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WPT Rolling Thunder Poised for Even More Poker History Moments

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When J.C. Tran won the inaugural WPT Rolling Thunder event at Thunder Valley Casino Resort back in 2013, everyone on hand that night knew they had witnessed something special. Tran was Sacramento’s poker superstar and he clinched his second career WPT title in his own backyard. But what nobody could have known at the time is that Tran’s victory on the felt was just the start of something else, equally as special: a partnership between World Poker Tour and Thunder Valley that, this year, is celebrating 10 years of tournament history.

Undoubtedly, Tran’s win was a major boon in the eyes of Thunder Valley officials. Ten years after the casino’s opening, the poker room made its debut on the World Poker Tour as the third of three sequential stops in California, a stretch that WPT CEO Adam Pliska dubbed “the California swing.” The California Swing consisted of (then) tour highlights the Los Angeles Poker Classic and Bay 101 Shooting Star. Two events that drew the biggest names in the game to the West Coast for some of the largest paydays on the calendar. Back in 2013, the emerging Thunder Valley poker room was simply added on to the end, starting literally the day after the Bay 101 champion was crowned.

Today, it’s a different story. Of the three events, Thunder Valley stands alone as a WPT schedule staple – a state-of-the-art, player-first poker room helmed by Thunder Valley’s Director of Poker, Ben Erwin. And after a two-year Main Tour hiatus (in between which the now-retired WPTDeepStacks brand featured twice), the 2023 WPT Rolling Thunder had its strongest showing yet. Last year’s event drew 590 entries, besting the most recent WPT Rolling Thunder field by 125 entries. In doing so, the tournament set a record for a new all-time prize pool for the card room at more than $1.88 million.

What makes those 590 entries so exceptional is that Thunder Valley bucks the trend of offering multiple starting flights. There’s just one, and this year it’s on Saturday, March 23. One shot for organizers to try to reach the bar set by last year’s field and possibly even exceed that number. The poker room can handle the traffic and officials are seemingly doing everything in their power to pile players into the Championship Event on the cheap. Satellites (and super satellites) have been running on the regular in the weeks leading up to the tournament. According to Erwin, when all is said and done, Thunder Valley will qualify somewhere between 120-130 players into the Championship Event; this includes two massive satellites that take place on Friday, March 22 – one that guarantees 20 seats and another that promises another 30.

There’s a good chance those seat guarantees will be met thanks to the big-time support of the everyday local players of the card room, and the fervent Northern California tournament scene at large. A decade ago, the grinders who didn’t win a seat in the Bay 101 Shooting Star used to line up four people deep on the rail just to be a part of the event. That energy has moved east as many of those same players have turned Thunder Valley into their home casino. And, like many card rooms, Thunder Valley boasts its own cadre of notable pros from Tran to the “World Famous” Pat Lyons; Thunder Valley ambassador and WPT champ Tyler Patterson to Brett Murray, dubbed “The God of Thunder” for his tournament success at Thunder Valley.

Those players have not only been a big part of this decade of success, but have also turned Thunder Valley into a stop where poker history takes place. Case in point is Ian Steinman, who as a younger poker player cut his teeth in the live dailies of the South Bay at both Bay 101 and Garden City. You likely already know what this is referencing, but in case you’d forgotten, WPT Rolling Thunder was where Steinman made his now iconic fold against Joe McKeehen.

For a poker room technically located in Lincoln, CA, plenty of poker headliners have made the trip, unable to resist the allure of earning the right to have their name inscribed on the Mike Sexton WPT Champions Cup. Olivier Busquet, Joseph McKeehan, Moshin Charania, Connor Drinan, Taylor Paur, Anthony Zinno, Dylan Linde, Jake Schwartz, Kevin Rabichow, and WPT’s own Tony Dunst are just some of the names that have battled to make one of WPT Rolling Thunder’s final tables.

In addition to notable superstars, the local players always represent well. When in Northern California, in addition to the likes of Tran and Steinman, you’ll always need to be on the lookout for two-time WPT Champ (and 2019 WPT Rolling Thunder winner) Erkut Yilmaz, WPTDeepStacks winner Jasthi Kumar, Andreas ‘Rayo’ Kniep, 2013 Bay 101 Shooting Star runner-up Joe Nguyen, Kyle Kitagawa, Randy Gil, and 2018 WPT Rolling Thunder winner David Larson, among others. Of course, with so many qualifiers being fed into the Championship Event, the initial field may feel softer for some of the incoming traveling pros. But the extended Bay Area and beyond, from San Jose to Tahoe, will undoubtedly have their presence felt.

As it stands, Scott Eskenazi’s $361,660 victory in last year’s WPT Rolling Thunder remains as the largest first-place prize ever handed out at Thunder Valley. While it would take an outpouring of entries to overtake that sum this year, it wouldn’t be unheard of. One should expect multiple six-figure paydays to be handed out at the final table with whoever wins assuming the driver’s seat in the (very, very) early WPT Player of the Year race.

It’s been a number of years since the winner of WPT Rolling Thunder has gone on to take the WPT POY title – five seasons to be exact – when Yilmaz earned the honor. On the strength of his win at Thunder Valley, Eskenazi finished 2023 fifth in the WPT Player of the Year race. And if you might doubt the drawing power of Rolling Thunder for 2024 POY hopefuls, the current reigning, defending winner, Bin Weng, has already been spotted on the property – and he is no doubt looking to make a run at WPT Rolling Thunder in his title defense.

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