Aliaksandr Shylko Keeps Composure to Win 2023 PSPC ($3,121,838)
Three and a half years after the previous PokerStars Players No-Limit Hold'em Championship, a new Player's Champion has been named. Belarus' Aliaksandr Shylko took down the 2023 PokerStars Players No-Limit Hold'em Championship for $3,121,838 after reaching an ICM deal with Germany's Max Menzel (2nd - $2,859,990) and Brazil's Philipe Pizzari (3rd - $2,524,871) and navigating one of the most memorable final tables in recent memory.
The 26-year-old had the chip lead when the three agreed to play for a remaining $300,000 in prize money and the towering golden trophy before the exits of Pizzari and Menzel, who was the last Platinum Pass winner standing as he attempted to match Ramon Colillas' Platinum Pass spin-up in 2019.
All three players were guaranteed to take home their largest-ever live cashes, and the same was true for Nacho Barbero (4th - $1,551,300), Pedro Marques (5th - $1,251,500) and Niclas Thumm (6th - $1,001,200). To take home the seven-figure pieces of the $24,843,000 prize pool, these six players had to get through a field of 1,014 runners that included a mix of the world's best and part-time hopefuls who won a Platinum Pass into the $25,000 buy-in event.
Shylko, a slender and cheerful Belarusian who has been playing poker professionally for six years, had just over $423,000 in Hendon Mob-reported cashes heading into the event, including a victory in the €2,000 Eureka High Roller in May 2022 for $80,853, just a fraction of his seven-figure score.
"To be honest, I don't feel that [many] emotions because I wanted to win so much and I was too focused," Shylko told PokerNews in a winner's interview. "I was just trying to be as calm as possible ... All the guys I think hate me because I'm asking them [about] their stacks all the time because I want to be precise. So yeah, it's just a lot of work and I guess I will understand what is going on maybe in a week, maybe more."
2023 PokerStars Players Championship Final Table Results
*Denotes three-handed deal
Shylko's Unlikely Road to Victory
As is often the case in poker tournaments, Shylko's road to victory was an unlikely one.
Late on Day 4 with three tables remaining, Shylko found himself at risk of busting in a three-way all in where he and last woman standing Nadya Magnus held ace-king to dominate the ace-queen of the bigger-stacked Menzel, who managed to spike a queen on the flop to take the life out of the mild-mannered Shylko.
However, the dealer then peeled off a king on the turn and the eventual champion lived to see another day in what he called "the biggest moment in my life, in poker" up to the final table.
"It was really a really emotional one for me," he admitted.
The poker pro kept his composure throughout the hand and the rest of the tournament, but the poker world got to see an emotional side of Shylko when he was at risk of going out in fifth place when his ace-ten was dominated by Pizzari's Big Slick.
A king-high flop was no help to Shylko but left him hope with a gutshot to a Broadway straight. It didn't come on the turn but the river gave Shylko one of his four outs and he erupted in cheer before running over to his rail, stopping only to apologize to his opponent for the understandable outburst.
Nacho Typical Final Table
The energy was electric as the six players returned for play on Day 5 with tens of thousands of eyes on the live-streamed final table. Most of those eyes were on Argentina's Barbero, the most experienced player at the final table who had a commanding chip lead to put him on the trajectory to victory.
The trajectory slanted downward in just the first hour of play when Barbero made a massive misclick to raise-fold for over 20 big blinds. With blinds of 125,000/250,000/250,000, Shylko opened to 500,000 from under the gun with pocket jacks and Barbero, busy talking to the rail and having not noticed a raise in front of him, raised to 5,125,000 in the small blind with just nine-three. A four-bet jam from Shylko forced a fold from Barbero and he gave up the chip lead.
"I made a mistake," Barbero told PokerStars in an interview afterward about the raise that cost him five million in chips.
The mistake may very well have also cost Barbero millions of dollars as he later bowed out in fourth place to miss several payout jumps and the $4,053,200 first-place prize. The Argentinian WSOP bracelet winner admitted he was "tilted" after the hand but managed to re-take the chip lead before a few unfortunate runouts left him short before a top pair versus two pair cooler to mark his elimination.
It wasn't the only big mistake at a final table that commentator Maria Ho called "crazier than I could have imagined." Not long after Barbero's televised misclick, Pizzari folded the winning hand at showdown as he apparently didn't realize he had a pair to be ahead of the king-high of Thumm.
Despite the chaos around him, Shylko kept it together and played his A-game.
"I was just trying to be focused on the game," he said. "I just rewatched the hands and the end of the day, try to go have a good rest and go to [the] ocean. And when I was on the table, I was trying to be as calm as possible and play one hand at a time, that's it. That's the best you can do."
After the three-handed deal, Pizzari fell in third when he moved his short stack in with jack-seven and was looked up by the king-queen of Menzel, who flopped top pair to secure the Brazilian's exit. It was a short heads-up battle before Menzel made a straight on the river only to be against the full house of Shylko. A check-jam from Menzel sealed the deal and Shylko stared at the board as things became real.
Shylko's emotions shined through once again as Joe Stapleton announced his victory and he lifted the Player's Champion trophy with some help from the 2019 champ. After posing with the trophy, he video-chatted his friends and family back home in Belarus and the Czech Republic so they could share the moment from afar.
That wraps up PokerNews' coverage of the specular return of the 2023 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and PokerStars Players Championship. Be sure to check out the live reporting hub for coverage of other events here in The Bahamas.