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The Year in Review: A Trip Through Poker’s Biggest Stories of 2011

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Jan 11, 2012


Tournament numbers were down, the poker world continued to feel the effects of a struggling U.S. economy … and we haven’t even begun to talk about Black Friday yet.

2011 was a difficult year for poker. There’s no denying that. But it’s also a year that may prove to be an important transitional leap for the growth of poker and an expansion of the game’s mainstream appeal.

For years, U.S. poker players and many poker room operators have begged the government to license and regulate the game we all love. With states such as Nevada, California, Florida, New Jersey and Iowa all introducing proposals to launch state run poker sites in 2011 and the U.S. government holding hearings and kicking around poker bills, many steps were taken this year to transform the poker industry.

One thing is for sure… this year has proven that poker isn’t going anywhere in the United States and that steps are needed to protect players and license and regulate operators.

Domestically, the game was brought into new households thanks to revolutionary live poker broadcasts. Even the players themselves proved more resilient than ever as tournament buy-ins reached unprecedented heights.

Globally, poker continued to grow and expand into new markets. Poker has yet another foreign world champion poised to turn on another nation to Texas hold’em fever.

Here is a look back at this year’s headlines.


Viktor BlomIsildur1’s Identity Revealed

Late in 2010 PokerStars announced that it had a sponsorship deal with Isildur1 – an unknown Swedish prodigy who had taken online cash games by storm. Isildur1 first appeared on Full Tilt Poker in 2009 and was up millions before losing more than $4 million in one day. Eventually it was announced that his identity would be revealed at the 2011 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Almost everyone already knew that Isildur1 was Viktor Blom, and at the ceremony it was confirmed.

High-Roller Events Become Popular

Big buy-in events became a staple of major tour stops. In January alone, there were three events with six-figure buy-ins. Both the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and the Aussie Millions had $100,000 buy-in tournaments on the schedule. In Australia, a $250,000 buy-in followed the first successful six-figure affair. This narrative was drastically altered later in the year by Black Friday, which curtailed the growth of these high-roller events. Despite the blow to poker, Bellagio still decided to run two $100,000 events later in the year, both of which had strong turnouts.


Blair HinkleHinkle Wins Largest Tournament Ever on Full Tilt Poker

On Feb. 21, a Full Tilt Poker event attracted 14,479 players, building the largest prize pool in the site’s history. The lion’s share went to Blair Hinkle, who made a deal three handed that paid him $1.1 million. His apparent windfall soon seemed to be more of a cruel tease. The demise of Full Tilt following Black Friday, April, 15, left Hinkle without any of his funds, and no apparent way to access them.

Nevada Casinos Report $3.4 Billion Loss For 2010

It was announced in February that $3.4 billion was lost by casino operators throughout Nevada in 2010, according to an abstract conducted by the Nevada Gaming Control Board on the state’s 256 casinos that have more than $1 million in gross gaming revenue. The profitability measurement takes into account all money spent at casino properties including rooms, dining, entertainment and gaming. In 2009, casino operators reported a nearly $6.8 billion loss. While the 2010 numbers may indicate some improvement, in reality, they simply reflect a devaluation of casino assets by roughly $3.5 billion.


Erik SeidelErik Seidel Wins NBC Heads-Up, Takes All-Time Money List Lead

Erik Seidel continued his incredible run early in 2011 by winning the $25,000 buy-in NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship for $750,000. Seidel topped the 64-player bracket-style field, improving on his 2010 runner-up finish. With the win, Seidel moved into first place on the all-time tournament earnings leader board. In just over a two month period, he had won three events, making six different final tables and earning nearly $4.5 million. Seidel would continue to stay hot throughout the year, adding another $2 million, and entering December with nine cashes totaling $6.3 million.

Caesars and 888 Strike Historic Partnership

Nevada gaming regulators approved the suitability of a relationship between Caesars Entertainment, owner of the World Series of Poker brand, with subsidiaries of 888 Holdings, an Israel-based internet gaming provider operating in Gibraltar. The arrangement, the first of its kind for a Nevada licensee, gave Caesars Entertainment the OK to operate a site in the United Kingdom. While federal legislative efforts have stalled, Nevada has moved to establish the nation’s first intrastate online poker system. In October, 888 applied for a license to do business in a future Silver State market.


Gary LovemanBlack Friday

The poker world changed forever when the Justice Department unsealed an indictment against the major online poker sites offering the game to Americans. The companies pulled out of the U.S. market, and only one site (PokerStars) has paid its U.S. players. In December, two of the accused individuals appeared in federal court for a preliminary hearing.

Caesars Entertainment Pushes For Federal Legislation

It didn’t take long in the wake of Black Friday before some of the biggest casino companies in the country spoke out in support for federal Internet poker legislation. In an op-ed for Fortune, Caesar’s CEO Gary Loveman said that the crackdown on the major online poker sites creates an opportunity for more jobs and tax revenue in the U.S.


Joe BartonJoe Barton Gets Behind Online Poker

At a press conference outside the Capitol, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) announced his plan to introduce online poker legislation in the House. His proposal had two separate subcommittee hearings in the fall, but remains in limbo and faces an uncertain future.

American Gaming Association Pushes for Online Poker

The gaming industry’s most powerful lobbying group said back in 2010 that it was changing its neutral position on online gaming. In the spring of 2011, about a month after poker’s Black Friday, the AGA said it was working toward its own version of an online poker bill. While a bill from Rep. Joe Barton materialized, the AGA proposal never hit Congress. The group has not endorsed any specific piece of federal legislation, but CEO and president Frank Fahrenkopf testified at a fall hearing on Barton’s bill, urging lawmakers to tax and regulate Internet poker. The group remains a powerful voice in efforts to get a national bill done.

Phil IveyPhil Ivey Sits out WSOP

Phil Ivey decided to sit out the World Series of Poker in response to the specific allegations against Full Tilt Poker in the Justice Department indictment. He also filed suit against his former employer, citing disappointment and embarrassment that players were not paid their account balances. Ivey was seeking more than $150 million for “injunctive relief, declaratory relief and damages.” The company soon fired back at the superstar, stating that he was only trying to help himself and he had declined to pay back a large sum owed to the site. He later withdrew his lawsuit when rumors began circulating in June that European investors were seeking to purchase the site. In November, he finally returned to the tournament scene by playing in a Macau event.


Jake Cody Kicks Off WSOP with Triple Crown Win

In the summer’s first open event – the $25,000 no-limit hold’em heads-up championship – poker pro Jake Cody joined the short list of players who have won titles in poker’s three major tournament series. The summer progressed with notable pros such as Eugene Katchalov, Allen Bari, Matt Perrins, Brian Rast, John Juanda, Jason Somerville, Bertrand Grospellier (also a triple crown winner), John Monnette, Andy Frankenberger, Sam Stein, Jason Mercier, Fabrice Soulier, Matt Jarvis, Ben Lamb, Joe Ebanks, Matt Matros, Maxim Lykov and Nick Binger all winning bracelets. Eleven-time WSOP champion Phil Hellmuth suffered three heartbreaking runner-up finishes in 2011, barely losing WSOP Player of the Year to Lamb.

Tobey MaguireNevada Poker Bill Signed into Law

After numerous amendments were added during its path through the Nevada legislature, Assembly Bill 258, which mandates the Nevada Gaming Commission to adopt regulations for Internet poker, was signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval. The bill allows Silver State casino companies to establish the nation’s first intrastate online poker system, and down the road offer the game nationwide if federal legislation passes or the Justice Department gives the OK.

Tobey Maguire Sued For Poker Winnings

Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire was named in a lawsuit seeking to claim $311,000 he won in a high-stakes Hollywood home game. In December, Maguire agreed to pay $80,000 to the former clients of Brad Ruderman, a man currently serving time in a Texas jail after being convicted of wire fraud and investment adviser fraud. Ruderman served as the CEO of Ruderman Capital Partners, which was later revealed to be a Ponzi scheme by FBI investigators. Ruderman allegedly lost about $25 million of investor money in the home games.


WSOP Main Event Draws Strong Numbers

After Black Friday, everyone expected a slight drop off in numbers for the World Series of Poker main event, and, overall, they were right. That being said, this year’s field did reach an impressive 6,865 entrants, creating a total prize pool of over $64 million. Despite the 454-player decline from the previous year, the 2011 main event is still ranked as the third largest of all time. The final eight players were made instant millionaires and the winner took home an incredible $8,711,956.


Alex RodriguezA-Rod Investigated By MLB for Playing Poker

New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez got into some hot water this summer after it was reported that he participated in an underground poker game. It was believed that Rodriguez played in a star-studded home game that included celebrities such as Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon among others. Major League Baseball launched a probe into the allegations. After their investigation, it was determined that Rodriguez would not face any sanctions for his actions.

Germany’s Up and Down Look at Legalized Online Poker

This summer, Germany began to take a long, hard look at online poker. The state of Schleswig-Holstein became the first state to regulate online poker thanks to the lobbying efforts of PokerStars to push intrastate poker. However, one week later, the other 15 states in the country began to talk about an overall ban of online poker and for now, Germany’s legislation on the matter is at a standstill. Considering the current WSOP champion resides in Germany, it will be interesting to see in the coming year if poker’s popularity can push lawmakers towards legalization.


Elio FoxDepartment of Justice Claims Full Tilt Poker Was a Ponzi Scheme

The poker world suffered another black eye in September when the U.S. Department of Justice made headlines once again, this time accusing Full Tilt Poker and its board members of working to defraud poker players out of more than $440 million. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement that “Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme,” while, “insiders lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company.” Though named in the civil indictment, Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson and Rafe Furst have not been charged with criminal offenses. unlike CEO Ray Bitar. None of those principals is likely to have any future role with the company, now that an agreement has been reached to sell the site to Groupe Bernard Tapie, a French corporation that has a reputation for turning bankrupt businesses around.


WSOP Europe Draws Record Fields

The switch from London, England to Cannes, France proved to be a resounding success for tournament organizers of the World Series of Poker Europe. The main event’s field grew from 346 in 2010 to 593, generating a total prize pool of €5,692,800. When it was over, American Elio Fox had claimed the title and a first-place prize of €1.4 million. Other notables who won bracelets during the series included Steve Billirakis, Tristan Wade, Philippe Boucher and Michael Mizrachi.


Barry Greenstein and Linda JohnsonBarry Greenstein and Linda Johnson Enter Poker Hall of Fame

Shortly before the conclusion of the WSOP main event, longtime poker contributors Barry Greenstein and Linda Johnson were inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Greenstein and Johnson beat out Jennifer Harman, John Juanda, Marcel Luske, Jack McClelland, Tom McEvoy, Scotty Nguyen, Huck Seed, and Annie Duke to be the 2011 class. There are now 42 members in the PHOF. In order to be considered, a 40-year-old and above candidate must have played consistently well against top competition for high stakes and have stood the test of time, while also gaining the respect of their peers. Non-players must have contributed to the overall growth and success of the game.

ESPN Draws Big Audiences with Revolutionary Poker Television

ESPN’s semi-live coverage of the WSOP main event final table and the November Nine proved to be a huge hit with not only the poker community, but with non-poker enthusiasts as well. The action showed unedited action from the table, with the holecards exposed after the hand was over. ESPN Senior Director of Programming Doug White declined to comment on the future of televised poker on the network, but did say that the good ratings are a positive sign for more hours of devoted poker coverage, even with the lack of online poker advertising. It is estimated that nearly 1 million viewers watched Pius Heinz take down the title over ESPN’s three different network channels.


Kirk StewartCard Player Launches Native American Casino Poker Tour

The absence of online poker has created an increased demand for live poker tournaments in the U.S. In order to help satisfy that need, Card Player announced the birth of the Native American Casino Poker Tour. Card Player has partnered with Native American casino properties across the country to offer a wide variety of games with buy-ins to suit bankrolls of all sizes. The inaugural event was held in December at the Choctaw Casino in Durant, Oklahoma where Kirk Stewart officially became the first NACPT champion in history.

Department of Justice Changes Stance on Internet Poker

A couple of days before Christmas, the DOJ publicly released a legal opinion that offered clarification on the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 — a federal law that has complicated efforts to legalize Internet poker. The 13-page document said the correct interpretation is that the law only prohibits sports betting. The move came a day after the Nevada Gaming Commission adopted regulations for an intrastate online poker industry. The developments put online poker in Nevada on a fast track to reality.♠