Virtual Felt: The Year In Review

Playing online poker has a funny way of messing with your internal clock. A cash game session that only feels like an hour goes on for nine. The bubble of an MTT lasts for twenty minutes, but feels like a day. With so many FTOPS, SCOOPs, guarantees and Sunday Millions on the schedule week in and week out, the year tends to fly by without people ever knowing where the months have gone.

Looking back on 2009, a few common themes in online poker news emerge: This was a year of prop bets and challenges, a year of world records and a year where the stakes in online play just kept getting bigger and bigger. The highest of high stakes games came out of Bobby’s Room and into the open on Full Tilt and PokerStars. The best of the best online players stepped out of the privacy of their own living rooms and proved they could hold their own on the live poker circuit. Political decisions that determined the fate of online poker were introduced, axed and debated, but the legal status of Internet gambling remains up in the air. The future of online poker is as unpredictable as ever, so rather than looking ahead, let’s look back and reflect upon the past year on the virtual felt:

January

♠ As is tradition, the year in online poker kicked off not on a table somewhere in cyberspace, but at a tropical destination that has become the online grinder’s version of the WSOP Main Event. This past PokerStars Caribbean Adventure was the biggest one yet with over 1,300 players taking part in the $10,000 buy-in tournament. Of the 1,347 players who participated in the tournament, more than 1,050 of them qualified for the tournament online. The first place prize of $3 million went to Poorya Nazari of Canada, while Bertrand “ElKY” Grospellier added another trophy to his ever-growing pile with a win in the High Rollers Event. What was once considered one of the softest fields on the circuit transformed itself into the biggest tournament series outside of the WSOP, with a 2009 Festival of Poker that offered numerous side events in addition to the big show.

♠ The PCA was a nice vacation, but once the online set returned home their attention shifted to more serious matters. Those with a vested interest in the legal standing of online gambling earned a small victory when the Kentucky Court of Appeals blocked Governor Steve Beshear’s attempted seizure of 141 Internet gambling-related domain names. The Commonwealth of Kentucky would appeal the ruling and the case was heard in the state Supreme Court in October. The court has not issued a ruling in the case as of yet, but the judicial victory in January was the first of several small wins for online poker enthusiasts in 2009.

FEBRUARY

♠ BLUFF Magazine was the first publication to officially break the news that Tom “durrrr” Dwan was posing a challenge to the online poker world: Play 50,000 hands with him across four tables of $200/$400 PLO or No Limit Hold’em. Whoever could defeat Dwan in that setting would win $1.5 million plus whatever they earned at the tables. And if they lost the bet, they would only have to pay up $500,000. Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius and David Benyamine all stepped up to take on the 23-year-old wunderkind and the railbirds rejoiced. Ten months later, we’re still just halfway through Dwan’s first battle with Antonius but, for a while, Dwan and company captured the attention of the poker community with the inventive prop bet. The bet helped to inject some life into the online high stakes scene and sparked a trend of prop bets and challenges that would continue throughout the year.

♠ For those more interested in MTT action than nosebleed cash games, February also brought the first of the four Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS). Big winners of the series included Steve “gboro780” Gross, Steven “Zugwat” Silverman, Steven “UFMan2” Burkholder and Chris “TheUniverse112” Leverosi. But the biggest winner of them all was Adam “csimmsux” Geyer, who took down the Main Event and won $456,056. Even more impressive than the victory itself was the fact that it was Geyer’s third FTOPS victory in as many years, making him one of the most successful players in FTOPS history.

MARCH

♠ Like we said, the durrrr Challenge very quickly sparked a trend as popular and pervasive as the Snuggie. Okay, maybe not that big, but within weeks of Dwan’s announcement, not one, but two major online challenges made poker news headlines. One was the mastermind of the folks here at BLUFF. We assembled a group of 25 young poker pros, gave them $200 in a Lock Poker account and instructed them to grind it up to as much as they could in the span of a month and, voila, the BLUFF Online Poker Challenge was born. By the end of the month, only seven players had more in their accounts than what they started with, eight were down to single digit bankrolls and the collective total of the rest of the field couldn’t even come close to the grand total of the Challenge winner, Brian “Sno0owman” Hawkins. Hawkins churned his $200 into more than $25,000, crushing the competition and earning a spot on a BLUFF cover for his efforts.

♠ The second noteworthy challenge of March was the brainchild of just a single individual. Thomas “Boku87” Boekhoff knew he had a knack for multi-tabling and decided to put his skills to use by issuing a bet. He bet he could turn $100 into $10,000 in fifteen days playing only online Sit-N-Gos. Anyone willing to bet against Boekhoff could, but if he accomplished his goal, he would get 3:1 on his money. Boku87 got $36,000 worth of action from various people and met his $10,000 goal with one day to spare. Along the way, he filmed himself playing as many as 51 tables at a time, blogged about his experiences and even got himself a deal with PokerStars to try and spin $5 into $100,000 in the span of a year.

APRIL

♠ Boku87’s 51-table sessions were certainly impressive, but not to be outdone, ElKY decided to prove he was the best there is when it comes to multi-tabling. As part of the festivities of the EPT Grand Finale in Monte Carlo, Grospellier set out to break the world record for most Sit-NGos played in an hour. Seated on the EPT final table set, armed with four monitors, a mouse and a dream, ElKY played 62 SNGs, earned a total of $23.67 and captured the new world record.

♠ April also saw the introduction of the Spring Championship of Online Poker Series (SCOOP) on PokerStars. The 22-event series offered up more than $30 million worth of payouts and was a big hit, thanks to its tiered buy-in system (which offered a low, medium and high stakes version of each of its tournaments). Team PokerStars Pro Hevad “Rain” Khan won an event, Marcin Horecki cashed in 13 different tournaments and JC Alvarado posted an outright victory in the midlevel buy-in Main Event worth $502,086. “JannotLapin” and “j.thaddeus” won the low and high buy-in Main Events respectively, while Brett “get crunk” Ritchie earned the title of Player of the Series. One of the most memorable performances of the inaugural SCOOP had to be that of former PokerStars employee Terrence “Unassigned” Chan, who won both the mid and high stakes version of the 6-handed Limit Hold’em event in the same night. If that weren’t enough, he would go on to win the WCOOP version of the same tournament in September, establishing himself as one of the top Limit Hold’em players around.

MAY

♠ Shortly after the SCOOP concluded, FTOPS XII began as did the first-ever Mini FTOPS series. Mini FTOPS ran concurrently with FTOPS XII, offering the same structure and tournaments for a tenth of the price. Apparently, during this time of global recession, poker players were looking for a good bargain rather than a huge score and opted to skip the big FTOPS events and play in the little ones instead. Many of the FTOPS tournaments had huge overlays as a result. The scheduling snafu was not to be repeated, though as the remaining Mini FTOPS of 2009 were scheduled to take place after the flagship series were over. Just because there were smaller fields didn’t mean there weren’t big stories. Full Tilt Red Pros, Gavin Smith and Berry Johnston, both grabbed their first career jerseys and David “Doc Sands” Sands, Pocketownage420 and Ben “benba” Lamb booked wins as well. As one of the hottest players on the live circuit in ‘09, Jason “treysfull21” Mercier also won his first FTOPS jersey, proving his poker prowess extended to the online world as well.

♠ In addition to the FTOPS, Full Tilt also played host to the $25K Heads-Up World Championships. Sixty-three players posted the five-figure buy-in and the field was chocked full of live and online poker pros vying for the title. The final round pitted David “Raptor” Benefield against Ashton “theASHMAN103” Griffin, and it was Griffin who prevailed, winning $551,250 while Benefield took home more than $330,000 for second place.

♠ In the business world, Harrah’s took a big step towards setting themselves up for entrance into the online poker market by hiring former PartyPoker CEO Mitch Garber to head up the company’s new interactive division. In addition to developing online casinos featuring the Caesars Palace and WSOP brands, Garber was also charged with keeping tabs on the WSOP and its official website. Garber’s hiring led many to believe that regulation and licensing of online poker was on the horizon even though there had not been much progress in Washington overturning the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA).

JUNE

♠ This year’s WSOP was, for the most part, a smashing success and it provided a global stage for many online poker pros to make their big live tournament debuts. A dozen players, who are better known for their online results and background than their live winnings, left the WSOP with a bracelet. Brock “t_soprano” Parker won two. Matt “mattg1983” Graham followed up his 2008 bracelet win with a victory in the World Championship PLO event, while Leo “Pechorin” Wolpert defeated a tough line-up to take down the $10,000 Heads-Up title. Other online pros like Eric “basebaldy” Baldwin, Peter “Belabacsi” Traply, Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko and Keven “Stamdogg” Stammen picked up their first career bracelets as well.

♠ And still, there is a certain online poker pro who trumped all of those accomplishments. His win was still a few months away, but Joe “jcada99” Cada made history both because he was the youngest Main Event champion ever and because he is the first “Internet whiz kid” to take down the prestigious title. Chris Moneymaker may be able to take credit for igniting the online poker boom, but Cada is the first actual online poker professional to win the Main Event in the post- Moneymaker era. With 18 players remaining in this year’s big show, there was a chance for this year’s November Nine to be comprised primarily of the online set. However, Jordan “scarface_79” Smith (10th), Jamie “TheNew” Robbins (11th), Billy “Patrolman35” Kopp (12th), Ben “benba” Lamb (14th), Nick “fu_15” Maimone (15th) and Andrew “luckychewy” Lichtenberger (18th) all came up just short of the final table, leaving Cada as the only Internet pro returning to the Rio in November.

JULY

♠ The ink on the November Nine roster was barely dry when the online poker crowd returned to the tables stronger than ever before. Before the online pros returned home and got back to grinding out a living on their laptop, many stuck around for the WPT Season VIII opener, the Bellagio Cup. As it seems to always be the case at the Bellagio Cup, it was an Internet kid who walked away with the title. Joining a list of past winners that includes Shannon Shorr, Kevin “BeL- 0WaB0Ve” Saul and Mike “SirWatts” Watson, Alexandre “allingomes” Gomes defeated Faraz “The-Toliet0” Jaka heads-up for the title at a table that was wholly populated with Internet players (save for 6th place finisher Erik Seidel).

♠ Both Full Tilt and PokerStars mounted July campaigns to host the biggest MTT in online history and break Stars’ record set last December, when the site hosted a tournament with 35,000 runners. Full Tilt offered up a $5 buy-in event with a $500,000 guarantee, but it was PokerStars’ $1 buy-in, $130,000 guarantee tournament that grabbed the new world record. Full Tilt’s event generated a field of 50,000, falling far short of the 65,000 who signed up to play on Stars. The player known as “004license” won the record-setting tournament and earned $13,000 on his $1 investment.

AUGUST

♠ As summer drew to a close and the live circuit schedule slowed down, players returned to the online tables for FTOPS XIII. With the Mini- FTOPS pushed back to September, the online series once again flourished and a number of notable names picked up those coveted gold jerseys. Kevin “GETPWN3D” Saul had already earned his custom avatar thanks to a strong FTOPS showing in ‘08, but he finally binked an FTOPS victory this year, as did Joe “hoodini10” Udine, Billy “DurangoDan35” Kopp and Jake “psutennis11” Toole. James “bob2bob” Page won the Player of the Series honor after making an impressive three final tables, including the final nine of the $2,500 buy-in two-day event. “Poligraph” won the Main Event for $453,663, beating a record-setting field of 5,306 players.

♠ The online cash game table also flourished, thanks in part to the appearance of the mysterious “martonas.” Potential owners of the martonas account ranged from Martin de Kniff to Jonas “Nebuchad” Daniellson to Bengt Sonnert. Martonas captured the attention of railbirds and high stakes players alike, thanks to numerous sessions where he won and lost huge sums, making for plenty of million dollar swings. After a bout with durrrr that saw martonas drop $1 million, he fell off the poker map for a couple of months, resurfacing later in the fall, but unable to rebuild the momentum that made him the talk of the tables in August.

♠ This was also the same month that poker reality show 2 Months, $2 Million debuted on G4. The charming show chronicled four Internet pros with aspirations to make tons of money, meet tons of girls and have the time of their lives over the course of a ten-week stint in Las Vegas. Cast member and producer Jay Rosenkrantz came up with the concept for the non-competition reality show that gave a behind the scenes peek at just how crazy these houses full of online poker pros could be. Lauded for its originality and its entertainment value, the show painted online poker in a positive light as a game of skill and math, even though the guys came up way short of their financial goal.

SEPTEMBER

♠ When the leaves start to fall, it can only mean one thing: it is time for the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP). For more than two weeks, poker players hardly left the house for fear they would miss any of the action during the most prestigious online tournament series of the year. In total, the series offered more than $50 million in prize money across 45 different events. Fifteen of those events boasted seven figure prize pools while the Main Event had $10,720,000 up for grabs. The Player of the Series race came down to the wire as Ryan “g0lfa” D’Angelo took the early lead with his two wins, but Dan “djk123” Kelly and ElKY both racked up their second victories of the series on the penultimate day of play to overtake D’Angelo. Kelly won bracelets in the Razz and High Rollers HORSE events while ElKY took down two large field No Limit Hold’em events in the span of three days. Thanks to a final table appearance in the WCOOP Main Event, Kelly was able to surpass the competition and take down the prestigious honor.

♠ Raymond Davis, Jonathan “Iftarii” Jaffe, Eugene “MyRabbiFoo” Katchelov, David “Rug- Doctor” Williams and Justin “robert07” Young were just a few of the noteworthy winners of this year’s WCOOP and it was another familiar face who took down the Main Event as well. Just months after capturing the title of WPT Champion, young Yevegeniy “JovialGent” Timoshenko bested a field of 2,144 players to claim the top honor and the first place prize of $1,715,200. Along with Kelly, Timoshenko steamrolled the competition, and once he eliminated djk123 in fourth place, it was smooth sailing to the title. The final table played down so quickly that there wasn’t even time to discuss a chop, and the Jovial Gent graciously accepted his outright victory. Amazingly, Timoshenko wasn’t even fnished playing for the day once the WCOOP concluded. He also won that night’s $1K Monday on Full Tilt and pocketed an additional $75,000 to go with his newly minted millions.

♠ While the WCOOP winners were basking in the glory of their individual successes, online poker room Ultimate Bet celebrated a small success of its own. After a lengthy investigation, the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC) issued an 11-page report clearing UB’s current parent company, Tokwiro Enterprises, of any wrongdoing in connection to the site’s now infamous cheating scandal. The KGC’s report listed former WSOP winner Russ Hamilton as the mastermind behind the super user cheating scam, but also stated that as many as 31 other individuals were believed to be connected to the case. The report failed to list the names of any individuals besides Hamilton, but it did publish a list of 117 usernames connected to the cheating and finally gave the players affected by the scandal some new information about those who stole from them.

OCTOBER

♠ Playing the same game day-in and day-out can be a taxing and often boring affair, so when the 7- and 8-game rotation cash games were introduced on Full Tilt and PokerStars, it was only a matter of months before they really took off. Hold’em and Omaha specialists had to brush up on their stud strategy as all of the biggest action of the fall seemed to be taking place on the Mixed Game tables. Antonius and Ivey were the most successful at the mixed game tables, each picking up more than $1.8 million on the year. Coincidentally, the pair were also two of the biggest winners of the year on the nosebleed tables.

♠ Another player who gained financial success and notoriety at the cash game tables was Luke “FullFlush1” Schwartz. But what was talked about more than Schwartz’s harsh comments about durrrr or his performance at the tables, was a story that involved Schwartz and a sandwich. Dubbed “Sandwichgate” by the poker media, the incident came about when Schwartz lifted a sandwich from a food cart outside the EPT London tournament area and walked off without paying for it. When security confronted him about his actions, Schwartz allegedly told them that as a VIP, he shouldn’t be expected to pay, and as a result ended up banned from a number of casinos in England.

NOVEMBER

♠ The big story of November was clearly Isildur1 tearing up the nosebleed tables, but that was not the only online poker action of the month. The final FTOPS of 2009 broke the previous FTOPS’ record for largest Main Event ever with 5,471 entrants. The tournament was taken down by “zhivago2”, who defeated a final table that included the likes of Adam Junglen en route to winning $418,839. Greg Mueller and David Pham joined the list of Red Pros with jerseys, while Steve “UFMan2” Burkholder picked up yet another FTOPS win. Despite a victory and a final table appearance, Burkholder would fall just short of Player of the Series honors, which instead went to bd3109, who had a jersey and a runner-up finish to his credit during the series.

♠ On the legal front, it was great news for online poker enthusiasts as the December 1 compliance deadline for the UIGEA was pushed back until June of 2010. The six-month delay gives Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and the numerous cosponsors of his online gaming legislation time to plead their case on Capitol Hill. The House Financial Services Committee held a hearing on Frank’s bills early in December, but it remains to be seen when or if the legislation will make it to the floor for debate.

DECEMBER

♠ As the year drew to a close, so did the saga of Isildur1 (at least for the time being). News also broke that it might be the end of the line for a legend in the online poker community, Shaun Deeb. Following an early exit from the EPT Villamoura Main Event, a downtrodden Deeb posted on the TwoPlusTwo forums that he was done with tournament poker for a while. This is the same poker pro renowned for his willingness to play a high volume of tournaments. Since 2006, Deeb has taken part in well over 20,000 online poker tournaments with more than $4 million in winnings, so many are hoping that it is just an empty threat.

♠ While one dedicated grinder questioned his love of the game, another one all but ensured victory in this year’s BLUFF Online Player of the year race. Though the results aren’t officially in, Jeremy “daisyxoxo” Fitzpatrick’s year at the online poker tables saw him rise to the top of the rankings and retain the top spot for several months, continually putting distance between himself and the other contenders. As is the case with Deeb, all we can do is wait until 2010 to find out how the story will end.

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January 2010