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.
WSOP season has officially started. As WSOP-APAC debuts in Melbourne to award the first five bracelets of the year, we're poised to see major changes in these rankings. No one single tournament series can change the perception of who the best are in the game than the WSOP and with additional opportunities for players to shine, the volatility on this list is ready to pick up over the next few months. There's no doubt there are great times ahead in the poker world, now a full two years removed from its darkest day, and as we continue to turn the page from Black Friday, it's also time to mark the end of an era here in these rankings.
Jason Mercier was one of the original faces in "The Nuts" rankings back in December 2009. Originally ranked seventh, Mercier's run to the 2009 Player of the Year award was followed by millions in earnings, both live and online, in every type of game imaginable. Up until 2012, Mercier had made at least seven figures in each of his four years as a pro and when Phil Ivey stepped away from the game, he was the one to emerge as the No. 1 player in these rankings.
The joke of #whenwillitend transitioned from positive to negative in 2012 as Mercier struggled on the felt and openly admitted to a losing year. Down on his luck at the felt, his stock in these rankings fell. From the top spot as recently as May of last year to ninth last month, Mercier would need to come up big in March to stay in the top 10. Despite making some money in the Premier League and running deep at EPT London, one of the true faces of the game is now on the outside looking in. Mercier was the only player since the debut of this list to be present each and every month.
The newly-signed Ultimate Poker ambassador Antonio Esfandiari also fell out of the rankings this month, making way for two of the game's hottest tournament players in Paul Volpe and Dan Shak. Volpe's emergence into the widespread poker conscious began at the WSOP main event, but in reality, those that followed the online space closely knew that his 20th-place run was no fluke. Playing as "paulgees81," Volpe amassed millions in earnings and right at the time of Black Friday, he was ranked as the No. 1 online poker player in the world.
Regardless of where he's played recently, he's found success. Since his main event run, Volpe made back-to-back WPT final tables (finishing second and third), won hundreds of thousands online and is No. 1 in the GPI's Player of the Year race. Volpe debuts in these rankings at No. 5.
Shak, making his debut a No. 6, stands out on this list. The rest of the top 10 are all professional poker players, but Shak, while playing for years and probably convincing many that he's a pro, remains a commodities trader. Shak's 2013 includes an eighth-place finish in the Super High Roller at PCA ($228,960), twin fourth-place finishes in the Aussie Millions majors ($422,279 and $250,201), a runner-up in the 10,000-pound eight-game event at EPT London and just last week, a victory in the Premier League worth $528,000, as Shak defeated No. 3 Sam Trickett for the title.
Shak's win stands out as one of the most impressive in March given the incredible field that participates in the Premier League, but there were many other strong performers during the month. WeiKai Chang earned his first WPT title at Bay 101 (defeating a final table that included Volpe and Erik Seidel), Ruben Visser won the EPT main event (Steve O'Dwyer fifth, Chris Moorman eighth), Talal Shakerchi won the EPT London High Roller (Faraz Jaka runner-up, Volpe fourth) and Rocco Palumbo won the WPT Venice main event (Mike Sexton third, Matt Salsberg seventh).
Trickett's jump from nine to three was the biggest move among the top 10 this month. Phil Ivey retained the top spot despite a tough month online, and as Vanessa Selbst dropped two spots to No. 4, Marvin Rettenmaier's three cashes have him at No. 2. The bottom four, Scott Seiver, Phil Hellmuth, Michael Mizrachi and Dan Smith, had limited success, and with WSOP-APAC, WPT Barcelona, Jacksonville, Seminole and Montreal, LAPT Brazil (featuring Ronaldo's debut), IPT San Remo, WSOPC Foxwoods and Harrah's Chester and EPT Berlin, they'll need to find the money in order to stay in the top 10.
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 March's top 10:
On the bubble
This month's bubble boy was discussed at length above. Jason Mercier fell to the bubble, just edging out Antonio Esfandiari for that spot. Both are definitely among the best in the game, but the past month hasn't featured substantial scores. The bubble debate should truly begin with Matt Salsberg and Tobias Reinkemeier. Salsberg finished seventh at the most recent WPT event in Venice, placing him in a tie with Volpe for the Season XI Player of the Year award. Reinkemeier finished sixth in the Premier League for $162,000 and putting his 2013 tournament earnings at $1.6 million. ... As impressive as both have been on the tournament felt, one player has equaled their efforts in the online cash games. Viktor Blom is back to his winning ways, up nearly $3 million over the past 30 days. The challenge with Blom's inclusion in this list is that his bankroll fluctuates substantially month-to-month and although he's up huge as of the time of this article's posting, by tomorrow, he could be in the red given the nosebleed stakes he's playing. ... Bertrand Grospellier, Chris Moorman (winner of a recent FTOPS event), Mike Watson (who added another $151,160 to his bankroll in March), Tom Marchese, Nacho Barbero and Steve O'Dwyer also received consideration this month.
Bradley: It's a really small sample size that we're dealing with, but Dan Shak plays extremely well in high roller events. When your day job requires managing financial transactions bigger than most tournament prize pools, it makes sense that he appears to be under less stress at the felt. That alleviation of pressure might give him an advantage in these situations over his opponents who are most likely backed and have extra pressure on their shoulders. As he plays more, we'll see if he's able to keep this run up and gain further in the rankings.
Hellmuth is typically a WSOP performer who managed to space out some impressive performances through tough fields to keep his spot on this list. The next two weeks for him are huge as he'll try to be the first member of the tri-continent bracelet club and after that, he'll have his sights on Vegas. It'll be interesting to see how many people on this list travel to APAC for shots at bracelets versus those that decide to stay at home and play weaker fields in the WPTs at home.
Feldman: My real question this month is if Mercier was able to make the EPT London final table, how high would that have moved him up and how long would it have kept him in the rankings. There really is no doubt that Mercier has all the ability in the world and I have a hard time believing he won't be part of the top 10 for the majority of the rest of the year. When it comes to the WSOP and putting in the grind, few people can put in the effort that Mercier can.
The one part of this month's rankings that caught my eye was the fact that four players received No. 1 votes. This never happened before. Usually it's either unanimous or maybe a vote here and there gets thrown to a second player, but having some of the most dedicated minds of the industry splitting their votes in this manner is intriguing. I still voted Ivey as No. 1 this month, but I'm not sure what I'll do next month. You can't doubt his ability, but this list should be a "what have you done for me lately" list and the answer to that question in Ivey's case is not too much.
I like the inclusion of Volpe and Shak, but they might be a little too high. I feel that we often debut players on this list in that range while I believe they should probably be at 9 or 10 and earn their way up. In any case, we can't doubt their results and congrats to both on earning their way in.
Lance's thoughts on staying at home is spot on. The prize pools may be smaller, but if the best in the best are competing in Australia, this might be the window that others have been waiting for. One consistent in poker strategy has always been game selection ...