Ones to Watch

Ones to watch

Since Season IX of the World Poker Tour, a small group of players has been singled out for attention during each season of WPT television broadcasts. For Season XIII, the WPT has partnered with BLUFF in selecting seven players worthy of that recognition from a wide swath of the poker community.

They are the WPT Ones to Watch.

“We’ve had the franchise for several years now, and it’s really been a very positive thing,” said World Poker Tour president Adam Pliska of the “Ones to Watch.” “At first we thought we were going to turn this into a nice segment that just focused on the younger players — that was [back] in season 9 — but what this has really turned out to be is a way to show not only up-and-coming players, but a diversity of players and people in the poker community.”

The seven players picked for Season XIII each represent an entirely different personality, playing style and background. Justin Zaki has over $1 million in lifetime earnings and is one of four players in this class of Ones to Watch with a WPT final table already under their belts.

Zaki will get the same treatment and coverage as newcomers Kristy Arnett and Candace Collins, for example, and the variety of their experiences will help provide a more well-rounded picture of the kind of players that are drawn to playing WPT events.

“I like to say that the nice thing about poker television, as opposed to other TV that I’ve done over the years, is that poker TV is a democracy at the table,” said Pliska. “This completely represents that — the diversity of not only personalities, but positions of where these players are in their career.”

Garrett Greer has had a lot of success over the last several years on the WPT, including a number of big runs and a final table during the last couple of West Coast swings; he also made a deep run in the 2014 WSOP Main Event. Daniel Strelitz has well over $1 million in lifetime online earnings and more than $900,000 in live tournament earnings — but up until this point, he’s yet to find major success on the WPT.

Vlad Mezheritsky used his time as a dealer to pick up the game, and after being at it for nearly a decade the Brooklyn native hit his first big score in Season XII’s Borgata Poker Open, where he finished fifth.

Jose Serratos has likely made the furthest trip of them all. Serratos spent five years in prison on drug charges, but during his incarceration he managed to pick up the game of poker. He played for 10 hours a day some days, and as time rolled along Serratos got better and better — winning 10 and 15 player sit-and-gos where the first-place prize was paid out in commissary items. After getting out of jail, Serratos worked his way up the live tournament ranks and, in his first ever WPT event in September, Serratos finished third in the Borgata Poker Open.

“It’s so cool to be able to start where I started from and now being able to play these $10K events,” said Serratos. “When I was watching these episodes on TV, I never thought I’d be playing a 10K event. It’s surreal, really.”

It’s stories like Serratos’ that truly have a chance to grab a casual television viewer and a poker fan alike. It’s also a pivotal factor in establishing just how many different paths there are to making it big on the WPT.

“It’s become a really great vehicle to show the depth and the complexity of the poker world. While we have introduced a handful of these players before, and you’ve seen them on segments here and there on WPT, this gives us a far better chance to show who those people are.”

“To be chosen out of so many other great players, to be one of the guys that you guys are going to follow and watch, it’s definitely an honor,” said Mezheritsky. “For me, it’s an accomplishment, because it lets me put my foot into a door where there are possibilities if I do well. I feel like I am very marketable, so I think I could use that to my advantage in the future, depending on how things go.”

While the WPT’s primary goal is to put together the best television product it possibly can — and the Ones to Watch is part of that — being selected as part of that group has become an honor in and of itself.

“I think that the Ones to Watch franchise is becoming a far more substantive element of the industry, because it’s really a snapshot of the industry. I think that’s why we’ve had so much success with it. The players, I think, have made it; we’ve made it a little bit more fun, but they’ve really come out [enthusiastically] and we’ve just been very impressed by the people who have come in.”

Greer certainly falls under the category of “impressive.” His first big run came back in 2013, when he bubbled the final table of the LA Poker Classic. The fact that Greer was in a wheelchair after being paralyzed in a diving accident in 2010 only added to the attention he received, but his play at the table over the two years that followed certainly merit a lot of recognition.

“Well, being a Ones to Watch is awesome. It’s pretty validating.” said Greer. “I’ve played maybe only 12 or 13 WPTs, but I’ve been pretty successful in most of them, cashing about one-half of them and unofficially final tabling like three of them. When I got the call, I was just exuberant.”

Picking the Ones to Watch isn’t an exact science, but the people who are out on the floor covering these events provide insight and evaluation as the pool of potential candidates gets trimmed down.

“The production team and the group that makes these final selections, looks at the personalities, who that person is, and it’s a balance,” said Pliska, “And really, showing what this little snapshot of the community is about is very, very important. We’re confident that the audience is going to get a lot from them.”

Pliska wouldn’t reveal the full process or the justification for any particular One to Watch — but in talking about the process in general terms, he revealed just what it takes to make the cut.

“Obviously those discussions are confidential — I think that helps us to have open discussions,” said Pliska. “You want to find players that [make sure you] still have that element of why the segment is named the Ones To Watch. These are people that we do feel will be part of the poker narrative over the next few years. We’ve been very successful at highlighting those players and finding those players who continue to be people that we read about and that we see in the poker community.”

Having a little ambiguity and wiggle room allows for someone like Zaki, who’s been on the tournament circuit for years and has had success without “winning the big one,” to have a chance to shine in the spotlight.

“I never thought I’d be picked as one, to be honest, just because I’ve been grinding on tour for so many years,” said Zaki. “I felt like my time to be one was pretty much gone. I was pleasantly surprised when he asked me to be one.”

With players from such distinctly different backgrounds and paths to success in poker, the WPT hopes to recapture some of what made the TV show so compelling in the first place.

“The World Poker Tour built itself on character,” said Pliska. “Over the last four years, we came back to our roots — and we wanted to remind people and remind ourselves that what the World Poker Tour was allowed to do highlighted some of the great characters of poker early on.”

Gone are the days when you could make an instant megastar of the likes of a Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu or Gus Hansen — at least for the time being — but a change in format a few years ago has provided ample opportunity in each broadcast to get to know more about certain players.

“The first step was when we went to playdown,” said Pliska. “For nine years, we were only showing the final table, six people at a poker table, and we really gave very little service to the playdown. I think it’s boosted the show, and I think it’s probably been the greatest contributor to the ratings boost over the last few years. It reminded an audience that it took a journey to get there.”

By showing how the field in each tournament gets down to its final six, along with breaking each final table up into three shows, the opportunity to dig deeper into the minds and lives of these poker players allows for a more compelling story to be told.

“The Ones To Watch segment shows what type of person is taking that journey. Now that we make three episodes per event, we have a longer time to tell a story. Because of that, we have a better chance to go in depth into [their] character,” said Pliska.

The WPT has thrived because of its willingness to innovate and change as its audience changed and evolved. They’re a long way from where they began — a time when the simplest elements of the game had to be spelled out during every episode as the game of poker fought to establish its legitimacy.

“A decade ago, when we were showing the show, it was important to almost highlight the [superstars],” said Pliska. “We had to remind the audience that this was truly a sport — that this wasn’t just some game, it was truly a sport and that there was organization around it that could engage the audience and make them loyal, make them come back and watch the progression of this sport play out.”

“Now, as a decade or so has passed, you need to remind the audience out there that the great unique thing about this sport is, unlike the rest, is that this sport that you’ve been watching for 10 years or so, [is one] you can play,” continued Pliska.

Many, if not all of this season’s Ones to Watch were on the opposite side of that viewer experience at some point in their lives. The simple act of seeing that it can be done can be a powerful level of motivation.

“Your story, as unique as it sounds, as different as it is, can be something that actually is part of this whole story,” said Pliska. “We’ve also shown that there are more women who can play over the years — really terrific players.”

It’s all the more important, then, for viewers to watch and follow a story like Arnett’s. She’s played the WSOP Main Event and a couple of other bracelet events, but the WPT events she’ll play this season will still be among some of the first major tournaments she’s played. Having fought her way up from the bottom, and putting herself in position to improve on a rapid learning curve, Arnett seems poised to make the most of this next big step in her career and her life.

“I started playing poker before I got my job in poker media, and that’s why a job as a reporter was really my dream job,” said Arnett. “Over the years, as a serious player, I had all the most amazing resources at my fingertips. Getting to host my own strategy podcast where I’d have pros on and if there was anything in particular that I wanted to address in my own game, I could just ask them and it was perfect. I actually never thought that I wanted to play poker professionally or as my only source of income, but the last year, I really looked poker as a way to get me to wherever I want to go. I knew I couldn’t be the PokerNews girl forever.”

Finding the right balance of players and coverage serves multiple purposes. It keeps the attention of current viewers, potentially interests poker fans who might have fallen out of viewing the show in the last few years and, perhaps most importantly, has the ability to attract new fans and potential players to the game.

“We’ve shown people that are from the business side, and people that are from the professional side,” said Pliska, “Those who decided that they wanted to play at a very young age, and those whose circumstances just brought them to the poker table [at a later age]. I think it’s very, very important that we show that right now, because we need to continue, and we have a duty to the industry, to feed the ecosystem of poker; continuing to bring fresh people — not only [those] interested in watching the shows — that’s our business at the World Poker Tour — but to pique the interest to play poker and to come out and give it a shot, and see if that’s something that they would like to do.”

The presentation of the Ones to Watch segments on the WPT broadcast will change a little bit for Season XIII, in order to make these players three dimensional characters. Not only will you see them at the tables and hear the stories of how they got to where they are — you’ll get to see them interact with each other in a wide range of events based on the wide variety of locations the WPT is set to visit.

“What we’re going to do on the show is [see them] off the felt as well,” said Pliska “And give you a little sense of their personality. Last year, we started to play a few games with them, and had them go out since we’re always doing events that are off the felt, we bring a lot of the [Ones to Watch] out there.”

As much as these seven players are there to have fun and try to make a name for themselves, their excitement at simply being chosen as a One to Watch is just the tip of the iceberg. While some of the players have spent years building up a significant bankroll to play big events, the up-and-comers have to step up to the plate in a big way as they become a more regular presence on the WPT.

“It’s not only enthusiasm, it’s a commitment,” said Pliska. “They’re committing to play. Regardless of the stage they are at in their poker career, they’re saying, ‘I’m going to be a player this season’.”

Collins seems poised to step up to the challenge. In her first big opportunity under the bright lights of a WPT broadcast, Collins made the final two tables of the Bay 101 Shooting Star Classic before eventually bowing out in 14th place.

“It’s completely surreal for me,” said Collins. “Last year, I had the opportunity to start playing the World Poker Tour, and I really idolize a lot of the former Ones to Watch players. It’s just really exciting, it’s a thrill. Hopefully I can set a good example and empower some other players to get into the game.”

All seven players have been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — one that hundreds of other players would love to be given. The previous four groups of Ones to Watch have set a certain standard, and it’s up to the newest group to maintain the prestige of such an honor.

“People who are essentially lobbying and saying ‘This is why they should [be one],’” said Pliska. “It really has become a special thing. That’s because the players made it a special thing. The community made it something special. The way that you take the BLUFF Power 20 — it’s not enough [that] BLUFF created the Power 20, the community embraced it [and] the community gave it meaning. I think that that’s what’s happened to Ones to Watch.”

“I love the enthusiasm and the excitement that we’ve heard from the poker community — that this matters to them,” continued Pliska. “This is a heck of a lot of exposure, and it has the chance to help careers, and to help for sponsorship. The enthusiasm the community has for what this series does has been exciting. It keeps us committed to it.”

As a player that’s still in the process of transitioning into a full-time live tournament pro, this opportunity could be vital for an accomplished online player like Strelitz.

“I think it’s really exciting for me to get my name out there, and to be recognized,” said Strelitz. “Being on TV and stuff, it’s really cool. Really excited to watch it with my friends and family, actually, when it comes on the TV.”

When it comes down to it, no matter what happens to these seven players in Season XIII there’ll be lots of eyes and some added pressure on all of them. If one happens to make an impact — through their story or their performance at the table — it could make all the difference to someone else trying to make their way.

“What I’m hoping is somebody’s out there and they’re watching this — they’re learning the people who are the names that they should know in the next few years,” said Pliska. “That someone is going to be out there and say, ‘I really relate to her. My story’s a little bit like that.’ Or, ‘You know what? I love his attitude. If I had that attitude, I could go out and do that’.”

The WPT Ones to Watch

Justin Zaki

Justin Zaki

Hometown – St. Petersburg, FL
Live Tournament Earnings – $1,251,279
WPT Cashes – 10
WPT Final Tables – 1
Best WPT Finish – 3rd, Season IX WPT Seminole Hard Rock Showdown

On what it’ll take for him to break through: “Yeah, it’s all a matter of time. One of these events, shit’s going to go my way. I’ll cooler somebody, or I’ll bad beat somebody, or I’ll win that flip. All I can do is keep putting myself in a situation, and eventually I know I’m going to break through. Hopefully sooner than later, do you know what I mean?

On living in Florida, in close proximity to a number of WPT events: “It’s awesome being in driving distance of all of these tournaments that are in Jacksonville and in Hollywood. It’s obviously awesome playing in my home state. I’m familiar with all the players, so I think that gives me a bit of an advantage. I just wish we had some big tournaments in Tampa.”

Daniel Strelitz

Daniel Strelitz

Hometown – Torrance, CA
Live Tournament Earnings – $910,291
WPT Cashes – 3
WPT Final Tables – 0
Best WPT Finish – 33rd, Season XIII WPT Legends of Poker

On his recent string of big live results: “I think it’s a combination of playing better and running better — and just being more comfortable live. When I first started playing live, I was really antsy and I would get bored really quickly and I would just spaz off because I was bored and I would just have to play garbage to keep myself entertained. But now, I’ve gotten used to playing live and the slower pace so I can stay more relaxed and pay attention more. I think that’s a big part of it. I’m also just running really good this year.”

On his goals for Season XIII: “I mean, I’d clearly like to make a few final tables and go deep in a few more. Actually, one of my goals is to get a bounty at Bay 101 — I’m really looking forward to that [event].”

Jose Serratos

Jose Serratos

Hometown – Detroit, MI
Live Tournament – $490,339
WPT Cashes – 1
WPT Final Tables – 1
Best WPT Finish – 3rd, Season XIII WPT Borgata Poker Open

On what games were like in prison: “After the Moneymaker boom, we started playing one table tournaments, basically sit-and-gos. Ten, 15 players, five bucks a piece, which is a lot when you’re locked up. Five bucks is like 500 out here.

When I say $5, I don’t mean cash. I mean commissary items totaling $5. Food, hygiene, coffee, cigarettes, stuff like that. So we’re making a bag, 10, 15 players bagging up the commissary items and playing it out. I had a knack for it. I was winning them outright or I was chopping them heads up. I just had a knack for it and that’s how I fell in love with the game. I did five years in there so I played a lot. I played poker 10 hours a day there when I was locked up. Then when I got out, it might sound funny, but I started playing at the casino and the $1/$2 was freaking huge to me.”

Vlad Mezheritsky

Vlad Mezheritsky

Hometown – Brooklyn, NY
Live Tournament Earnings – $302,400
WPT Cashes – 3
WPT Final Tables – 1
Best WPT Finish – 5th, Season XII WPT Borgata Poker Open

On picking up experience while dealing underground games: “I started to deal in the game. I just know I was dealing so much; I started picking up on people and had my own little head game where I would guess what people would have. When I was a dealer, I was able to look at their cards. It wasn’t as strict as it is now, so nobody cared if you looked at the cards.”

On his tournament experience: “I’ve always loved playing tournaments as much as I could or as much as my bankroll would allow me to. Since I was in New York, I was playing mostly a lot of Borgata events. [Before 2011], on PokerStars, I won a ton of free trips via satellite. I’ve been to Argentina. I’ve been to Kiev twice, and a bunch of other places. Monte Carlo, too.”

Garrett Greer

Garrett Greer

Hometown – Helmet, CA
Live Tournament Earnings –$767,096
WPT Cashes – 5
WPT Final Tables – 1
Best WPT Finish – 6th, Season XII WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star

On what he’s been playing between major events: “I’ve been renting a house in Rosarito, Mexico, since September 2013. I’ve been doing it for a year and three months now. It’s been cool. I have a three-bedroom house right on the water in a city called San Antonio Del Mar. It’s like four miles north of Rosarito. It’s so awesome. Right on the water. It’s fun to get away. It’s cool for a little vacation spot. It allows me the freedom to play on PokerStars and Full Tilt. From Newport [California], it’s 1 hour, 45 minutes door-to-door. I can literally wake up on a Sunday, drive down and play.”

On his abundance of success on the West Coast: “I think there’s something to do with being in your home territory. It’s almost like home-court advantage or home-field advantage. When I get to play these tournaments and drive from my house. I get to sleep in my bed, be with my roommates, be with my girlfriend, be with everybody’s that around me here, everything that is standard to me. I get a fresh start on the day. There’s nothing abstract or different about where I am. I don’t have to bother with waking up in a hotel, try to find the stuff that I’ve packed. I don’t have to reset up my life before I start focusing on a 12-hour day, playing poker. That’s definitely one advantage.”

Candace Collins

Candace Collins

Hometown – Redding, CA
Live Tournament Earnings – $87,256
WPT Cashes – 1
WPT Final Tables – 0
Best WPT Finish – 14th, Season XII Bay 101 Shooting Star

On how she came up in poker: “I did play a little bit online before Black Friday, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. Once that went away, I had some friends at work that talked me into going to a local Indian casino and playing live. That really made me nervous to play with actual people. It was an Indian casino called Win-River in Redding, California.”

“I was kind of nervous, but I went in and just [played] a $25 tournament and I ended up getting first, so that boosted my confidence a little bit. I started playing those live tournaments almost every weeknight. Then I traveled to some local circuit events in Reno. I worked full time, but I had the opportunity last year to actually play some of the bigger events.

Kristy Arnett

Kristy Arnett

Hometown – San Diego, CA
Live Tournament Earnings – $15,331
WPT Cashes – 0
WPT Final Tables – 0
Best WPT Finish – N/A

On being selected as a One to Watch: “I am so excited. I’m pretty geeked out. I’ve watched the World Poker Tour since the very, very beginning. That’s how I actually learned how to play. I remember sitting in my living room in college watching the WPT and not even understanding how the game was played yet, but watching Hoyt Corkins and Doyle Brunson and all those guys play. So that’s how I learned. To be featured on the show as the Ones to Watch and get to play these events this year, it’s a dream come true, for sure.

On her goals for this season: “I’ve always taken pride in showcasing poker and poker players. We’re an amazing community and the opportunity to be an ambassador on a bigger platform really excites me and I want to represent the game well for poker, for women. Obviously, my eye is on the prize of winning a title and being a WPT champion and getting my name etched in that trophy. That’s the big goal, but I am excited about being able to rep for poker and for women in the game as well.

January 2015