WSOPE: Matt Ashton’s Cash Puts Daniel Negreanu on Defensive

Daniel Negreanu at WSOPE

Despite being slightly behind Matt Ashton in PoY hunt, Daniel Negreanu waited until Event 3 to start his WSOPE. (Thomas Keeling photo)

In most circumstances, Daniel Negreanu doesn’t spend much of his time scanning the list of players min-cashing poker tournaments, particularly those with a small buy-in and in which he has not played. But this afternoon at the World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE), Negreanu had been paying particular attention to the early fallers from Day 2 of Event 2 €1,000 No Limit Hold’em, a tournament he had passed over for another engagement in Paris.

“I noticed he came 63rd,” Negreanu said. “I don’t know how many points that’s worth. I hope it’s not worth a lot. I mean, a 63rd.”

Negreanu had been keeping tabs on Matt Ashton, the mild-mannered 25-year-old Liverpudlian, who had run up an overnight short stack into sufficient chips to make the money in the first open event of the 2013 WSOPE. The men have never had a conversation longer than the 140 characters permitted by Twitter and a couple of brief words in an online poker room chat-box. But Ashton and Negreanu are following one another closely.

They’re currently placed first and second at the top of the race for the 2013 World Series of Poker Player of the Year and with the contest to be decided at the end of this trip to the Paris suburbs, it is getting very tight at the top.

“It could be crucial,” said Ashton, moments after collecting his check for €1,930 after busting from the first tournament of the day. More significantly, the result is worth 8.5 PoY points, which extends Ashton’s current lead.

Ahead of this festival in France, Ashton had 649.75 points to Negreanu’s 598.34, with third-placed Loni Harwood another 111 points behind. It is all but a two-horse race, with both the frontrunners now settling in for a tough two weeks in Enghien-les-Bains.

“I probably wouldn’t have come here if wasn’t for the Player of the Year race,” Ashton said. “I don’t like to play too many live tournaments, I like to focus online. But the Player of the Year race is quite exciting to me. It makes it more fun, so I’ll play every event here.”

The WSOP Player of the Year earns a buy in to all three Main Events under the World Series flag — in Australia, Las Vegas and Europe — as well as his or her photo on a huge banner that will line the walls of the Amazon Room at the Rio. Negreanu already features on one of those after his exploits in 2004 and now has the very real chance to become the first two-time PoY.

“That’s kind of the exciting thing,” Negreanu said. “This could be potentially my last hurrah with travel like this. I’m doing the European thing and all that, but I may not do that in the future. So this could be my last opportunity.

“I could still win by just attending that [the Vegas phase of the WSOP]. But I plan on lowering my travel over the next few years.”

Every bracelet event at each of the three stops also offers points that contribute to the race. Negreanu won the Main Event in Australia in April, which vaulted him into an early lead, and he seemed likely to stay at the top of the leader board throughout the summer, until Ashton triumphed in the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship on June 30. It was Ashton’s fourth final table of a remarkable couple of months.

It means the race will definitely be decided through the seven bracelet events at the WSOPE, and it makes Negreanu’s decision to skip Event 2 all the more perplexing.

“It was a bad decision,” Negreanu admitted. “Some girl was in town, my friend, and I was hanging out with her. I have a rule where I don’t play if I drink the night before, but I went to Paris, I had some wine, and, yeah, I decided to skip it…I regret it for reasons that have nothing to do with poker.”

Ashton, on the other hand, played through nine levels on Day 1B and then steered his short stack through the bubble today. He started his PoY points tally ticking upward once more.

“I’d just really like to win,” Ashton said, even as he made it clear that his focus is online, where he is known as MUSTAFABET. “I’m competitive. If there’s a challenge or a points race, I’m always going to try to win…I’m going to play every day, play every event. I’m pretty sure I’ll play the High Roller, unless it doesn’t matter by then. That’s the only way I wouldn’t play it, I think.”

Europe is a fine place to go hunting for PoY points. The formula for calculating points takes into account number of entries, finishing position and buy-in, and fields are typically smaller on this side of the Atlantic. It is therefore proportionately easier to make the final table positions, where the points multiplier is more generous.

Last year, Phil Hellmuth earned 368 PoY points for beating a field of 420 to the WSOPE Main Event title. Only Jesse Sylvia and Greg Merson earned more during the $10,000 WSOP Main Event in Vegas, and they were the final two from a field nearly 16 times the size of the one that assembled in Cannes. (Hellmuth ended up ranked second on the WSOP PoY leader board; Merson’s two bracelets won the day.)

Negreanu’s massive score in Australia in April also carried with it a heap of WSOP PoY points — 360 in fact — and set a target that no one overhauled until Ashton went on his charge in the summer. Even Tom Schneider‘s two bracelets couldn’t put him any higher than seventh and anyone serious about the race is all but forced to travel.

“It’s a three-stop race now,” Negreanu said. “You can still win by just playing the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, but if you’re in the race it makes sense to go to all three.”

Negreanu was insistent that the the global scope of the race produces a fairer assessment of a player’s achievement, and grew defiant in face of suggestions that it tips the balance in favour of the sponsored pro who can maybe have travel and hotel expenses covered.

“I think it skews a little more fairness, that’s what it does,” Negreanu said. “It’s not so American friendly. There’s a lot of people that don’t travel to the US for the entire time, so what about that?”

Negreanu added: “It’s the World Series of Poker. People from the United States have to remember, they’re not the world. They don’t run the world. They may be a world leader, but the world does not consist of the United States of America. The world is a very big place, right. So to say ‘Oh it’s not fair’… Not fair? How about ‘Go fuck yourself?’ There are 55 events in the US and there’s seven over here and five over there. Just go fuck yourself, that’s what I would say. Go fuck yourself.”

Ashton is somewhat less garrulous about the matter. He didn’t travel to Australia, but admits he is keeping the race at the front of his mind while he’s here in France.

“With me leading, I think I should be a little less aggressive, more conservative, because every little cash means more to me than Negreanu,” Ashton said. “Negreanu needs to get really lucky in a tournament and get like a top five or something, whereas for me, every cash increases my lead to the point where he maybe has to win an event.”

Neither player says they are likely to find many on-table decisions affected by their hunt for the PoY, but Ashton paused to consider the chance that with the small fields in France, they may end up at the same table at some point.

“That could be a fun ending to it,” he said.

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