As the end of the year closes in, there’s a tight race happening at the top of PokerStars’s annual tournament leaderboard. At the top, holding on to a decent but not invulnerable lead, is the mysterious player known as “ismo<3seppo." If you've played many midstakes multitable tournaments on PokerStars in recent years, you probably recognize that name. In fact, you've probably seen it at your tables more than any other, with only a few possible exceptions. Trust me, the guy plays everything. On the other hand, if you haven’t played with him personally, it’s likely meaningless to you, and that’s because he likes it that way.

An anonymous hero

Almost nothing is known about this player, except that he – or she – is based in Finland. I’m using male pronouns out of convenience and as a statistical guess, but for all anyone knows, she could equally be a woman. He has opted out of all tracking services and avoided posting anything online that would allow him to be tracked down through search engines.

In any case, this player, whoever he may be, was also last year’s winner, and the year before. He is therefore on the cusp of making poker history as both the first three-time and the first three-in-a-row winner, though we may never put a face or a real name to the achievement. The only previous repeat winner is Shaun Deeb, who went two-in-a-row in 2008 and 2009.

His win is not yet a done deal, of course. Last year, he won by a comfortable margin of around 7400 points, as much as separated the 2nd place from 21st. This year, his position is much shakier, with 2nd place player Allan “Sifosis” Baekke a mere 1765 points back. Theoretically, that difference could be made up in a single tournament – winning a typical Sunday Million is worth about 2350 – but given that only a player’s 100 best results are counted, it would probably take Baekke two huge scores to to catch ismo<3seppo, taking into account the lower results which would be pushed off in the process. Still, a month is a long time in online poker, especially at the volume that these guys play, so anything could still happen. First… and possibly last?

Assuming that ismo<3seppo does hold on to become the first three-time leaderboard champ, it may prove to be a record that is never matched. The leaderboard feels like a bit of an anachronism, given the other changes that PokerStars has been making of late, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it disappear eventually. In fact, when I saw the news of the close race brewing, my first reaction was surprise that the yearly leaderboards even exist anymore.

After all, the Battle of the Planets promotion, which was the Sit-and-Go equivalent of the tournament leaderboard, was eliminated last year, along with the monthly tournament leaderboards, except for the three summer months. Weekly leaderboards remain, but the rewards are paltry. Meanwhile, the changes which have been announced for the VIP program in 2016 make it explicitly clear that PokerStars is no longer interested in encouraging high-volume play. So why keep the tournament leaderboards?

If encouraging players to push for higher volume is not the intent, then the only point in keeping them must be for promotional reasons. I asked PokerStars for comment and got the following response:

“PokerStars is home to the biggest and best online poker tournaments in the world, so there’s nowhere better for players to prove their skills. The PokerStars Multi-Table Tournament Leader Boards are a way for players to show that they’re among the best poker tournament players in the business.”

A marketing paradox

The statement seems to confirm that marketing is the point, yet there’s irony in this statement, since it’s clear that ismo<3seppo is, at least for the moment, more interested in hiding his talents than he is in showing that he's among the best tournament players in the business. He's typical of the current crop of internet top dogs in this way; there's a reason that online poker has not been producing household names like Tom Dwan and Viktor Blom of late. People have learned that attention isn't necessarily a good thing, so these days, the best online players tend to shun the spotlight, at least until they decide to hit the live high-roller circuit and are dragged into the spotlight - sometimes very reluctantly, like Daniel Colman.

At that point, though, such players are no longer likely to be seen on the yearly leaderboards. Especially with PokerStars inaccessible from the US, a live tournament career is incompatible with the sort of volume necessary to be a contender. Thus, while past winners include recognizable names like the aforementioned Shaun Deeb and Ole Schemion, it’s important to note that these players earned their leaderboard titles just prior to becoming visible celebrities in the live poker world, and have not been in the top 100 since.

It’s a bit of a paradox, then. Someone like Deeb or Schemion winning the yearly leaderboard now would be huge news and a marketing coup for PokerStars, but the volume required to compete means that real-world fame will rarely coincide with a spot on the yearly leaderboards. Further proving that point is ismo<3seppo's competitor Allan Baekke, who proved back in 2010 that he could be a live star if he wanted to be, with three huge EPT scores in the span of two months. After that, however, he disappeared from live poker due to the time constraints of parenthood; now, having switched to an exclusively online grind, he’s in position to potential end ismo<3seppo's reign, but by the same token is probably off the average poker fan's radar. In contrast to the problems with the yearly leaderboard, it's much easier to see the value in those for individual tournament series such as the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), which are constrained enough in scope and duration to pull back in those online pros who've gone on to live celebrity. After all, who won this year's WCOOP leaderboard? Who else but the now-famous Shaun Deeb.

So, who knows. It may be that ismo<3seppo decides to reveal himself in the coming years. Maybe he'll explode, Schemion-like, onto the Super High-Roller circuit. Even if he does, though, it will unfortunately be too late for PokerStars to capitalize on the incredible run he is having right now. Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.