It seems like just yesterday that Martin Jacobson was standing on stage at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, hoisting the World Series of Poker Main Event bracelet over his head as confetti reigned down on poker’s new world champ. Truth be told, that was 196 days ago and the 2015 WSOP is just hours away.
Every player who walks into the Rio believes in their heart that they’re going to walk away with the bracelet and the money. The reality is that only around 60 players will walk away with a WSOP victory this summer. Trying to come up with any sort of list of players worth watching is always a challenge -- variance can be a real nightmare sometimes -- but there are still a number of story lines worth following this year. Here are six of the most captivating ones:
All eyes turn to the reigning world champ any time she or he walks in to the Amazon Room. That’ll be the case this year for Sweden’s Jacobson as he returns to the Rio for the first time since winning poker’s most prestigious title last November. The attention is more like a distraction, though, with fans wanting pictures, media wanting time and every player at his table wanting to tell the story of how they took down the champ. It shows in the results. The last five Main Event winners have cashed a combined eight times in the year after their win.
After his win, Jacobson talked a lot about how he was mentally prepared for the final table and was able to use previous disappointments in the main event as motivation. He’ll get to see his championship banner unveiled in the opening days of the WSOP this year, and will be challenged throughout not only by the cards but by the ghosts of champions past.
He ends up on this list nearly every year. The last few WSOPs however have been a series of close calls for Mercier, though. In 2011, he won his second WSOP bracelet as part of the five cashes he recorded that summer. In the three WSOPs since, he’s posted a total of 16 cashes, with three coming last year. However, Mercier just finished up a dominating performance in the PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker. He won three events, final-tabled five more and cashed a total of 21 times on his way to winning the SCOOP Leaderboard.
The reason Mercier ends up on this list nearly every year is because he’s ridiculously talented in every variation on the WSOP schedule, he’s well enough bankrolled to play every event he wants, and he’s got a history of tournament success -- $13 million in lifetime earnings. The allure of the juicy cash games during the WSOP could prove to be too much of a distraction for Mercier to pass up.
Last year’s WSOP Player of the Year is almost always a must-watch. Why? Historically they don’t come anywhere close to returning to their POY form. Prior to Danzer winning it, the WSOP POY winners were Ben Lamb (2011), Greg Merson (2012) and Daniel Negreanu (2013). Lamb hasn’t cashed since his magical 2011 year, Merson only managed one cash in 2013 (it was a deep run in the main event) while Negreanu did what Negreanu does, cashing nine times including two runner-ups.
Danzer came into the WSOP last year already hot, having come really close to winning the SCOOP Leaderboard with an astonishing 32 cashes. He can play all of the games on the WSOP schedule, so he’s likely to play as many events as he can in pursuit of bracelet No. 4. The question is: Will he be another Lamb or Merson, or can he do what his fellow Team PokerStars Pro Negreanu did?
Last year, Leah finished second in the BLUFF Player of the Year race behind Dan Colman. While Colman made a name for himself at the 2014 WSOP, Leah had a summer to forget. He cashed just four times, making just one final table, and even with just under $50,000 in winnings, he wound up a loser. That all changed for Leah after the WSOP.
The Canadian poker pro finished second at the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open in August -- again looking up at Colman -- then went on to win his first WSOP bracelet in the WSOP-APAC High Roller. Then in early March, he finished runner-up to Anthony Zinno at the WPT L.A. Poker Classic. All told, he earned $2.27 million in less than eight months. Leah also says he’ll play a much bigger schedule this summer than he has in years past.
There’s a good chance that Kanit might just be the most unheralded player on this list, and that makes almost zero sense. Sunday night, he won $1.3 million by taking down the SCOOP High Main Event. It was his second seven-figure score this month. In early May, he won just over $1 million when he won the European Poker Tour Grand Final Super High Roller event.
The 24-year-old Italian poker pro has cashed 54 times since he started playing live poker in 2010, and 24 of those cashes have been final table appearances. He’s won eight titles. He has yet to find much success at the WSOP, though. Last year included four total cashes, with three final tables. Given just how hot he is coming in to the 2015 WSOP, it would be hard (and possibly foolish) to bet against his finally getting a bracelet this year.
Any long-time poker fan knows the name Carlos Mortensen. He’s been dominating live tournament poker for nearly two decades now. Included in that reign of domination is a main event title in 2001, a final table bubble at the 2013 WSOP main event and a WPT World Championship. He’s 43 years old now, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down. In fact, he might break some personal records in 2015.
Mortensen has cashed 12 times already in 2015, and his next cash will tie his personal best for cashes in a year. His impressive year really does run the gamut. He’s cashed in a bunch of smaller buy-in events in Las Vegas, and also has a fourth-place finish in the $15,400 buy-in WPT Championship in Atlantic City in April. Even if he’s unable to win his third bracelet this summer, he could find himself part of the November Nine festivities anyways, as the newest inductee to the Poker Hall of Fame.