Top 5 Surprise Non-Picks from the GPL Draft

Alex Weldon : February 27th, 2016


The draft for the inaugural season of the Global Poker League (GPL) was held on Thursday at the SGS Hotel in Beverly Hills. All 12 teams have now picked four players for their lineup, with only one wildcard draft pick remaining, or two if the team manager elects not to play him or herself. This wildcard pick can be used either for an as-yet-undrafted member of the opted-in players in the Global Poker Index (GPI) Top 1000, or for anyone else outside of the GPI 1000 who wants to play, including cash game and online players, young players not yet in the GPI 1000, or even non-poker celebrities.

Yesterday, I took at look at five players who I felt were drafted earlier than they should have been, or to a team I wouldn’t have expected. Meanwhile, there were a number of players left on the board who I thought for sure would be snapped up in the later rounds, and those are the ones I’m going to be looking at today.

The important thing to realize about the GPL is that players are valuable on two axes: playing skill and marketability. Obviously, the early round picks were the players who were strong in both these respects, either in general or in terms of a team’s specific needs (e.g. national identity, or specific skills seen as important by the manager in question). In the later rounds, however, you’d expect to see more strategic, targeted choices being made, as the managers would start to see weaknesses in their portfolio of earlier drafts and, rather than taking someone middling in both respects, choose someone to make up for whatever shortfall their team might be feeling.

To some extent, that’s what happened, but still, there were some players who are surprisingly strong in one aspect or the other, but who were nonetheless left out for the time being. Of course, teams still have two wildcard picks left, and all of these players are available for that supplementary draft. Thus, it may be that certain managers are still intending to draft these players, but have simply been gambling on them not getting picked up before they have a chance to use their wildcards.

5. Natasha Barbour

Natasha Barbour (or “Harbour,” as Phil Hellmuth kept calling her by mistake) was a name frequently mentioned by the panel of draft analysts, yet who managed to go undrafted through four rounds. Barbour is a strong though perhaps not exceptional player, yet she would have been, in my opinion, a marketing coup for whoever took her. She’s multilingual and has a good personality, she was good on camera at last year’s World Series of Poker, and I think that any team without at least one woman player is going to risk alienating half their viewership for no good reason.

She also happens to be in a relationship with Jason Mercier, who was drafted in the first round by the New York Rounders. Obviously, as a feminist, I don’t think that a woman should be judged any differently based on who she’s dating, but the thing here is that compelling narratives are going to be critical to the league’s ability to attract viewers. A romance between players – whether as teammates or rivals – would provide a lot of fodder for those of us in the media, and therefore good bait to attract coverage for both her team and Mercier’s, were she to be drafted. We already have one such storyline in Liv Boeree’s decision to draft her boyfriend Igor Kurganov in the first round, and we’ve seen how much attention that got Thursday night.

4. Ankush Mandavia

Ankush Mandavia represents the other side of the coin: a highly ranked player whose specialty in heads-up play makes him particularly well suited to the GPL format, but who was nonetheless overlooked by the managers. Daniel Negreanu, on the analysis panel, was touting his value throughout the draft, and seemed genuinely incredulous that he never got scooped up. The only reason that I can see is the lack of any particular marketing angle: he’s American, but so are most of the players on the list, so that’s not a major point in his favor; on camera, he comes off as a bit shy and kind of boring; he has no WSOP or WPT titles, although he did just win his first EPT event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. He’s best known among the high stakes online heads-up community, but that’s a very niche group that may not even be particularly interested in the GPL, and his screen name “pistons87″ probably doesn’t have the same recognition among online amateurs as, say, “Timex,” “CrownUpGuy,” “lasagnaaammm or “OMGClayAiken.” He’s not controversial and doesn’t bring any particular problems to a team, but it’s hard to imagine many fans tuning in specifically to watch him.

Still, any team feeling like it currently has more fan appeal than talent would do well to pounce on Mandavia as a wildcard. There are a number of managers I can imagine rubbing their hands together over the prospect as we speak, including Soulier, Jaka and Ladouceur. I wouldn’t even be entirely surprised to see him go to São Paulo if Akkari now feels he has enough local talent and just wants someone who can crush in the Duel format.

3. Mike Gorodinsky

Much harder for me to understand is how Mike Gorodinsky went undrafted. He may not be a superstar or an ambassador for the game, but he shows a bit more charisma and enthusiasm on camera than the average poker player. Moreover, he was the 2015 World Series of Poker Player of the Year and the winner of the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship, both of which surely count for something in terms of marketing value. The main strike against him that I can see is that he’s primarily a mixed games player and doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record in No-Limit Hold’em. Still, even if you only count him as “pretty good” in the skill department, I think he’s got enough in terms of name recognition and credentials that someone should have grabbed him.

2. Matt Glantz

With Antonio Esfandiari having dropped out of the draft at the last minute, Matt Glantz is almost inarguably the greatest poker ambassador to have made himself available to the teams. It’s therefore quite shocking that no one saw fit to take him. Because he’s predominantly a cash game player, he might not have quite the same name recognition with the general public as Esfandiari or Negreanu, but that will surely change quite quickly if he does end up playing in the GPL. As a former ambassador for Parx Casinos and now with Rush Street Gaming, he’s shown himself to be hard-working, a team player and a people person. He’s also heavily involved with the show Poker Night in America, having been a frequent player on the show throughout its history and now serving as a player scout and consultant; he’ll therefore be familiar to exactly the sort of casual poker viewer that the GPL is trying to capture.

The main hesitation in drafting Glantz may be his cash game focus, but he does have over $6 million in live tournament cashes. Although he’s probably not someone you’d hear described as a No-Limit Hold’em wizard, he’s certainly an experienced and competent player, and the value he’d bring in terms of promoting not only himself but the other players on his team can’t be overstated.

1. Justin Oliver

Just a week ago, Justin Oliver wouldn’t have been on very many people’s mock draft lists, but that changed on February 22 when he released a video he made appealing to be drafted to the GPL, specifically for the Las Vegas Moneymakers. That quickly made him a hero of the poker media – at least, those of us excited about the GPL – and caused him to be included in a lot of the mock drafts. After all, motivation is going to be important both in terms of performance and especially in terms of marketing effort, so the managers know that there’s value in having players who really want to be there and aren’t just trying it out for a lark. No other player did more to try to get drafted – that I saw – than post a few quick tweets, so Oliver’s effort level in producing a self-promotional video is impressive.

More than that, though, on close examination Oliver looks like someone who has been flying under the radar, but whose career might be ready to take off. We haven’t seen him making many headlines, but at #173 in the Global Poker Index, he’s actually ranked a lot higher than many players who were drafted; moreover, compared to the ups and downs of most players’ graphs, his GPI ranking has been climbing very steadily for the past few years. Also relevant is the fact that his one WSOP bracelet from 2013 came from a 4-Max No-Limit Hold’em event, precisely the sort of short-handed format that the GPL will emphasize.

Drafting stars is great, but I predict that if the GPL does take off, the teams that benefit the most will not be those made up of pre-established players, but those who make their own stars. When it comes to buying action from players looking for backing, the key is to find someone hard-working but out of the limelight, who appears to have a big potential upside but hasn’t yet struck lucky. It seems to me that the same logic applies to drafting for the GPL, and to my mind, Oliver is exactly that sort of candidate. I hope, therefore, that Chris Moneymaker will grant his wish and grab him in the wildcard round, because a wildcard is exactly what he is.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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