Looking back at 2016 in the world of poker

Qui Nguyen won $8 million after outlasting Gordon Vayo in a seven-hour heads-up match to win the World Series of Poker main event. AP Photo/John Locher

It was another eventful year in the world of poker, and before we look back at the biggest moments at the table and in the industry, I wanted to recognize some of the biggest moments poker players and personalities had away from the game we love.

  • After winning his first World Series of Poker tournament, Ryan Laplante accepted his bracelet and gave a passionate speech about the senseless mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub.

  • PokerStars created a full-length feature documentary entitled “KidPoker” about the life and times of their sponsored poker superstar, Daniel Negreanu, which appeared on Netflix. Negreanu also helped lead the charge to land Las Vegas its first major professional team -- the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, who will play their first games in the 2017-18 NHL season.

  • After poker pro Samantha Abernathy completed a 320-mile ride between Las Vegas and Los Angeles within 72 hours, she collected $10,000 in a prop bet from Dan Bilzerian, who used her performance as a test case for a bet of his own. Less than a month later, Bilzerian completed his own run in less than 48 hours, winning $600,000 from businessman and high stakes poker player Bill Perkins.

  • Poker superstar Phil Ivey lost two separate baccarat edge-sorting cases in back-to-back months this year. In November, Ivey was notified that London’s Crockfords Casino would not release the £7.8 million owed to him, and in December, Ivey was order to pay back $10.1 million he won to the Borgata in Atlantic City. Ivey’s legal team said there will be an appeal.

  • David Williams, the 2004 WSOP main event runner-up, competed on Fox’s "Masterchef" cooking show and made it through 20 contestants on his way to the finale, where he finished in third place.

  • While Terrance Chan continued to beef up his MMA resume (he’s currently 3-0 professionally and 6-0 overall), Olivier Busquet defeated JC Alvarado with a third-round TKO to win a six-figure prop bet between the two men.

  • Jason Somerville appeared on CNBC to discuss internet poker regulation, and 2006 WSOP main event champion Jamie Gold explained presidential election betting lines on Fox News.

Now onto the poker. As is my annual tradition on ESPN.com, here is my 2016 list of the top 16 stories and moments in chronological order.

Welcome back to the U.S., PokerStars

Ever since April 15, 2011, better known as “Black Friday,” U.S. poker players have been eagerly anticipating the return of PokerStars to the virtual felt in the States. The day finally happened March 16, 2016, albeit in a market currently limited to New Jersey. It was still a moment for online poker players to rejoice, with the hope that the brand’s foothold in the U.S. would motivate them to help expand their market to other online poker-friendly states and eventually across the country. Partnering with Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, PokerStars quickly became the No. 1 online poker site in New Jersey, helping to break online poker revenue records immediately upon its arrival.

Global Poker League

With his effort to “sportify” poker, Alex Dreyfus introduced the Global Poker League to the world. In April, this innovative 12-team league began its inaugural season with two six-team conferences: Americas and Eurasia. With a combination of online six-max sit-n-go’s and unique heads-up battles in the “Cube” -- a specially designed stage -- the league eventually crowned the Montreal Nationals as Season 1 champions. Even with mixed results for Season 1, GPL is pushing forward with Season 2 and expanding with a GPL China next year.

30-second shot clock

In this era of excessive “tanking” and “Hollywood-ing,” many players have become tired with the slow pace of play. In an effort to speed up the game, the WPT instituted a 30-second shot clock during the WPT Tournament of Champions invitational, which was eventually won by Farid Yachou for $381,600. During that same series, Chino Rheem captured his third WPT main event, making him only the fourth person to do so (Gus Hansen, Carlos Mortensen and Anthony Zinno are the others).

Hawkins wins back-To-back WSOP Circuit main events, and then a third

Florida pro Maurice Hawkins became the first player in the 12-year history of the WSOP Circuit to capture back-to-back main-event titles. Within two weeks’ time in April, Hawkins captured the Council Bluffs and Cherokee WSOP Circuit $1,675 main-event titles, along with another WSOPC ring in a prelim that pushed him to seven rings on his career.

Remarkably, in November, Hawkins earned his third WSOP Circuit main event of the year in his hometown of West Palm Beach and became just the third player to win three WSOP main-event titles in a career, joining Chris Ferguson and Blair Hinkle. Now at eight WSOPC rings, he is tied for second place all time with Ari Engel, Chris Reslock and Valentin Vornicu and sits just one behind all-time leader Alex Masek.

WSOP bracelet bets

In 2016, three-time WSOP bracelet winner Vanessa Selbst became the center of two widely publicized bracelet bets. First, she gave Poland phenom Dzmitry Urbanovich 200-to-1 odds on a $10,000 bet that he would not win three WSOP bracelets during his first trip to the WSOP. In essence, she was on the hook for $2 million if he achieved this remarkable feat (which he did not).

However, initially unbeknownst to the poker world, Selbst made another similar bet, this time for 180-to-1 for $10,000 with poker superstar Jason Mercier. While basically being a $1.8 million bet, Selbst became increasingly concerned over the summer. During a series of tweets back and forth between the two players, the details of the bet came to light for the general public. The poker world got a good sweat when Mercier won twice (see below), but he couldn't quite reach the third.

Lederer apologizes five years later

Five years after Black Friday changed the face of poker forever, Howard Lederer, the gentlemen at the center of Full Tilt’s alleged Ponzi scheme, apologized for his role in the debacle. Most sensed that this repentance was in preparation for his return to the WSOP this summer, and they were right. Chris Ferguson also made his return to the WSOP, and it was Ferguson who showed that he could still play poker by cashing 10 times and finishing 11th in the 2016 WSOP Player of the Year race.

More bracelets for the pros

Here are some key WSOP highlights from 2016:

  • Mercier captured his fourth ($10,000 deuce-to-seven lowball championship) and fifth bracelet ($10,000 H.O.R.S.E. championship) in one week. These two victories bookended a runner-up finish in $10,000 razz championship. Mercier’s pair of bracelets upped his career total to five and earned him WSOP Player of the Year honors. Outside of money he earned with bracelet bets, Mercier won nearly $1 million in tournaments and even proposed to his girlfriend after her third-place finish in a $5,000 no-limit hold’em event. The newest poker power couple was married in November in Florida.

  • Since 2000, the WSOP has always produced a multiple-bracelet winner. 2016 continued the trend as Englishman Benny Glaser captured two back-to-back, both in Omaha hi-low split 8 or better ($1,500 and $10,000 events), joining Mercier in that distinction.

  • Fedor Holz won the $111,111 Big One for One Drop to earn his first WSOP bracelet, capping off an incredible summer for him. A 22-year old phenom from Germany, Holz made a name for himself after his 25th-place finish in the 2015 main event, and after crushing all over the world, the young German had a legendary summer to remember. From late May to early July, Holz finished no worse than third in six events with buy-ins of at least $25,000. He won four of these events, including the $111,111 Big One for One Drop, where he earned his first WSOP bracelet and almost $5 million. During this six-week stretch, Holz earned more than $11 million.

  • Brian Rast became only the second player to win the $50,000 Poker Players Championship twice (he also won it in 2011), giving him three bracelets in his career. Coincidentally, Michael Mizrachi, who won in 2010 and 2012, finished fourth in that event.

Other pros who added to their career bracelet totals in 2016:

  • Robert Mizrachi (No. 4 in $10,000 seven-card stud championship)

  • George Danzer (No. 4 in $10,000 seven-card stud 8 or better championship)

  • John Hennigan (No. 3 in $10,000 deuce-to-seven triple draw championship)

  • Rep Porter (No. 3 in $1,500 razz)

  • Michael Gathy (No. 3 in $5,000 six-max no-limit hold’em)

  • Marco Johnson (No. 2 in $3,000 H.O.R.S.E.)

  • Adrian Mateos (No. 2 in $1,500 Summer Solstice)

  • Paul Volpe (No. 2 in $1,500 eight-game mix)

  • Shawn Deeb (No. 2 in $1,500 seven-card stud)

  • Brandon Shack-Harris (No. 2 in $10,000 pot-limit Omaha championship)

  • Kristin Bicknell (No. 2 in $1,500 no-limit hold’em bounty)

First-timers club

There were a few long-time touring pros who got on the board for the first time at the WSOP this summer:

  • Kyle Julius ($1,000 top-up turbo no-limit hold’em)

  • Ben Keeline ($565 Colossus II no-limit hold’em)

  • Ryan D’Angelo ($1,500 deuce-to-seven no-limit lowball)

  • Ryan Laplante ($565 pot-limit Omaha)

  • Jean Gaspard ($10,000 dealer’s choice championship)

  • Andrew Lichtenberger ($3,000 no-limit hold’em)

  • David Peters ($1,500 no-limit hold’em)

  • Tony Dunst ($1,000 no-limit hold’em)

  • Kyle Bowker ($3,000 pot-limit Omaha 8 or better)

Move over gentlemen, the ladies are here To play ... and win

Every summer, at least one woman wins a bracelet in the Ladies Championship, but only 14 women have captured open WSOP bracelet events. Last year, Carol Fuchs won the $1,500 Dealer’s Choice event, and this year, two more women joined the club -- and during the same week, no less. Kristin Bicknell won the $1,500 no-limit hold’em bounty event over a field of 2,158 entrants, taking home $290,768 for her second career WSOP bracelet (she also won the 2013 Ladies event). Two days later, Safiya Umerova won the $1,500 no-limit hold’em shootout, besting 1,049 other players and earning $264,046.

No pros allowed

In 2012, the $1 million Big One for One Drop WSOP bracelet event was the talk of the poker world. It was the same thing when the event returned in 2014. In 2016, however, Guy Laliberté announced that this event, which was moved to the Casino de Monte-Carlo in Monaco, would be a €1 Million, invitation-only event for recreational players and not pros. After three days and a 28-entry field, China’s Elton Tsang walked away with the grand prize of €11,111,111, defeating Russian Anatoly Gurtovoy heads-up.

“Nine-high like a boss!”

Every year, ESPN’s coverage of the WSOP main event introduces new characters to the poker world. This year, Englishman William Kassouf created a buzz throughout the event, with antics ranging from a one-round penalty from tournament director Jack Effel to catchphrases such as “Nine high like a boss,” “You know how many miles from here to Hollywood?” and “The absolute coconuts.” Kassouf became a player who will not easily be forgotten, and while it made for good television at times, his antics and his apparent stalling tactics increasingly aggravated the players.

It ultimately led to the most memorable hand of the 2016 WSOP coverage, an epic confrontation of pocket aces versus pocket kings between Griffin Benger and Kassouf with only 17 players remaining. No one will soon forget Kassouf. Similar to what happened with Hevad Khan back in the day, I expect to see some rule changes for the 2017 WSOP based on Kassouf’s rule-bending actions during the 2016 WSOP main event.

Who win? Qui Nguyen!

With a final table filled with top online players (chip leader Cliff Josephy, Griffin Benger and Gordon Vayo), European stars (Kenny Halleart and Vojtech Ruzicka) and a handful of other poker geniuses, not many experts picked Qui Nguyen to win the 2016 WSOP main event. But the true wild card at the table utilized his hyper-aggressive style to dominate the table from start to finish. Even though Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American, doubled up a player to begin both Day 2 (Michael Ruane) and Day 3 (Cliff Josephy), Nguyen, wearing his signature “Rocket Raccoon” hat, shrugged off each setback and rode his aggression to the title and $8 million.

Two more inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame

On Oct. 26 at Binion’s Gambling Hall in downtown Las Vegas, well-respected poker pros Carlos Mortensen and Todd Brunson were inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Mortensen is the 2001 WSOP main event and owns three WPT main-event titles. Brunson is a one-time bracelet winner and cash-game specialist who gained fame and notoriety through his exploits against businessman Andy Beal in some of the biggest poker games ever run. He and his father, poker legend Doyle Brunson, are the first father-son tandem elected into the Poker Hall of Fame.

Sexton wins WPT title

Hall of Famer Mike Sexton has been the voice of the World Poker Tour since its inception 15 years ago. Initially, the “Ambassador of Poker” was not even allowed to play in the WPT main events, fearing that he might make the final table and leave the WPT without its lead announcer. However, a few years ago, the WPT lifted that ban, realizing that it might be a better story if he did make the final table.

At his third career WPT final table, Sexton was down more than 10-to-1 in chips heads-up, but fought all the way back and captured the 2016 WPT Montreal title at the Playground Poker Club.

Bye-Bye-Bye EPT

First launched in September 2004, the European Poker Tour rose to prominence and joined the WSOP and WPT as the three recognized “major” tours. Relatively inexperienced players and poker pros from all over the world followed the EPT across Europe, qualifying for miniscule sums via online satellites on PokerStars. But in an effort to rebrand its tournament tours into Championship Events and Festival Events, the EPT’s 13-year run came to an end with its last stop of 2016 in Prague.

U.S. live poker is alive and well

Last year, the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic lowered its buy-in to $10,000, but had its second-most entries ever. As the 2016 event approached, experts were anxious to see if this upward trend would continue. With 791 entries, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” as the WPT Five Diamond tied the record for the most entries ever in a WPT main event with a buy-in of at least $10,000, matching the 2007 LA Poker Classic on the nose. Oregon native James Romero, who had less than $5,000 career tournament earnings before the event, won the title for almost $2 million.