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The 2016 Presidential Poker Open is now in its final year. While action has been going strong for many months, it will heat up in the coming ones even more. The Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses are on the horizon, and the trash talk at the tables is reaching new heights.

When we last checked in at the end of 2015, there were 13 Republican-sponsored players and three ambassadors for the Democratic Party. Donald Trump still led the former by a large margin, and Hillary Clinton maintained a lead over Bernie Sanders in the latter group.

One of the Republican players did drop out of the race right before the year ended. George Pataki was at the low end of the chip counts for most of the time he played in 2015, and he never gained enough ground to be a contender. So, he exited the tournament with a heartwarming video by the fireplace.

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January Chip Percentages

As the tournament staff attempted to get chip counts in January, the feverish action made it difficult. But the Reuters/Ipsos nationwide poll was the easiest to follow. Per the January 13 numbers for Republican players, there was still one chip leader but quite a bit of range for the rest of the pack. And despite the poll not even including Jim Gilmore, he still claims to be in the race.

Donald Trump 38%
Ted Cruz 14%
Ben Carson 11%
Jeb Bush 10%
Marco Rubio 6%
Chris Christie 4%
Rand Paul 3%
Mike Huckabee 3%
Carly Fiorina 3%
John Kasich 2%
Rick Santorum 1%
Jim Gilmore Not even showing up anymore

The Democratic players have mixed up the numbers in statewide polls, with Sanders and Clinton neck-and-neck in most of them. However, the national poll from Reuters/Ispos still shows Clinton holding a solid lead.

Hillary Clinton 54%
Bernie Sanders 35%
Martin O’Malley 4%

Key Plays

Ben Carson had a rough end to 2015, as several top aides resigned from his campaign on December 31. Happy New Year, Ben! He quickly found more poker coaches to help him into the new year, but Carson took a hit in the chip counts and lost hand after hand.

When he woke up in 2016 and participated in the South Carolina featured table action (debate), Carson seemed to have lost some of his game focus. And in one hand, he began talking into the camera about dirty bombs and electromagnetic pulses. Most of his competitors ignored him, Carson folded his hand, and the tournament noise lulled him back into a deep sleep.

Jeb Bush tried numerous times to call out Trump for his unorthodox plays and strategies. Clearly uncomfortable with standing up to Trump, Bush reached for some insults that would not warrant a tournament penalty but make the point. He came up with “jerk.”

“He can’t keep playing like this,” Bush said to the tournament staff. “He makes fun of other players, media, railbirds, and all of us. He’s just a big… a huge… a JERK!”

The tournament director told Bush to be seated and play the game. And Bush did.

It did so happen, however, that former player Lindsey Graham endorsed Bush.

Carly Fiorina hadn’t been involved in many big hands in the past few months, so she took a different route when at the featured table and in front of the cameras. Instead of taking on her direct opponents, she talked about Clinton, who was playing at an entirely different table.

“I love my husband,” she said randomly. “Hillary Clinton doesn’t even want her husband at the tournament. She’s afraid he’ll flirt with the pretty women watching the event. I don’t have to worry about my husband doing that. He just watches me play.”

Rand Paul chose not to even show up for the featured table action. When he was informed that he would be on the secondary table instead of the headlining table, he took offense and protested by going home.

Rick Santorum talked about the breakdown of the game. He noted that every player should come from a two-parent home, and that players from broken families are destined to have troubles in tournaments.

Mike Huckabee accused reigning PPO champion Barack Obama of being more interested in protecting Islam than the reputation of the game of poker. He said that radical Muslims are ruining the game, and Obama has done nothing to stop them.

John Kasich spent much of his camera time during the featured table action asking the dealer for better cards and the opportunity to play them. When reminded that the dealer hands out random cards, Kasich noted that he got better cards when he was the governor of Ohio.

Martin O’Malley wore his Democratic Party gear with pride, decked out in a DNC hat, jacket, and sunglasses. He tried his best to get involved in hands, but no one would play back. Anytime O’Malley raised, his opponents folded.

“Someone, please ask me how I would have played that hand,” O’Malley said repeatedly. “I have an amazing strategy and good coaches, and I’ve prepared for this tournament for years. Why can’t you just call my raise and see a flop with me? I’ll even tell you what my hole cards are!”

Most often, however, his opponents simply ignored him.

Martin O'Malley

Credit: AP

Important Hand Matchups

As the tournament becomes more contentious, players have taken more opportunities to criticize each other’s play and do a bit of grandstanding in the hopes of garnering public support.

Chris Christie v. Marco Rubio

Rubio has been gaining ground in recent polls but decided to try to push one of his opponents off his game. During featured table play, Rubio accused Christie of being so friendly with the Democratic players and the reigning champion that he even secretly backed Obama’s friend, Sonia Sotomayor, when she played the US Supreme Court Championship.

Christie denied any such thing, specifically the backing of Sotomayor, but the poker media did some fact-checking to discover that it was true. Christie then walked away from the table and mumbled something about shutting down a freeway so Rubio wouldn’t be able to get home from the tournament that night.

Ted Cruz v. Donald Trump

The issue started weeks ago when Cruz began challenging Trump for the chip lead in some states. It was brought to Trump’s attention that Cruz was born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother. US immigration laws state that Cruz was then an automatic American citizen, but he did have dual citizenship with Canada, which he later rejected for singular American status. Trump agreed that it was interesting and continued to talk about it, asserting that Cruz was not eligible to play in the Presidential Poker Open because it was restricted to US-born players.

Attorneys have weighed in on both sides of the issue, and Trump insists that only a court can decide the issue, not the tournament staff. With that, he also insists that Cruz becoming champion would be too complicated because of the court battles that would ensue.

When the television staff filming the tournament asked Cruz about it, the fans on the rail booed the question, and they booed Trump’s response to Cruz as well. And according to the latest polls, Cruz’s popularity has suffered due to the seeds of doubt being planted.

Ted Cruz v. Donald Trump, Part Deux

In past months, the two players did everything possible to avoid playing hands against each other. But as the caucuses approached, they had no problem four-betting and five-betting each other into oblivion.

As part of Cruz’s attempt to attack Trump in response to the citizenship jabs, Cruz accused Trump of having “New York values,” which equaled some type of liberalism. When the television crew asked Cruz about that issue during featured table play, Cruz tried to defend his words by saying that New Yorkers are “socially liberal, are pro-abortion, are pro-gay marriage.”

New York players and fans were none too happy about the generalization, and Trump fired back across the table with the tool that works in every poker argument: September 11. He touted the bravery of New Yorkers during and after the 9-11 attacks, and noted that most Americans were proud of New York players.

Cruz could not argue back, so he simply agree with Trump, offered a soft-clap bit of applause for the New Yorkers of whom Trump spoke, and mucked his hand. Trump collected the chips with a tear in his eye, and then he wiped his eyes with a handkerchief made by Mexican immigrants.

Bernie Sanders v. Hillary Clinton

The two Democratic front-runners have largely stayed away from personal attacks on each other and focused on the game. They each played their own strategy but did adjust when necessary.

During the Democratic featured table, however, Clinton took several opportunities to verbally attack Sanders, most notably on the issue of health care.

Sanders believes that all poker players have the right to health care, and he plans to change the system in whatever ways possible to ensure more players, staff, and fans. Clinton accused him, however, of wanted to dismantle the entire Affordable Care Act and start over from scratch, which he denied. The two argued during that one hand, which got heated but ended up being a split pot.

The television interviewer then asked Sanders what he thought of Clinton’s husband and his past indiscretions with female poker fans. Sanders quickly dismissed the question and asked that they focus on the game at hand, not on personal issues that don’t affect the game.

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Preview: We will check back in with a tournament update in early February, just after all players participate in the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses on February 1 and 9, respectively.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.