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2018 Poker Year In Review

by Justin Marchand |  Published: Feb 13, 2019


Commercial and tribal casinos revenues continue to grow and poker remains an important amenity to the billion-dollar casino industry. In 2018, card rooms worldwide ran more than 5,000 major poker tournaments that awarded an astounding $1.26 billion in prize earnings. And these numbers don’t even count the daily tournaments many of you enjoy at your favorite card clubs.

2018 was full of exciting poker headlines- from Justin Bonomo winning more than $25 million in a single year, to the WSOP shattering records- and here Card Player looks back at those important stories, winners, and oddities that shaped our industry.

Billions Being Invested In Las Vegas. Again.

Developers and gaming titans are moving all in on Las Vegas again. Currently, there are $16 billion worth of construction projects either underway or planned for the next five years. None of them, however, should dramatically alter the current poker room landscape that offered 561 tables as of November 2018. Last year saw the first large-scale wave of construction activity on Resorts World Las Vegas, a $7 billion project going up across the street from Wynn and Encore on the Strip. In 2013, Boyd Gaming sold the 87-acre site after it scrapped its plans for a $4.8 billion project named Echelon Place. Malaysia-based Genting Group purchased the site for $350 million and is targeting a 2020 opening for the Chinese-themed resort.

The long-delayed Fontainebleau casino-hotel on the Las Vegas Strip received a new name and a new scheduled opening date last year as well. The mothballed original project, which saw $2.4 billion spent, has sat vacant since the project went bankrupt in 2009. It is now being developed as The Drew Las Vegas. New owners, a partnership between Marriott International and New York-based real estate firm Witkoff, purchased the project for $600 million from Carl Icahn who won the 24-acre project at auction for $150 million. The Drew ownership are eyeing a 2020 opening and likely will spend another $1.2 billion to complete the 63-story resort.

Entertainment projects are also transforming the strip. A new project outlined in 2018, MSG Sphere, seeks to reinvent the live concert business with a state-of-the-art, sphere-shaped arena being built on the Las Vegas strip. The MSG Sphere will be located on a 63-acre site and, according to Rolling Stone, will “stick 157,000 ultra-directional speakers, a three-and-a-half-acre spherical ultra-high-res video screen and vibrating floors into an enormous dome built from scratch.” Ground was broken in September 2018 on the 18,000 seat, 360 foot tall domed arena that will feature hundreds of LED ceiling panels across the ceiling. MSG Sphere is eyeing a 2021 opening and is estimated to create 4,400 jobs once it is open.

Other notable projects making the headlines in 2018 included MGM Resorts’ $450 investment to transform the Monte Carlo casino into Park MGM, work on a new $935 million Las Vegas convention center scheduled to open in time for the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, ground breaking on a $150 million triple A ballpark, Palace Station’s $192 million remodel, Aria’s $165 million event space expansion, and much more.

The project generating perhaps the most buzz in Sin City is the new $1.8 billion NFL stadium. The Las Vegas Raiders officially broke ground on the team’s new home in September 2017 and it is expected to be completed in time for the 2020 NFL season. The arrival of the NFL comes on the heels of Vegas’ wildly successful foray into professional sports. The NHL expansion heroics of the 2018 Las Vegas Golden Knights, a team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup championship finals after a 51-24-7 regular season record in its inaugural season, has the city abuzz about the possibilities of other teams moving to the desert. Add in a massive push to liberalize sports betting across the nation and you have Vegas as ground zero for the future of sports in America.

Sports. Sports. Sports.

The massive sports gambling expansion witnessed in 2018 is all possible because the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and mediated a dispute between New Jersey and the Feds. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association in June 2017 and delivered a ruling May 2018. The Garden State challenged a decades-old federal law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down. So now the law that banned traditional sports betting outside of Nevada is no more and states can decide if they want in on legalized sports betting or not.

In the aftermath, many states said yes to sports betting. Delaware (June 5), New Jersey (June 14), Mississippi (Aug. 1), West Virginia (Aug. 30), New Mexico (Oct. 16), Pennsylvania (Nov. 16) and Rhode Island (Nov. 26) all approved sports laws. Thirteen other states are considering sports betting legislation. According to the casino industry, the major sports leagues will benefit to the tune of $4.2 billion collectively from widely available and legal sports betting.

As sports betting laws are liberalized and the stigma with betting on sports wanes from the 25-year federal ban, casinos are seeing more and more growth. For example, September 2018 will go down as the most profitable month of sports wagering in Nevada history. Nevada sports books took in $571 million in wagers and won $56.3 million off those bets. That was the most money both bet and lost by sports betting customers since the Silver State began tracking monthly totals 34 years ago.

Will the win streak continue?

Atlantic City Sees Rebound

Bizarre things have happened in Atlantic City over the years. But when actor turned casino investor Mark Wahlberg had a priest toss holy water around inside the shuttered Atlantic City casino formerly known as Revel, it was a clear illustration of just how desperate the town is for a major turnaround.

The blessing may have worked because in 2018 Atlantic City opened new casinos, legalized sports betting, and saw its revenue grow to $2.51 billion, a 12.3 percent increase and the third straight year of annual gaming revenue gains.

Two of Atlantic City’s shuttered brick-and-mortar casinos started taking bets again. The casinos, formerly known as Revel and the Trump Taj Mahal, welcomed gamblers again under new brands and new ownership. Revel is now called Ocean Resort, while the Taj Mahal is now Hard Rock Atlantic City. Revel closed in 2014, while the Taj shut down in 2016.

Revel, which cost an Atlantic City casino record of $2.4 billion to build, closed in 2014 after about two years in business. It was a financial disaster. The rebooted property reopened June 28, 2018 after a $175 million renovation. Wahlberg has a restaurant in the casino and is a co-owner in the property’s nightclub.

President Trump opened the Taj in 1990 at a cost of more than $1 billion and boasted that it was the “eighth wonder of the world.” It quickly went bankrupt but managed to stay in business. The Taj was the city’s top grossing casino until the Borgata overtook it in 2003. At the time it closed, the casino was the worst performing in the Atlantic City.

The reopenings coincided with New Jersey’s regulated sports betting after a years-long legal battle. Online gaming and sports betting added $298.7 million, a 20 percent increase from the prior year, in revenue to the city.

Neighboring Pennsylvania launched its first sportsbook late in 2018, with full online casino and poker offerings to follow. It’s still too early to see if the amenities offered at Parx Casino near the New Jersey border will cut into the Garden State’s profits. The other locations in the Keystone State that offer sports betting include Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia. In 2018, Pennsylvania set record highs in annual gaming revenue. Between table games and slots at the state’s 12 casinos, the properties managed to win more than $3.24 billion from gamblers.

China Chops Off Poker Access

Did China decide to toss poker into the muck? 2018 saw the most populous nation in the world and an important growth market for poker sour on the game. The country of nearly 1.4 billion people banned free-play online poker platforms and Chinese officials reportedly said that poker will no longer be recognized as a “competitive sport.”

Beijing forced all apps offering any form of “social” Texas hold’em poker to cease operations in the country and social media platforms promoting play-money poker were outlawed. Tencent, the largest Chinese tech company that is even larger than Facebook, shut down all popular poker apps. The Chinese government said the move is part of a bigger crackdown on “inappropriate” online content for its 700 million users
Hong Kong Poker Players Association managing director Stephen Lai told the South China Morning Post that the move will have a negative impact on poker in the region at large.

“[Poker] was growing very fast, now it is going to be more difficult for operators in Asia to organize poker events because Chinese players make up over half of the field,” he said. “If you can’t promote those events on social media, Chinese players won’t know they are on so they won’t go…It is a shame that the government won’t allow people talking about the game. We have been happy that China has been allowing social gaming, not for money, so that people from China have a chance to practice and travel around Asia and beyond to play poker, where it is legal.”

Despite this, China, namely Macau, is still the most important gambling enclave in the world. In 2018, gambling revenue in China’s only legal gambling district rose to $37.6 billion. That was a 14 percent increase and is nearly triple what Las Vegas takes in. In 2018, MGM Resorts opened its newest casino, MGM Cotai, in Macau at a price tag of $3.4 billion.

Steve Wynn and Wynn Boston Harbor

Last year saw the unraveling of one of Las Vegas’ most iconic businessmen.

Steve Wynn, 76-year-old billionaire, resigned as the CEO and chairman of the company he founded, Wynn Resorts, after allegations surfaced that he engaged in sexual misconduct at his casinos for decades. Follow-up reports indicated that his lucrative gaming licenses in Macau, Las Vegas, and Massachusetts were potentially in jeopardy. Wynn has denied the sexual misconduct allegations and, later in the year, Wynn began selling off his nearly 12 percent stake in the company, valued at about $2.2 billion.

Regulatory reviews in Massachusetts heated up in late 2018 with scrutiny of a LLC that Wynn reportedly created to pay a $7.5 million settlement to one of his former employees stemming from a 2005 incident. Regulators in Massachusetts say that Wynn hid the settlement from them during their licensing process. That $2.4 billion project, Wynn Boston Harbor and its proposed 90-table poker room could be sold, stalled, or even worse. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission will rule soon on next steps.

While the outlook remains unclear as to what the future hold for Wynn Boston Harbor, the Bay State did see its first Las Vegas-style casino open its doors in 2018. In August 2018, the nearly $1 billion MGM Springfield opened its doors and included a 23-table poker room.

Poker Legends and $100 Million Bad Beats

The Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act took place more than 12 years ago. But many in the poker world cannot stop talking about the ruinous effect it had on the industry. Websites closed up, players lost money, and, rather than taxing and regulating a booming industry, the government fumbled the ball.

Last year two of poker’s biggest stars shared details on just how disastrous this law was for their own bottom line. And the numbers were staggering. Both Doyle Brunson and Daniel Negreanu sounded off on bad beats they both took.

Brunson, all-round poker legend and 10-time WSOP bracelet winner, said he turned down a $230 million offer for his former site,, a site he owned half of at the time offer was made.

According to Brunson, the site went from that lofty valuation in the eyes of a potential buyer to being “worthless” all of sudden after the federal government went after the online poker industry. “This person, who had a 50-percent ownership, has recurring nightmares about it,” he added. Brunson announced during the 2018 WSOP that he plans on retiring from poker soon, bringing an end to a career that has spanned five decades.

Brunson’s regret towards not selling his poker site prior to UIGEA was echoed by fellow Poker Hall of Famer Negreanu. “I built up [my website Full Contact Poker] from nothing, all basically with my own money,” Negreanu said on Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast. “And within six months I had an offer to sell it for $170 million. Literally three days later, this thing called UIGEA happened, so they pulled the plug on the offer.”

Negreanu and Brunson weren’t the only legends of the green felt that missed out on financial windfalls thanks to the legal landscape regarding online gaming. Hall of Famer Phil Ivey was once making more than $900,000 a month for his work at Full Tilt Poker prior to Black Friday and now finds himself subject to court cases and potentially on the hook for tens of millions of dollars for allegedly cheating at baccarat.

Phil Ivey, Poker Tournaments, $10 Million Lawsuits

Ten-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Phil Ivey has not been seen much on the international tournament circuit in recent years. Ivey, who was once the game’s most recognizable faces has been keeping a low profile while embroiled in a legal battle over baccarat winnings. The 41-year-old had not recorded a live cash since January of 2016, but ended that streak after winning an event for $617,396 in the middle of 2018. He followed this up with a cash at the 2018 WSOP 2018 (his first at the annual summer poker festival since 2014), bringing his career poker tournament winnings to more than $24 million.

It now seems this return to poker may doom the man who was once poker’s most feared and successful player.

Atlantic City’s largest casino is fighting efforts by Ivey’s legal team to continue postponing a $10.1 million judgement from late 2016. This judgement stems from 2012 when Ivey and a playing partner were able to spot manufacturing defects on the back of the cards in order to win $9.6 million. Borgata paid Ivey his winnings but later discovered Ivey had found an edge against it. The court controversially ruled in late 2016 that Ivey owes the casino $10.1 million, which includes money he won at craps using the money won at baccarat.

In late 2018 court filings, Borgata requested that the New Jersey U.S. District Court allow it to register the $10.1 million judgment in Nevada so that it can attempt to pursue Ivey’s assets in or around Las Vegas. Borgata said that it has located his assets in the Silver State, which includes a condo in Clark County, as well as business ventures including P D Realty, Inc., Phil Ivey Enterprises, LLC, I.V. Ventures, LLC and Ivey Poker, LLC. Borgata said in a court filing that it has so far been unsuccessful executing the judgment, handed down by the court in late 2016.

Lawyers for Ivey said in a motion filed in July 2018 that the “enormity of that amount would clearly be of devastating impact.” Borgata responded in court documents that Ivey’s team is erroneously arguing that the judgment would cause “irreparable harm,” one of several legal standards for granting a stay.

“There is no testimony or evidence in this case that defendants will be prevented from pursuing their careers as professional gamblers if a stay is not granted,” Borgata lawyers wrote. The casino cited Ivey’s recent return to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas as evidence that he has “no problem coming up with” high-stakes poker buy-ins. The MGM Resorts-owned casino claimed that Ivey can always get into a poker game and listed in court documents this past summer’s poker scores.

“Ivey’s skill and success as a professional poker player are well documented,” the casino said. “He is in the top 3 for poker winnings all time, and there is no suggestion that he cannot continue to be successful. Entrance fees for other poker tournaments are far less than $10,000 and one can play online poker with initial deposits of under $100. He is not in danger of being prevented from playing poker.”

The technique the poker legend used in 2012 is called “edge-sorting.” It gave him a small but statistically significant edge over the house. The gambling sessions involved a single eight-deck shoe and the dealer obeying instructions to tilt the cards a specific way to make the asymmetries more distinguishable. The casino allowed the requests because Ivey is a high roller.

Ivey maintained that he did not cheat but rather used skill to outsmart the casino. ♠

The Year In Poker Tournaments: 2018

Last year was an incredible year for poker tournaments. Massive events took place across the globe. Super high roller events continued to expand. And an unprecedented number of affordable events drawing gigantic fields took place.

All told, the tournament database added in results from 5,012 tournaments that paid out $1.267 billion. Here’s a look at the key events of the past twelve months on the live tournament poker circuit.

The Atlantis Resort in The Bahamas was once again the site of the first major tournament series of the year: the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. The festival featured a number of super high rollers events, the largest of which was the $100,000 buy-in. Cary Katz topped a field of 48 entries in that event to win $1,492,340. The 2018 PCA main event was won by Argentinian poker pro Maria Lampropulos. She defeated a 582-player field to become the first-ever female player to win the PCA, taking home $1,081,100.

The 2018 Aussie Millions main event set a new turnout record, drawing 800 entries to build a prize pool equivalent to $6.3 million USD. Great Britain’s Toby Lewis captured the title and the $1,156,205 USD top prize.

The World Poker Tour crowned several champions in the early months of 2018. Darryll Fish defeated a field of 911 entries to win the 2018 WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open $3,500 main event, taking home $511,604. Eric Afriat outlasted 1,244 entries to win the WPT Borgata Winter Poker Open $3,500 for $651,928 and his second WPT title. Mike Leah emerged victorious from a field of 517 entries to win the WPT Fallsview Poker Classic $5,000 CAD main event for $352,985. The WPT L.A. Poker Classic $10,000 main event saw Dennis Blieden overcome a field of 493 players to win $1 million.

High-stakes cash game star Viktor Blom, perhaps better known by his online screen name ‘Isildur1’, took down the partypoker LIVE MILLIONS Germany €5,300 buy-in main event. Blom beat out 927 entries to win $1,054,000 USD and his second live tournament title.

Justin Bonomo set the record for the most money earned in a calendar year in 2018, compiling just shy of $25.3 million in cashes. By late March he had already made five final tables and won two titles in high roller events. He captured his third title of the year by winning the inaugural running of the Super High Roller Bowl China. Bonomo defeated a field of 75 entries to win the $2,000,000 HKD ($271,115 USD) buy-in event, earning $4,820,299 USD as the champion.

The partypoker LIVE MILLIONS Grand Final Barcelona hosted a number of massive tournaments. Sam Greenwood was the champion of the €50,000 high roller, taking home $1,240,000 USD. Jake Schindler won the €100,000 buy-in event for $2,170,000 USD. The €10,300 main event drew 1,175 entries to blow away the €10,000,000 guarantee by nearly €1.4 million. Pascal LeFrancois captured the title and the first-place prize of $2,108,000 USD.

The WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown $3,500 buy-in drew 1,309 players in 2018, with British pro Scott Margereson earning $696,740 as the last player standing.

The European Poker Tour Monte Carlo was once again the site of several major events in 2018. Sam Greenwood took down the €100,000 buy-in super high roller for $1,839,200 USD, his third seven-figure score in a six-month span. In the main event it was French driving instructor Nicolas Dumont who emerged victorious with the title and the $854,400 top prize.

The World Poker Tour brought its sixteenth season to a close with a trio of events in Las Vegas. Larry Greenberg won the WPT Elite Poker Championship for $378,879. The WPT Bobby Baldwin Classic saw Darren Elias make history by earning his record-setting fourth WPT main event title, taking home $387,580 as the champion. Matt Waxman took down the WPT Tournament of Champions, securing the top prize of $463,375.

The spring came to an end with a flurry of super high roller events. The Triton Super High Roller Series Montenegro saw several huge payouts awarded: Phil Ivey won the $250,000 HKD short deck event for his first score in two years ($617,396 USD), Mikita Badziakouski won the $1 Million HKD no-limit hold’em event ($2,550,392 USD) and Jason Koon took down the $1 Million HKD short deck event ($3,653,260 USD).

The Super High Roller Bowl drew 48 entries this year, with none other than Justin Bonomo coming out on top. The American poker pro took home $5 million for the win. It was his sixth title and his 13th final-table finish at the time, and somehow he was far from done for the year.

The 2018 WSOP ran from May 29 through July 17 at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, with a record-setting 123,865 entries made across the 74 bracelet events. Over $266 million in prize money was awarded in 2018, the most in WSOP history.

Many of poker’s biggest names were awarded bracelets this year, including Nick Petrangelo ($100,000 no-limit hold’em), Paul Volpe ($10,000 Omaha eight-or-better), Brian Rast ($10,000 2-7 lowball), John Hennigan ($10,000 H.O.R.S.E.), Eric Baldwin ($1,500 no-limit hold’em), Shaun Deeb ($25,000 pot-limit Omaha, $10,000 no-limit hold’em big-blind ante), Scott Seiver ($10,000 limit hold’em), Calvin Anderson ($10,000 Razz), Jean-Robert Bellande ($5,000 Six-Max No-Limit Hold’em Event), Phil Galfond ($10,000 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better), Ryan Tosoc ($1,000 online no-limit hold’em), Galen Hall ($888 crazy eights no-limit hold’em), Chance Kornuth ($3,200 online no-limit hold’em), Brian Hastings ($3,000 H.O.R.S.E.) and Ben Yu ($50,000 no-limit hold’em big-blind ante).

Phil Hellmuth took down the $5,000 no-limit hold’em turbo event to win his record-furthering 15th WSOP gold bracelet and $485,082.

Michael Mizrachi made history by winning the $50,000 Poker Players Championship for a record third time. ‘The Grinder’ earned $1,239,126 for the win, securing his fourth gold bracelet.

Justin Bonomo continued his incredible run by emerging victorious in the $10,000 heads-up no-limit hold’em championship for $185,965 and his second gold bracelet. Bonomo then went on to defeat a field of 27 entries to win the $1,000,000 buy-in Big One for One Drop, taking home $10,000,000 and his third WSOP title. Bonomo ended up winning a total of 10 titles in 2018, with a record $25.3 million in earnings on the year.

2009 WSOP main event champion Joe Cada won two bracelets during the series, taking down both the $3,000 no-limit hold’em shootout and the $1,500 no-limit hold’em turbo to bring his career total to four bracelets. He nearly made it five, as he nearly outlasted a field of 7,874 players in the $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event, the second largest turnout in the event’s history. Cada ultimately finished fifth for $2,150,000. John Cynn, who had finished 11th in the main event in 2016, came out on top to earn the $8,800,000 top prize and the championship gold bracelet.

In August the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open series ended with four tournaments with $6.5 million in guaranteed prize money awarded across that all came to a conclusion on the same day. The $5,250 no-limit hold’em main event drew 914 entries, with Brandon Eisen winning $754,083 as the champion. Jake Schindler won the $25,000 high roller event for $800,758.

Mikita Badziakouski won two massive high roller titles late in the summer, taking down the Triton Poker High Roller Series Jeju $2,000,000 HKD main event for more than $5.2 million USD in early August. Near the end of the month he emerged victorious in the EPT Barcelona €100,000 buy-in for another $1.9 million USD.

Piotr Nurzynski topped a record-setting field of 1,931 entries in the EPT Barcelona €5,300 no-limit hold’em main event, earning $1,213,418 USD.

The second annual running of the Poker Masters, featured seven high roller events, with the championship purple jacket awarded to the player with the player of the series. Ali Imsirovic ended up securing that honor, having cashed three times across the seven-event series with two wins along the way as he accumulated $1,288,600 in earnings.

Erkut Yilmaz was the champion of the WPT Borgata Poker Open $3,500 buy-in main event, earning his first WPT title and the $575,112 top prize after overcoming a field of 1,075 entries. Tony Ruberto won his second WPT title by taking down the WPT Maryland at Live! Casino $3,500 main event for $344,755.

The World Series of Poker Europe took place at the King’s Casino Rozvadov in the Czech Republic for the second straight year. There were ten bracelet events held, with the three largest tournaments coming at the close of the series. Michael Addamo beat 133 entries to win the €25,500 high roller for $976,007 USD. Martin Kabrhel came out on top in the €100,000 super high roller, outlasting a sizable 95-entry field to earn $3,017,991 USD. A total of 534 entries were made in the WSOP Europe €10,350 main event, with the UK’s Jack Sinclair taking down the championship bracelet and the $1,290,575 USD top prize.

A number of huge live festivals were put on by partypoker LIVE towards the end of the year. The partypoker LIVE MILLIONS UK £5,000,000 guaranteed £5,300 buy-in main event attracted a field of 1,015 total entries, with Greece’s Ioannis Angelou-Konstas taking home $1,222,000 USD for the win. The Caribbean Poker Party hosted three gigantic tournaments, including a pair of massive $10,000,000 guaranteed no-limit hold’em tournaments in the $25,500 MILLIONS World no-limit hold’em high roller and the $5,300 CPP main event. Roger Teska topped a field of 394 to win the $25,000 buy-in for $2 million, while Filipe Oliveira came out on top of 1,815 entries to win the main event for $1,500,000.

The WPT hosted two big main events as 2018 began to wind down. Pavel Plesuv won the Seminole Rock ‘N’ Roll Poker Open $3,500 main event defeating a field of 898 total entries in the event to win his first WPT title and the top prize of $504,820. In the final WPT main event of the year, Dylan Linde overcame a record 1,001 entries to win the Five Diamond World Poker Classic for $1.6 million.

The EPT Prague main event drew 1,174 entries in 2018, with Paul Michaelis earning $957,600 as the champion.

After taking place in the middle of the year since its inception, the Super High Roller Bowl is going to take place in December moving forward. As a result of the schedule change, two SHRB’s were held this year. Isaac Haxton outlasted 36 entries in the $300,000 buy-in event to win $3.6 million. ♠