Play the Dominik Panka Guessing Game

Question mark man

The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) is done for another year and, as is typical, there were sufficient plots and sub-plots running throughout the festival to fuel news, strategy and gossip columns for the remainder of 2014. It’s useful to have this event right at the start of the poker calendar as it sets a terrifically high bar and can give an indication of where poker is heading for the coming 12 months.

With a $10m guarantee hit for the Main Event, as well as a record breaking $25,000 High Roller tournament, it seems that the poker economy is still buoyant. Despite Black Friday and the apparent plateauing of player numbers in the established poker countries, the world still has more than 1,000 people capable of spending $5,000 on a tournament – or qualifying online for a package of that amount.

With neat timing to underscore some of the points made in my last column, the biggest rush of players at this year’s PCA came from Brazil (up to 67 from 32 last year). Meanwhile, following Dimitar Danchev’s victory for Bulgaria last season, Dominik Panka, of Poland, swept to this year’s Main Event crown. All corners of the world can now lay claim to America’s game.

Panka was a revelation and his emergence provided my personal highlight of the trip to the Bahamas. During the late stages of the Main Event, after Vanessa Selbst had been eliminated, most attention in the tournament room was fixed on either Roger Teska, Max Silver or Mike McDonald. The former was drunk and obnoxious (everybody loves a villain); Silver was looking for back-to-back final tables after a tremendous performance in Prague (everybody loves a player on a roll); and McDonald was a really solid bet finally to become the first two-time EPT champion (everybody loves a Timex). It meant that Panka was flying entirely under the radar until he appeared as a dominant presence among the last eight.

This generated some amazing speculation. Panka had qualified for the PCA online but with online poker occupying something of a legal grey area in Poland, Panka had requested that his screen-name not be made public. However, according to Isaac Haxton and Tom Hall, who were in the commentary box for much of the cards-up broadcast of the final table, Panka’s play was so good that he must have been a reg at the highest level online tables and, it followed, must have played against them.

Haxton and Hall then tried to piece together some of the evidence, attempting to match Panka’s play with some of the online players they knew from Poland. If anyone ever tries to doubt the recall abilities of top level poker pros, tell them to watch the broadcast of three-handed play from this PCA Main Event final table. Haxton in particular was amazingly precise in his guessing as to Panka’s online identity, based only on the sample size of one live final table and, probably, countless hours online. McDonald, who finished second to the Pole, was pretty straightforward in his assessment. “Panka played like a boss,” McDonald wrote on a forum, a matter of hours after the play finished.

I hope and expect Panka’s success will encourage more players from central Europe on to the live poker scene, where the coming year will be intriguing. We are due to have the 100th EPT festival in Barcelona in the summer and, after McDonald’s narrow failure at the PCA, there seems to be every chance that landmark will be reached without a two-time champion being found.

But there are now so many brilliant players on the circuit, Panka now included, that this hoodoo cannot last forever.