The 2011 WSOP was a welcome break from the dark cloud of Black Friday. A number of storylines developed as poker players from around the world took to the felt in Las Vegas and check-raised their blues away, and by the end of the year it was back to business for much of the industry, even in the face of the fallout from Black Friday.
Another Big Year At The WSOP
A number of well-regarded players grabbed their first career bracelets this summer. English wonderkid Jake Cody was the first to do so when he wrapped up his conquest of poker’s Triple Crown with a win in Event 2, the $25K Heads-Up World Championship. Eugene Katchalov took down Event 5, $1,500 Stud, while all-world Frenchman Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier won Event 21, the $10K Stud Championship. But tops among them all was Brian Rast, who took down Event 15, $1,500 Pot Limit Hold’em, for his first bracelet before also winning the $50K Poker Players Championship.
Whatever you might think of him, there’s no denying that Phil Hellmuth is one of the most successful players in the history of the WSOP. He extended his lead in career cashes by making the money in six events, giving him 85 in-the-money finishes since 1988. But the real story was his three chances to grab a record 12th bracelet. All three times Hellmuth came up short – to John Juanda in Event 16 ($10K 2-7 Lowball Championship), to Eric Rodawig in Event 33 ($10K Stud Hi-Lo Championship), and to Rast in the $50K Poker Players Championship – but he put on a show for his fans and haters alike.
Ben Lamb, even though he only cashed five times in 2011, had the kind of year that every poker player dreams of. His first cash was a 2nd-place finish to Sam Stein in Event 31, $3K Pot Limit Omaha. Then he won his first bracelet in Event 42, $10K PLO Championship. Almost as impressive were 12th-place in Event 46 ($10K 6-max Championship) Then he collected his third WSOP Main Event cash in five years – topping his previous 156th– and 14th-place finishes – making the November Nine and guaranteeing himself the largest cash of his career. His third place finish at the final table netted him $4 million and the WSOP Player of the Year award, giving him $5.35 million in winnings for the Series and topping off one of the more remarkable summer runs in recent memory.
With Lamb out in third place, the WSOP wrapped up another banner year with an epic heads-up battle between Germany’s Pius Heinz and the Czech Republic’s Martin Staszko. It was only the second heads-up battle between two European players in the Main Event (after Peter Eastgate and Ivan Demidov’s 2008 battle), and it turned out to be highly entertaining affair – a good thing since the match was being broadcast live online. Staszko played slow and steady to counter Heinz’s relentless aggression and the chip lead changed hands a dozen times over the first 100 hands or so. Staszko lost a key pot on the 111th hand, calling Heinz’s shove with a combination straight-and-flush draw, but the German’s ace-queen held up to give him a big advantage. Just a few hands later Heinz finished the job, claiming $8.7 million and Germany’s first ever WSOP Main Event championship. Staszko, meanwhile, won $5.4 million and the satisfaction of becoming the Czech Republic’s all-time leading money winner.
International Poker Markets Continue To Grow
While the United States was busy kicking down the door of its poker market, the rest of the world’s interest in the game continued to increase. This was especially true with land-based tournament series in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, where record numbers turned out in 2011.
The European Poker Tour kicked off its eighth season in August with its first-ever event in the Baltic republic of Estonia and then visited Greece for the first time a few months later. Meanwhile the rest of its more established events in Spain, Italy, England and the Czech Republic continued to grow, with each of them drawing at least 691 players. The Latin American Poker Tour also saw expansion, moving into Colombia for the first time and plotting its return to Brazil with a Season 4 Grand Final scheduled to take place in Sao Paulo at the height of Carnival.
The Asian Poker Tour continued to expand its presence in the sleeping giant of worldwide poker markets. It partnered with boxing champion and Filipino national hero Manny Pacquiao to run his new poker tournament, and also paired up with resorts in India and the Philippines for the APT Asian Series to bring professionally run tournaments to the poker-hungry masses at a price they could actually afford. The APT even scheduled a special event for London in January 2012, which it hopes will bring increased awareness of the brand to poker players outside of its home market.
Meanwhile the World Poker Tour continued to expand its global footprint with a schedule that included stops in Spain, Slovenia, Malta, France, the Czech Republic, Morocco, Italy, and even a new American market in Florida. The rest of the WPT’s Season 10 schedule will see events in Ireland, Mauritius, and Austria, a welcome development after years of American-heavy “World” Poker Tour schedules.
Not Quite Epic, But Not Quite Fail
Back in the US, the Epic Poker League got off to a respectable start in August when 137 players turned up for its first Main Event, but things quickly turned sour when serial debtor Chino Rheem outlasted the field. Rheem’s creditors, including Tom “durrrr” Dwan and 2010 WSOP Main Event final tablist Joseph “subiime” Cheong, came out of the woodwork looking for their piece of his $1 million prize. EPL Commissioner Annie Duke ended up placing Rheem on probation, essentially requiring him to pay back his debts or be suspended from the league. Rheem made good – or at least good enough to satisfy Duke – and the EPL managed to weather the PR storm without any lasting damage.
Attendance was down at the next two EPL Main Events, with only 197 players turning up between them, but at least winners Mike “Timex” McDonald and Chris Klodnicki were scandal-free. Also of note was the presence of Erik Seidel at two final tables. (Apparently he wasn’t satisfied with winning just shy of $4.5 million before Tax Day.) With just one event left on its first season schedule, a late January/early February “Shot Clock NLHE” affair at the Palms in Las Vegas, it’s questionable at this point whether the EPL will be enough of a success to justify returning for a second season in 2012, at least not without some changes to its format or a sudden spike in the world economy.
Away From The Tables
The scandals that had sullied the still-infant reputation of Jose Macedo earlier in the year only got worse during the summer. First Macedo admitted to scamming members of a Skype strategy group for some $40,000 and agreed to repay those he had skinned. Then Dan Cates and Haseeb Qureshi admitted to helping Macedo in various ways, sometimes ghosting his play or even playing on his account at Lock Poker. Noah Stephens-Davidowitz and Vanessa Selbst conducted two interviews with Cates for the website Subject: Poker that shed light on the depth of the deception behind Macedo’s rise and heavily implicated both Cates and Qureshi in that deception.
On a much more positive note, the Poker Hall of Fame welcomed its two newest member in November. Barry Greenstein was honored for his decades of consistency at both the highest-stakes cash games and the world’s top tournaments. Linda Johnson, the WSOP-bracelet-winning former publisher of Card Player magazine and constant presence on the World Poker Tour, was given the nod for her contributions as a tireless ambassador for the game.
In politics, Rep. Barney Frank announced that he would not seek re-election in 2012. Frank was one of the few members of the US Congress to support Americans’ wishes to play poker from the privacy and comfort of their homes – a rarity among Congressmen, and even more remarkable since Frank himself doesn’t gamble. That leaves poker-playing Texas Republican Joe Barton as poker’s best friend at the federal level; whether or not he ends up being a good friend is a matter that’s yet to be determined.
And finally, two big developments for the American online poker industry were announced just before the Christmas holiday. The US Department of Justice reversed its opinion on the Wire Act of 1961, saying that it only applies to sports betting, and the state of Nevada officially began accepting applications for online poker licenses. Not much attention has gone to those stories yet, but they will probably drive much of the online poker news in 2012.