Harrah’s New Orleans just hosted its sixth World Series of Poker Circuit.  This year’s 20 gold ring events played between May 8th and May 20th attracted more than 5,000 total participants.  Tournament attendance actually increased over last year – despite concerns about the economy, more events added to the schedule, and a greater diversity of games.  This is an encouraging sign, given that many tournaments held elsewhere are either stagnant or have experienced recent decreases in attendance.

The big question is – why?  Why did Harrah’s New Orleans done so well this year?  It would be easy to explain New Orleans’ unique appeal as a fun and exciting city to visit.  That certainly accounts for some added interest.  But a better reason might be player reaction to more chips and better structures at this year’s event.  In short, players are convinced they are getting a lot more play for their money, and a lot more bang for the buck in New Orleans.

This year, players started with an average of 40 percent more in chips, over the previous year.  Furthermore, blind and ante levels increase incrementally.  So, players get more play.  The tournament is far from a crapshoot.  The competition is a test of skill, as it should be.  The events – and final tables -- tend to take longer to finish.  But given thousands of dollars in prize money is at stake, these are widely-popular changes favored by every poker player.  Credit should go to Supervisor Larry Barrett and Tournament Director Steve Frezer for listening to the players and creating a tournament structure that should be copied elsewhere.  Indeed, imitation is the best form of flattery.  

Jean “Prince” Garpard (Chicago, IL) Wins Bayou Main Event Championship 

The 2009 Bayou Poker Challenge concluded today.  The final gold ring event -- the $5,000 (+150) buy-in No-Limit Hold’em championship tournament -- attracted a highly-competitive field of 167 entries.  The tournament was played over three consecutive days.  This was the final tournament of the 2008-2009 World Series of Poker Circuit season number five.

The 2009 Bayou Poker Challenge champion is Jean “Prince” Gaspard.  He is a 37-year-old professional poker player from Chicago, IL.  Gaspard won a wire-to-wire victory during which he absolutely dominated play at the final table.  During much of the day three competition which lasted about five hours, Gaspard held more than half of the total chips in play.  His position was never seriously threatened, despite the best efforts of his adversaries.

Many years ago, winning a prestigious poker title like the WSOP Circuit seemed the furthest thing possible for the man born in Haiti.  Gaspard eventually moved to and grew up in Chicago.  Gaspard played college basketball at Northeastern University and attended training camp for two NBA teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat.  Although he did not make either roster, he still received offers to play professional basketball in Europe and Asia, for a six-figure salary.  Despite an opportunity that most of his contemporaries would have accepted in an instant, Gaspard decided that if he could not play in the NBA he would not continue to pursue a pro basketball career. 

“After I saw that I could play with the best in the game but did not get a shot at the NBA because of the politics involved, I decided it wasn’t fun anymore for me,” Gaspard stated in a pre-final table interview.  Gaspard explained that because he played for a smaller school and was up against highly-sought-after draft picks from big colleges, he was at a competitive disadvantage.  “The guys I was up against (in camp) knew I was dogging them.  But it’s tough to break into the league when you aren’t a top draft pick.”

“The reason I play sports is because I enjoy doing it – it’s as simple as that,” Gaspard stated matter-of-factly.  “I am very competitive by nature.  Basketball meant a lot to me, but after I discovered poker, I found something new that I could compete, and win at.”             

This victory in New Orleans marked Gaspard’s fifth major tournament win, and biggest payday ever.  He now has nearly $1 million in career tournament earnings.  Gaspard’s first tournament cash took place back in 2003.  For this event, he won first place prize money totaling $211,722.  He was also presented with a gold ring, the ultimate achievement for winning a WSOP Circuit event.  Gaspard also won $10,000 seat into the 2009 WSOP Main Event to be played in Las Vegas in July.

The top nine in-the-money finishers were as follows:

1st Place – The winner was Jean “Prince” Gaspard, a 37-year-old poker pro from Chicago.  He now has more than $900,000 in tournament winnings.  Gaspard dominated much of the tournament, especially during the final two days.  He was the chip leader from start to finish at the final table and won a well-deserved victory.  This was his first WSOP Circuit gold ring championship.

2nd Place – Billy Kopp, a.k.a. “Patrolman35” finished as the runner up.  He is a 22-year-old college student who is currently attending the University of Kentucky,  He is pursuing a degree in hospitality and hotel management.  Kopp was the chip leader at the end of day one, and stayed within striking distance of the winner throughout the closing hours.  But in the end, Kopp had to settle for second place.  His official payout amounted to $127,832.   

3rd Place – Ken Christopher took third place.  He is a 27-year-old poker pro from Mobile, AL.  At a final table filled with interesting people and personalities, Christopher perhaps had the greatest feel-good comeback story.  At the end of day one, he was ranked 55th out of the remaining 61 players.  In fact, with just three chips remaining, Christopher had only enough chips to post about two orbits of blinds and antes.  But he went on a rush and ended up with a very impressive payout totaling $81,982.

4th Place – The fourth-place finisher was Steven McKoy, a 22-year-old student at the University of Alabama.  McKoy, who lives in Birmingham, is pursuing a degree in microbiology.  This marked McKoy’s second occasion to make it to a WSOP Circuit final table.  This was also his first time ever to play in a championship event.  Fourth place paid $63,916.

5th Place – Daniel Walsh, from Powder Springs, GA was the fifth-place finisher.  He started play at the final table ranked third in chips.  But Walsh was eliminated when his pocket tens lost to pocket aces.  Walsh, a former IT consultant-turned poker pro, was making his second final table appearance at this year’s Bayou series.  He finished sixth place in Event #1.  Walsh’s share of the prize pool amounted to $49,934.

6th Place – Anita Vasquez became only the second woman to make it to a championship final table this season (Esther Taylor finished second at Harrah’s Rincon in March).  In fact, she was one of the last players to register for this tournament, after winning her way into the event via a last-minute satellite.  Vasquez outlasted 162 players en route to her biggest payday ever.  Vasquez, who works as a bartender in Houston, took second place in an event here two year ago.  This time, she collected $39,948 for sixth place.

7th Place – Justin Allen, a.k.a. “Lockdowntex,” won the Winter Bayou Poker Championship held at Harrah’s New Orleans last December.  However, his bid to win back-to-back Main Events here in the Crescent City fell short.  The 21-year-old poker pro from Dallas received $31,958 for seventh place.

8th Place – Kenny Milam went out in eighth place.  The New Orleans-based trucking contractor and Vietnam veteran arrived on day three with an average-sized stack, but ran card-dead late in the competition.  He ended up with a payout totaling $25,966.  This was Milam’s first final table appearance ever at a major tournament, after two previous in-the-money finishes as previous Bayou Poker Challenge events.

9th Place – The ninth-place finisher was Kurt Scheer, from Birmingham, AL.  He arrived at the final table with the shortest stack of the final nine, but somehow managed to survive about an hour before being eliminated.  Scheer, who works as a home builder and realtor, has been playing poker seriously for only a few months.  This marked his first time ever to cash in a live poker tournament.  Scheer collected $21,971. 

Notable Players Who Finished In-the-Money – Matt Brady (13th place) cashed for the 12th time in a WSOP Circuit event, making him one of the top ten players in that category.  Brady made it to the final table of the Caesars Atlantic City championship held in March and now has accrued more than $2 million in career earnings.  Sean Deeb (14th place) is a well-known tournament player, poker blogger, and contributor to various strategy-discussion forums.  Dwyte Pilgrim (18th place) cashed for the 13th time on this year’s Circuit, which solidified his reputation as one of tournament poker’s brightest emerging stars.

This was the tenth and final tournament series of the 2008-2009 WSOP Circuit season.  Next year’s WSOP Circuit schedule will be announced soon.  Poker players everywhere are advised to check out the 2009-2010 schedule of events when it’s announced and make plans to attend.  

Dwyte Pilgrim (Brooklyn, NY) Wins “Unofficial” WSOP Circuit Player of the Year Honors 

Each year, the WSOP Circuit enables countless poker players throughout the United States and beyond the opportunity to become rich and famous.  Last December, Harrah’s Atlantic City witnessed the arrival of Dwyte Pilgrim onto the tournament scene.  He cashed in five of the six Atlantic City events he entered, and then went on to establish the following results over the course of the season:

-- 13 in-the-money finishes
-- 8 final table appearances
-- 4 championship event final table appearances
-- 2 gold ring wins
-- $300,667 in WSOP Circuit winnings for the year

Hence, Dwyte Pilgrim, from Brooklyn, NY becomes the “unofficial” Player of the Year.  As for the future, Pilgrim plans to play in several upcoming WSOP tournaments and many WSOP Circuit events next season.  He hopes to keep his string of three consecutive championship event cashes alive when season six begins in the fall.