The start of the 44th annual World Series of Poker is just three weekends away. That means it’s time to start looking forward to the greatest poker tournament festival on the planet. Here are five players worth keeping your eyes on when the cards finally get in the air.
There’s probably nobody on Earth who values WSOP gold more than Phil Hellmuth, which made last year especially sweet for him. After three runner-up finishes at the 2011 WSOP, he came storming back in 2012 with his first bracelet win in five years. Bracelet #12 wasn’t enough for the Poker Brat, though. He made poker history two time over with a win in the WSOP Europe Main Event: he become the first WSOP Main Event winner ever to win its European equivalent, and he extended his lead over Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan on the all-time bracelet winners’ list to three.
These last two years have been the most profitable of Hellmuth’s 26-year professional poker career, which is even more impressive given how much the game has evolved since the poker boom. Plenty of players who have been around that long can claim to have remained competitive, but none have adjusted as well to the modern game as Phil Hellmuth.
WSOP Main Event winners always have eyes on them the year after they win, so Greg Merson would’ve been scrutinized regardless of how well he’d done outside of that particular tournament. But Merson isn’t just the reigning Main Event champion, he’s also the reigning WSOP Player of the Year. He edged out Hellmuth only by virtue of his victory at the delayed Main Event final table. Add to that the fact that he hasn’t been seen at tournament tables very often since his win, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a player everyone’s going to want to watch.
Much like Phil Hellmuth had done in 2011, Phil Ivey came close to a WSOP bracelet multiple times in 2012. A second-place finish in the $10,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em event and four other final table appearances actually put him in close contention for the WSOP Player of the Year award that Merson won. It was quite the return to the scene after Ivey sat out the 2011 Series in the wake of Black Friday, even though Ivey wasn’t able to break through.
This April, at the inaugural WSOP Asia-Pacific, Ivey claimed his first bracelet since 2010 with a victory in the $2,200 Mixed Event. The prize was a relatively small $54K, but the win was his the ninth of his career at the WSOP, moving him into extremely rare territory: a tie with the legendary Johnny Moss. Another win this year would move Ivey past Moss and into a tie with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan for second place all-time.
Daniel Negreanu is one of the single most recognizable poker pros in the world today, thanks in large part to his dominant play during the peak years of the poker boom. Though he hadn’t exactly slipped into irrelevancy in the intervening years (he won more than $5 million between 2009 and 2012), his record leading up to 2013 was lean on wins in open-field tournaments. A win in an €1,100 EPT side event in 2010 and wins in 2008 at the British Columbia Poker Championships and the WSOP $2,000 Limit Hold’em event were his only outright victories post-UIGEA.
All of that changed when Negreanu won the first WSOP Asia-Pacific Main Event in April. He outlasted a field of 405 players to claim the $1.08M prize and the fifth gold bracelet of his career. That moved in into a tie for 12th place on the all-time bracelet winners list alongside some of the game’s greatest players, including Stu Ungar, Scotty Nguyen, and John Juanda – and back into the spotlight he loves so much.
After playing a relatively light schedule in 2011, former November Niner Joseph Cheong had a great 2012. He won more than $1.24 million thanks to strong performances at the WSOP (2nd & 9th place finishes) and WSOP Europe (4th in the WSOPE Main Event), plus 10 other cashes. He’s already outdone that performance in just six cashes this year. In the month of April alone he won $534K for a second-place finish at the WSOP Asia-Pacific $50,000 High Roller Rebuy event and $1.34M for a victory at the Manila Millions.
Joseph Cheong’s background before making the November Nine in 2010 was as a small-stakes tournament grinder, which makes him well-suited to the rigors of seven straight weeks of poker. He’s been playing well and seeing results for a solid year now, and he’ll be hungry for his first career gold bracelet to go along with more than $8 million in career earnings.