Another memorable year in poker has come to an end. The World Series of Poker continued to set records and steal the spotlight, with numerous players putting together a year to remember. Things were a little less bright in the online poker world, with regulation on a national level failing to gain any significant traction.
Poker players could only look on as daily fantasy sports, a common destination for online poker players out of a career after Black Friday, suddenly became the new in vogue target of government scrutiny, like poker before it.
Several poker players found the spotlight on nationally televised shows well outside the normal realm of where you’d find them. Alex Jacob had a long run on "Jeopardy," Vanessa Rousso made it to the final three on "Big Brother" and Vanessa Selbst appeared on "The Steve Harvey Show."
The poker world mourned the passing of several big names in the game, including Eskimo Clark and David “Devilfish” Ulliott, as well as the untimely passing of former online star Chad Batista. Poker aficionado and philanthropist Sam Simon also succumbed to cancer in 2015.
The Riviera Casino on the Las Vegas Strip shut its doors, as did two of the most iconic poker meccas in the world -- the Aviation Club in Paris and the Taj Mahal poker room in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
As we reminisce, here is my annual column looking back at the top 15 stories and moments from 2015, in chronological order.
Changing of the sponsorship guard
Ever since Chris Moneymaker “inconceivably” won the 2003 World Series of Poker main event, sponsorship has been the Holy Grail for poker players around the world. The WSOP main event champion and other poker superstars who were lucky enough to make the final table were guaranteed a hefty contract to wear a sponsor’s patch.
Those contracts are no longer assured to these players, especially in the United States. Early in 2015, we saw many established poker pros part ways with their sponsors. These players (and the company they represented) included Jonathan Duhamel and Vanessa Rousso (PokerStars), Kara Scott (partypoker) and Xuan Liu (888poker).
Online sites, especially PokerStars, decided to go in a different direction by signing major sport stars in lieu of poker players. These stars included soccer superstars Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, and snowboarder Zoe Gillings-Brier.
Twitch becomes significant poker platform
According to their website, Twitch is the world's leading video platform and community for gamers. In 2014, several poker players, including 2011 WSOP bracelet-winner Jason Somerville, began to recognize the possible applications of Twitch for poker. In February 2015, at the American Poker Awards, Twitch was named the Poker Innovation of the Year.
Numerous other players, including Daniel Negreanu, began to understand and utilize Twitch to stream content, and the platform is now well-established as a viable source of information in the poker world. In an era where U.S.-based players rarely receive sponsorship deals, Somerville parlayed his well-established Twitch broadcasts and exceptional poker talent into a sponsorship deal with PokerStars.
“Colossal” turnout for inaugural WSOP bracelet event
When the WSOP Colossus event was announced in December 2014, poker players from all around the world wondered if the WSOP could pull off such a monstrous event. At least 10,000 entries would be needed to meet the $5 million guaranteed prize pool, in just four flights over two days.
Aside from some delays in the payout line and certain players complaining about the first-place payout percentage, the tournament ran extremely smoothly, setting numerous poker records. With 22,374 entries (14,284 unique players) creating a prize pool of more than $11 million the Colossus event exceeded expectations, and after five exhausting days Houston native Cord Garcia took home $638,880 and the coveted WSOP bracelet.
After this unprecedented success, the WSOP announced Colossus II, scheduled in 2016 with an increased prize pool guarantee ($7 million) and a guaranteed $1 million to the winner.
Only $125 to play against the best in the world
During the $565 WSOP Colossus event, the Aria Resort & Casino decided to cater to high rollers by offering a $25,000 buy-in event. On the other side of the room, there was also a regularly scheduled $125 buy-in being played.
One player nearly received the freeroll of his life -- he paid for the $125 event and accidentally got seated at a $25,000 buy-in table. The player did not report the error and played against some of the best players in the world, but after a few hours the “discounted entrant,” who even eliminated a few players before the error was discovered, was escorted out of the tournament area.
Fortunately this “discounted entrant” did not cash, but he did, unfortunately, eliminate several players who paid the full $25,000. The Aria acknowledged the error and decided to compensate the eliminated players between $3,000 and $5,000 for their troubles.
Although this player was removed from the tournament, he will definitely have tales to tell his friends for years to come.
Summer Super High Roller
Most other major poker events are usually put on hold during the WSOP, but the Aria didn't budge and catered to some of the biggest players in the game by hosting the Super High Roller Bowl, which featured a buy-in of $500,000. The event was held just prior to the WSOP main event and partnered with Poker Central, a new all-poker channel, to televise the event.
The tournament had 43 entries, creating a prize pool of more than $20 million with $7.525 million going to the winner. Brian Rast took home the title, adding yet another accomplishment to a career that includes a victory in the 2011 $50,000 Poker Players Championship.
Kid Poker eliminated in 11th Place at WSOP main event
In 2009, Phil Ivey made the WSOP main event final table. Poker super fans and casual viewers alike reached a fever pitch, rooting for him to capture the most coveted bracelet in poker.
This year another poker superstar was on the verge of repeating Ivey’s feat. Daniel Negreanu made the second deep main event run of his career, and heading into the final day his supporters were out in full force, cheering for every pot he dragged in.
“Kid Poker” made it to the final two tables, and even two eliminations from the November Nine, but after his top pair could not fade the flush and straight draws of eventual champion Joe McKeehen, Negreanu dramatically fell to the floor.
One month later, Negreanu rode that momentum into a final table appearance at the 2015 WSOP National Championship at Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina. He headlined the stacked televised final table, but Negreanu fell in sixth place. The eventual winner was New York native Loni Harwood, who earned her second career WSOP bracelet.
Pros add to their WSOP jewelry collection
In poker, the cream rises to the top -- and many poker pros added to their trophy case in 2015.
Some of the other highlights from the 2015 WSOP include:
- Phil Hellmuth increased his lead in the bracelet race. Hellmuth beat eventual 2015 WSOP Player of the Year Mike Gorodinsky in the $10,000 razz championship, putting him at 14 bracelets, four bracelets ahead of three players (Phil Ivey, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson) tied in second.
- Since 2000, there has been at least one multi-bracelet winner every year. 2015 was no exception, as Max Pescatori won two bracelets -- his third ($1,500 razz) and fourth ($10,000 seven-card stud high-low world championship) of his career. Brian Hastings saw double as well, earning his second ($10,000 seven-card stud world championship) and third ($1,500 10-game mix) WSOP victories.
- Jonathan Duhamel won the $111,111 Big One for One Drop to earn his second WSOP bracelet. In October he added a third in the 25,600-euro High Roller at WSOP Europe in Berlin, Germany. He joins Joe Cada and Greg Merson as the only main event champions since 2001 to own multiple bracelets.
- Tuan Le captured the $10,000 Deuce to Seven Triple Draw Championship for the second year in a row. That’s the first time somebody has won the same event in two consecutive years since 2009, when Las Vegas native Thang Luu won the $1,500 Omaha high-low title for the second straight year.
- Gorodinsky won the $50,000 Poker Players Championship for his second career bracelet. That victory, along with his runner-up to Hellmuth and six other cashes, earned the Southern California cash game specialist the 2015 WSOP Player of the Year award.
Several other players became multi-time WSOP bracelet winners in 2015: Daniel Alaei (5), Jeff Madsen (4), Eli Elezra (3), Jason Mercier (3), Robert Mizrachi (3), Barny Boatman (2), Phil Galfond (2) and John Gale (2).
PokerStars and Full Tilt receive New Jersey license
After more than four years of exile from the United States, PokerStars and Full Tilt -- both owned by Amaya Gaming -- received approval from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement in September. Both online sites are expected to be up and running by early 2016, each hoping to recapture some of the market they once dominated.
For the world of U.S. online poker, the news was received with optimism. While PokerStars and Full Tilt will only be in New Jersey -- one of three states with fully regulated online poker in the U.S. -- at launch, other states have begun discussions of opening online poker to its constituents. These new potential locations for online poker include California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Washington and Mississippi.
Online poker continues to be a hot-button issue in other parts of the country. In December, a Kentucky judge ordered PokerStars to pay treble damages to the tune of $870 million for violating its state’s anti-gambling laws. PokerStars calculates that only about $18 million was raked from the state’s players during their previous stretch in the U.S. and Amaya will appeal the judge’s ruling, which would benefit only the state’s coffers and not Kentucky players’ bankrolls.
Warming up for the 2015 November Nine:
While making the November Nine is a career achievement in itself, two players who locked up their spots in history in July found further success during their layoff. Ironically, both of these players ended heads-up for the WSOP main event title when play resumed in November.
In September Josh Beckley flew down to Florida to play in a tournament during the WSOP Circuit’s Palm Beach Kennel Club stop. In Event No. 1, a $365 Monster Stack, the New Jersey native outlasted 316 opponents to take home the Circuit ring and $22,349. One month later, Joe McKeehen captured the $1,600 Wynn Classic Main Event title, defeating a field of 267 players for $90,125 just two weeks before the November Nine.
Greeks dominate Germany
WSOP Europe made its first ever stop in Germany in 2015, at Spielbank Berlin Casino, but the tournament series was dominated by another contingent of Europeans -- Greek players. Entering the series Greece had zero bracelets as a country, but by the conclusion of the 10 bracelet events the country upped its total to three.
Makarios Avramidis (2,200 euro six-handed no-limit hold 'em), Pavlos Xanthopoulos (3,250 euro no-limit hold 'em) and Georgios Sotiropoulos (1,100 euro turbo no-limit hold 'em) each made a statement in representing an often overlooked group.
American Kevin MacPhee captured the WSOPE main event title for 883,000 euros.
Two new Hall of Fame inductees
Two well-respected poker pros were inducted into the 2015 class of the Poker Hall of Fame in a ceremony at Binion’s Gambling Hall in downtown Las Vegas, the host of the first 34 WSOP’s. On Nov. 6, two-time WSOP bracelet winner and cash game specialist Jennifer Harman was inducted alongside five-time WSOP bracelet winner John Juanda.
Juanda proved he can still play in the highest and most competitive levels of the game by capturing the European Poker Tour’s Barcelona main event for over one million euros. Harman and Juanda are the 49th and 50th members of the Poker Hall of Fame.
McKeehen goes wire-to-wire at WSOP final table
Highlighted by four East Coast players and two players over 60 years old, the WSOP Main Event final table played out live on the ESPN airwaves over three days.
The 24-year-old McKeehen entered the final table with the largest chip lead in the November Nine era. The Pennsylvania native was well aware that only one November Nine chip leader had ever sealed the deal (Duhamel in 2010), but McKeehen played the big stack to perfection.
He’d never relinquish the chip lead. In the end, McKeehen beat Buckley, his fellow East Coaster, to take home the most coveted prize in poker -- an oversized WSOP bracelet and $7.6 million.
Multiple winners of 2015
Winning a poker tournament is an incredible achievement. Two wins or more in the same year in major tournaments is something that truly sets you apart. A number of players put together truly noteworthy résumés in 2015.
- Steve O’Dwyer started the year by capturing the $100,000 Super High Roller title at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $1.8 million in January. In March, O’Dwyer outlasted 237 entrants in a tournament during the Macau Poker Cup in Hong Kong for $129,106. He wasn't done. In October, he entered the 10,200-euro High Roller during the Italian Poker Tour in Malta, besting 134 entries and taking home $359,733. The Las Vegas native also captured the 50,000-euro Super High Roller event title in Prague against more than 56 entries for $816,666. His total earnings for the year were just shy of $4.9 million.
- Jose Montes started out the year with a bang, winning the WSOP Circuit main event in Choctaw in January by beating 1,363 entries for a prize of $352,669. One month later, the RunGoodGear pro won the Heartland Poker Tour Golden Gates Main Event, which had 761 entries and paid $240,523 to the champion.
- Ray Henson won the largest WSOP Circuit event in history, outlasting a field of 4,035 entries to win $197,588 and his fourth career ring. During the WSOP, he finished third to his friend and roommate Cord Garcia in the biggest live tournament field in history -- the Colossus -- earning $308,761.
- Aaron Mermelstein won two World Poker Tour events in 2015. In January, he won the Borgata Winter Poker Open over 988 entries to win $712,305. In September, Mermelstein struck again, winning the first ever WPT event at Maryland Live for $250,222.
- Anthony Zinno won back-to-back WPT titles, and wasn’t even done at that during an historical campaign. In February, Zinno headed up to the Fallsview Poker Classic in Canada to win his second career WPT title and $302,235. Two weeks later, he took down the prestigious LA Poker Classic main event for seven figures. And if that wasn’t enough, he followed up that performance by capturing a WSOP bracelet in the $25,000 pot-limit Omaha High Roller during the summer.
Players don’t like change
This year, poker players reacted in a largely negatively way to a pair of changes to two well-established entities in the poker world.
- Boycott of PokerStars Due To Its VIP Program Changes: In response to the changes in its VIP program, especially in the higher status levels, thousands of online poker players from all over the world boycotted PokerStars from Dec. 1-3. The high volume and highest-stakes players felt the revisions reduced their benefits dramatically. While many of the planned changes appear to help recreational players, online pros were extremely displeased and felt ignored. The results of the change and the boycott remain to be seen, but 2016 will be an important year for the online poker giant and its customers as it returns to the U.S.
- WPT Replaces Championship with Tournament of Champions: Due to declining registration numbers, the WPT decided to replace its season-ending Championship with a new Tournament of Champions format. This made-for-television “Champion of Champions” event, where winners of past WPT events including all winners from the 2015-16 season, was not received well by many players, including some past WPT champions. Many of these dissenting opinions believed that the vast majority of past champions will not participate in this $15,400 buy-in event, creating a low prize pool. Suggestions were wide and varied, but one prevailing opinion was that the new event should be an addition, and not a replacement. The tournament is scheduled for April 21, 2016 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida.
Five Diamond shines at end of 2015
Outside of the WSOP, live poker registration numbers in U.S. poker tournaments have been down across the board since Black Friday. Buy-in amounts have been reduced and adjusted in several major tournaments to strike the right balance. In a positive sign for live poker, the Five Diamond World Poker Classic drew 639 entries -- the second-largest field in its history. The buy-in was reduced from $15,000 to $10,000 allowed the prize pool to swell to over $6 million -- $1.59 million of which was awarded to the champion, Louisiana native Kevin Eyster, who is now a two-time WPT champion.