The final event of the Season XVI schedule for the World Poker Tour is underway as the WPT Tournament of Champions kicked off action at ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas on Thursday.

The third running of the tournament was expected to be a bigger affair than its two predecessors and the players didn’t fail to deliver. The first ever tournament (won by Farid Yachou) was held at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, FL, and drew out a respectable 64 player field. Last year, the ToC came back to the Hard Rock for the second running of the tournament and saw a slight uptick with 66 players in attendance (and the tournament won by David Weinman).

For 2018, the “powers that be” at the WPT decided to bring the tournament a little closer to some of its champions in an effort to bring out some “fence riders” who might not otherwise play. With all the champions of the Season XVI schedule automatically in the tournament (courtesy of having $15,000 deducted from their winner’s checks), any person who had previously won a WPT Main Tour event was eligible for entry (provided they put up their $15K). Having the tournament in Florida previously was good; WPT officials were hoping the change in venue to ARIA would make the event better.

From the start of the day’s play, the decision to move to Las Vegas looked to be a good one. Season V champion Adam Weinraub and Season IV champion Gavin Smith were some of the distantly past champions who joined up with newly crowned WPT Player of the Year Art Papazyan (who had to sweat Joe McKeehen’s run at the final table of the WPT Bobby Baldwin Classic before taking the crown) and Season XVI champs Darryll Fish (WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open), Maxime Heroux (WPT Montreal) and Dennis Blieden (WPT L. A. Poker Classic) to start the day. After two levels, 52 former champions were in the field and only grew from that point.

Blieden was the player who enjoyed the opening day festivities the most, seemingly never making a mistake through the day. In an early hand, Blieden would battle against Guo Liang Chen on an 8-4-9-8-7 board. Chen would fire out a 11K bet into a roughly 15K pot. Blieden tanked for quite a bit of time, even using a time extension chip, before he would make the call. It turned out to be the right move; Chen tabled a Q-J for a blown straight draw while Blieden tabled a 10-9 for a flopped top pair that improved to two pair to take the hand.

If there was an active pot going on, it seemed that Blieden was a part of it. Battling against Rens Feenstra, Blieden would put Feenstra at risk on a 5-2-10-4-5 board by betting out 38K chips, roughly what Feenstra had in front of him. After some deliberation, Feenstra decided discretion was the better part of valor and let the hand go and Blieden’s stack grew again.

Blieden continued to run over the players that crossed his path, taking out Andy Frankenberger in a rather fortuitous fashion. On a 6-4-2 flop, the duo went back and forth until all Frankenberger’s chips were in the center. While Frankenberger had pocket Aces, Blieden’s set mining had paid off with his pocket sixes finding another on the flop. Another four on the turn improved Blieden to a boat and, needing to avoid the two Aces in the deck, saw a Jack finish the board to eliminate the Season 9 Player of the Year and push Blieden into the chip lead.

After a break following Level 5, the final field was set for the event. 80 former champions had come out for the 2018 WPT Tournament of Champions, by far setting a record for the tournament. The top ten finishers in the tournament will earn a piece of the prize pool, with $463,375 going to the eventual champion. The eventual champion will return in 2019 for the ToC and will also receive a Hublot Big Bang Unico Titanium Ceramic Watch, a $50,000 membership to JetSmarter and have their name etched on the Tournament of Champions trophy.

While Blieden kept climbing, other former champions found the rail. Daniel Negreanu, Heroux, Joe Tehan, James Calderaro, Mike Vela, Season II WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic champion Paul Phillips, Mike Leah, Brandon Cantu and Matt Salsberg were unceremoniously sent from the tournament. After the carnage subsided, only 29 players were left from the original 80 runners that came to the line.

1. Dennis Blieden, 593,000
2. J. C. Tran, 305,000
3. Marvin Rettenmaier, 234,500
4. Erik Seidel, 223,000
5. Asher Coniff, 187,500
6. Justin Young, 176,000
7. Darren Elias, 170,000
8. Art Papazyan, 166,500
9. John Hennigan, 143,500
10. David Benyamine, 139,500

Play resumes at noon on Friday at ARIA in Las Vegas and will play down to the final six players that make up the official WPT final table. Those players will then step to the new eSports Arena Las Vegas on Saturday for the crowning of the 2018 WPT Tournament of Champions victor.

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