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Monday, July 23, 2012
Updated: July 24, 4:47 PM ET
Highlights from the 2012 WSOP

By Gary Wise
Special to ESPN.com

The World Series of Poker is a marathon and, indeed, the brand's stewards will tell you one of their aims is to make theirs a year-round thing. However, no good story is without beginnings and endings. WSOP Europe is still to come and, of course, then we'll watch the October Nine, but 60 tournaments started and ended and a 61st played most of the way out, all over a tightly-packed 51 days. On the 52nd day we rested, and so it is time to reflect on what did and didn't happen at the 2012 WSOP.

This year's WSOP started under a cloud of Black Friday fallout and lingered on the apparently empty promise of things to happen regarding Full Tilt Poker payouts. As hands began to be dealt, the scope began to change. When we look back on the 2012 WSOP in the years to come, it won't be remembered for Black Friday, but for history's most dramatic all-time tournament winnings leaderboard shift, a what-could-have-been development in the history of women's poker endeavors and powerful individual player narratives led by two guys with the same first name. Those are vague allusions. Let's get to the specifics.

WSOP 2012: Five biggest winners

Antonio Esfandiari
After his win in the Big One For One Drop, Antonio Esfandiari looked at the pile of cash and asked, "Is this really mine?"

Antonio Esfandiari -- You probably know by now that with his win at The Big One For One Drop, Esfandiari took home $18.3 million and vaulted to the top of the all-time live tournament winnings leaderboard. With the win, according to Pokerati, the name Esfandiari becomes the fourth winningest surname of all time, even with him the only tournament casher brandishing the moniker. That's one big tournament score. Of course, his success with One Drop didn't end with the final hand. Esfandiari is just the kind of charmer to use this victory to vault to a new level of stardom. Twenty-four hours later, he was being featured on one of the biggest UFC cards of all time and you can rest assured agent Brian Balsbaugh will keep the hype train moving. Get used to Esfandiari's being amongst the 10 most-mentioned player names in poker for the next half-decade.

Phil Hellmuth -- For Hellmuth, WSOP bracelets are as protective/reflective as Wonder Woman's. Don't like what he says? Who cares, he has 12 bracelets! Don't like how he plays? Doesn't matter, he has 12 bracelets! Think he's a goof? Twelve bracelets! The poker world likes to point a finger and laugh, but Hellmuth managed to tack an extra bracelet onto his already leading career total with his victory in Event 18 and his run toward it (made all the more memorable by Phil Ivey's similar, but ultimately failed run on the same night) made for the most riveting kind of drama. No one else with more than two bracelets coming in won one this year, meaning Hellmuth managed to pad his lead against everyone else in contention. That means one more step everyone has to take if they want to stop Phil being Phil, because as long as he's at the top of that list, he's entitled to say just about anything he wants to.

Michael Mizrachi -- I've gotten into this in depth before, so let's not rehash much except to say Grinder is now unquestionably amongst the most successful tournament players of all time. He's now absolutely on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Greg Merson -- If you didn't follow the main event online, you may be asking who Merson is. If you fall into that category, let me introduce you to your leader for Player of the Year. Merson had never scored more than $22,000 in any live tournament coming into this year's WSOP, but the online cash game success story finally took a shot and came away with more than he believed possible. He final-table bubbled Event 28 in fifth place, then he won a cool $1,136,197 and the bracelet in Event 57, and then to top off a nice summer, he made it to the final table of the main event with the third-largest stack. With the Player of the Year lead in tow, you'll hear a lot about him heading into WSOP Europe and then into October, which means he'd better get used to interview requests. Regardless of how he uses the newfound attention, the man just won $1,978,125 over the past seven weeks with the potential for another $7.7 million to be won in October. Life is good.

Vanessa Selbst -- Gender-specific player comparisons are insulting to Selbst, who has long been one of the last people you'd want to have at your table, but here I am about to make one. Selbst was already a mainstay on ESPN's The Nuts poker player rankings, but just in case you were wondering who the best woman player in the world was, she went out and won Event 52, becoming the first woman to win an open-invitation bracelet since 2008, which was the last time she became the first woman to win since … you get my point. Selbst leaves gender division to the poker media, preferring to do her thing and win.

One "Loser"

Phil Ivey -- This isn't by my or anyone else's appraisal but his. In his interview with Nolan Dalla on WSOP.com, Ivey said, "No, I don't get any satisfaction from second place at all." Ivey's midseries run of five final tables in 12 days was unbelievable, but A) as the quote says, he didn't meet his goals, B) the lack of a bracelet in 2012 probably lost him a more-than-fair chunk of change in bracelet bets, C) he fell further behind Hellmuth on the all-time bracelet list and D) as great as those 12 days were, the rest of his series was lacking. He never got the sixth final table to tie An Tran's single-WSOP record, meaning what was looking like a historic WSOP performance was rendered less so. Throw in the questions that linger about his involvement with FTP and his return to WSOP despite their resolution and you have a series that looks good for Ivey on the surface, but not so much when you dig. Ivey enters WSOP Europe second in the 2012 WSOP Player of the Year race.

OK, a few more winners …

Unknown American dudes -- For those who would tell the stories, it's always easier to have an established entity to act as an anchor, and in the past, the final table has always provided at least one player to fill that role. This year, the media will have to work a little harder to tell the story of the final table because, for those who made it this far, that story is more largely untold than ever before. Merson's 2012 makes him stand out, and Jacob Balsiger's age is interesting (he can become the youngest player to win the WSOP main event) and we have a chip leader in Jesse Silvia, but really, we're only starting to get to know the main event's final table. For all eight of the unknown American dudes who've made it this far (and for Hungary's Andras Koroknai, the lone non-American playing in October), this is only the beginning of a new chapter.

Elisabeth Hille
Elisabeth Hille came close to becoming the first woman at the WSOP main event final table since 1995.

Female poker advocates -- There hasn't been a lot to cling to in recent years at WSOP for poker women's liberators and sympathizers. As mentioned above, no woman had won an open-invitation bracelet going on four years when Selbst finally took hers. Allyn Jaffrey Shulman's win in the Seniors event, while not technically open, involved multiple genders and a 4,128-player field, and the twin main event runs of Gaelle Baumann and Elisabeth Hille were really all anyone was talking about on Day 7. 2012 did include an increased number of women at the final tables, but it wasn't a giant leap for the ladies. I'm being greedy, but while there was so much success, I want more bracelets and a woman at the main event final table. When those come, and they will, 2012 will be remembered as a blip. Female success this year was certainly better than 2009-2011 and it gives us hope going forward that new standards in performance will be set in the not-distant future.

Guy Laliberte -- The biggest winner of all. Laliberte took a ludicrous dream and made it a successful enough reality that Mitch Garber was already talking about future installments as Esfandiari hugged his newly-won pile of money. Not only did Laliberte make the tournament happen, but he also vindicated himself with a fifth-place finish that showed how far his poker game has come since his days as one of online poker's most-losing players. Tens of thousands of words have already been dedicated to what Laliberte brought to the 2012 WSOP. Let's just say it's nice that the industry has friends in high places.

Five other guys who had really, really good WSOPs

David Baker -- Eight cashes, four final tables, his first bracelet and 56th place in the main event.

Andy Bloch -- Bloch finally won his first bracelet after two decades of participation and managed another final table in the Poker Players' Championship.

Shaun Deeb -- Managed four cashes and one final table in bracelet events, but he makes this list for the most profitable satellite near-miss of all time. Deeb's intentional fold into second in the Big One For One Drop $25,000 buy-in mega-satellite netted him a cool $1,000,000.

John Monnette -- Won a bracelet for the second straight year while also collecting second- and third-place finishes.

Sam Trickett -- One cash in 14 tries, but it was for more than $10,000,000 on international television. The industry has known Trickett is elite for some time, but this will be his introduction to the world.

Honorable mentions: Jesse Sylvia, Shannon Shorr, David "Bakes" Baker, Nick Schulman, Joe Cassidy, Brian Hastings, Brett Richey, Brock Parker, David Einhorn, Jeremy Ausmus and anyone else who won a bracelet.

Five memorable hands

Smirnov folds quads -- Phil Galfond, Tom Dwan and Eugene Katchalov have played a lot of hands, but none had seen one like this. Russian businessman Mikhail Smirnov, facing an all-in bet from John Morgan with a Js-8c-7s-8s-Ks, folded his pocket eights face up for the table to see. He may have even been right to do so.

Koroknai pushes, then mucks -- It was a controversial hand that would have massive ramifications. On Day 5, Gaelle Baumann made an under the gun min-raise and Andras Koroknai moved all-in from the small blind. When Gavin Smith folded his big, Koroknai immediately mucked, apparently forgetting Baumann was in the hand. It was ruled that Koroknai would forfeit the 60,000 he'd paid to match Baumann's bet, but not the rest of his 2,000,000-plus stack. Baumann held two kings.

Hellmuth just calls -- Kuala Lumpur-based businessman Paul Phua and Phil Hellmuth both checked the Ah-Qd-2c flop before Hellmuth bet 50,000 on the Qh turn then called Phua's raise. On the 6s river, Phua bet 475,000 with just 475,000 back and Hellmuth flat called despite holding the second nuts, Ad-Qc to Phua's pocket sixes. The table roared at Hellmuth's passivity, leading Rick Solomon to quip, "There's no one at this table that doesn't get it in there." Hellmuth responded as only he can, "There's no one else at this table named Phil Hellmuth!"

Esfandiari beats Trickett -- The way the hand played out wasn't special, but the ramifications were. Antonio Esfandiari raised the button/small blind to 1.8 million and Sam Trickett called before check-raising the Jd-5d-5c flop. Esfandiari, holding 7d-5s three-bet and then five-bet when Trickett wouldn't relent. Trickett called the all-in with Qd-6d but the flush didn't come. The turn and river, 3h and 2h, capped Esfandiari's win, and by doing so, completely rearranged poker's all-time tournament winnings leaderboard.

Koroknai finishes Baumann -- The true ramifications of the push/muck hand weren't felt until the final hand of play leading to the final table of the main event. With Elisabeth Hille gone in 11th place before her, the hopes for the first woman at a main event final table in 17 years rested with Gaelle Baumann. Baumann, holding Ad-9h, moved in for approximately 5.2 million in chips only to get called by nemesis Andras Koroknai and his Ah-Js. The board came 3h-Qc-Qh-8s-Kd, eliminating Baumann and setting the final table.

Top five money winners (with main event final-table finishers credited for a ninth-place finish)

Top five money winners (excluding The Big One for One Drop and the main event)

Most cashes at 2012 WSOP

Players with Multiple bracelet wins at 2012 WSOP: None

Five past names evoked during the 2012 WSOP

• Johnny Chan (thank you, Michael Mizrachi, as we compared historical accomplishments)
• Allen Cunningham (thank you, Matt Matros, as he became the first player since Cunningham to win bracelets in three straight years)
• Barbara Enright (thank you, Gaelle Baumann and Elisabeth Hille, for their deep runs in the main event)
• Layne Flack (thank you, Layne Flack)
• Ben Lamb (Thank you, Greg Merson, for emerging as a star in 2012)

Five events I'll reference in future articles:

Michael Mizrachi's 2nd Poker Player's Championship
Phil Hellmuth wins his 12th
Matt Matros' three-peat
Andy Frankenberger defeats Phil Ivey
Gaelle Baumann and Elisabeth Hille exit main event in 10th and 11th.

And so, the WSOP goes on. None of the above represents an ending, as now we'll wait for Europe, and then October, and by then we'll have started talking about 2013 and the debut of WSOP Asia-Pacific. Still, as with the primary Vegas portion of any WSOP calendar, this chapter is written and the record books closed. Thanks to Laliberte, the ladies, Hellmuth, Ivey, etc., it was a fun seven-plus weeks. For those who didn't get mentioned here? Hey, there's always next year.