First Rounders: 2023 $25,000 PokerStars Players Championship

In the latest First Rounders, we’ve got our sights set on the 2023 PokerStars Players Championship.

Jeff Walsh
Jan 24, 2023

It’s been four years since PokerStars first hosted the inaugural, ground-breaking $25K PokerStars Players Championship and from the looks of it, the return of this big-field high roller is going to be well worth the wait. With a new Bahamian resort playing host and, more importantly, more than 400 Platinum Pass winners in the field, shot-takers and nosebleed grinders alike are diving into the deep end of the Baha Mar Resort in an effort to collect one of, what will be likely many, million-dollar paydays.

Picking players who might shine can get tricky in an event this size. The field is likely to mirror what we saw in the WPT World Championship – an eclectic mix of pros and recreational players all of whom will need to navigate a landmine-filled field in order to make a deep run. However, the elevated buy-in should narrow the amount of pure recs and attract even more of poker’s elite – including a selection from Europe and South America that will attend due to its more central location.

We’re coming off a solid showing in our First Rounders for the PokerGO Cup and looking to book back-to-back winning sessions. So let’s get into it, here is our First Rounders for the 2023 PSPC.

#1. Steve O’Dwyer

Between the PSPC, the PCA Main Event, and the abundant big buy-in events taking place during this series, every high roller on the planet will have a reason to be at their best. Honestly, nearly every player with a name in the nosebleed tournament game will be in the Bahamas but with our first pick, we’re taking the one-and-only Steve O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer, the American ex-pat who set up shop in Ireland, has an impeccable resume in PokerStars live events and his uncanny synergy with the brand gives him an edge anytime he’s in the field.

Take a look at O’Dwyer’s results that has put him 14th on the All-Time Money List with more than $33 million in live earnings – it’s littered with big-time results from the PokerStars-branded circuit. He’s the winner of the 2013 EPT Monte Carlo Grand Final for $1.6 million, the winner of the 2015 PCA $100K for $1.87 million, the winner of the 2016 PCA $50K for $945,495, and the winner of the 2018 PCA $50K for $769,500. He’s taken part in the PCA for more than 15 years and he’s celebrated some of the biggest scores of his esteemed career under the PokerStars banner. And with all of his talent and success, it would be no surprise if, at the PSPC, he celebrates one more.

#2. Justin Saliba

If you are looking for a player running hotter than the Bahamian sun, look no further than Las Vegas resident Justin Saliba. Coming off a career-high score in November 2022 when he took third place in the WPT Rock ’N’ Roll Poker Open $25K for more than $400,000, Saliba has started the year with a trio of six-figure scores that have boosted his career live earnings north of $2.5 million.

He kicked off 2023 on the East Coast with a fifth-place finish in the Borgata’s “The Return” for just over $304,000. Then he made his way back home to Las Vegas and took down Event #4 ($10,000 NLHE) of the recently completed PokerGO Cup for another $195,000. Less than a week later, he was back in Florida, chopping up the Lucky Hearts Poker Open $25K for $353,175. You get it. Wherever Saliba has gone this year, major results have followed. So what’s going to take place when Saliba shows up at the PCA? Our guess: more of the same.

Aleksejs Ponakovs

#3. Aleksejs Ponakovs

With a broader international player pool, we set our sights on one of the toughest up-and-coming high rollers on the scene. So we’re taking Aleksejs Ponakovs, the Latvian online savant turned nosebleed MTT destroyer. To say “up-and-coming” is a bit of a misnomer as Ponakovs has been in the game of poker for quite some time, including being one of online poker’s toughest opponents under his moniker “DamageAP”. He also has live results dating back well over 10 years so he’s not exactly new.

However, Ponakovs really took his seat at the live high roller tables for the first time in 2021 when he took fourth place in the Triton Series Madrid €100,000 for over $930,000. He followed that up a month later with a victory in the WSOP $100K Super High Roller for $1,897,363 and his first live bracelet. Since then, Ponakovs has been on a high-roller heater including a seven-figure score at Triton’s Cyprus stop and four consecutive cashes in high-roller events at EPT Madrid in August of last year. He’s made his mark in the big buy-in fields and he may be ready to make an even bigger name for himself on the PSPC stage.

#4. Vanessa Kade

Imagine opening up your online poker client and finding a message that you’ve been surprise-gifted a Platinum Pass by the powers that be at PokerStars. Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Vanessa Kade who snap-booked her trip to The Bahamas to participate.

That alone is obviously not enough reason to select Kade to make a deep run, but a good-luck omen like that simply can’t be ignored. On top of that, Kade has a proven talent with more than $1.1 million in career live cashes and a history of making big moves in PokerStars events – like winning the PokerStars Sunday Million 15th Anniversary Event for a career-high cash of $1.5 million.

Joep von den Bijgaart

#5. Joep von den Bijgaart

When Ramon Colillas took down the inaugural PSPC in 2019 for $5.1 million, it felt like a storybook ending that was even more than PokerStars could have asked for. There was Colillas, a previously unknown Platinum Pass winner, going the distance, hoisting the trophy, and taking home life-changing money. And a PokerStars sponsorship on top. No one could have predicted it.

However, as it turns out, Colillas was no amateur on a heater. Not just a recreational with some rungood. Although largely unknown to the poker media world at large, those that did know him could attest to him being a very skilled player on the Spanish circuit on which he played. He was, in fact, a secret crusher who made good in the biggest spot of his career.

So, when searching for the next Ramon Colillas we’re looking for a few of the same qualities. Some of these are shared by longtime Dutch poker pro Joep van den Bijgaart. Platinum Pass winner? Check. Under the radar? Check. Highly skilled? You bet. van den Bijgaart has more than $1.4 million in lifetime live earnings as well as a number of online titles under his username ‘Pappe_Ruk’. He’s the type of player that could simply emerge from the field leaving players to wonder where he came from – even though he was here all along.

#6. Anthony Zinno

Of course, when picking players you need a large-field crusher on your squad “for board coverage”. In the past, we’ve selected the likes of Chance Kornuth and Jesse Lonis (both of whom would be excellent picks here as well) but this time we’re going with three-time WPT champion Anthony Zinno. Zinno has proven time and time again that he knows how to bridge the gap between professional-level play and the recreationals looking to make a name for themselves.

It’s fair to say that Zinno hasn’t been lighting the world on fire in the past 12 months. For sure, he’s gotten some pretty nice scores, including his 28th place finish in the Borgata’s “The Return” for $21,601, but this is the guy who won back-to-back bracelets at the 2021 WSOP and has nearly $11 million in lifetime earnings. He’s been to the mountaintop plenty of times and even though he’s not had a breakthrough score in a while you simply don’t hold a player like Zinno down for long. We think the time might be right for Zinno to add another seven-figure score to his resume.

Platinum Pass Picks

While we aren’t taking the following Platinum Pass winners in our first round, there’s a lot to root for when it comes to wanting to see life-changing money get handed to someone whose life would actually change. Keep an eye out for these players in the chip counts.

Chad McVean – a poker content consumer of the highest order, McVean turned his love of all things poker (and poker podcasts) into an opportunity to be the focus of the story rather than the one reading about it. He’s spent the past five months preparing for the opportunity.

Alex Irwin – It’s not often you get a second chance at greatness, but that’s what Alex Irwin earned for being a devout listener to the Poker In The Ears podcast. The Irish player was under great duress when answering what amounts to a $30K trivia question and his reaction to getting it right is pure joy.