Dealer’s Choice: Notable Poker Players of 2012

Thanks to an explosion of High Roller tournaments, including the world’s first million-dollar-buy-in event, it’s been a very good year for gaudy numbers in the poker world. That’s particularly if you’re an American – even more particularly if you’re an American who’s already had quite a bit of success at the poker tables in the past. Of course, with the game’s global footprint expanding further than ever before, players from other continents got in on the act, too. Here’s a look at some of the most notable poker players. 

Dealer’s Choice: Notable Poker Players of 2012

Antonio Esfandiari – $19.07 million in tournament winnings 

After only cashing two times in all of 2011, “The Magician” turned things around with a flourish at the 2012 WSOP. First he made five cashes and one final table appearance. Then he won the biggest poker tournament prize in history by conquering the $1,000,000-buy-in Big One For One Drop. Esfandiari’s $18.34-million win vaulted him immediately to the top of the all-time tournament winnings list, even without factoring in the other $4 million he’d won in his career before the Big One. Then he closed out the year with more strong performances. Winning another gold bracelet at WSOP Europe and making the final table of the WPT Five Diamond main event at Bellagio in December pushed his all-time record for tournament winnings in a single year almost $400,000 higher.

Greg Merson – $9.75 million in tournament winnings With just four tournament cashes this year, all of them at the WSOP, Greg Merson compiled the kind of year that every tournament poker player dreams about. Six-max WSOP championship bracelet? Check. WSOP Main Event championship bracelet? Check. WSOP Player of the Year award, won in dramatic fashion? Check. Sure, part of his winnings went to his backer, but that still leaves millions for Merson to test himself against whatever competition suits him. Given his hunger to be the best, his near future ought to be very interesting.

Stanley Choi – $6.46 million in tournament winnings 

With several years’ worth of tournaments logged in the history books, high-stakes poker in Macau is no longer a new thing. As if to drive that point home, the $250,000 Macau Super High Roller tournament drew 73 entries and another 21 re-buys for a prize pool of more than $23.5 million. Stanley Choi and three other Chinese players bested a late-tournament field that included the likes of John Juanda, Phil Ivey, Sam Trickett, Di Dang, and John-Paul Kelly. Mr. Choi’s entire tournament resume consists of his Macau win. But even if he never wins another dollar in a tournament, he’ll remain significant for winning the biggest poker tournament ever held there despite facing world-class competition. 

Phil Hellmuth – $4.39 million in tournament winnings 

The all-time leader in WSOP cashes and bracelets has had more good years in his career than just about anyone who’s ever played the game. But this year was particularly special for Phil Hellmuth. Between Las Vegas and Cannes, he cashed 10 times at the 2012 WSOP. A win in the $2,500 Razz tourney – his first in a non-hold’em event – gave him career bracelet #12. Then he put a cap on his C.V. for 2012 with bracelet #13 in the WSOP Europe Main Event. Add in more than two and a half times more than he’d ever won in a single year, and the pain of three runner-up finishes at the 2011 WSOP became a distant memory for Hellmuth.

Dan Smith – $3.73 million in tournament winnings 

Some players start the year right with a big win before blanking the next 11 months. Not Dan Smith. He followed up his Aussie Million $100,000 Challenge win with not one, not two, but three victories in side events at the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. After a third-place finish in the WSOP $5K NLHE event, he won the EPT Barcelona Super High Roller and final-tabled the Partouche Poker Tour main event. Smith was still going strong as recent as a week ago, winning a side event at EPT Prague. With a wire-to-wire run like that, people are going to have their eyes on Smith for some time to come.

Phil Ivey – $3.65 million in tournament winnings 

There was a time when you couldn’t go to a big poker tournament without seeing Phil Ivey. After Black Friday the former face of Full Tilt Poker couldn’t be found within a hundred miles of a high roller tournament, and in 2011 he went without a single tournament cash for the first time since 1999. The 2012 Aussie Millions served as a “welcome home” party of sorts for Ivey, though his opponents likely wished he’d stayed gone. He finished 12th in the main event but walked away the winner of the $250,000 Challenge. After bubbling the final table of the EPT Grand Final High Roller tourney, Ivey headed to the WSOP and put on a poker skills clinic. His seven cashes came in six different varieties of the game: no-limit hold’em, pot-limit hold’em, mixed hold’em, limit Omaha hi-lo, H.O.R.S.E., and seven-card stud hi-lo. Five were final table appearances. Though Ivey didn’t win a bracelet (he took 2nd in the $10K PLHE) he reminded everybody of exactly why he’s considered one of the greatest poker players of all time. 

Marvin Rettenmaier – $2.5 million in tournament winnings 

The best overall results of any European player in 2012 belonged to Germany’s Marvin Rettenmaier. He toured the globe throughout the year, cashing in 21 tournaments on three continents. Four of those were wins, starting with a side event at the EPT Grand Final at the end of the April. In May came the WPT World Championship – the smallest running of the $25,000-buy-in event since the very first, but still worth nearly $1.2 million. In August Marvin won another WPT event, this time the Merit Cyprus Classic. And two weeks ago he finished the year with a victory in the EPT Prague High Roller tourney. With improved earnings in each year of his now three-year-long pro career, Rettenmaier is proving himself to be one of the brightest stars in European poker. 

HONORABLE MENTION: Flaminio Malaguti – $59,004 in tournament winnings

Flaminio Malaguti didn’t win huge money this year, but he did put together an impressive track record in small Las Vegas tournaments. Between February and October of this year Malaguti put together a string of 50 cashes in events with buy-ins between $100 and $500, plus one cash in a WSOP shootout event. All but two of those small-event cashes came in series held at Caesars Palace. Of those cashes 19 were wins, giving him a 37 percent win rate when he cashed. Though his largest prize was $7,214 and the second-largest just $2,895, Malaguti still ended the year with career-high total winnings of more than $59,000 – not bad for grinding a few months’ worth of small tournament series at Caesars Palace.