This marks the tenth year that the World Series of Poker will give away its Player of the Year award. The current leader in this year’s race is Daniel Negreanu, who got off to a fast start with a victory at the WSOP APAC Main Event in Australia back in April. As it happens, Negreanu was the very first player to win the WSOP’s award for individual excellence back in 2004. Nobody has ever won it twice, so he could earn himself a new entry in the history books if he performs well the rest of this year.
The short history of the WSOP Player of the Year award can be broken down into a few distinct eras based on which events were eligible for the formula that determined the winner.
The Early Years
The WSOP Player of the Year was almost an afterthought when it first began, seemingly implemented mostly because the World Poker Tour had already done the same thing. All of the events counted equally regardless of the buy-in or how many players entered, and there was no trophy or other bauble to commemorate the award. But when Daniel Negreanu won the award he gave it instant legitimacy by setting a benchmark for other “name pros” to strive for.
Negreanu’s six cashes and five final table appearances in 2004 (one resulting in his fourth bracelet) are both still records for all winners of the WSOP Player of the Year award. His $346,820 in earnings remain a record low among POY winners, but he’s had the most consistent long-term success of any of them so it probably doesn’t bother him too much.
Negreanu’s former roommate Allen Cunningham claimed the WSOP POY award in 2005. His performance was similar to his old friend’s: he cashed five times with four final table appearances and one bracelet, his third. Unlike Negreanu, that summer earned Cunningham more than a million dollars – $1,007,115 to be exact.
The Side Event Era
In 2006 the Main Event and the new $50,000 HORSE tournament were ruled ineligible for POY points, making the new era all about the side events.
The 2006 winner was then-21-year-old Jeff Madsen. Unlike the two established pros who won the previous awards, Madsen was a complete unknown when he arrived in Las Vegas. And unlike most of the other young players at the Series, he mostly played live poker instead of online. All four of his cashes were final tables, and two of them resulted in bracelets – one heads-up against Erick Lindgren. Madsen’s $1,467,852 in winnings became the gold standard for POY winners. (Had the Main Event counted, Cunningham’s third-place finish and previous bracelet win in a side event likely would have given him the award.)
The 2007 winner was cut from a different cloth. Former CEO and high-stakes cash game specialist Tom Schneider of Arizona cashed just three times for $416,829, but all of them were final tables and two were bracelet wins. Schneider’s wins both came in split-pot Stud games with smallish fields, but field size wasn’t factored into the POY formula at the time. As that year’s only double bracelet winner he had just enough points to stay ahead of others who cashed more often and won more money, like Jeff Lisandro and Phil Hellmuth.
The Big Event Era
Erick Lindgren, whose closest previous brush with the gold bracelet was his heads-up loss to Jeff Madsen in 2006, won the WSOP POY award in 2008. He became the second player (after Negreanu) to earn both WSOP and WPT POY honors. His first bracelet win came in a mixed hold’em event, but it was one of his other final table appearances that made the big difference. He finished fourth in the $50,000 HORSE event, which in 2008 counted in the POY standings for the first time in its three-year history, for a total WSOP take of $1,348,528. He finished just 10 points ahead of Barry Greenstein, who busted two spots before Lindgren in the HORSE tournament.
In 2009 the formula for the POY award changed, allowing both the $50K HORSE and the Main Event to count in the standings. But like past winner Tom Schneider, Jeff Lisandro’s path to the win was through Stud tournaments. Lisandro won three tournaments in three different Stud variants that year and added three other cashes for a total take of $807,521. He remains the only triple bracelet winner among POYs.
Another relatively unknown player won the award in 2010. In fact, I was one of just a handful of people in the poker media who knew Frank Kassela well at the time. I first met Kassela, a businessman from Tennessee and a regular on the poker tournament trail since the early days of the poker boom, on the WSOP Circuit in mid-2005 and got to know him and his wife. The summer of 2010 was his breakout: he won $1,255,314 from six cashes, including two bracelets in Razz and Stud Hi-Lo. He came two spots away from winning a third in the $25,000 Six-Max No-Limit Hold’em. It was the kind of run every player dreams about. Michael Mizrachi made the November Nine and came close to surpassing Frank, but his exit in fifth place locked the award up for the underdog.
The Modern Era
In 2011 the WSOP began including results from WSOP Europe in its calculations for the Player of the Year. The formula was also changed to give weight to field size and buy-in, resulting in the most thorough WSOP POY standards to date.
Ben Lamb caught lightning in a bottle in Las Vegas during the summer, cashing four times with three final table appearances and one bracelet. Then he made the final table of the Main Event, which was delayed until November. But he trailed Phil Hellmuth, who had finished second on three separate occasions that summer, in the POY standings. When Lamb finished third at the November Nine he sealed up the award and his place in WSOP history. His $5,352,970 in total earnings for the year surpassed Jeff Madsen’s 2006 take of $1.46M and became the new record for a POY winner.
Greg Merson was just as sharp in 2012 as Lamb had been in 2011 – and once again Phil Hellmuth paid the price. Merson cashed three times during the summer, with his lone final table appearance ($10,000 Six-Max No-Limit Hold’em) leading to his first gold bracelet. Then he made the final table of the Main Event and had to wait until late October to resume play.
Hellmuth was just behind Merson heading to WSOP Europe, thanks to winning bracelet #12 during the summer. Overseas, he won the Main Event and took ownership of the lead in the POY standings. Merson was the only player left who could surpass Hellmuth for the award – and to do so he had to win the Main Event. As everyone knows, that’s exactly what he did. With $9,785,354 in earnings, he set a bar that will be very difficult for any future Player of the Year to top.
A Title Worth Playing For
The changes to the POY formula in recent years have addressed some of the many complaints the system has generated over its lifetime. They have also resulted in highly competitive races each year. And now that the WSOP is a worldwide series of three separate festivals with tournaments counting toward the POY, it’s a race that can be followed for more than just seven weeks in the summer and two nights in November. From an afterthought to a sought-after title, the WSOP Player of the Year award has come a long way in its 10 years.