Betting on 21: Tom Dwan Leads the Way

His 21st birthday is a pivotal moment in any young man’s life.

For a certain group of young men, turning 21 brings about something much, much bigger: They’re now bracelet eligible. Every year a new batch of freshly turned 21-year-old poker players makes a debut at the World Series of Poker.

Sure, most of the top-level players in this situation will have competed in live tournaments in Canada, Europe, or Asia where the legal age is 18 or 19, and some have dominated the online poker scene; but taking a seat in the Amazon Room at the RIO in pursuit of a WSOP bracelet is the big time.

Only three 21-year-old players have ever captured the most prestigious piece of jewelry in poker. In 2005 Eric Froehlich became the first 21-year-old to win a bracelet, and at the time many people thought his record as youngest bracelet winner ever would stand for a while. But a year later Jeff Madsen, all 21 years and 5 weeks of him, won two bracelets. And in the opening event of the 2007 WSOP, Steve Billirakis broke Madsen’s record by winning a bracelet only 11 days after turning 21.

So, as the game’s most important six weeks begin, we’d like to introduce you to the five most highly-anticipated members of this year’s crop of WSOP rookies. While there’s no guarantee that any member of this group will walk away with the wrist decoration, there’s a good chance that these guys will all make an impression this year. Some of the names are already recognizable to poker fans while a few more aren’t – yet.

#5 – Mike Sowers
Also known as: SowersUNCC
Date of birth: October 2, 1986
Age when WSOP begins: 21 years, 7 months, 28 days

In the past year Sowers has cranked out nearly $800,000 in tournament winnings online. But Sowers has had success that goes beyond the virtual felt.

Last October, just after he turned 21, Sowers took off for Aruba to play in the annual Aruba Classic. Despite busting out of the Main Event, Sowers entered and won Event #7, a $1,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em event with 109 other players.

Following that win, Sowers began to play more live events. In January he made the biggest statement of his arrival in the $5,000 No Limit Hold’em event at the Borgata Winter Open. Besting a field of 266 earned him $399,000 and served notice to the rest of the poker world that he had arrived.

#4 – Andrew Robl
Also known as: good2cu
Date of birth: September 27, 1986
Age when WSOP begins: 21 years, 8 months, 3 days

Robl is no stranger to the live poker scene. At 19, during his first trip to Las Vegas, he sat down at the 15/30 game and made quick work of a game he described as a “rock garden.” How did a 19-year-old kid sit down at a live game in Vegas? There’s more to Robl than pot odds and value bets.

As a founding member of the Ship It Holla Ballas, Robl has a following amongst online players that probably rivals few. Known more for dominating high stakes cash games online than tournaments, he’s making the transition to live player with relative ease. A quick read through his blog shows he’s not lacking for confidence, which shows in his results.

Robl stepped onto the live tournament scene shortly after moving to Vegas in December and turned in two cashes. The first came in the $5,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em event at the Five Diamond World Poker Classic. Finishing 7th for $36,585, Robl went right back to work the next day in the Main Event and finished 46th for $38,545. Two five-figure cashes inside his first two weeks in Las Vegas put Robl’s name out there.

When 2008 began, Robl continued to grind out big buy-in tournament results. At the LA Poker Classic in February, he finished 30th for another $36,390; and he bettered that in early March with a 22nd-place finish at the Bay 101 Shooting Star. His most recent result was 18th at the 2008 Wynn Classic in mid-March.

He’s not had as much live success as some of the others on the list, but there’s a strong contingent of Ship It fans who are anxious to see Robl bring home a bracelet.

#3 – Jimmy Fricke
Also known as: gobboboy
Date of birth: April 19, 1987
Age when WSOP begins: 21 years, 1 month, 11 days

Like many of the under-21 professional players, Fricke made his first splash at the Caribbean Adventure at the Atlantis Resort. With a 22nd-place finish, Fricke earned $28,255 after qualifying for the event online. But only ten days later he made a lot more noise in an event quickly becoming one of the most prestigious in the world – the Aussie Millions.

Some of the biggest names in the game were among the 747 players who entered the 2007 event. Joe Hachem, Patrik Antonius, Paul Wasicka, Phil Ivey, and Erick Lindgren were all cast aside as Fricke made his way through the field. Upon reaching the final table, Fricke found himself surrounded by players he’d seen on TV before. Marc Karam, Kristy Gazes, Andy Black, and Gus Hansen all stood in the way of Fricke shocking the world and winning the $1.2 million first-place prize.

By the time heads-up play began, Fricke had built a huge chip lead over the only player remaining, Hansen. With 11,175 million of the 14,925 million in play, Fricke appeared to be in control. But not long after play began, Hansen doubled up and it was all downhill from there. The runner-up finish came complete with $800,000 in cash. But Fricke wasn’t done.

Last September he became the youngest person ever to have cashed in a WSOP event, when he finished 16th in the £2,500 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. event at WSOP-Europe. He’s since captured a title at the 2008 Aussie Millions in 7-card Stud mixed and finished 5th with Cameron White in a No Limit Texas Hold’em team event.

#2 – Jeff Williams
Also known as: YellowSub
Date of birth: July 14, 1986
Age when WSOP begins: 21 years, 11 months, 14 days

Two years ago, a lot of people, including Williams himself, began counting down the days until he was eligible to take part in the WSOP. After winning an online satellite, the then 19-year-old University of Georgia student found himself in Monte Carlo playing against the world’s best poker players, in one of the biggest tournaments on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Poker Tour Grand Final.

Playing in his first live tournament of any significance, Williams was a long shot to win, but when all was said and done the kid known as “YellowSub” had outlasted the 298-player field to take home the $1 million first-place prize. Since then he continued to ply his trade online and wait for his chance to sit with the best again.

The wait has been good to him. With $280,000 in tournament winnings and at least as much in cash games’ winnings in the last year alone, Williams is no slouch. Having turned 21 just after the 2007 WSOP means he’s managed to play more live events than his counterparts as he prepares for his first time in the WSOP.

In early April he was at the Bellagio playing in various Five-Star World Poker Classic events against the best Sin City had to offer. He found success in the fourth event, a $5,000 No Limit Hold’em tournament, finishing fourth for $34,000 at a final table that included bracelet-winners Scott Clements and Ted Lawson.

#1 – Tom Dwan
Also known as: durrrr
Date of birth: July 30, 1986
Age when WSOP begins: 21 years, 10 months

The label of “Next Big Thing in Poker” is thrown around the online poker community with reckless abandon. But with Dwan the advance praise is legitimate. The hype machine around Dwan has been running for better than two years now since he began six-tabling nosebleed stakes online – and regularly booking six-figure wins.

After turning 21 in August of 2007, Dwan put himself on the tour. While his reputation had grown to epic proportions, the kid originally from New Jersey needed to prove himself − and in November he did just that. Making the final table of the World Poker Finals, a World Poker Tour event, Dwan wound up 4th out of 575 players, for $324,244.

He followed that up with two cashes at the Aussie Millions in January and a second-place finish in a $5,000 No Limit Hold’em event at the Borgata Winter Open in Atlantic City. With $670,000 in live tournament winnings in three months, Dwan’s legend was growing.

That combination of respect for Dwan’s skills and curiosity about the legend that followed him led to him being the youngest player ever invited to play in the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. As if the poker gods had a sense of humor, Dwan drew Phil Hellmuth in the first round of play.

In the much-talked-about confrontation, Dwan knocked “the Poker Brat” out of the tournament in three hands by making a set of tens against Hellmuth’s pocket aces after they got it all in. While his results speak for themselves, many fans were also impressed that Dwan didn’t back down from the 11-time bracelet winner’s verbal jabs and fired back at will.