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The Nuts is a monthly 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 me), ESPNDeportes.com poker editor Nahuel Ponce, 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 and Pocketfives' Dan Cypra.
For most of the year, the biggest headlines have been dominated by just a few players. Whether it was Phil Ivey's final-table run, Phil Hellmuth earning bracelets 12 and 13 or Antonio Esfandiari dominating the WSOP and WPT felt, fans of the game had plenty of opportunities to learn more about the already established faces in the game. However, three new stars truly emerged in 2012 with one, Greg Merson, finding the largest spotlight around thanks to his main event victory.
The truth is that behind the glamour of the industry, two players emerged into the forefront not because of their wins coming on the world's biggest stage, but because of their consistent success. Marvin Rettenmaier and Dan Smith proved time and time again in 2012 that they were the ones to beat anytime they were at the felt. With a combined 10 outright wins and $6.2 million in earnings, it was no surprise that the Bluff Player of the Year award would come down to those two and even less of a surprise that it came down to the last points-eligible tournament before there was a clear champion. Rettenmaier won one of the largest high-roller events of the year at EPT Prague to jump Smith for the honor. Not to be outdone, Smith won the six-handed 5,000 euro event, hoping to retake the lead, but due to the small field size, the win didn't earn player of the year points.
Both players had incredible months. The panel, which includes new faces Eric Ramsey of the WPT and Kevin Mathers of Bluff, reacted in kind and awarded Smith second and Rettenmaier third. Before rushing to the comments section and asking how Phil Ivey could still be No. 1, it's important to note that Ivey was one of the biggest online winners over the past week, notching nearly a half-million on the online felt playing as "Polarizing" on FTP and "RaiseOnce" on PokerStars.
The success of Smith and Rettenmaier also kept the pressure on Jason Mercier to dropped to fourth, his lowest spot in these rankings since August, 2010. This was the first year since Mercier's emergence on the poker scene in 2008 that he didn't capture seven figures in earnings. Hellmuth, still riding this list on his WSOP success, dropped a few spots to No. 5.
Jumping three spots this month to No. 6 is Esfandiari, who finished third at the WPT Five Diamond after a crucial hand against eventual champion Ravi Raghavan. (You can hear Esfandiari's thought process on the hand during the latest Poker Edge.) The only other player to move up in this month's rankings was Bertrand Grospellier, who returned to this list after a four-month hiatus. "ElkY" made three final tables over the past six weeks and, given his tendency to put in excessive volume, will be one to watch during the 40-event PokerStars Caribbean Adventure festival starting Jan. 5.
Looking at the non-ranked winners over the past month: Ramzi Jelassi earned his first seven-figure victory as the EPT Prague champion; Zheng Lei won the first WPT stop in China; 2012's $50,000 Players Championship runner-up Chris Klodnicki topped a field of 188 at the Sands Bethlehem Deepstack Extravaganza; Alexander Queen won yet another tournament at the Borgata for $100,049; and Jonathan Chehanske topped former November Niner Soi Nguyen to win the WSOPC main event at Harrah's Rincon. Online, the first Full Tilt Online Poker Series took place since FTP's return, and Yann "yadio1111" Dion defeated a final table in the main event that included Sorel Mizzi to win the $453,229 top prize. Dion also made the final table of the Sunday Million the following week. He finished sixth. Other FTOPS champions include Mike Leah, Kevin Eyster (two victories), Dani Stern, Bill Gazes and Taylor Paur.
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 December's top 10:
On the bubble
December's bubble was as close as the rest of the rankings. Grospellier barely edged out John Juanda, Joseph Cheong, Shawn Buchanan and Tom Marchese for the final spot, and the argument could be made for each and every one of them. Juanda maintained his position as one of the best in the world with another $3.1 million in tournament winnings this year. Cheong's 13 cashes across the world in 2012 keeps his candidacy for a spot up. Buchanan earned $746,502 as the runner-up at the Five Diamond to push him over the $1 million mark for 2012, and Marchese returned to winning form at the Five Diamond High Roller for a win worth $207,405. Oh, and then there's Andrew Lichtenberger, who has joined Esfandiari at the Five Diamond final table in each of the past two years. & More bubble honors belong to Chris Moorman, who had a strong showing during FTOPS; Greg Raymer, who is still riding his four Heartland Poker Tour victories; and Viktor Blom, who defeated Tom Dwan in a $200,000 heads-up challenge earlier this month. Others receiving substantial consideration include Noah Schwartz, Jonathan Duhamel, Kyle Julius, Shaun Deeb, Sam Trickett and Eugene Katchalov.
Bradley: Every player on this list won something in 2012 except Jason Mercier. For the first time since he started playing live poker Mercier, was held for a calendar year without a first-place finish. If he hopes to keep his place near the top of this list -- or even on this list -- he'll need to break that trend quickly. Smith and Rettenmaier put on quite a show in 2012, and their strong year is reflected here.
There are some names that I expect to move. One is Merson. The 2012 WSOP Main Event champ indicated he won't be playing a full tournament schedule, so he'll be hard to gauge moving forward.
Feldman: From 1 to 9, this was a close set of rankings. Each of the panelists was really in tune with the current success stories, and the best thing we can take away from this list is a strong story about not only the stars of 2012 but also the players to watch in 2013.
My monthly debate about Phil Ivey being No. 1 remains, and now that he's back online, we can again see tangible results that should help make that decision easier. I think the argument to remove him could've been made before his recent online surge, but it's really not that easy. While all of us on the panel are observers to the game, players will always tell you that the best competitor is Ivey. Think of it this way: If you could give a certain amount of money to any player as an investment, who would be your horse? For me, the answer is Ivey, and that's why he's still my pick for No. 1.
Looking at the rest of the top 10, I agree with Lance that Mercier's time is now. Just like Merson, how Mercier performs at PCA will have a huge impact on his ranking for next year. I expect Smith and Rettenmaier's spots to fluctuate significantly, and I truly don't get how Michael Mizrachi isn't always in the discussion for a higher spot. There's nothing the guy can't do. I've also always wondered what it would take for Hellmuth to become No. 1. I'm not sure the panel would ever agree on that.
2012 has been another incredible year for the industry, and I can't wait to see what 2013 and these rankings have in store. Have a safe, happy and healthy new year, everyone!