With 2018 at its end, the poker world can look back at the last 12 months with a sense of optimism after an impressive year.
The World Series of Poker main event drew its second-largest field in history with 7,874 (only 2006, with 8,773 players, had more). The World Poker Tour (WPT) set a record field for the largest $10,000 buy-in in its history. The same player, Aaron Johnson, did something completely unprecedented by winning Player of the Year honors on two different mid-major tours -- the Heartland and Mid-Stakes Poker Tours.
People are watching poker on more platforms than ever, from PokerGo, to Twitch and Facebook.
As the calendar turns to January, many poker players are resting up to play in the PokerStars Players Championship (PSPC), a $25,000 no-limit hold'em event being held in a few weeks at the Atlantis Casino in Paradise Island, Bahamas, during the annual PokerStars Caribbean Adventure series. Over the course of 2018, PokerStars created a Moneymaker Tour that began in August and ran until the end of year, which celebrated the 15th anniversary of Chris Moneymaker's 2003 WSOP main event victory.
Over the course of the tour, players won $25,000 seats that were added to the prize pools of $86 events and a variety of other tournaments and promotions. By the time the tournament kicks off, more than 300 seats will have been given away. That's $8 million in the prize pool with players who'd normally never dream of playing for such a sum, and with so much added value this tournament will almost certainly set a record as the largest field for a $25,000 buy-in and one of the largest prize pools in the history of tournament poker.
Some eyes are already looking ahead to the 2019 WSOP, with key dates for a handful of events recently announced. Running from May 28 through July 16, the 50th anniversary of poker's most famous event will be celebrated on the first weekend of the series with a new event. The Big 50, a $500 bracelet event, has a lot to offer; there are re-entries, but every player's initial buy-in is completely rake-free, with 50,000 starting chips, a guaranteed $5 million prize pool and $1 million minimum for first place. The $10,000 main event will begin on July 3 and crown a champion on July 16.
Overall, the poker landscape is in its best place since the devastating effects of Black Friday in April 2011. There's a lot to look back on in 2018, so here is my list of the top 18 stories and moments of 2018 in chronological order.
Maria Lampropulos becomes first woman to win PCA main event
The PCA, as it has for more than a decade, kicked off the year with its annual destination tournament series. As their families enjoyed the beach and the weather, players from around the world remained inside and competed for millions of dollars. Several big names captured high roller titles at the 2018 PCA, including Poker Central founder Cary Katz ($100,000 Super High Roller), Steve O'Dwyer ($50,000 High Roller) and Jason Koon ($25,000).
Ultimately, Maria Lampropulos stole the show, winning the 2018 PCA main event and becoming the first woman to capture this illustrious title. She took home $1.081 million for her efforts, and the Argentinian poker pro earned her second career seven-figure score and second in as many years, dating back to her victory at the partypoker Millions Nottingham in April 2017.
British player captures U.S. (Poker Open)
On the heels of the first Poker Masters held in Las Vegas in September 2017, the inaugural U.S. Poker Open took place at the Aria in Las Vegas. Despite series wins by high-stakes poker pros Justin Bonomo, David Peters and Benjamin Pollack, British poker pro Stephen Chidwick stood head-and-shoulders above the rest of the players. With five cashes, including back-to-back victories in Event No. 3 ($26,000 no-limit hold'em) and No. 4 ($26,000 Mixed Game), the 29-year-old poker pro earned $1.26 million for his efforts, including an impressive U.S. Open Championship trophy.
Online legend Isildur1 shows he can still win in live poker as well
In 2009, the online world buzzed about a new online phenom named "Isildur1" who played in the nosebleed high-stakes cash games. With Isildur1 having won and lost millions of dollars over the next year, the poker world collectively wanted to unmask the online superstar. At the 2011 Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure, Viktor Blom was revealed to be the man behind the online moniker. The following year at the PCA, Blom won his first major live title, in the $100,000 no-limit hold'em Super High Roller event for $1,254,400. Since that victory, however, Blom failed to log another significant live win despite continuing to play online and enjoying success there.
That changed in February 2018. At the Partypoker Live Millions Germany held at The Kings Casino, the 28-year-old Swedish poker pro outlasted a field of 927 entrants and won, earning $1.048 million.
Put it all on black
Roulette is a game of luck, to be sure, but sometimes the gambling spirit wins out. Along those lines, when British poker pro Jake Cody won the £2,200 High Roller event at the partypoker U.K. Poker Championship and decided to risk his entire winnings (£42,670 or $60,000) on one spin of the wheel, people wanted to witness this massive gamble. Surrounded by his friends, Cody put the entire amount on black and watched after he suggested that the casino owner spin the wheel. Eventually, the ball came to rest ... on Black 22 -- and the room erupted. The double-up moment was captured on video and went viral on social media.
Feeling damn good today! ��
- Jake Cody (@JakeCody) February 26, 2018
Poker continues its evolution
This year, poker witnessed two innovations that have begun to catch on and could become mainstays in the world of poker for a long time.
First, in a change that spread to no-limit hold'em tournaments throughout the world, the big blind ante was adopted. The change, which sees the big blind essentially ante for the entire table and reduces the amount of time and effort to collect antes for dealers, was adopted by casinos and tournament series around the world for buy-ins from $25 up to the biggest events in the world.
Short Deck Poker, on the other hand, continued its slow, yet steady, rise into the poker mainstream. Several tours have included the new version of poker, especially in Asia, where the game is extremely popular. The game removes the low cards (2s, 3s, 4s and 5s), leaving only 36 cards and resulting in some rules changes (i.e. flushes beat full houses and aces essentially representing a 5 on the low end of a straight). The jury is still out on this game, but the popularity is definitely rising.
Sports betting changes could mean more hope for poker
In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling that struck down restrictions on sports betting in the United States. Several states, including Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, have adopted systems that allow for various forms of legal sports betting to customers in those states. After this ruling, poker advocates began pushing for legalization of online poker in tandem with those changes. In the poker world, Phil Hellmuth took to social media to plead his case, while billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban suggested in a CNBC interview that online poker could begin to grow again.
Phil Hellmuth extends his record World Series of Poker gold bracelet total to 15.
In May of 2018, two players captured titles that catapulted them to the top of the leaderboards in their respective tours.
At the inaugural World Poker Tour Bobby Baldwin Classic at Aria, Darren Elias captured a record-breaking fourth WPT main event title. The New Jersey native now holds the record over three-time champions Chino Rheem, Anthony Zinno, Gus Hansen and Carlos Mortensen.
At Harrah's in New Orleans, Louisiana, Val Vornicu broke the record and become the all-time WSOP Circuit ring leader. Vornicu accomplished the feat in grand style by capturing his 11th WSOPC ring in Event 1 of the series and following that up the very next day by winning his record 12th ring in Event 3.
In July, while the WSOP main event was playing down to its final table on Day 7, Phil Hellmuth once again made headlines by winning his record-extending 15th WSOP gold bracelet. His victory didn't come in the $10,000 main event, but rather in Event 71 ($5,000 no-limit hold'em); Hellmuth entered Day 2 of the tournament eighth in chips with 39 players remaining, and after approximately 11 hours of battling, the 53-year-old added another bracelet to his collection by defeating two-time WSOP bracelet winner Steven Wolansky. Earning $485,082 for his victory, Hellmuth stated in his post-bracelet interview, "[No.] 13 in Europe was really humbling for me. So was 14. And so was 15. It's humbling. I haven't had a very good summer, but I've kept myself positive."
'Jesus' apologizes seven years after the fact
During the Full Tilt Poker debacle, which saw online poker players' balances frozen amidst the shutdown of the offshore provider, many poker players focused the blame on Howard Lederer and Ray Bitar. While Bitar forfeited his assets, which were in excess of $40 million, Lederer tried to make amends with a question-and-answer video series and a letter released in 2016, neither of which seemed to make much of an impact. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, who also had a prominent role with Full Tilt Poker but largely deflected blame -- even as he tried to quietly return to poker, and won 2017 WSOP Player of the Year honors -- finally decided to release his own apology. Prior to the start of the 2018 WSOP, Ferguson released a 42-second video weakly apologizing to the poker community, and after such a long silent spell it went over about as well as you might imagine -- poorly.
Notable WSOP bracelet winners
Since 2000, there has always been at least one player who captured multiple WSOP bracelets every year. Four players joined that club in 2018.
Joe Cada: Winner of Event 3: $3,000 No-limit Hold'em Shootout and Event 75: $1,500 The Closer (four career bracelets).
Justin Bonomo: Winner of Event 16: $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold'em Championship and Event 78: $1,000,000 Big One For One Drop (three career bracelets).
Shaun Deeb: Winner of Event 42: $25,000 Pot-limit Omaha 8-handed High Roller and Event 74: $10,000 Six-handed Big Blind Ante No-limit hold'em (four career bracelets). Deeb also won 2018 WSOP Player of the Year honors.
Timur Margolin: Winner of Event 43: $2,500 No-limit Hold'em and Event 5 at WSOP Europe: €1,100 Monster Stack (two career bracelets).
Texas Dolly rides off into the sunset
Doyle Brunson has not played many WSOP events in recent years, citing the long days as a major concern. This year, however, the 10-time WSOP bracelet winner came out to play in the $10,000 No-limit 2-7 Single Draw event. Texas Dolly showed the poker world that he can still play, as he made the final table before eventually bowing out in sixth place. Brunson has vowed that this event was his final WSOP event, and the poker community professed sadness to see him go.
"Cynn City" takes over Las Vegas
In 2016, John Cynn had an impressive run in the WSOP main event -- but he came up just short of the final table, finishing in 11th place for $650,000. While many poker players dream of having just one such surreal run, Cynn decided to try to better his 2016 performance. Cynn, originally from Illinois, not only made the WSOP main event final table in 2018, but also outlasted the second-largest field in the event's history. Cynn outlasted Tony Miles in a grueling, record-setting heads-up battle that carried on late into the night to capture the most coveted prize in poker and $8.8 million in the process.
Other key notes from the 2018 WSOP main event: Kelly Minkin finished in 50th place, making her the last woman standing in that event for the second time; Minkin previously accomplished this in 2015 with her 29th-place finish. Yueqi (Rich) Zhu, who won a $1,500 Mixed Omaha Hi-Lo bracelet earlier in the summer, earned the dubious title of WSOP main event final table bubble boy on one of the craziest and most viral hands of poker in recent memory.
Two players, Yueqi Zhu and Antoine Labat, hold pocket kings, but fall to Nicolas Manion with pocket aces. Zhu gets eliminated in 10th place in the main event.
Almost déjà vu by Cada
In 2007, Joe Cada became the youngest WSOP main event champion at the tender age of 21 years old, taking home $8,547,044. Since then, he has amassed an impressive poker résumé, including another WSOP bracelet and four WSOP final tables heading into the 2018 WSOP. However, the Michigan native almost equaled his career stats during the summer of 2018 alone. Cada began the summer by winning the $3,000 no-limit hold'em Shootout for his third WSOP bracelet and $226,218. Then after cashing in three other bracelet events, Cada incredibly made the WSOP main event final table again, nine years after his victory. In the end, Cada lost a massive race to eventual runner-up finisher Tony Miles to finish in fifth place.
Even after the long, grueling ordeal of the WSOP main event, Cada immediately jumped back in to play another tournament, made another WSOP final table in the $1,500 The Closer event, and ultimately won his fourth career WSOP bracelet.
Justin Bonomo wins the 2018 World Series of Poker Big One for One Drop by knocking out Fedor Holz.
Bonomo too hot to handle
Simply put, Justin Bonomo has had the best year of any poker player, period, in what can only be classified as a truly incredible stretch.
In 2018, Bonomo posted over $25 million in earnings over 25 tournament cashes. That includes nine titles, two WSOP bracelets and two Super High Roller Bowl victories. From the beginning of May to early June, the Las Vegas native cashed in seven events, and won six of them.
With his third career bracelet win in the $1 million Big One For One Drop, Bonomo surpassed poker icon Daniel Negreanu to become the all-time career money earner in tournament poker history. In fact, only 10 players have made more money in their career than Bonomo did in this year alone.
After his Super High Roller Bowl win in May, Bonomo stated, "It doesn't feel real. The past seven months don't feel like real life. During my 17 years in poker, I've had nothing even close to this. It's just crazy."
It's worth noting that, had Bonomo not had such a remarkable 2018, the poker world would have been buzzing pretty loudly about Alex Foxen. Foxen ended 2018 ranked No. 1 in the Global Poker Index (GPI), ending the year with over $6.5 million in earnings with 24 cashes and five titles.
Ali Imsirovic is the (poker) master
The second annual Poker Masters kicked off in early September in the PokerGo studios at the Aria in Las Vegas. Last year, Germany's Steffen Sontheimer captured the inaugural "purple jacket" for his performance throughout the series. This year, longtime pro Brandon Adams got off to a hot start, as he cashed the first three events, including a win in Event No. 2 ($26,000 No-limit Hold'em). American David Peters captured the first and last events of the series ($10,500 and $103,000 No-limit Hold'em, respectively).
Nevertheless, Ali Imsirovic, originally from Bosnia & Herzegovina, narrowly edged out Peters to capture the 2019 Poker Masters, having cashed in three events, highlighted by winning back-to-back events (Event 5: $26,000 No-limit Hold'em and Event 6: $52,000 No-limit Hold'em). After the dust had settled, Imsirovic had earned $1,288,600, more than doubling his career earnings at that time, and added the purple jacket to his wardrobe.
WSOP Europe led by Israel, but topped by an Englishman
WSOP Europe returned to King's Casino in Rozvadoz, Czech Republic, in 2018. At the start of the 10-event tournament series, Israeli poker players won three of the first five events (Tamir Segal, Asi Moshe, Timur Margolin). Jack Sinclair capped off the series by winning the 2018 WSOPE main event. After finishing in eighth place in the 2017 WSOP main event in Las Vegas, the Englishman needed to beat a former WSOP main event champion (Ryan Riess) at the final table. Riess ended up finishing in fourth place and Sinclair redeemed himself, taking home his first bracelet and $1.277 million.
Vayo loses battle with PokerStars
In May of 2017, Gordon Vayo earned almost $700,000 and a tournament title in a Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP) tournament on PokerStars.com. However, due to current laws and regulations for online poker in the U.S., Vayo, who finished runner-up in the 2016 WSOP main event, would have to be playing overseas in order to qualify. Vayo claimed that he played the online tournament from Canada, but PokerStars believed he used a VPN (virtual private network) to illegally play in California. On May 2, 2018, Vayo sued PokerStars to recoup the winning funds. While he initially adamantly denied the PokerStars allegation, Vayo has since dropped his suit after PokerStars lawyers presented evidence that Vayo forged documents. PokerStars initially countersued, but dropped its countersuit in December.
(Five) Diamond is a Linde's best friend
Last year, the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic, held annually at WPT Five Diamond at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, set a record with 812 entries. However, with 697 entries in flight 1 alone in 2018, the record would not only be surpassed, but crushed as the field ultimately reached 1,001. The final table included 2015 WSOP main event champion Joe McKeehen (finished in ninth place), 2012 PCA main event champion John DiBella (eighth place), WSOP bracelet winner and previous WPT champion Andrew Lichtenberger (third place). In the end, Idaho native Dylan Linde captured his first WPT title over Serbian poker pro Milos Skrbic; Linde earned $1,631,468.
POY double down
Winning a Player of the Year award is a noteworthy achievement for any poker player. The award demonstrates a player's perseverance, consistency and high-level performance throughout the year. Thus, when Minnesota native Aaron Johnson won not only the Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) but also the Mid-Stakes Poker Tour (MSPT) Player of the Year awards in 2018, many in poker were thoroughly impressed by this unprecedented achievement, including the heads of both mid-major tours.
"Earning POY is no easy feat," stated HPT Tournament Director Jeremy Smith. "Aaron did it with great play and consistent results throughout the year. Even more impressive is the fact that he won POY with MSPT as well. Topping a long list of skilled players on two mid-major tours at the same time is something that no other player has done before and is quite an accomplishment!"
"Since the MSPT's inception in 2009, we have never had a player dominate a single season like Aaron Johnson did in 2018," said Bryan Mileski, owner of MSPT. "Halfway through the season he had more POY points than any former winner had amassed in an entire year. The fact that he also won HPT POY is truly remarkable. Winning two mid-major tour POY races in the same year is unprecedented and should be celebrated."