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Top 10 poker stories of 2015

28 December 2015

The landscape of the poker world changed for the better – and the worse – in several ways this year, but overall, 2015 was an exciting year for poker players and fans alike.

Poker picked up momentum in the U.S. in 2015, as the World Series of Poker hosted the largest live tournament of all time in May and some states moved closer to regulating the game online. And to put a cherry on top, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) may have all but killed Sheldon Adelson's Restoration of America's Wire Act (RAWA) earlier this month with his dumbfounding performance during a House hearing.

Though there were several highlights, lowlights, celebrations and controversies to choose from, the top poker stories from the past year are the ones that grabbed the biggest headlines – which, in turn, has perhaps the most impact on the game itself. Poker players bickering over a possible "multi-accounting" scandal, or two really great players who ran extra hot in a calendar year battling for a Player of the Year award, simply don't make the cut.

Without further ado, here are the top 10 poker stories of 2015.

10. Nevada, Delaware launch online poker network

When Nevada and Delaware, two of the three U.S. states that offer regulated online gambling, signed a pact in February 2014 to share liquidity on their online poker sites, it was seen as a major step forward for iGaming in the U.S. For the first time ever, American poker players would be able to compete online against players from other states in a legal, regulated environment. That pact became a reality in March of this year, when Nevada and Delaware finally launched their Multi-State Poker Network, allowing players from both states to play against each other on a platform run by 888.

In a statement at the time of the launch, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said his state and Delaware were "leading by example to provide a legal, tightly regulated online poker market that protects consumers in both our states." And that is exactly what online poker supporters in the U.S. need if they ever want to get back to the pre-Black Friday "good old days."

There's still a long way to go. Nevada alone does not have the player pool to support eye-popping revenue numbers – evidenced by Ultimate Poker's decision to leave the market after being the first brand to launch in the state in 2013 – and adding players from Delaware, one of the least populous states in the union, doesn't exactly move the needle either. Simply put, regulators from other states thinking about legalizing online poker won't look at Nevada and Delaware's interstate agreement and think, "I've gotta get me some of that!"

But at the very least, Nevada and Delaware have set forth a framework. And that's a big first step in the right direction.

9. Pennsylvania House committee passes online gambling bill

Yes, it was decided earlier this month that the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would wait until spring 2016 to vote on an online gambling bill that passed through a House committee in November. But, holy cow! We might just have a fourth state with regulated online poker soon enough.

The bill, HB 649, was passed in the House committee by a wide 18-8 margin, a great sign for things to come. It still needs to pass a full House vote, pass a vote in the Senate and eventually be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, but there is legitimate optimism for another state to offer legal, regulated online gambling for the first time since the New Jersey market launched in November 2013.

And though New Jersey has not joined Nevada and Delaware in an interstate poker agreement, one would think the Garden State would get on board with sharing liquidity with Pennsylvania, its neighbor to the west. The states already basically share poker player liquidity in their land-based casinos, as players in the Philadelphia/South Jersey region can choose from casinos in both Pennsylvania and Atlantic City.

It's still early, but there's reason to be optimistic about Pennsylvania.

8. Negreanu's deep Main Event run

Daniel Negreanu has accomplished just about everything a poker player could dream of in his professional career. That is, except for winning the World Series of Poker Main Event.

This summer, the game's all-time leader in tournament earnings and six-time bracelet winner made a run for the ages in the Main Event, only to fall short in 11th place for the second time in his career (Negreanu finished 11th in the 2001 Main Event). "Kid Poker" became a fixture at the ESPN featured table on Day 5 and remained there until he busted late on Day 7. His wild ride toward the finish line left poker fans – both during the live event and while watching the pre-recorded shows months later on television – on the edge of their seats.

Poker players and media folks alike mocked Negreanu's exit from the Main Event as something that would "kill poker." And while the game in the U.S. is as healthy as it's been in a half-decade, there would have been something to be said for Negreanu making the November Nine. It would have created a buzz unlike any other surrounding the Main Event, as Negreanu is one of the few poker stars whose celebrity goes beyond the inner circles of the game. He's the face of PokerStars, the world's largest global online poker brand, and a genuinely likeable character. It's tough to argue that Negreanu making the Main Event final table wouldn't have been great for the game.

Maybe next year will be the year for "Kid Poker."

7. PokerStars players boycott site

In early November, professional poker player Dani Stern started a thread on the Two Plus Two forums to organize a three-day boycott of The boycott was in response to the online poker giant's announced changes a few days earlier that would mostly affect high-volume and high-stakes players. Specifically, the site placed a cap on the number of VIP Rewards a player can earn, made significant cuts to the benefits for SuperNova and SuperNova Elite players (PokerStars' highest loyalty tiers), and eliminated loyalty point earning for high-stakes cash games. PokerStars also expanded its restrictions on data mining software, a common tool used by high-volume players.

"PokerStars stated in very clear terms what the value of (SuperNova Elite) and (SuperNova) were, delivered that message to their entire customer base, then altered the rewards after players achieved the volume required. This cannot stand," Stern wrote in another post on Two Plus Two.

Two thousand players executed the boycott from Dec. 1-3, but a week later PokerStars released a statement that basically amounted to, "We don't care."

"We will not alter those plans," PokerStars Vice President of Corporate Communication Eric Hollreiser wrote on the site's corporate blog. "The current VIP program is no longer fit for its purpose. When combined with the increasing skill gap in the online poker market, the result is an increasingly poor experience for recreational and new players."

Hollreiser has acknowledged and apologized for the fact that PokerStars did a poor job in giving its high-volume players advance notice about these changes. But what the company doesn't seem to understand is that the miscommunication is the crux of the problem – and that an apology simply isn't enough.

6. Hellmuth extends record with 14th bracelet

If Negreanu is one of the few players whose celebrity status extends beyond the poker world, Phil Hellmuth (along with maybe Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson) is another. At this summer's World Series of Poker, Hellmuth added to the legend that is the "Poker Brat."

Hellmuth added to his record total by winning his 14th WSOP bracelet in the $10,000 Razz Championship, the second Razz bracelet of his career (his other 12 are in Texas Hold'em). His next closest competitors are Ivey, Brunson and Johnny Chan, who each have 10, but only the 39-year-old Ivey has a realistic shot at ever catching Hellmuth. That is, if Ivey ever decides to start playing WSOP tournaments beyond the Main Event and "high roller" events.

With $13.5 million in WSOP earnings, Hellmuth has won more at the World Series than any player who hasn't finished in the top two of a One Drop event. He's an absolute legend of the game, and though his antics on and off the tables can seem pompous and downright rude, he's a tremendous ambassador for the game. When Hellmuth wins, the game of poker wins.

5. McKeehen's Main Event dominance

Not since Jamie Gold in 2006 has a WSOP Main Event champion so thoroughly dominated play at the final table. But unlike Gold, who "luck-boxed" his way into the largest prize in Main Event history, Philadelphia poker pro Joe McKeehen absolutely annihilated his competitors with pure aggression – and of course, a little bit of "run good."

McKeehen went wire to wire in November to win his first bracelet and $7.6 million, but his dominance didn't just start at the final table. McKeehen entered Day 7 of the Main Event fourth in chips, but by the time six of the final 27 players had been eliminated, he had vaulted into the pole position and never looked back. His aggression picked up once the field narrowed down towards the final table bubble, and when the dust settled and the November Nine had been set, McKeehen had roughly 35% of the chips in play. That is insane.

Though many were critical of McKeehen's "bad boy" persona at the final table, it's tough to argue that any player has had a more impressive Main Event performance in recent memory. That alone should be celebrated.

4. Bryan Micon arrested and charged

On Feb. 20, 2015, Bitcoin-based online poker room Seals With Clubs announced it had suffered a "security breach" and was suspending operations, and encouraged players to withdraw their funds immediately. The site's chairman, Bryan Micon, subsequently announced plans to start a new Bitcoin poker site, SWCPoker, in the near future.

Micon made that announcement on a YouTube video from his new home in Antigua, where he had supposedly moved to start the new operation. In another YouTube video later that month, Micon said his Las Vegas home was raided by police.

"A bunch of guys with guns broke down my door, put me in handcuffs, serving a warrant from the Nevada Gaming Commission," Micon said in the video, claiming the 10 gaming agents "stole most of my electronics."

In April, the Nevada Attorney General's office announced it was charging Micon with one count of operating an unlicensed interactive gaming system, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

In June, Micon agreed to return to the U.S. to face the music and fight his legal battle. And in November, he reached a settlement with the state, agreeing to two years of probation and a $25,000 fine.

There's no way this is going to be the last we'll hear of Bryan Micon in the online poker world.

3. Somerville's Twitch stream starts new trend

Jason Somerville revolutionized the way we think about online poker in 2015.

The high-stakes poker pro cut out a niche for himself when he began streaming his online poker sessions on YouTube in 2014. Somerville was sponsored by Ultimate Poker in Nevada at the time, and he eventually created the "Run It Up" brand for his streams and attracted quite a nice following when he moved his broadcast to Twitch.

Then in March of this year, Somerville took his brand to the next level, signing a deal with PokerStars to stream his play on the site every day for several weeks at a time.

The results of his 2015 streams were pretty staggering.

Somerville not only attracted ridiculous attention to his own stream, but also paved the way for other poker players to dive into the live stream world, as well. PokerStars signed Twitch streamer Jaime Staples as its next "Friend of PokerStars" in April, and poker pro Dan O'Brien started a popular Twitch stream broadcasting his play on in Nevada.

But Somerville has, by far, the most successful and most impressive online poker stream in the world. He's set the standard for the rest of the poker world, and I believe he's going to be responsible for a revolution in the way we consume online poker.

2. PokerStars awarded license in New Jersey

When PokerStars launches in New Jersey in early 2016, everyone will need to temper their expectations; it's not going to be like the "good old days" from 2006-2010, when U.S. online poker players could find juicy games at any time of day, any day of the week.

But, still – when PokerStars finally received a license from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, after years of jumping through hoops to be found "suitable" by regulators, it made it a reality that the online poker giant would return to the U.S. for the first time since Black Friday.

PokerStars should immediately compete for the top ranking in traffic in New Jersey as soon as it launches, based on brand loyalty alone. But the real optimism surrounding its entry into the Garden State is the potential it brings for the site to return nationwide.

It's a long way away, and PokerStars' re-entry into the U.S. doesn't exactly change the regulatory environment anywhere, but there's reason to be excited about the future.

1. WSOP Colossus shatters records

Nobody really knew just how big the World Series of Poker's $565 buy-in Colossus tournament would turn out to be. But folks in the poker industry were fairly certain the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino was going to be a madhouse during the WSOP's opening weekend. Hell, Casino City even sent our own Aaron Todd onto the battlefield to get a first-hand account (Aaron bought his own way into the tournament, to be clear).

When the dust settled, the Colossus absolutely obliterated the record for the largest live poker tournament ever. The event saw 22,734 total entries, including 14,284 unique players, breaking the previous record of 8,773 players set in the 2006 Main Event.

Of course, with any major story in the poker world – and especially at the World Series of Poker – comes some controversy. Players were disappointed by the fact that the biggest poker tournament in history paid just $638,000 to the winner, despite the fact that more than 2,200 players took home some cash. And players were not thrilled that some had to wait hours to register, and even longer to get paid when they were knocked out in the money.

Haters gonna hate.

The WSOP is bringing the Colossus back in 2016 and has made some changes that might somehow make it even bigger. The event now guarantees $7 million for the prize pool, a jump from $5 million in 2015. And the first-place prize is guaranteed to be $1 million – the fat, round number that the poker playing community apparently needs to see to get excited about a tournament.

But it's tough to imagine any future Colossus tournament generating the same amount of buzz as the original. It was quite the wild week in early June.
Top 10 poker stories of 2015 is republished from
Dan Podheiser

Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.
Dan Podheiser
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.

Since graduating from Emerson College with a degree in journalism in 2010, Dan has worked as the sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Northwest Connecticut and served a year as an Americorps*VISTA, writing and researching grant proposals for a Boston-based charity.

Originally from South Jersey, where he still visits occasionally to see his family (and play on the state's regulated online poker sites), Dan lives in Brighton, Mass. with his wife and dog.