Top 5 Surprise Picks from the GPL Draft

Alex Weldon : February 26th, 2016

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Yesterday was draft day for the first season of the Global Poker League (GPL), and despite a few hiccups, it went off about as well as anyone could have hoped. There were complaints about the pacing and about Phil Hellmuth’s overuse of certain expressions in his analysis, there were a few technical difficulties with the audio, and so on… but still, the Twitch stream consistently had over 7,000 and sometimes as high as 8,500 viewers, which is far more than I would have expected and bodes well for the league’s success. In fact, even many of poker’s more cynical voices were palpably excited as the tweets flowed in.

Nearly everyone in the media was eager to demonstrate their oracular skills by calling out their guesses at each team’s draft picks before they were announced, but as I’d anticipated, our collective batting average proved to be pretty low. Max Pescatori’s all-Italian side was the exception, with a fairly predictable roster including almost everyone’s predicted #1 draft pick in Mustapha Kanit. Outside of Rome, however, it’s hard to say that any of the teams shaped up as anyone expected.

Surprises Galore

For the most part, there weren’t very many surprise drafts in the sense of players no one expected to make the cut at all. The Moscow Wolverines and Hong Kong Stars both followed the Rome Emperors’ strategy of drafting based on nationality; particularly in the case of the latter, that meant the inclusion of a number of names that are unfamiliar to a North American and European audience. That was to be expected, however, so none of those selections can really be said to be a surprise, even if they would have been hard for pundits in this part of the world to predict.

Rather, what surprised me most was the order in which certain players were drafted. Some big names were left on the board for far longer than one would have expected and some weren’t drafted at all. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at five people who I think should have been drafted, but weren’t. There were likewise several moments when one manager or another snapped up someone I would have thought would be left for a later round. In ascending order of peculiarity, here are the five decisions which induced the most head-scratching in this particular writer.

5. Darren Elias to São Paulo (first pick, #6 overall)

The São Paulo Metropolitans were another team that was expected to draft largely along national lines, but the lack of highly-ranked Brazilian players meant that few observers expected manager André Akkari to begin drafting locally from the first pick. Indeed, Akkari himself said in a pre-draft interview that he was planning on picking “a big star” in the first round. Personally, I thought that this meant he was planning on snagging someone like Fedor Holz before he went to Berlin or, as actually happened, Los Angeles.

Instead, Akkari went with Darren Elias. A good player to be sure, but perhaps not the first to come to anyone else’s mind at such an early stage of the draft. As was pointed out by the analysis panel, the decision was probably influenced by the fact that Elias spends a lot of time living in Brazil as it is in order to be able to play online. Those online skills will also be important in the early part of the GPL season, before the events start to be played live. Still, Elias was only the 16th highest-ranked player of those who opted-in, and not of particular marketing importance to any other team, so he probably would have been available to Akkari in the second round. Akkari’s second pick, meanwhile, was #1 ranked Byron Kaverman. It’s not that either Kaverman or Elias is that surprising a choice for Akkari, but if these were the two that he wanted, I would have expected him to take them in the other order.

4. Mike Leah to Paris (fourth pick, #38 overall)

Before the draft began, I joked that because he so openly supports Toronto’s hockey team, and because of the rivalry between the two cities, Mike “GoLeafsGoEh” Leah could not possibly end up playing for Montreal. Nonetheless, I secretly suspected that this was probably where he would end up. Instead, he was overlooked until the final round of the draft, at which point he was snagged by Fabrice Soulier of the Paris Aviators.

Soulier had chosen countryman Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier in the first round as expected and, although he went outside of France’s borders for rounds 2 and 3, he stayed within Europe by taking the Belgian Davidi Kitai and German George Danzer. When it came time for his final pick, there were still plenty of highly-ranked French players on the board, and most of us watching probably expected him to come back home to finish things off. Instead, he decided to cross the Atlantic and scoop up a Canadian. It’s not an absurd choice, as Leah is definitely a talented tournament player and presumably fairly competent in spoken French, but definitely one that not many of us saw coming.

3. Phil Galfond to San Francisco (first pick, #4 overall)

Phil Galfond is certainly someone you would have expected to be chosen early, just perhaps not quite this early. He’s unquestionably among the world’s best and best-known players, but given some of the other big names available, it’s a bit surprising that he would be taken as early as fourth overall. It’s true that he has both a recognizable name on the modern live tournament circuit and a fondly-remembered screen name – “OMGClayAiken” – from the Full Tilt nosebleed games in the pre-Black Friday days, so should enjoy broad appeal with the fans. He’s also the owner of one of the world’s best-known coaching sites, Run It Once. At the same time, he’s now mostly known as a mixed games expert, whereas the GPL will focus solely on Hold’em, so it remains to be seen if he was in fact a good choice, or if Faraz Jaka should have gone with someone more focused on short-handed No-Limit Hold’em.

2. Sorel Mizzi to Berlin (second pick, #15 overall)

Another Canadian to be drafted intercontinentally, Sorel Mizzi was picked up in the second round by Philipp Gruissem for his Berlin Bears. Mizzi certainly has the talent and the name recognition to have gone in 15th overall, and Gruissem was seemingly one of the non-American coaches least interested in drafting his countrymen, so Mizzi was not an unusual choice on either of those fronts. Rather, he’s a risky pick because he’s a player surrounded by controversy, having been frequently (and recently) accused of various forms of cheating and collusion both online and off.

These allegations have made him hugely unpopular among the Two Plus Two forums community, for instance, and although they haven’t been proven in any official way, and the general public is likely unaware of them for now, there’s always the danger that they could be brought to light or a new scandal could break at an inopportune moment for Gruissem and his team. Moreover, Mizzi’s unpopularity with the online community seems contradictory with Gruissem’s decision to draft Twitch hero Jeff Gross in the final round: Many of those most enamored of Gross may prove to be the same people who detest Mizzi.

1. Pascal Lefrancois to Montreal (third pick, #25 overall)

I have to admit that I was surprised by nearly every pick made by the manager of my home town’s team, Marc-André Ladouceur. Those trying to predict his first pick were split nearly 50/50 between Mike McDonald and Jonathan Duhamel, but I was firmly in the latter camp. I don’t have geographical affiliations of my own, particularly, but politically and culturally, the province of Quebec is very much distinct from the rest of Canada, and so given a choice between two big name stars, I assumed that Ladouceur would feel it important to have un héro de la belle province and not “some guy from Ontario.” Yes, McDonald is likely the better player, and it’s possible that Duhamel could still have been available for the team’s second pick, but the consequences of missing out on having seemed to me to be too great to risk.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, as Duhamel was snagged for Las Vegas by Chris Moneymaker in the second round, leaving Ladouceur to “settle” for 2014 Main Event champ Martin Jacobson. It’s understandable, then, that Lefrancois wouldn’t want to risk having the same thing happen again… and yet, Pascal Lefrancois is the lowest-ranked of all 48 drafted players. In fact, his ranking has deteriorated since the draft list was set, and at #1005, he wouldn’t even be eligible if the draft were reset today. Duhamel might have been a toss-up to make it through 22 selections undrafted, but it’s almost inconceivable that Lefrancois would have been on anyone else’s radar, even in the final round.

That said, Lefrancois might prove to be a dark horse in the GPL. He may have just barely squeaked into the draft, but he also doesn’t travel around to all the major series like most tournament pros, so it’s hard to get a handle on his true ability. Of the relatively small number of live cashes he does have, an impressive number of them have been final tables, and he won a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 2010, in what was only his second ever cash recorded on Hendon Mob. He also has a fairly decent online track record, with $1.35 million in cashes on PokerStars. His selection shocked me at the time, but it could very well be that Ladouceur knows something the rest of us don’t.

Tomorrow: Top 5 GPL Draft Snubs

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

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