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Poker's newest stars: The final 14

7/19/2011

With the debut of ESPN's live coverage of the WSOP main event this year, the players involved aren't dealing with the same scenario as in years past. No longer are they in the shadows for two weeks as they make their way toward the biggest final table of the year. Their names are no longer found only online in daily recaps. Instead, they've been highlighted under the lights and cameras. For the past five days, fans from around the world have met hundreds of new players and, through the unedited action, have been able to determine what exactly makes them great.

As the final day of play began at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the stakes had never been higher, and a flurry of eliminations resulted in only 14 survivors by the time the WSOP's live coverage on ESPN would begin at 8 p.m. ET. It's time for live poker to take its rightful place on the world's biggest sports stage.

The remaining 14 players aren't the most household names, but they will be soon. Here are the remaining players in order of chip counts.

Anton Makiievskyi (31.9 million in chips): Just 21 years old, Makiievskyi has an appreciation of his present surroundings that is evident in his enthusiasm. "I just don't believe everything that's happening now," the young Ukrainian said. "I understand that I may not have any other chances in life like this, but I don't feel it. I just play my game. I just push all-in when I need to push all-in." Makiievskyi is easily identified by the aquamarine jacket he's wearing at the table. It belongs to close friend Oleksii Kovalchuk, another 21-year-old Ukrainian with whom Makiievskyi learned poker while at university. Kovalchuk is one of four Ukrainians who won a WSOP bracelet this year. Makiievskyi also can become the youngest WSOP main event champion in history. Day 8 started off incredibly well, and if he can continue the pace, he might enter the November Nine with an overwhelming chip lead.

Eoghan O'Dea (26.4 million): Poker runs in the O'Dea family's blood. His father made two WSOP main event final tables during his career, and now, it's the son's turn. Eoghan (pronounced "Owen") is about as cool as they come. The 26-year-old, Audi convertible-driving pro from Dublin is excited about the opportunity and is looking not just to make the November Nine, but to win. "When I was really young, it was definitely the bracelet," he said. "But now, it's about the money. It's a dream to win this event." He has five WSOP cashes, a runner-up finish in a World Poker Tour event and all the motivation needed to make him a very dangerous player at the table.

Pius Heinz (24.9 million): Just 22 years old, Heinz entered the 2011 WSOP without much in the way of live tournament experience, but a seventh-place finish in a $1,500 buy-in WSOP event changes all that. Heinz is seeking to become the first German player to make a November Nine but seems to be completely at ease. "I don't feel any pressure at all," Heinz said. "The field left is really strong, a lot of really good players left. My tournament went pretty smooth for the most part, and I'm just happy to be here. Whatever happens, happens." Heinz debuted at the feature table with 5.8 million and proceeded to go on a run, knocking out bracelet-winner Sam Barnhart and Andrey Pateychuk along the way.

John Hewitt (19.7 million): If a month ago you'd told Hewitt that he'd make Day 8 of the 2011 WSOP main event, the 23-year-old poker pro might not have been shocked. Despite earning his first WSOP cash in a $1,500 event in June, the online experience he's gathered gives him an edge at the table. The 35th-place finish at the WSOP also might have provided him with the mindset needed for a deep run in this event. The online poker player from Costa Rica (originally from Illinois) has nearly six figures in tournament winnings and learned from one of the most talented players in the world: Felipe "Improved" Montenegro. He is slow and methodical at the table, and never seems to leave a scenario unexamined before he makes his final move.

Phil Collins (18.3 million): Leaving out all the obvious name-related jokes, Collins is already a star. Having spent his past few years dominating online poker, "USCPhildo" has earned more than $3 million on the virtual felt, but now, with online poker no longer an option, he's transitioned to the live game where he's already cashed in eight WSOP events, one earlier this year. "I think that everything I've done in my poker career has prepared me for this tournament," Collins said. "This is why everyone plays; it's what created the poker boom in the first place."

Ben Lamb (14.9 million): No one in the world is running hotter than the 26-year-old Lamb right now, but to his credit, he's known exactly what to do with his streak. The Panorama Towers (Las Vegas) resident has already won one WSOP bracelet, and finished second in another event, eighth in the $50,000 Players' Championship and 12th in the $10,000 six-handed championship. He is the hottest player in the world right now and, with his performance in the main event, has taken the lead in the player of the year race from Phil Hellmuth. Lamb peaked at nearly 20 million at one point on Day 8, but with Makiievskyi dominating the table's action, Lamb has been put in a tough spot.

Martin Staszko (13.4 million): You hear stories of a chip and a chair? Well, Staszko is living the next best thing. The 35-year-old native of the Czech Republic barely survived the money bubble with 12,000 in chips, folding "like 40 hands in a row," according to Erick Lindgren. No player from the Czech Republic has ever made a main event final table. This professional player could be the first. His additional focus on making more money at the bubble is no longer in the picture. Stazko is here to win.

Sam Holden (10.5 million): England's last hope in the tournament, Canterbury native Holden, 22, seems content to allow his excitement and enthusiasm to shine through. "November's the dream," Holden said, beaming. "All the messages I'm getting from back home, it's definitely getting pretty serious." Holden warmed up for the main event with a healthy dose of live tournament play in England and Ireland, but this is the first time he's scored so much as a five-figure win. He started Day 8 as one of the shortest stacks, and now, he's earned his way back into the middle of the pack.

Matt Giannetti (10.1 million): A Las Vegas pro with a successful career in both tournaments and cash games, online and live, Giannetti is probably the least-known player among his running circles because until now, he'd never scored a six-figure cash in live tournament play. This cold, efficient professional has taken his cachet to the next level with his performance here. He flies under the radar and is about as serious as a 26-year-old can be on the felt.

Bounahra Badih (9.8 million): In a field of young players with big stacks, 49-year-old Badih is feeling no pressure. "I think the big stacks are feeling the pressure" Badih said with a smile. "I am cool and calm." While listed as being from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the businessman owns and operates a poker room in Belize City and as such carries the hopes of Central America into Day 8. He started the day with 3.8 million in chips and doubled up early against Collins to put himself back in contention.

Scott Schwalich (7.8 million): While most of the players are insistent that they're not feeling the pressure, 24-year-old Ohio native Schwalich is confronting it in a different manner. "I'm sure everyone's feeling a little pressure at this point," Schwalich said. "The only pressure I feel is to not make mistakes and play my best game. I'm just here to play my best." Schwalich, a former online professional, is learning live play as he goes. He was considering a move to the work force to use his accounting/finance degree after the series, but now that the main event has gone so well, he believes he'll continue life as a professional player. You'll always find Schwalich wearing a hoodie and keeping quiet at the table.

Bryan Devonshire (7.3 million): Perhaps the most familiar face among the remaining players is the man known as Devo. With a second-place finish on the World Poker Tour, in addition to many other live successes, he's amassed $1.2 million in lifetime live earnings. Online, it's a different story, and the engaged 27-year-old has had numerous big scores. He offers fans a charisma that stands out above the rest of the field, but after "Black Friday," he was one of the players determining which path to take. Would he stay with poker or find a new career? He was looking for his "one time" before the main event began, and it seems that so far, it's working out pretty well. "It would be life- and career-changing. It would be a dream come true. Just to make the November Nine would feel better than winning a WPT. … I just feel that I'm having a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I'm enjoying every minute of it," he said.

Konstantinos Mamaliadis (7 million): The 34-year old Mamaliadis is proudly carrying a nation on his back. Hailing from Durban, South Africa, the importer/exporter has been dreaming of coming to the WSOP for five years. "Hopefully, I can become the first South African to win the main event," Mamaliadis said. "Poker's already huge in South Africa; this is just the next step. This has been exhilarating and nerve-wracking all at the same time."

Khoa Nguyen (3.2 million): One of the only Canadian players left in the field, Nguyen has locked up three previous WSOP cashes, one of them coming earlier this series. Nguyen's successes have come in $1,000 and $1,500 events, and his top score peaked at just less than $10,000. Now, with a six- or seven-figure payday within his grasp, Nguyen looks to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Duhamel and bring the WSOP main event championship back to Canada. His Day 8 has thus far been a disaster, going from 16 million to only 3 million, but a double up before the break might be enough to get him back on track.

Which of these players will be part of the 2011 November Nine? We'll know soon enough. Regardless of their efforts Tuesday, each of these players already is a star, and they'll only shine brighter from here on out.