Five players to watch in 2014

Every year about this time, writers covering everything from football to politics to tennis pull out their crystal balls and try to make predictions for the coming year. In relation to poker, picking just five players from the extremely talented pool of thousands that travel the world in search of poker glory and the millions of dollars isn't easy. Nobody would've picked Loni Harwood to break through at the 2013 WSOP and only Daniel Negreanu's biggest fans would have predicted he'd have the year he had. With that in mind, here are my five players to watch in 2014.

Daniel Negreanu

I didn't put this list together at the end of 2012, but if I had, I probably wouldn't have included Negreanu. Why? Well, he went the entire year without booking a win. His numbers in 2012: 16 cashes, five final tables, $1.3 million in winnings and zero titles. Sure, he banked seven figures, but it felt un-Negreanu-like. At the end of 2012, Negreanu set a few goals for himself and at the end of 2013, it's clear to say that he smashed most of them. He won BLUFF Player of the Year, two WSOP bracelets and the WSOP Player of the Year and all along the way, he filled in his pockets with $3,236,857.

After an amazing year like that, what's left? Plenty. Many times a player wins BLUFF POY and then struggles mightily the next year. Given his pedigree it's unlikely that Negreanu suffers that fate. I'd say there's probably a better chance that he has a better year in 2014 than a worse one.

Negreanu also turns 40 in July, meaning he'll be eligible for the Poker Hall of Fame for the first time. My crystal ball is telling me he'll be one of the two players earning entrance.

Phil Ivey

Last April, Ivey captured WSOP bracelet No. 9, passing Erik Seidel for fourth on the all-time list. It was one of only five cashes on the year for the player many consider the best in the world. Sure, his bread and butter is the cash games, but five cashes? He's better than that. He also lost nearly $2.7 million playing on PokerStars in the past 12 months.

Ivey had some distractions away from the felt in 2013. He launched, and is the face of, a struggling social gaming site and he dealt with cheating accusations from a casino in London. He also had to deal with complications with his divorce settlement after it was revealed that Ivey had made a contribution to the judge's re-election efforts.

Ivey is known to be a competitive guy and despite what he'll say publicly, I bet he knows that public opinion of his place in the game is slipping. He's no longer the de facto best player around (he ranks No. 2 on the ESPN's The Nuts rankings) and it remains to be seen if that gets his competitive juices flowing or if he'll need some more seven-figure bracelet bets to return to form.

Phillip Hui

Nobody would have predicted that Ryan Riess would go from WSOP Circuit grinder to World Champ, but there is gold to found among the players grinding it on the WSOP Circuit. If you look at what Phillip Hui has done playing those big field, small buy-in events over the past year, you'll see a player on the verge of something bigger.

Earlier in December, Hui won his third WSOP ring, beating 224 other players in a turbo no-limit hold 'em event in Atlantic City. All told this year, he won two rings, made six final tables and cashed 15 times. All of his cashes came in hold 'em, so by the time the WSOP rolls around he'll be more than set for a big splash.

If he is going to break out, he's surrounded by people who can give him solid advice about how to go about it. His girlfriend is Loni Harwood, the grinder who went from Circuit grinder to WSOP player of the year contender this past year, Oh, and he's also good friends with the man who owns the biggest title in 2013, Ryan Riess.

Prior to Black Friday, we looked to the online world for the next big breakout star, but with Riess and Harwood -- and others like Ari Engel -- paving the way, it's likely we continue to see players come from the Circuit and find success on the bigger stage. Hui fits the bill.

Niklas Heinecker

After the way they dominated the poker scene in 2013, there had to be a German on this list. My pick for 2014 is the one who probably flew the most under the radar. While his countrymen were busy posting great results from all of the High Roller events around the world, Heinecker won one single big buy-in event ($128,000 buy-in GuangDong Asia Millions Main Event) for $4.4 million.

Sure, it's a big score and super impressive, but it was at the high stakes online cash game tables that Heinecker became a legend. As the year comes to a close, he's approaching the $5 million earnings mark on Full Tilt Poker ... which is made even more impressive by the fact he didn't click a single raise button on the site until May.

Heinecker could be the next Tom Dwan, Viktor Blom or Phil Galfond -- going from dominating high stakes cash games to being more than just an avatar to the poker world by playing some of the bigger buy-in, higher profile tournaments around the world. With the $1 Million Big One for One Drop back on the docket for the 2014 WSOP, Heinecker could easily find a way to make his 2013 performance seem like just an appetizer for his 2014 main course.

Eugene Katchalov

Eugene Katchalov won BLUFF Player of the Year in 2011 after a strong campaign that included $2.5 million in winnings. He cashed 13 times, made eight final tables and won two titles, including his first career WSOP bracelet. In 2012, he added 13 more cashes to his resume for a far subdued $232,000, and never found the winner's circle. Things were tougher in 2013 where Katchalov cashed just eight times, banking $283,000.

Katchalov is an extremely competitive, intelligent guy. Over the past year or so he's spent time getting healthier, losing weight and working hard to get his life outside of the game in order. Knowing how hard he worked to win player of the year in 2011, it wouldn't shock me in the least to see him put in extra effort this year to find himself in contention for the award again.

He has a great opportunity to put up some big numbers early as the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure features a number of big buy-in events, including the $100,000 Super High Roller, which he won in 2011 on the way to his player of the year title. If he can have a great result in the Bahamas, look for Katchalov to enjoy an extremely successful 2014.