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22-year-old Ukranian wins WSOP title for second straight year

26 June 2012

Imagine a scenario where a novice sits down to play in a championship-level poker tournament against many of the world’s top players. He doesn’t even know the rules of the game. He lacks fundamentals. He has virtually no concept of basic strategies.

What would the chances be of this novice not only making it past the first day, but finishing in the top ten percent and cashing? Probably slim to none.

What would the odds be of this novice not only cashing, but making it all the way to the final table – competing against veteran players such as Mark Gregorich and George Danzer, who specialize in this form of poker? Again, the odds are getting slimmer.

Finally, what's the possibility of this first-time player defeating everyone in his path, and ultimately seizing a WSOP gold bracelet?

Your final answer?

You better not wager against a certain Ukrainian. If you’re as naturally talented as Oleksii Kovalchuk, the chances are actually much better than one might think.

This remarkable 22-year-old professional poker player from Kiev, Ukraine burst upon the poker scene exactly one year ago, here at the World Series of Poker, when he won his first gold bracelet. Many first-time winners are flash in the pans – rarely seen or heard from again. But in the case of Kovalchuk, everyone who witnessed his remarkable victory in the $2,500 buy-in Six-Handed No-Limit Hold’em event held last year, knew they were seeing the emergence of a new
international poker star.

Proving that $689,000 victory last year was no fluke, Kovalchuk returned to the 2012 WSOP and decided to diversify his focus. This year, Kovalchuk entered new tournaments, which included games he did not necessarily believe he’d mastered, nor even understood. His philosophy was and remains – there’s only one way to learn a new game, and that’s by playing it. Preferably, playing it against the world’s very best.

In the case of the $2,500 Omaha/Seven Card Stud Hi-Low 8 or Better event that concluded on Monday morning, the student came to class and studied. He observed. Sure, he made some mistakes, especially the first day. But the more he played and the more he contemplated his decisions, the more comfortable he became with the games. By the second and third day, the student had become the teacher. One by one, school was out, until ultimately class was dismissed. The student with the highest grade was Oleksii Kovalchuk. Indeed, he graduated from this tournament with honors.

Ovalchuk collected the hefty sum of $228,014 in prize money. He was also presented with his second career WSOP gold bracelet. With his victory, Kovalchuk becomes the first Ukrainian in WSOP history with multiple titles.

And so, our story ends – well, kind of.

Kovalchuk's story is probably just beginning, which does not bode well for those who will inevitably face him in the weeks, months, and years to come. The 22-year-old Ukrainian now owns two gold bracelets in only two years of play at the WSOP. None of the prior greats accomplished that before -- not Hellmuth, not Chan, not even Ungar. At this blistering pace, he’ll surpasse those legends by the time he’s in his 30s.

While no one can possibly expect Kovalchuk to continue his membership in the "one gold bracelet per year club," one thing’s for sure: To someone with natural card sense and exceptional tournament instincts such as Kovalchuk, cards are pretty much cards, and poker is just poker.

And gold bracelet number two is just as sweet as gold bracelet number one, if not sweeter.

Danzer was the runner-up, collecting $140,825. Other final table finishers included: Gregorich (third), Daniel Ratigan (fourth), Yuval Bronshtein (fifth), ESPN poker commentator Norman Chad (sixth), Wing Wong (seventh), and Tim Burt (eighth).

There were 393 players who entered the event, and the top-40 finished in the money. Notable players who finished in the money but did not make the final table included: Jeffrey Lisandro (10th), Perry Friedman (11th), Bryan Devonshire (12th), Tom Schneider (13th), Allen Bari (20th), and Scott Seiver (33rd).

Last year, this event drew 450 entries; participation dropped more than 12 percent this year.

Modified from tournament notes provided by WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla.

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