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Heading into the 2012 World Series of Poker there are perhaps more unsigned big name poker pros than ever before.

The events of Black Friday and the subsequent collapse of Full Tilt Poker made sure there would be an army of pros without online poker site sponsors hitting the Rio this summer.

Not every player is a great acquisition. Phil Ivey represents a challenge because of his alleged ties to Full Tilt Poker management while U.S. players such as Tom Dwan are a tough sell because the country is currently closed to the online poker market.

Here’s a subjective look at five great potential free agents going into the 2012 WSOP:

5) Gus Hansen

Danish pro Gus Hansen is one of the few former Team Full Tilt members who made it out of Black Friday relatively unscathed.

Hansen was not an original member of Full Tilt and made a clean break from the site after Black Friday.

So what would the “Great Dane” bring to an online poker site?

Hansen is one of the most well-known players in the world and is a fan-favorite thanks to his loose style and outgoing personality.

In addition he’s not American, which is a huge benefit thanks to the current legal climate of online poker in the U.S.

He would also stimulate the high-stakes cash games of wherever he signed as he was known to win or lose millions on a regular basis on Full Tilt Poker.

Where he would fit best: Titan Poker (despite just ending contracts with Sam Trickett and Marvin Rettenmaier) has raised its profile over the last few years and adding a huge name like Gus Hansen would be a coup. It would also be huge for its cash games.

4) Doyle Brunson

The Grandfather of Poker has been without a sponsor since cutting ties with Doyles Room after Black Friday.

Despite getting a little long in the tooth, there are very few poker players who have had as much of an impact on the game as Doyle Brunson. He owns 10 WSOP bracelets and basically wrote the book on modern poker when he released Super/System.

Any online poker room would instantly benefit from having one of the most recognizable names in the game on board.

The biggest question is if Brunson is even interested in getting involved with an online poker site after what happened with Doyles Room.

The other problem is that Brunson lives in the U.S. so he’s unable to play online and he doesn’t do that much traveling anymore.

Where he would fit best: PokerStars has an immense team of celebrated poker players from around the globe. Doyle Brunson would be the icing on the cake for a site set on world domination.

3) Sam Trickett

The U.K. poker scene is exceptionally strong these days and Sam Trickett is the best of the best.

Trickett has waged an all-out war on the live tournament circuit and has amassed over $5 million in earnings over the last couple years alone.

The Nottingham-native is hardly a one-trick pony and has been raking in some million-dollar pots in the high-stakes games from Vegas to Macau.

As a U.K. player, Trickett is available to sign on with any online poker room and would give a serious boost to any site trying to increase its presence in England.

Trickett left sponsor Titan Poker earlier this year.

Where he would fit best: 888poker has been making huge strides lately with improved software and more players. The only thing missing is some big-name pros and Sam Trickett would certainly fit that bill.

2) Phil Hellmuth

Love him or hate him, there’s no doubt Phil Hellmuth is one of biggest stars in the poker world.

Hellmuth’s poker credentials are unparalleled: 11 WSOP bracelets, over $13 million in live tournament earnings and 85 cashes at the WSOP.

One of the most recognizable faces in the game, Hellmuth built a reputation based on his “Poker Brat” persona in the 2000s and instantly became a fan favorite.

Hellmuth split from beleaguered UB.com in early 2011 and, likely due to Black Friday, has remained unsigned since.

Hellmuth has been criticized in recent years for not keeping up with the game but last year finished second in three bracelet events and second in the WSOP POY rankings. He was also somewhat tarnished by being part of UB Poker during the super user scandal.

Most poker sites would benefit from having Phil Hellmuth on its roster but he would likely be expensive.

Where he would fit best: Party Poker has a small team of big-name pros and Hellmuth would certainly be the biggest name on his roster he signed. Party already has loudmouth Tony G so probably wouldn’t mind signing the Poker Brat.

1) Patrik Antonius

Finnish poker pro Patrik Antonius doesn’t even have to play a single event at the WSOP and he would still be the most coveted free agent at the WSOP.

Antonius is a bona fide god in the online community and is also one of the remaining stars from the poker boom in the early 2000s.

His reputation survived the Full Tilt collapse better than most (although financially he could potentially lose millions from it) as he didn’t sign with the site until 2008, supposedly lost money when the site went down and had little to do with management.

Antonius could single-handedly kickstart the high-stakes games on a site as there are numerous pros who would love a shot at one of the best online players in the history of poker.

Where he would fit best: Patrik Antonius would look pretty sweet wearing a PokerStars logo. PokerStars has yet to sign any former Team Full Tilt members but Antonius must be particularly enticing considering what he would bring to the high-stakes games.

Despite a struggling global economy and hundreds of millions of dollars of poker money still tied up on Full Tilt Poker, the WSOP is expecting big numbers across the board this summer in Las Vegas.

“The Main Event will get between 6,000 and 8,000 players,” WSOP Communications Director Seth Palansky told PokerListings.com on Day 3 today.

Last year 6,865 people turned out for the $10,000 World Championship event, a number that exceeded expectations.

Now, one year later, there are a number of factors that will influence attendance not only for the Main Event but for the WSOP as a whole.

A German Champion and Global Growth

In 2011 Pius Heinz became the first German world champion in WSOP history, further fueling the game’s growth in European markets.

“Poker is growing worldwide and the WSOP is the Olympics of poker,” Palansky said.

Since winning the Main Event, Heinz has been the face of German poker and been featured on numerous TV programs in the country.

Germany is now one of the most important markets for online poker and Heinz, along with players such as Benny Spindler, Tobias Reinkemeier, Giuseppe Pantaleo and recent EPT Grand Final winner Marvin Rettenmaier are leading the charge.

European Financial Issues Could be Huge Challenge for 2012 WSOP

It’s not all rosy for the 2012 WSOP, however, and the European financial meltdown represents a big hurdle for the venerable poker series.

With the Euro dropping by more than 15% there could be significantly less European players at the 2012 WSOP.

In years past countries like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal have represented big area of growth for the international poker contest.

With Italy and Greece economies still reeling from the resent financial downturn it remains to be seen how much of a presence European countries will have at this year’s WSOP.

The 2012 WSOP continues through July 16, 2012. For in-depth coverage live from Las Vegas check PokerListings’ Live Updates brought to you by 888poker.

The WSOP 3-Bet is a three-course meal at the late night poker news kitchen.

Like an unstoppable juggernaut the 2012 WSOP started slow but is beginning to gain momentum with a total of three ongoing events currently being hosted at the Rio.

After an early setback our live update team shifted into overdrive in the late stages of the day with featured updates from the $3k Heads-Up event.

Today in the WSOP three-bet we’re highlighting a Blackjack Dealer striking WSOP gold, a couple speed bumps for the $3k Heads-Up PLO/HA event and a Twitter flame war between two online poker pros.

1) Blackjack Dealer Collects First 2012 WSOP Bracelet

We’ve always thought it a little odd that the WSOP opts to start the world’s most prestigious poker series with the Casino Employees’ event.

You could probably argue that it’s their way of giving back to the poker community but it’s still a bit anticlimactic when people have been waiting for over a year to play for a bracelet and the majority are ineligible to play the first event.

Regardless California-based Blackjack Dealer Chiab “Chip” Saechao outlasted 732 players to take down a first-place prize of $70,859 late last night.

It was the first time Saechao cashed in a major tournament and his first time competing in the Casino Employees’ Event.

Second place went to Patricia Baker, who nearly became one of the few females to win a bracelet in a non-ladies event.

Saechao was very excited about his victory, which is always nice to see.

“I plan to wear it and show it off,” he said about his new bracelet. “Not too many can come over here to Las Vegas and go back home with this.”

One down, 60 more to go.

2) $3k Heads-Up HA HA

The first day of the $3,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em/Pot-Limit Omaha event could have gone better.

First of all the event had a cap of 512 players and only 318 players showed up. That led to 60-odd players earning byes to the second round.

Byes are not unusual in heads-up tournaments but the amount in this event was.

It’s obviously a pretty huge advantage going directly to the second round and it must have been at least mildly frustrating for the players who actually had to play in Round 1.

One of the more amusing incidents of the day saw Eugene Katchalov get his opponent down to 2,000 chips to Katchalov’s 16,000 before the tournament directors walked over and informed both players they actually had a bye into the second round.

Our live update team was also unable to cover only female players as we originally intended thanks to the fact that only two women registered for the event.

Vanessa Selbst and JP Kelly are among the final 15 as Event #2 at the 2012 WSOP, $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em, plays down to a champion today.

Selbst, the last female bracelet winner in an open event, had an up-and-down day but ended on an up, winning a couple of key flips to finish with 706,000 chips – good for fifth on the leaderboard.

Right above Selbst in fourth is Brit JP Kelly. Also a past bracelet winner, both at the WSOP and WSOPE, Kelly is in great position to take down his third career bracelet with 721,000 in chips.

Out in front of the pack, however, are Jacob Bazeley and Ryan Schmidt.

Bazeley is the outright chip leader with 1,291,000 while Schmidt sits just off the pace with 1,193,000.

A WSOP Circuit regular, Bazeley has a 66th-place finish in last year’s Main Event to his credit.

Notable players to make it in the money but bust out yesterday included Paul Wasicka, Dan Smith, John Juanda, Noah Schwartz, Jason Mercier and Jean-Robert Bellande.

Phil Hellmuth also recorded his 86th career WSOP cash but busted out in 61st.

Action in Event #2 resumes and 1 p.m. from the Rio in Las Vegas. Once the final table of nine is reached, live streaming coverage will be available on WSOP.com.

The top 15 and chip counts:
1. Jacob Bazeley 1,291,000
2. Ryan Schmidt 1,193,000
3. Abdyl Konjuhi 754,000
4. JP Kelly 721,000
5. Vanessa Selbst 706,000
6. Joseph Cino 703,000
7. Kenneth Strickland 685,000
8. Kwinsee Khoa Tran 592,000
9. Brent Hanks 578,000
10. Neil Willerson 479,000
11. Kennli Nguyen 411,000
12. Richard Park 379,000
13. Andrew Badecker 349,000
14. Todd Keikoan 265,000
15. Michael Kaufman 243,000

Every year we like to think our vast global poker expertise allows us to predict precisely which players are set to light the WSOP on fire.

Every year, of course, we miss wildy. Who can predict donkaments, really? But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

In keeping with our annual tradition, we asked our international editors to fill us in on players they think are on the cusp of WSOP glory.

Today: Denmark!

The 2012 World Series of Poker is underway and for the next month and a half the best poker players in the world will convene in Las Vegas.

Every year more Danish players travel to Vegas to partake of the millions of dollars available and after a couple of lean WSOP years we can be very optimistic about the Danish contingent this year.

Danish players have had an excellent start to 2012 with three victories on the EPT and WPT and we can count on seasoned WSOP veterans Simon Ravnsbæk, Frederik Brink Jensen, Peter Eastgate, Lars Bønding and Theo Jorgensen at the tables.

There are also a few young guns that may lack WSOP experience but have the proven skills to go far.

Keep a close eye on these four young Danes when the cards are dealt this year:

Earlier this year we singled out Petersen as one of the players who would break through at the live felt in 2012.

Perhaps he read the article as a month after we published it he won his first major live tournament at EPT Copenhagen.

It wasn’t a great surprise, as he had won several major tournaments online, but he had few live results at that point.

Last year he participated in the WSOP for the first time with his best result a 15th-place finish in the $ 1,500 No Limit Hold’em for $ 27,000. He also had two other cashes.

Petersen’s clearly shown the potential is there for very big things and most opponents now know they must keep a close eye on him.

He hasn’t had much luck after his EPT win but perhaps he’s been saving it for Las Vegas.

Petersen says he expects to play about 20 tournaments ,including plenty of non-Hold’em events, and he’s a threat to go deep in any of them.

Stefan Raffay

When it comes to sparring partners to have when you travel to Las Vegas to play the WSOP, you could do a lot worse than Peter Eastgate.

The 24-year-old Raffay is a member of the Betfair camp this year along with Eastgate and the support of a previous WSOP champion can maybe give him the last nudge he needs to get over the top.

Raffay made a few nice cashes online over the winter and he also had a few solid results last year in Las Vegas including a fifth-place finish in a $1,000 No Limit Hold’em event for $149,392.

Apart from his Danish Championsip title in 2006, which he won as a 18-year-old, last year’s WSOP cash was actually his biggest win live so far.

You can expect to see Stefan Raffay play – and go deep – in most Hold’em events.
Morten Lihn Christensen

Aarhus native Morten Lihn Christensen has primarily made his presence felt online with big wins under the alias “skipper-dawn.”

In 2012 he made his breakthrough in live poker with a bang when he won WPT Vienna for €313,390.

mortenchristensen

It’s an outstanding result for a player who previously had only a 31st-place at EPT Deauville as his best live finish and who’s yet to play in very many major live tournaments.

There’s no reason to think he won’t be able to build on his Vienna success in Las Vegas.

A lucky Sam Trickett was all that stopped him in last week’s WPT season finale and we hope it’s given him a taste for more action.

It’s not yet certain he’ll play in the WSOP outside the Main Event, but we hope he tries his luck.

Thor Drexel

Maybe a Dannebrog shirt will put Thor Drexel over the top at this year’s WSOP.

Playing a decisive heads-up duel this week with Kristian Kofoed for the Danish title, the winner will get a WSOP package and the right to play in the red-and-white Dannebrog jersey in Las Vegas.

If it’s Drexel, we’re sure he’ll make the most of it.

Drexel has been around the Danish poker scene for a few years but has yet to make a really big score in a live poker tournament.

His best live result is a final table at a WSOPE event in London in 2009 fr a few thousand pounds so there’s plenty of room to improve it in Vegas.

He’s an incredibly talented cash-game player and a true tournament killer online, so we hope his Danish national success will give him a little tailwind and the courage to try out the WSOP this year.

We’ll be watching for the red-and-white jersey.

The final table of the 2011 European Poker Tour (EPT) Grand Final in Madrid was made up of an eclectic group of eight players, with seven different countries being represented and contrasting personalities making for a unique live broadcast on PokerStars.tv on Thursday. Venezuela’s Ivan Freitez entered the day with the chip lead and put on a masterful display of big-stack poker to earn the first place prize of €1,500,000 and become the first Latin American player to win an EPT title.

PokerStars Supernova Elite member Andrew Li and Team PokerStars Pro Alex Gomes were sent home within the first 90 minutes at the final table, the latter coming up short on his bid to become only the third player ever to win a WSOP bracelet, a World Poker Tour event and an EPT event (Roland DeWolfe and Gavin Griffin are the only players to win all three). Gomes began the day short-stacked and moved all in preflop with 8s-7s from the small blind. Eugene Yanayt called with pocket tens in the big blind and the board ran out Kc-5c-3c-8h-5s to end Gomes’ spirited run.

Yanayt, who also sent Li packing early on, didn’t hang onto his newfound chips for long. After losing much of his stack to Andrey Danilyuk, Yanayt three-bet shoved over a Freitez preflop raise with pocket fives and found himself up against the nines of Freitez, whose overpair held up on a non-threatening board of Qc-Ts-6d-Ac-6h. Yanayt exited in 6th place for €250,000.

Spain’s Juan Maceiras, another Team PokerStars Pro, was the next to go at the hands of Germany’s Torsten Brinkmann. Maceiras moved his short stack in preflop with Jh-10h and was called by Brinkmann’s As-Kd. The best hand held again, sending Maceiras out in fifth place with €315,000.

After a three-hour break, Freitez completely took control of the four-handed final table. Danilyuk, who had been quiet for most of the day, moved all in preflop with pocket threes and Freitez called with Ad-9c. The Venezuelan’s chip lead would grow even larger as the board ran out Jc-7h-Td-Kh-Ah, giving him a pair of aces on the river and eliminating Danilyuk in fourth place for €400,000.

The Freitez buzzsaw continued as he knocked out Tamas Lendvai in third place with another timely ace. This time, he cold-called a three-bet shove by Lendvai and was in bad shape with Ah-9h against Lendvai’s picked nines, but Freitez found an ace on the flop and held on to pick up even more chips and leave Lendvai hitting the rail in third place.

Freitez began heads-up play against Brinkmann with roughly a 4 to 1 chip advantage. After he doubled up with Ac-5c against Freitez’s Qc-Qh, his dream of an EPT title was brought to a halt by the constant pressure of the aggressive Venezuelan. On the final hand of the tournament, Freitez opened the button with 10d-9d and Brinkmann moved all in with Ah-Kd. Freitez made a bold insta-call and again came from behind to win on a 9s-2s-5h-6d-8c board, prompting his South American rail to erupt in cheers.

Freitez won €1,500,000, a Shamballa bracelet and a ticket into Friday’s Champion of Champions freeroll tournament, which will see almost all of the EPT Main Event winners from all seven seasons battle it out for a €100,000 prize pool.

Here’s a look at the final results from the 2011 PokerStars.com EPT Grand Final:

1. Ivan Freitez (Venezuela) — €1,500,000
2. Torsten Brinkmann (Germany) — €900,000
3. Tamas Lendvai (Hungary) — €550,000
4. Andrey Danilyuk (Russia) — €400,000
5. Juan Maceiras (Spain) — €315,000
6. Eugene Yanayt (United States) — €250,000
7. Alex Gomes (Brazil) — €185,000
8. Andrew Li (United States) — €130,000