Poker: Niklas Heinecker

The Nuts is a recurring feature that takes a look at the best poker players in the world. This feature aims to produce a list of the best players at the moment. Our panel of 10 is composed of ESPN.com's poker contributors (Bernard Lee and myself); Bluff magazine editor-in-chief Lance Bradley, senior writer Tim Fiorvanti and information manager Kevin Mathers; WSOP.com managing editor Jessica Welman; PokerNews editor-in-chief Donnie Peters; World Poker Tour's Eric Ramsey; PokerStrategy's Barry Carter; and PocketFives' Dan Cypra.

With the conclusion of the Aussie Millions, 14 players have already earned at least $1 million from the tournament felt this year. Daniel Negreanu isn't at the top of that list (he's seventh), but he is at the top of these rankings, holding off Phil Ivey and Vanessa Selbst. It was far from unanimous, but Negreanu's $1.7 million in earnings and deep runs in the High Roller events at both the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and Aussie Millions were enough to retain his place. He may be confident about his game, but his ranking will continue to be in jeopardy with Ivey, Selbst and Mike McDonald thriving.

That's right, I said Phil Ivey. After months of wondering if one of the all-time greats would return to the tournament felt, he made an appearance at the Aussie Millions and cashed in for AU$4 million with a victory in the AU$250,000 Challenge. That wasn't it. Ivey also found success in the Aussie Millions cash game. Ivey was No. 2 in the last set of rankings and despite the massive score, he fell to third because Selbst's consistency is simply too much to deny.

While Ivey makes his living with an occasional poker appearance, Selbst is always on the trail and had one of the most memorable PCA's we've ever seen. She finished third in both the $100,000 event (Fabian Quoss first) and $25,000 event (Jacob Schindler first), and finished 42nd in the main event for a total of $1.3 million. The only player who found more success than any of the aforementioned trio is Mike McDonald, who makes his return on this list at No. 4.

Taylor Caby tells the tale of McDonald best:

 

McDonald, with $10 million in career life tournament earnings, has thrived in the poker world for nearly a decade. His online roots (as "Timex") made him a legend among the young stars of the game, and his knack for competing at the game's highest level is simply enviable. McDonald opened 2014 with four final tables and over $4 million in earnings. What sets him apart from Ivey, Selbst and Negreanu, is that one of his three seven-figure cashes came in the PCA main event, displaying his ability to navigate not only the elite, but the masses as well.

Despite two more final tables for $381,024, Scott Seiver dropped one spot this month to No. 5. Seiver has made six final tables since October, each bringing in at least $100,000. After a quiet PCA, Seiver finished fifth in the AU$25,000 event and seventh in the main event (won by Ami Barer) at the Aussie Millions. He currently has $9.5 million in live tournament earnings in his career. The 2013 GPI Player of the Year Ole Schemion continued his success in January with two seventh-place finishes in the $100,000 and $25,000 buy-in at PCA. He has four tournament victories and 10 final tables since last May.

The final four players all maintained a place on this list since the last rankings, but didn't gain enough support to boost their placement. Philipp Gruissem, Marvin Rettenmaier, Nicklas Heinecker and Mike Watson spent the first six weeks of the year looking for the next game with Rettenmaier being the biggest winner of the bunch for nearly $200,000. Phil Hellmuth and Noah Schwartz fell out of the top 10.

As the industry looks ahead, a quiet final few weeks in February lead into a busy March that includes the L.A. Poker Classic, Bay 101, WPT Venice, EPT Vienna and a number of WSOP Circuit, Deepstacks, UIKPT and Heartland Poker Tour stops.

Did we leave out your favorite player? Who should be ranked higher? Who should be completely off the list? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below. Here's a look at February's top 10:

On the bubble

The number of big buy-in events during the first two months reinforced perceptions (and rankings) of a number of the game's elite. Even with his runner-up finish in the Aussie Millions main event, Sorel Mizzi couldn't crack the top 10. Mizzi has found great success in the event, finishing in the top 16 four times since 2009. He also won the $25,000 event at the Bellagio in January. After Mizzi came 2012 WSOP main event champion Greg Merson who finished second in the $25,000 buy-in and 98th in the main event at PCA. Merson doesn't play many tournaments, but the high rollers have recently piqued his interest. After spending a good amount of time playing in the Macau cash games last year, it'll be interesting to see Merson's tournament schedule moving forward. A third familiar face, Antonio Esfandiari, follow that duo on the bubble. Esfandiari finished fourth in the $100,000 event at PCA and also cashed in the main event. … Fabian Quoss has over $2.3 million in earnings this year, most of which came from the largest win of his career ($1.6 million) in the $100,000 PCA event. Quoss is another talented German who thrives on the High Roller action and has accumulated $5.7 million in tournament earnings since 2009. … Former No. 1 Jason Mercier has four cashes on the year, including a third-place finish in the AU$25,000. … Ben Tollerene, Sam Trickett, Joe Kuether, Dominik Panka, David Peters, Yevgeniy Timoshenko (winner of the AU$100,000 event), Isaac Haxton, Steve O'Dwyer and Victor Blom also received consideration this month.

Final thoughts

Bradley: This might be the competitive we've ever seen the top of this list. I Imagine most voters struggled more with whom to put No. 1 than ever before. If you had $10,000 to invest in one player in one tournament, you couldn't go wrong with any of the top three players. If you wanted to invest in McDonald, you'd probably need to come up with more than $10,000. The Canadian pro traveled all the way to Melbourne to play two super high roller events -- skipping the $25,000 and the $10,000 main event in the process. All he did was cash in both events. If he keeps putting up results like that he's likely to make it even harder on panelists, forcing them to consider him for the top spot.

Feldman: Usually I have a pretty good feel about who is going to take the top spot before the votes come in. However this month, I didn't know if it would be Negreanu, Ivey or Selbst. Each of them has a tremendous track record and recent success to place them up, and I could make an argument for each and every one. To put things simply, If any of those three, or even McDonald, were to grace the top spot, I don't think the panel would have come to the wrong conclusion. That said, no matter who earned the top spot, there would definitely be a strong debate and conversation. Don't forget to add your take below.

As a whole, the group was on the same page for the top five players. After that, the rankings became a little murky. I could really put in a pretty strong argument for Fabian Quoss and Ben Tollerene and I'm surprised neither of them made it. Mizzi too. I do believe the panelists put a ton of weight on the super high roller events and in reality, that's important because that's where the best in the world compete. If you beat the field of elite players, you deserve consideration here.

Heinecker is going to prove to be a difficult player to keep on the list with his recent opt-out of his performance tracking. Many high stakes cash game players are doing similar things and it makes it very tough to gauge long-term winners and losers online as a result.

Finally, I'd like to welcome PokerStrategy's Barry Carter to the panel, replacing former ESPN Deportes editor Nahuel Ponce. He brings a great perspective to the game and to these players that will definitely make this initiative even better.

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