RUEFUL BARBERO HITS THE RAIL
Barbero came into the final table with the huge chip lead and was by far the most experienced tournament player among the last six. But, having made that rookie’s error earlier, he had subsequently been punished by poker’s devastating arbiter of fate.
“I couldn’t recover,” Barbero said, bemoaning a lack of cards at the most crucial time, as well as the knowledge that his stars had otherwise aligned perfectly.
“There are not many more better opportunities to win $4 million,” Barbero said. “I’m happy for the result, but it’s a bit disappointing.”
Barbero hit the rail in fourth after one more cooler. He flopped top pair with 8♣ 5♦ having checked his big blind. But Pizzari, in the small blind, had two pair with 5♥ 3♥ . Barbero won $1,551,300, having sun-run to the final and then finding things very chilly indeed.
THREE-HANDED DEAL AGREED, $2.5M+ EACH
With Nacho out of the way, the last three looked at stacks, looked at blinds and, most importantly, looked at payouts. They agreed to reduce some of the variance.
With more than $2 million between scheduled third-place payout and the winner’s cheque, they agreed an ICM deal. That meant Shylko locked up $2,921,838, Menzel secured himself $2,759,990 and Pizzari took $2,524,871.
There was $300,000 left to play for, with $100,000 added to second place and $200,000 to first.
COOLER ENDS THREE-HANDED SLOWDOWN
In theory, deals quicken the play. But in practice, it can sometimes mean a slowdown. The three remaining players went through a period of relative calm, exchanging chips in small pots, waiting for their spots.
And then, as is typical, that spot came along. For two of them. At the same time. Menzel found pocket queens, an enormous hand at any stage of a tournament. But Shylko picked up pocket aces.
Sure enough, all of their two stacks went in the middle, with Menzel having the chip lead. Had he spiked a miracle queen, the trophy would surely be his. But the board ran dry, which meant Shylko secured another enormous double-up and had a massive three-handed chip lead.
PIZZARI NEXT TO FALL
Pizzari was the shortest, but doubled through Menzel too, with A♦ J♣ against Menzel’s K♣ 4♦ . However, that proved to be a false dawn as the Brazilian was the next to perish.
Short again, he moved in with a [JH][7H]. But Menzel had a K♠ Q♠ , called, and that was the end of the Brazilian challenge. Pizzari picked up a flush draw on the flop, but it missed. The Germans were able to celebrate.
Pizzari, a recreational player based in Miami, took his medicine and departed, more than $2.5 million richer. As had been the case throughout, there were warm handshakes and hugs before he went on his way.
ONE HAND HEADS UP
With Menzel having taken Pizzari’s last chips, there was the possibility of a long heads-up battle. But they ended up only playing one more hand.
That’s because Menzel made a straight with his J♣ 9♠ and Shylko had a full house with his 10♥ 5♣ — the board was 5♥ 5♦ 8♣ 10♠ Q♣ . There was no getting away from that.
“All the guys at the final table were really, really nice,” Shylko told Joe Stapleton in his winner’s presentation. “We had some nice chats. There was a lot of big money up the top, but I really have lots more friends after this final table.”
Menzel, who had previously described himself as one of the better unknown players in the field, has now proved the first part of that, but has lost the second. His anonymity is over, but he has $2,859,990 as compensation.
He won his Platinum Pass after taking a short hop from his home in Singapore to Manila, and won the Road to PSPC tournament there. That road ended in the collision with Shylko, but there can be few complaints.
“It still feels like defeat honestly because, in the end, you want the trophy,” Menzel said. “The way I played this final table, I wanted to go for it. I took the marginal spots, but the last hand was just a sick, sick cooler. I couldn’t do much. I think the happiness will kick in soon though.”
That goes for all the Platinum Pass winners, who have had an incredible time of things here in the Bahamas. Whether they have cashed or not, it has been a dream come true for many recreational players to live like a pro for the week.
And Shylko himself spoke for many: “Now I’m totally out of emotions. It just feels like a dream.”
A TOURNAMENT LIKE NO OTHER
In its second running, the PSPC was every bit as thrilling as the first — and a long delay owing to the coronavirus pandemic only heightened the anticipation and the fun.
“All of us want to say thank you to everyone who came to the Bahamas for the PSPC,” said Cedric Billot, Head of Live Events at PokerStars. “We certainly hope you enjoyed it as much as we all did.”
Billot added: “We’re incredibly grateful for the patience all of our players showed through the long delay before the tournament could happen, but we hope it was worth the wait.
“This has been such a special event. It means such a lot to everyone at PokerStars to see players of all levels enjoying playing poker, enjoying the activities, enjoying the resort. I want to thank all the staff who made it happen as well.
We wish everyone safe travels home, and look forward to seeing you at our future events. Congratulations to all the Platinum Pass winners. All the players. And to our new champion, Aliaksandr Shylko.”
AN INCREDIBLE RIDE
Let’s give the final word goes to someone who wasn’t even in the Bahamas to watch the final table play out, but who was on a plane heading back to Canada.
Standing in a hotel corridor this morning, Judy Whitlow, who received her Platinum Pass as a thank you for being an ambassador for both women and seniors playing poker, took a breath and tried to compose herself as she prepared to head home.
“I had a wonderful time,” Whitlow said, explaining how she had felt like a VIP for the whole week. As she prepared to head off down the corridor, she said she knew a camera crew was waiting for her in the lobby, wanting to catch every moment of her story.
“Imagine being 75 years old and becoming a poker star,” she said. “I’ve had such a wonderful time.”
It has been the most inclusive, exciting and intriguing tournament. Will there be another PSPC? I think the whole world of poker hopes very much that there will.
$25,000 PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC)
Dates: January 30 – February 3, 2023
Prize pool: $24,843,000