Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


My Top 100 Players to Watch

by Lee Munzer |  Published: Jul 12, 2005


Designating the best players in any game or sport is hazardous to a writer's career because listings are bound to be incomplete (I'm sure I'll leave off a few top players simply due to the undeniable fact that I'm forgetful). Another problem is the subjective nature of sexiest and best listings. So, I'm certain my choices (and scouting reports) will disagree with others who view players from different perspectives, but I have never been one to avoid controversy.

My selections will be influenced by:

Recent performance: Many young stars in top form will bump veteran players, even former champs.

Conditioning: I'll use competitors who are fit to play seven days – with a few exceptions.

Ability to battle through huge fields: Some competitors are better than others when it comes to handling an enormous number of foes. I will factor in how candidates might fare against an anticipated 6,599 opponents. Aggressive players will be favored over solid and survivor types of players.

Fortunately, none of the players I omit or evaluate below will have any problems with my opinions, since we all know that poker players have no egos.

Here are my top 100 players to watch in the seven-day World Series of Poker championship event (shown alphabetically). In addition, to ensure that I crawl as far out on a slim, shaky limb as possible, I have asterisked nine competitors (my projected final table) and specified a winner. In reality, I expect the final table to consist of one or two players from this list, one player whom we know but I omitted from the list, and six or seven relatively unknown entrants.

Josh Arieh: The young Atlanta player has a gold WSOP bracelet, finished third in the main event in 2004, and made a final-table appearance in the 2000 Tournament of Champions. Arieh is competitive (to the point of getting contentious on occasion) and confident. He was portrayed as a bad boy by ESPN last year, but my interactions with him and my discussions with his opponents lead me to believe he was partially a victim of creative editing. Arieh has chosen family life over touring, thus he has a strong tournament batting average (dollars earned per dollars spent entering events).

Joe Awada: The former lead juggler in a traveling circus would make a great champion. He is nice, articulate, and can entertain. We have seen Awada's game on ESPN and the Travel Channel; he is aggressive to a fault. He must exercise good judgment when reraised (he has a tendency to make marginal calls). But, the winner of this event will not be a solid, cautious player, so I'll go with Joe to make a strong showing.

Jean-Robert Bellande: I'm a fan of the big guy's style (intimidation with a smile). He will control a table if opponents cooperate. At the very least, he will throw many combatants off their game. Jean-Robert is quick to gobble up pots when everyone misses the flop and is a threat to build an early lead with aggressive play. Bellande may not have a lot of big-time final-table experience, but he appeared very relaxed when he picked up $210,900 at the Rio WSOP Circuit stop a few months ago.

Chris Bigler: The Swiss businessman has WSOP championship final-table experience (fifth out of 393 in 1999). Bigler is secure financially and will go for the title (as opposed to moving up by playing cautiously). He is adept at full concentration for long periods of time, and great at logging valuable information concerning his foes. These capabilities will serve him well as the pros will be facing many unknown opponents, especially during the first few days of play. Another of Chris' strengths is using opponents' perception of him to steal pots (the big man is looser and cagier than most believe).

Andy Bloch: If only Andy had been able to obtain a better formal education (Bloch graduated from MIT and has a law degree from Harvard), he might have made my top nine. He is a focused player who will be able to play against the flow, shift gears unexpectedly, and read his opponents well. Does he possess enough gamble to beat a huge field? I'm sure he will calculate just how many coin flips he needs to take at each level. If Andy is in the top 50 with two days remaining, he will be a big threat.

Farzad Bonyadi: Freddy is one of the most intimidating players one will face from a visual perspective, and he can push chips with the best in the game. He has a low fear factor and two WSOP bracelets. His weakness is playing a few too many hands from out of position.

JoAnne Bortner: JJ is pure, all-in aggression at the poker table and, in the past, has been the last lady standing in a main event. While she (based on technical skill) trails some players (the solid-playing Feduniaks and Grand Prix de Paris winner Surinder Sunar come to mind) whom I'll be leaving off this list, a player with Bortner's style and experience (four WSOP cashes) has a chance to ride a wave of good cards to the final table. Of course, getting good cards will not be enough to outlast 6,599 players; maximizing return on them will be the key, and this fearless lady does just that. JoAnne, like all super aggressive players, must avoid getting trapped by a big-stack player.

Humberto Brenes: Humberto is the 2002 World Poker Open champ and holder of two WSOP bracelets. Surprisingly, the wealthy Costa Rican family man considers himself a poker hobbyist. When he tells you he's "got the nuts," he might be referring to his pistachios or cashews, since he is the largest nut exporter in Costa Rica. Humberto is one of the nicest players I've met, but a ferocious competitor once the cards are in the air. He makes my list based on his reading ability and aggressive style. And don't be surprised if either Alex Brenes or Erick Brenes cashes in July, since poker seems to be in the family genes.

Doyle Brunson
: Fatigue in the final days of this long tournament may become a problem for Doyle, holder of nine WSOP bracelets. But his aggressive style and great reading ability can propel the two-time WSOP champ to day five (or perhaps day six with a good meal, a decent night's sleep, and a massage). Texas Dolly seems almost "aw shucks' about being the designated living legend of poker (he looks at poker as just a game, albeit one that has been very, very good to him), but deep down, I'm sure he knows that he deserves the accolades of a grateful poker public.

Joe Cassidy: Young Joe resides in Huntington Beach, California. At first glance, he appears ready for the surf during a summer hiatus from college, but he has chosen to delay his pre-law education to see just how far he can go in our world. He is a fearless, focused player who can become a star. Joe benefits from a long event (physically), has gained valuable final-table experience in the last year, and has the right style and demeanor to contend for the championship final table.

"Miami' John Cernuto: The Florida State graduate squeezes onto my no-limit list, but would be at or near the top of any eight-or-better ranking. The former air traffic controller's tournament theory knowledge has carried him to several no-limit final tables each year and he won the Legends of Poker championship event in 2000, but there seems to be something keeping him from getting over the no-limit hold'em hump.

Johnny Chan: I watched "The Orient Express" play in Fox Sports Network's inaugural Superstars of Poker. The 1987 and 1988 world champ played a trapping game. That was quite a change from the aggressive play I'm used to seeing Johnny exhibit. I thought he had the right idea, since all of his opponents (other than T.J. Cloutier) were playing very aggressively. Johnny showed that he is capable of shifting gears and diversifying his game based on situational circumstances. The nine-time bracelet winner possesses another rare weapon: He can frighten opponents into submission if they stare too long at his psychedelic shirts.

David Chiu: This thinking-man's player has a great record and excellent attitude. Possibly best known for laying down pocket kings en route to his Tournament of Champions victory over 663 adversaries in 1999, Chiu cannot be rattled or even distracted. His card sense is excellent.

T.J. Cloutier: Widely regarded as the best player never to have won the WSOP championship (the tournament specialist held A-Q over Chris Ferguson's A-9 in the pivotal pot in 2000), the five-time bracelet winner is focused, has a great memory, and can pick off a bluff with the best players in the game. Now in his mid-60s, the former Canadian Football Leaguer has the experience (the winner of more than 50 major tournaments) and temperament to go a long way in any event he enters.

Dave Colclough: "El Blondie" has game, as substantiated by his wins in Europe and appearances at numerous final tables at the WSOP. The 2003 European player of the year was involved in information technology prior to becoming a poker pro and writer. He has a mathematical and logical way of approaching the game. I wonder if he has enough gamble.

Hoyt Corkins: The cowboy from Alabama was impressive in winning the World Poker Finals in 2003. Now in his mid-40s, Corkins has an "all or nothing" attitude and can't be rattled (we saw him stay with his game in the face of Phil Hellmuth's insistent prodding). Hoyt silently pressures players with big bets and raises. While I believe his style is perfect for major tourneys, he must be careful to avoid getting stubborn with a second-best hand at the wrong time.

Peter Costa: "The Poet" is a terrific poker writer who plays a solid, thinking game, and is capable of adjusting to variables such as those that he will face in July. The only player to be nominated for 2002 and 2003 European player of the year honors, Peter won the Aussie Millions in 2003. This was a key victory in my thinking, because although it was a limit hold'em tourney, he conquered 1,165 adversaries.

Allen Cunningham: Once mentioned in the same sentence with his friends John Juanda and Daniel Negreanu, Cunningham won six major tournaments at the age of 22. He seems to lose interest in poker periodically, occasionally taking time off from the game. He came back full time in 2004, cashing 17 times. Still in his 20s, the quietly confident Californian plays almost Zen-like. He displays the right mix of aggressiveness and measured play necessary to win the WSOP championship bracelet. Allen is "odd man out" of my top nine.

John DíAgostino: "Dags" has all the tools necessary to win in 2005, except experience. I have wrestled with how important foe familiarity and overall tournament testing are. I've decided to lower their importance slightly based on today's large field/aggressive play environment that the young players know so well. So, I have chosen John and many youngsters over former champions, such as Hamid Dastmalchi, Brad Daugherty, and Mansour Matloubi. With televised tournaments, great literature, and the Internet providing accelerated experience to the "Kellers" and "Cassidys" of the game, I am confident the young stars will shine in 2005. Speaking of confidence, DíAgostino is one of the most assured and competitive players I have seen at age 22. His right arm reminds me of Carlos Mortensenís.

Tam Duong: Although "Tony "D" is best known as a high-stakes cash player, he has shown strong skills in his sporadic forays into tournament play. Tony has made the final table (2002) at the WSOP championship. He plays many hands and raises liberally.

Paul Darden: The polite former promoter (music and nightclubs) and Connecticut resident is one of the stars of our game, but considers himself a student and a work in progress. His informal coach is Phil Ivey. Paul's hungry attitude has served him well. His style makes him a strong contender to be in action at the WSOP on the final day.

Martin de Knijff: An aggressive player who can throttle down well, I could use Martin's expertise to assign odds to this listing (he is a professional sports handicapper and oddsmaker). The Swede is best known for his $2,786,018 victory at Bellagio (in the season two WPT Championship). In that event, the part-time pro bridge player took many flops, showed patience on the next three streets, and pushed hard when he had the lead. He has a solid understanding of how his relative chip count affects his strategy.

Kaseem Deeb: "Freddy" is equally at home in a high-stakes cash game at Bellagio or at a final table at the Plaza. Born in Lebanon, the lifetime professional is a congenial, confident player who simply loves to play flops and attempt to outwit opponents on the next three streets. If foes let Freddy flop, he will be tough to outplay. Deeb adjusts well to escalating blinds and antes, shifting into "steal" gear appropriately.

Annie Duke: I have never felt comfortable enough to watch Annie play from a few feet away. I may be wrong, but I read her body language as, "Go away." In addition, I have never spoken with her. Huckleberry Seed, Mike Matusow, and several others fit this category. All can play and make my watch list based on style and performance, but I can't add anything to what you have observed on television.

Barbara Enright: The veteran tournament star is observant and plays very aggressively. Enright has appeared at a WSOP final table (fifth in 1995) and has an impressive three WSOP bracelets, which includes two women's seven-card stud events. Barbara has qualified online as I type, thus she is following the path Moneymaker and Raymer have plowed.

Antonio Esfandiari: "The Magician" exemplifies the new breed of young, fearless players who are comfortable playing tournament poker against large fields. He will fire with almost any hand, relying on opponents to eschew risk in favor of patience. Finally, when his tight adversary picks up a strong hand, he can extract only a small percentage of the Tehran native's checks. The system works well, as attested to by Antonio's huge win ($1.3 million) at the 2004 L.A. Poker Classic and his pot-limit victory at the WSOP a few months later. This is not a new way to play (Doyle Brunson described it in Super/System many years ago). It is a concept that provides a favorable risk/reward scenario against large fields.

Sammy Farha: The pros, especially cash players, were very familiar with Sammy before he made his ESPN splash in 2003 when he finished second in the main event. Lately, he has abandoned the unlit cigarette prop, but his game is still rooted in "come play a flop with me." Because he plays many pots, Sammy gets paid off when he hits hands and is always a big threat to accumulate chips early. The Texan is comparatively quick to take a stand for all of his chips, so if the cards are running his way, he will be a major threat.

Chris Ferguson: The man who holds a doctorate in computer science has many pros: experience in winning the championship (in 2000), great demeanor, strong focus, lots of hair, virtually impossible to read, mathematically brilliant, can cut pickles at 15 paces with the 5, good at self-analysis, and will make a big play at crunch time. I don't know of any weaknesses, but his recent two-year batting average, while respectable, falls a tad short of his earlier success.

* Layne Flack: Nicknamed "Back-to-Back" for a 2002 WSOP accomplishment (by winning consecutive no-limit hold'em events), and for rhyming purposes, Layne is typically the player in focus at a table. The South Dakota native holds five WSOP bracelets and puts opponents on their heels with his intimidating style. He is difficult to read because he raises with a wide range of hands. He also makes some extraordinary laydowns. When playing his "A" game, Flack is on the attack and an exceptional player who gets one of my tickets to the final table.

* Ted Forrest: When I watch Forrest, I see why the Syracuse native is so difficult to play against and how he accumulates chips. The five-time bracelet winner likes to take flops and is great at sensing an opponent's weakness. If competitors allow Ted to play his game, they will find themselves in trouble. Had he not eschewed tournament play for many years, his record might be as good as it gets. Forrest is not only in my top nine, but he is my pick to win the 2005 WSOP championship!

Noel Furlong: Based on his rapid right-arm movement and known fearless style, the 1999 champion slides onto the tail end of my list, but like JJ Bortner, Noel must avoid being trapped. He is also getting on in years, thus the length of the event is a consideration.

Julian Gardiner:

Scott Fischman

* Juha Helppi:

Michael Mizrachi:

Thomas Keller:

David Williams:

I see these six as nearly the same player. Each easily makes my list based on natural ability, the right style for today's fields, and poker savvy. In addition, I am projecting each to move up with experience. Of course, there is precious little room for Williams to move up from last year's performance.

I heard about an English phenom by the name of Gardiner well before Julian turned 21. Based on my observation, his glowing reviews were warranted. His results to date have been excellent. He finished second to Robert Varkonyi in 2002 and 32nd out of 2,576 in 2004.

Fischman has distinguished himself as the leader of "The Crew," a handful of young, swaggering players who have aspirations of taking over the poker world. Scott seems to have the killer instinct, taking two titles last year. I believe we have yet to see his best efforts.

As for the best player in Finland, I will be taking odds on Helppi offshore. The former dealer and paintball-playing expert is as dangerous an opponent as one can have, in that he will make moves with nothing and pick you off with a hand that most would muck. He is in great condition, is highly competitive, rarely changes expression during play, and almost never talks. Juha is one of my top picks.

Mizrachi is known as "The Grinder," but after watching him play at Commerce Casino where he took down nearly $2 million, and then at the WPT Championship, where he seemed destined to make the final table (he raised with A-J and was called by A-Q to finish 11th), I believe his nickname is a misnomer. Michael is in top form, is confident, has loads of 'gamble,' and can be counted upon to pressure his table. He falls a few slots outside my top nine.

"Thunder" Keller has a good read on this game. He is one of the first writers I gravitate to when a new issue of Card Player hits the stands. Thomas, approaching 25, has already scooped up a WSOP bracelet and $382,020 in a no-limit hold'em event (2004). He plays similarly to the other five, but is a bit more animated, thus can give off some information (or misinformation).

I liked Williams' style when I watched him take second in last year's main event. Then, I observed him for three days at Bellagio and spoke with him. I like his demeanor and the way he thinks. David has the right stuff to provide a repeat performance.

Chau Giang: The well-dressed, bespectacled, high-stakes cash-game player picked up the tournament bug when his son asked him why he wasn't on the television poker shows. Chau responded with several appearances. He is unflappable and often seems unstoppable when on a good run.

Alan Goehring
: The first time I saw Alan play was a few days before he made the 1999 WSOP main event final table. I recall telling a spectator that the bond trader must be a high-yield (junk bond) specialist, because he was throwing caution to the wind at the poker table. He and Gus Hansen are two of my favorite players to bet against in offshore "last longer" bets. They play to build chips or leave early. But, each is always a threat to win a major event.

Phil Gordon: The former software engineer is mathematically sound, reads well, and is far more aggressive than most would think. The prize money means little to the tall man from El Paso and poker author, thus he will have his eye on first place. He has made a WSOP final table (fifth in 2001) and acquitted himself very well, as he has done on the WPT.

Tony Guoga: "Tony G" is the guy you love to hate when he plays at a televised final table. I may blow his cover, but the native Lithuanian is different "in real life." He is a force to be reckoned with in a major tournament, as he is fearless and his chip fluctuations can be enormous. His WPT batting average is very high (five cashes in his first eight tries). So, if he catches cards and his "in your face" style gets to his adversaries, he has a shot at making the final table.

Barry Greenstein: If it were professional for reporters to root for players, this mild-mannered, Midwestern-bred multimillionaire would have most of us dropping our pens and clapping. Known as "The Robin Hood of Poker" for his charitable contributions, Barry is perfect for our game in every way, and is incredibly talented. His aggressive, focused style is good for long tournaments. His cash-game experience enables him to release a hand in time if caught making a move. Barry has no weaknesses.

Hasan Habib: Based on ability, style of play, recent results (his 2004 and 2005 record takes a backseat to very few), and experience (Hasan garnered fourth place in the 2000 WSOP championship), the very likeable former tennis champ easily makes my list. In fact, he is clearly a top-nine player, but I am deliberately omitting the asterisk. He knows why, and will tell you if you ask.

Gus Hansen: We all have seen "Gambling Gus" play. His style warrants giving him a big shot in the main event. I have argued his merits with close friends who believe he is flat-out lucky. I disagree; he is a great player. Give the Copenhagen native some good cards and he will build big piles of chips because he will be paid off (an underrated positive in poker). Point the "Great Dane" at the door to opportunity and he will burst through it.

Jennifer Harman: Jennifer is my pick (above all others on this list) to cash in at the championship. The Reno-born, diminutive dazzler is a student of the game. She is focused and patient. Harman is adept at snapping off bluffs and picking up pots when she reads others for having weak hands. She will be able to build her chips nicely irrespective of table composition. The multiple bracelet winner adapts well to different types of players. The money pressure is a non-factor, as Jen plays in the biggest cash games on earth. Does she have enough "Negreanu gamble" in her to win this event? I'm not sure, but I am positive she has given careful thought to the way she wants to play through a huge field such as the one she will encounter. For fans, she is approachable and interesting to talk to.

Dan Harrington: "Action Dan" is one of the nicest players in the game, and one of the best. His arrival at back-to-back WSOP championship final tables is as great a feat as I have seen in poker, based on the size of the two fields and caliber of his opponents. The former attorney and world champ (1995) has an ability to sort of blend in before pouncing. In addition, the expert in backgammon and chess is virtually unreadable and unflappable.

Phil Hellmuth Jr.: I have mixed feelings about how the youngest (age 24) winner of the WSOP main event (in 1989) will fare in 2005. Although the devoted family man understands the game of no-limit hold'em at a doctorate level and has an awesome record, he needs to adjust to the new breed of opponent and the large fields. In addition, I'm not crazy about the Wisconsin native's propensity to arrive late on day one (assumedly, to instill a dominating presence). Intimidating nine players out of 6,600 just doesn't work for me. Forfeiting $400 or so in blinds is not a big problem, but failing to observe the players at one's opening table during the first few hours and eschewing a possible opportunity to double through a gambling player are concerns. That said, the nine-time bracelet winner's desire to win is almost as strong as his ego, and his gamesmanship is superb.

John Hennigan: The former world-class pool-hustling Philadelphian now plays in the big game at Bellagio and is fearless at the poker table. His scouting report is very simple: experienced, aggressive, calm, and cagey, with no weaknesses.

Susie Isaacs: Known for her Southern accent (born in Nashville), flamboyant poker garb, great smile, and poker writings, Susie plays a strong game and has the right style to accumulate chips and hold on to them. She is a seasoned star, with WSOP victories (1996 and 1997 women's seven-card stud events) and a 10th-place finish in the championship tourney.

* Phil Ivey: If Phil won in 2005, absolutely no knowledgeable poker fan would be surprised, and his victory would be a boon to companies that sell basketball jerseys. The California-born star won three bracelets at the 2003 WSOP, then bubbled in the main event, finishing 10th after suffering some atrocious beats. He has no weaknesses and his style fits well with large-field play. His demeanor is one that young poker players should emulate. He is a master at position play and eats up weak competition. Phil easily makes my top nine.

Randy Jensen: Brimming with confidence and overflowing with competitive juices, Randy can annoy players to the point where they lose focus. The Colorado real estate investor with 12 years of tournament experience is highly aggressive – the type of player I see making the final table. He has stated that he is one of the greats in the game, but just hasn't the wins to prove it. A victory in the 2005 championship would be a good start.

Chip Jett: Karina's husband has the right style (very aggressive), is physically ready for the grind, and stays calm under pressure. His record is strong (seven final tables in major events during 2003). The fact that he has stated his aggressive play can be both a strength and a weakness leads me to believe Chip will be able to make strategic laydowns as he goes a long way in July.

Linda Johnson: I have a feeling Linda will do very well in this event. She doesn't enter many tournaments these days due to an over-the-top work schedule, but the Las Vegas-based star has had a great deal of success in the past and excels at all games. "LJ" possesses a sharp, analytical mind, and the right temperament for a long event. In addition, the bracelet winner (razz in 1997) knows many top players' tendencies, having held the microphone for almost every WPT final table since the show's inception.

* John Juanda: "JJ" is a threat to win any tournament he enters, from a $1,000 pot-limit Omaha contest to the "big one" in July. The former track star is my pick for best preflop player in the game. His ability to smell an opponent's weakness and come over the top is excellent. Juanda, holder of an MBA from Seattle University, picks up more chips without seeing a flop than almost anyone. His six-year no-limit record is excellent.

Mel Judah: I have watched the former hairdresser play many times (and with excellent success). But, I have trouble assessing his style. Perhaps that's because the London resident is able to shift gears so quickly. If I were writing this piece two years ago, I would have omitted Mel from my list (believing he had a good chance to cash, but was unlikely to play aggressively enough to make the final table). Based on his more recent success, I have to give him the benefit of my doubt.

Jonathan Kaplan
: "JK" is a relatively unknown player simply because he rarely plays in anything but the WSOP main event and the WPT $25,000 championship. I have watched him play well and we have discussed poker periodically. I'll give Jonathan one of my long-shot slots because I keep thinking of the intellectual similarities between Kaplan and Greg Raymer.

Casey Kastle: Nonsmokers can breathe more easily thanks to Casey's enormous efforts to clean up tournament poker in the late '90s. His latest efforts have been aimed at ensuring that competitors are playing on a level field. Kastle wants players who have "pieces" of others and are playing in the same event to declare their arrangements. It is a worthwhile project. While he has been crusading, he has been becoming a better no-limit player and making a good living. I believe he is another on this list who must open up his game to avoid finishing 600th out of 6,600 (it's better to gamble and finish 5,000th or fifth).

Phil Laak: I watched the "Unabomber" (he wears a hooded sweatshirt and shades when he plays) hit the small screen with three final-table appearances in season two of the WPT. The first thing that occurred to me was that the part-time real estate investor must have overdosed on Starbucks' strongest blend. Laak couldn't sit still. But, between his crazy physical act and wild betting, I deduced that his opponents were distracted and trying to avoid confrontations with him. His aggressive, unpredictable style should serve him well in the championship, so I have to give him a shot if he gets decent cards. I watched him up close in several season three WPT events and spoke with him briefly. He is controlled and intelligent when one-on-one.

Tuan Le: The 26-year-old is the hottest player in the game, having won more than $4.4 million in the last eight months. It's a good thing he majored in finance. Le thinks quickly and well. The only knock on him is that he has a tendency to gamble too much (relying on reads and not his cards). That reputation has a positive side: He is frequently called by a player holding a marginal hand when he holds a strong hand. In a recent interview, he gave Card Player readers some great advice when he suggested that they not emulate a particular professional, but seek to hone a style that is within their comfort zone.

Howard Lederer
: "The Professor' is accurately nicknamed. He is a thinking-man's poker player, equipped with the right mix of "gamble," strong mathematical capability, reading ability, and great focus. He is adept at playing the pros and the new breed of Internet player who fires first and thinks later.

Alfredo Leonidas: "Toto" is a poster child for deliberate but unpredictable players. He is loose and lovable (one of the nicest guys in the game). The Californian owns a WSOP bracelet and many other titles. Look for him to very patiently cut his chips back and forth, looking for tells. When he fires, he will typically follow through on subsequent streets.

David Levi: Originally from Israel, David has played professional soccer, thus we can assume he will have no trouble with the grueling physical demands of a long tournament. The former paratrooper has won approximately 15 events, including some majors, and cannot be discounted if he starts well, which is his norm. Levi is an all-games player, but seems to be concentrating on no-limit these days (in the last three months, he has cashed seven times in no-limit hold'em events).

Kathy Liebert: This seasoned tournament star has won big events and is probably playing the best poker of her lifetime. Formerly a Dunn and Brad analyst, the Nashville native now specializes in evaluating situational circumstance. I'm impressed by her preflop decisions and positional play. Liebert has eight cashes in WPT events, owns a WSOP bracelet, has been a late-day chip leader of the main event, and has had several good championship finishes.

Erick Lindgren
: "E-Dog" is another young (28), fearless star with several WPT wins. He captured $1,560,058 and WPT player of the year honors (in season two) by defeating his friend and season-three player of the year Daniel Negreanu in a key event. Erick will risk an early exit in an effort to pile up chips by the end of day two. He maximizes each pot he plays, extracting opponentsí chips in marginal situations. He is very difficult to read and changes gears effectively.

Marcel Luske
: The "Flying Dutchman" is one of the most personable players in poker. The co-founder of the International Poker Federation is dapper in his tailored suits and an entertaining opponent. Luske is a raconteur, a singer, and a poker analyst – often combining all three while he plays a hand. Have no fear of rejection – if you see him standing around, he will be happy to chat. The reigning European player of the year had a terrific WSOP last year (taking 10th and $373,000 in the main event). He finished 14th in 2003. The man who wants to standardize poker rules around the world (now, that's a chore) is one of the best readers I have seen, and is aggressive enough to win. His weakness is obvious: He has great difficulty determining the top and bottom of his sunglasses, often wearing them upside down.

Hieu Ma:
The 1999 Card Player Player of the Year hails from Vietnam (seemingly a training ground for aggressive no-limit players). The former ship welder has a solid all-around game. "Tony" analyzes opponents well and works within his comfort zone. Like most top players, he takes advantage of weakness and knows the value of building chips, thus he will not "play to survive" against sizeable fields.

Paul Magriel
: I was tempted to omit the eccentric "X-22" from this list because I simply can't see the highly aggressive former math instructor playing through six days without making a mistake for all of his chips. On the other hand, I just can't get past his brilliance as a theoretician and thinker. Once considered the best backgammon player in the world, he wrote the definitive book on the game (a whopping 404 pages) and has the right poker style to win a major championship.

Tom McEvoy
: Long regarded as one of the best teachers in the game and a prolific writer, the 1983 world champion and five-time bracelet winner seems to be heating up at the right time (he recently defeated a star-studded field in a Professional Poker Tour event). McEvoy, a former accountant, needs to shed his staid, conservative poker skin and throw some caution to the wind to get through this gargantuan field, since he is a solid player by nature and conviction.

Jim Meehan
: If he can avoid penalties for use of the "F" word, "Minneapolis Jim" knows how to build chips and attacks weak/tight players unmercifully. He is torture (one of the slowest players in the game) to play against, and reads opponents well. The Vegas resident is also somewhat hilarious at the table, especially when holding chips and feeling chatty (which is most of the time). Jim has a strong WSOP record, including a bracelet and five final tables. If you hit a gutshot river card on the semiretired attorney, prepare to hear, "Holy mother of God"

Chris Moneymaker
: His "man the torpedoes, full speed ahead" style turned $40 into $2.5 million in 2003. The question became, "Was the man with the cool, improbable name going to be a flash in the pan?" Chris answered that question with aggressive, imaginative play on the WPT and has conducted himself nicely as a former champ. He has the ability to accumulate chips and has been working hard on his game.

Juan Carlos Mortensen
: I recall Mike Sexton saying that Carlos had a strong right arm when "El Matador" was on his way to the 2001 WSOP championship. He is a fearless, unpredictable, dangerous player who can be counted upon to play relentlessly, especially when in the chips. His carefree attitude with chips belies the thought and study he has put into the game. Carlos sports two WSOP bracelets, has won more than $3 million at the WSOP, and had an excellent year in 2004, winning the Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship.

John Myung
: If players were to make a list of opponents they do not want at their table, the Cornell graduate would appear on many. He is annoyingly slow to act and pressures players persistently. John, well known to East Coast high-stakes cash battlers, has established a strong record since beginning to concentrate on tournaments in 2002. I look for him to have a big WSOP.

* Daniel Negreanu
: The reigning Card Player Player of the Year has the right style to win any large-field event, takes advantage of "dead money" players as well as anyone in the game, and plays a full-contact poker game when the pressure is on. His legitimate, fun-loving, personable style at the table works in his favor. Daniel's love for the game and the people in the game would make him a great ambassador for poker, should he win.

Men Nguyen
: I have watched Men play more than any other player on this list. Alas, I can't get a read on "The Master" (other than he loves to push his rushes), despite the fact that he is anything but impassive when he plays a hand. He talks with opponents (and almost anyone who will listen), rarely does the same thing with his hands, and downs bottles of Corona beer at a solid pace. I must not be alone in my failure to put the two-time Card Player Player of the Year on hands, because his record is consistent and excellent. The six-time bracelet winner shifts gears well, although he prefers to stay in overdrive. His style mimics the one I see winning in 2005.

Scotty Nguyen
: The charismatic 1998 champ plays all games confidently and well. Scotty, a four-time bracelet winner, truly enjoys himself at the table. No-limit hold'em is not his strongest game (he is more successful at Omaha eight-or-better), but his experience, style, desire, and ability to control a table may take him a long way in July.

David Pham
: "The Dragon" likes to breathe maximum heat on opponents, and he has a terrific no-limit record. He narrowly missed capturing Card Player Player of the Year honors in 2004. Give him an inch and he'll swipe your pot.

* Thang Pham
: "Kido"is my dark horse to arrive at the final table in 2005. The dental clinic manager and part-time chip pusher is relatively inexperienced, but he drinks green tea, which seems to calm him. He plays fearlessly (almost as if he doesn't care about the money) and is a situational opportunist. He is forceful and unpredictable, and can make a difficult laydown.

John Phan
: I watched John play his way to a well-deserved fourth-place finish and nearly $518,920 at the WPT season three finale. The 2005 L.A. Poker Classic $2,500 no-limit hold'em champ is observant, calm under pressure, and plays for the win. He sits atop the Card Player Player of the Year Standings through early June.

Young Phan:
Here comes my most oddball analysis of a player on this list. I often have had the feeling that the congenial, Vietnam-born, Cal Poly graduate outplays his results. I suppose he may be on the low end of the luck scale, or I may overestimate his skills. I suspect the former. The 18-year veteran seems to run into strong hands more often than I believe statistically neutral. He may be a tad tight for my liking in this field, but he is a great thinker. Young is another who would make a terrific spokesperson for poker, should he survive this field.

* Paul Phillips
: Paul has a "win or nothing" attitude and will take advantage of those who are looking to move up once they're in the money. He cashed in four events at the 2004 WSOP. Phillips, a former chief technical officer of and tabbed the "dot-com millionaire" on the WPT, is possibly the smartest player in the game (and we are loaded with extremely bright players). He is one of the most dangerous to defend against when sitting behind a sizeable stack. The only question seems to be whether he will play in orange, brown, or blond hair. Paul makes my top nine and has a strong shot (well, as much of a shot as one can have in a 6,600-player field) to win $8 million (the estimated first-place prize).

Greg Raymer:
I met the North Dakota native (known as "Fossilman" for his fossil card protectors) in 2000. He had just been knocked out of a preliminary event at the WSOP. We discussed a few hands. He wasnít lamenting for "bad beat" purposes, but soliciting intellectual feedback. Greg was articulate, had great recall, and thought through each hand with strong comprehension. When he was in the mix early on last year, I mistakenly commented to a friend that I was high on Greg's ability but didn't know if he had enough gamble in him to defeat 2,575 opponents. Greg has surely been thinking about how his status as reigning champ will affect his opponents during the 2005 championship. He will prepare a solid game plan and implement it well.

Chip Reese
: Players who have played with this legendary high-stakes player heap praise upon his all-around capabilities. The Las Vegas resident is often described as the best player alive. His tournament game appears to be a bit tight for my taste, but I won't attempt to underestimate his tourney skills while overestimating my preferences. So, on experience (Chip has been playing 31 years) and reading ability, the former Dartmouth graduate and youngest inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame hits this list.

Mimi Rogers
: Yes, this pick is for the dreamer in me (ever since I saw Mimi in the 1987 film Someone to Watch Over Me). Can poker blow up any more than it has in the last three years? Well, imagine if Mimi or Shannon Elizabeth rolled through the field and donned the championship gold bracelet on July 15. Mimi defines "working actress." Nominated for an Academy Award (The Rapture in 1991), she is always in demand and can carry off any role. Rogers picked up poker very quickly. That's no surprise – as she graduated from high school at the age of 14. Even in her "new to poker" days in 2003, she exhibited innate card sense and was very difficult to read.

Russell Rosenblum
: The attorney and family man from Maryland is a part-time player, thus never a threat to win Card Player Player of the Year honors. However, his batting average in major events is stellar. He is a focused, intelligent player with an unpredictable, gregarious style. He can lull opponents into a false sense of security and then bluff their chips into his stack. Rosenblum made the WSOP championship table in 2002, finishing sixth.

Erik Sagstrom
: The young Swede has played on the Internet as "Erik123" for several years with incredible results. Initially, due to the facts that he is gifted and plays in the biggest online games, I assumed (incorrectly) that "Erik123" was Seidel (see below). I watched young Erik play fearlessly and aggressively at Bellagio in April. He belongs on this list and in the top 20.

* Erik Seidel
: It should come as no great surprise that I give the former New York "numbers" man (Erik was a star backgammon player and has had success in the stock market) a big shot in the main event, since, as WSOP action begins in 2005, he holds more bracelets (six) than all but four living players. He is feared at the table and admired by those who know him. He uses his image well. He adapts nicely to players who are trying to shift gears, since he reads body language and tendencies so well. Seidel is a top player.

Jeff Shulman
: Of the father and son duo, I favor Jeff's more methodical but often sneaky/aggressive style in a long event with blinds moving up slowly. A former real estate investor in his early 20s, he seems to have adjusted to the new breed of player, having recently finished 12th out of 452 in the WPT Championship. He placed 17th (512 entrants) in this year's World Poker Open championship event. As for WSOP championship experience, "Happy" broke in with a seventh-place showing in the main event in 2000.

Richard Tatalovich
: Before the poker world knew about Gus Hansen, we had Richard, a gambling, unpredictable player who combines the same thoughtful, mathematical perspective that Gus deploys. Tatalovich took a hiatus from tournament poker but seems to be back in stride in 2005, and he poses a definite threat. The former United States Poker Championship winner is a thinking-man's player (once providing a 19,000-word interview for a now defunct poker magazine).

Gabriel Thaler
: He is an easy player to be around and one who will talk about hands. I have watched Thaler play in preliminary rounds and at the final table of a WSOP Tournament Circuit event, and have talked poker with him. The 31-year-old is comfortable in all settings, will push positional advantage, and plays into opponents' weaknesses and away from their strengths. He is always thinking and working on his game. I expect Gabe to make correct decisions at crunch time.

Dewey Tomko
: Dewey has been successful in almost everything he has tried in life (from teaching kindergarten to golf). He is the most patient and disciplined player on this list. I keep thinking he may not possess enough gamble to build a stack large enough to threaten victory in a huge field, but he keeps showing up at final tables, and with some better luck in the championship event, I might have been referring to him as a two-time WSOP champion with five bracelets (he has three bracelets and two second-place finishes in the main event). Tomko is congenial, professional, and well-liked. The question is whether Dewey will choose to play enough coin flips to get through a gigantic field.

Devilfish Ulliott
: Now in his ninth year of tournament play, David is experienced, focused, savvy, and risk-oriented. He has the requisites that I believe will be necessary to win this year. In addition, like his namesake saltwater swimmer, Ulliott has a killer instinct.

Unknown No. 1
: This is a player who enters the WSOP championship through satellites on the Internet (the way Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer played their way in the past two years). By graduating through a series of "qualifiers," he or she will have shown the ability to take necessary risks and will be a dangerous player, given a decent run of cards. Expect to see at least two of these players at the final table.

Unknown No. 2
: This is a player who has been banging around poker rooms for years, playing aggressively, and gaining experience. He now wins a satellite or supersatellite at the Rio, catches some great cards in key hands during the first few days, and has enough guile and gamble to survive through day six. Once again, he catches cards and arrives at the final table. Of the nine players you will see at the 2005 final table, it is highly unlikely that even one will have struggled through a week of below-average cards.

Amir Vahedi
: This walking ad for cigars is one of my favorite players. He is gregarious by nature, but highly competitive. His strengths are positional play and picking up pots that others don't seem to want. He will push a big stack of chips and never give up with a small one.

Ram Vaswani
: This is my Hendon (a local neighborhood in London) pick. While fellow "mobsters" Ross Boatman, Barney Boatman, and Joe Beevers can certainly play well, I'll use "Crazy Horse," the former snooker pro with the casual attitude. When I asked Ram why he is so successful, he seemed stumped, then smiled and replied, "I think I have good card sense." Vaswani made three WSOP final tables last year and has 16 major tournament wins. He is focused, having optimistically allowed that he believes he will be the world champion someday.

Cyndy Violette
: Although youthful looking, Cyndy is now a veteran player and well-known for her stud expertise. Lately, the little lady with the big smile has been devoting more time to no-limit hold'em and, after securing her first bracelet in 2004 (seven-card stud eight-or-better), will be going for the grand prize in 2005. The former Downtown Vegas dealer worked hard to learn her tournament trade, built her bankroll slowly, and would make a great representative of poker, should she win.

Lee Watkinson
: The WPT star (in four final-table appearances, Lee has earned $1,152,912) is grounded and focused. He switches styles well, depending upon position and relative chip counts. Lee, now playing his best and most confident poker, is most dangerous when in the lead, as he is one of the best "big-stack bullies" in the game.

Robert Williamson III: I don't think of no-limit hold'em when Robert's name comes up, but he is an excellent theoretician (his on-air analysis and color commentary demonstrate his expertise). He exerts command of a table and can be counted upon to make mathematically correct decisions.

Steve Zolotow: One of the smartest players in the game (and one of the best writers), this former backgammon star and extraordinary mathematician may be a tad bit too solid to get through a mammoth field, but I'm sure he will open up his game. "Steve Z" has no technical or theory weaknesses.

The Baseball Almanac

Card Player,
Volume 17, Issue 3 (McEvoy and Smith)

The Championship Table at the World Series of Poker by Dana Smith, Tom McEvoy, and Ralph Wheeler

Harrah's World Series of Poker news releases

Lester Ben "Benny" Binion: Some Recollections of a Texas and Las Vegas Gambling Operator by Mary Ellen Glass

Poker Wisdom of a Champion by Doyle Brunson

Richard Belsky's 2005 on-site interviews for Card Player

Steve Badgerís

USA Today

World Series of Poker reports by Andy Glazer (Card Player)

World Series of Poker reports by Lee Munzer (Poker Digest)

* Denotes top candidates to make the championship final table.