EPT11 Malta: The nine bidding for glory

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Dominik Panka: Headlining another final table

The final nine at the EPT Malta Main Event represents a showcase for some of the most in-form players in the game today.

All eyes at this stage are naturally on Dominik Panka (2,780,000 chips), who, in the past 14 months, has risen from almost complete anonymity to become one of the most recognisable tournament poker players on the planet. The 24-year-old from Brześć Kujawski in Poland make his tournament breakthrough in the Bahamas, taking down the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure title in 2014, denying Mike McDonald the chance to become the first double EPT champion.

Now, returning to a final table himself, Panka has the chance to follow in Victoria Coren Mitchell's footsteps and claim a second crown. Since prevailing at the PCA, Panka has also won an EPT High Roller title, in Deauville, and has become the poster boy for a poker boom in Poland. His countryman Dzmitry Urbanovich has already won three tournaments in Malta this week, but Panka now has the chance to shift the spotlight back in his own direction.

The remarkable rise to prominence of Fedor Holz (2,675,000 chips) bears comparison with that of Panka. This time last year, Holz was just one of a group of talented young German players making their way on to the professional circuit, picking up the occasional expenses-covering side event score at major festivals. But Holz was also crushing tournaments online, where he plays as CrownUpGuy (explanation: "I just like crowns") and his career suddenly vaulted to another level late last summer.

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Fedor Holz

In Barcelona in August, he demonstrated just how well it had been going online when he anted up in the €50,000 Super High Roller event. Although that was a whiff, he won a €2,000 side event and made the final table of another.

But then back at the online tables, he suddenly had that one enormous score: Holz won the WCOOP Main Event on PokerStars for $1.3 million. "It means pretty much everything to me poker-wise," Holz said of the win. "Although I'm just 21 I've been through very tough times as well as I've had a lot moments of joy...I want to be a positive influence on as many people as possible and that's why I set very high standards for myself."

Hossein Ensan (5,505,000 chips), the chip-leader, also plays under the German flag, but is another player whose career took an enormous boost in Barcelona last summer. Originally from Iran, Ensan moved to Germany when he was 25 and now lives in Münster. When he came to Barcelona, he said he still considered himself an amateur player, who had played hold'em for ten years. But at that EPT festival, he followed up victory in the seniors' event (he had just turned 50) with a third-place finish in the Main Event, good for more than €650,000. This is now his second final table of the season and he set it up with a devastating rise through the ranks on Day 4.

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Hossein Ensan

Speaking of final tables in Barcelona, Antonin Duda (1,050,000 chips), who is 28 and lives in Jablonec in the Czech Republic, is also a veteran of that particular slab of felt. Duda has been a professional poker player for the past four years, specialising in multi-table tournaments and during that time he has become a familiar face on the European Poker Tour. His best result was seventh at EPT Barcelona in Season 9, and the €125,950 he won there accounts for more than half of his recorded live tournament cashes.

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Antonin Duda

Jean Montury (3,925,000 chips) has so far enjoyed the kind of Day 4 that most players dream of, knocking out Rudolf Zintel with ace-king to ace-queen and then ending Sergio Aido's tournament with aces against Aido's ace-king. Montury never even had a sweat. Not that the 41 year old from Arras, France, seems to be the kind to grow anxious playing poker. He said he plays multi-table tournaments as a game of choice "all over the world" and has twice been in the last 50 at an EPT Main Event. This, however, is his best finish at the end of his most consistent week of play. He has already made three other final tables in Malta during this festival, in PLO, seven-card stud and a big ante deep-stack turbo.

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Jean Montury

Remi Wyrzykiewicz (1,230,000 chips) is a 24-year-old multi-table tournament player from Poznan, in Poland, who is rapidly growing in stature in both online and bricks and mortar environments. "I'm just starting out on a live career," he said, and is now desperate to go one better (at least) than his previous best finish, last month at the Eureka Poker Tour stop in Rozvadov.

"I got the unofficial final table," he said, referring to a ninth-place finish, which was one off the official eight-handed final. Back then, he also played a lot with Ensan, who finished eighth in that event, and the two have again been sharing a lot of table time this week. Wyrzykiewicz has had one of the biggest stacks in the room for almost all of the event, but now has half the average and is refusing to look much further than just getting into the last eight.

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Remi Wyrzykiewicz

Although originally from Paris, France, Valentin Messina (3,745,000 chips) is playing on home turf having relocated to Malta about a year ago to play poker online. He has been a professional for five years, usually playing tournaments online and live, and cash online. He studied in France to be an engineer, but said he was making more money playing poker, usually at the $2-$4 and $5-$10 tables.

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Valentin Messina

Stefan Schillhabel (3,310,000 chips) is the one true amateur among the final nine. The 28 year old, from Dusseldorf, Germany, says poker is "just a hobby for me. I play only a bit if I have time." He has played four or five EPT events prior to this, but usually plays tournaments online.

Schillhabel is studying sociology and works to pay for his studies. He has no ambitions to be professional. "I like the game it's fun," he said. "I'm doing fine, but it's just fun for me."

Javier Gomez Zapatero (2,530,000 chips), who was chip leader at the end of Day 3, is now the last Spanish player in the tournament and carries the hopes of becoming the first EPT champion from the country. The 24 year old is originally from Salamanca but has lived in London for two and a half years, now sharing a house with Sergio Aido, who also went deep in this event, and Adrian Mateos, who won the WSOP-E title last year. Zapatero plays both tournaments and six-max cash but says: "I prefer cash for everyday but when you go deep in tournaments it's very good. There is glory."

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Javier Gomez Zapatero

Here's how they all line up in this bid for glory:

Seat 1 - Antonin Duda 1,050,000
Seat 2 - Stefan Schillhabel 3,310,000
Seat 3 - Javier Gomez Zapatero 2,530,000
Seat 4 - Valentin Messina 3,745,000
Seat 5 - Remi Wyrzykiewicz 1,230,000
Seat 6 - Hossein Ensan 5,505,000
Seat 7 - Dominik Panka 2,780,000
Seat 8 - Jean Montury 3,925,000
Seat 9 - Fedor Holz 2,675,000

Follow coverage of the EPT Malta Main Event on the EPT Malta Main Event page. There are plenty of side events going on, and the €10,000 High Roller starts at 1pm. Keep abreast of everything via the EPT App, available on Android or IOS. Snigger, snigger. He said "a-breast".

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour