This year we’re doing something a little different and breaking down our annual Poker Year In Review into three different parts – the Flop (January-April), Turn (May-August), and River (September-December). We’re wrapping up 2021 by taking a look back at some of our biggest stories, winners, and surprises that unfolded in one of the most unique years in the history of the game.
Although we were officially in 2021, some of the most important business of 2020 had yet to be decided at the beginning of January as Damian Salas and Joseph Herbert met at a mostly empty Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to play heads-up for a million dollars and determine who will earn the official title of 2020 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion.
The finale was not without its detractors as an online version of the WSOP Main Event had been played out on GGPoker earlier in 2020, but Salas – who had made a previous live WSOP Main Event final table in 2017 – proved to be a worthy winner, taking home an extra $1 million and the WSOP Main Event bracelet.
“I don’t play for the money, that’s not my goal,” Salas said after his win. “My basic motivation is to become better and better every day and remain a member of the world-class poker elite.”
While January continued to be full of interesting player news, including Chance Kornuth surrendering to Phil Galfond in the Galfond Challenge, Ilyas Muradi taking down the wildly successful WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open, and Jack Hardcastle winning the WPT Montreal Online Main Event for $447K, it was poker industry news that dominated the first month of the year.
For the fourth time in 12 years, the World Poker Tour had been sold in a deal with Element Partners, LLC for more than $78 million.
“This deal will allow the World Poker Tour to do a number of things that its always wanted to do,” World Poker Tour CEO Adam Pliska said at the time the deal was announced, unable to completely expand on the nature of the takeover. “What I can say, however, is that for myself and my management team, we’re still here and it’s business as usual and we look forward to this exciting next chapter of the World Poker Tour.”
That same week, perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year broke when The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the New Hampshire Lottery Commission in their case against the U.S. Department of Justice, reversing a revised opinion of the Wire Act. In short, it was a big win for online poker players in the U.S., setting the stage for a potential boom of online poker in the United States in years to come taking away legal barriers for would-be states to get in on the action and even join multi-state compacts to expand the total liquidity for Americans.
Almost as if on cue, PokerStars officially launched PokerStarsMI.com, becoming the first operator to offer Michiganders (and visitors to the state) the option to play online poker, legally and regulated, from inside the state.
To close out the month, Brazil’s Brunno Botteon kept his 2020 hot streak in tact and ended up as the Online Player of the Month for January.
February started off with a bang. The months-long heads-up grudge match between Daniel Negreanu and Doug Polk came to an end after 91 days and 25,000 hands. Polk wrote his name in the history books, soundly defeating Negreanu and walking away a winner of roughly $1.2 million.
“I’m very happy that I spent so much time preparing and I felt it really ended up helping me tremendously and that I got to execute at such a high level over such a long period of time,” Polk said just moments after the last hand of the challenge.
Over the course of the match, the feud between the two seemed to morph into a respectful rivalry and Negreanu gave credit where it was due when it was over.
“He deserved it. He played well. I thought he made really good adjustments. I thought he improved as the match went on. I thought he got better and better and sharper, in a lot of different lines,” Negreanu said.
But that wasn’t the only high-profile high-stakes poker taking place in February as Tom Dwan emerged to take a seat in the newest iteration of High Stakes Poker on PokerGO and picked up a $300,000 win. Dwan’s appearance was a thrill for fans who were equally excited to have the popular programming back “on the air”.
High Stakes Poker wasn’t the only poker mainstay to make a return in February as, after more than a year away from Las Vegas, the World Poker Tour was back in Sin City for the first time with WPT Venetian. The final table featured the aforementioned Jack Hardcastle, as well as the 2015 WSOP Main Event champion Joe McKeehen, but it was Qing Liu who took home the trophy and the $752,880 first-place prize.
Brazil’s Yuri Dzivielevski was climbing into contention for the worldwide #1 spot in the Online Poker Rankings (something he ended up holding for the better part of 2021) and he also walked away with Online Player of the Month honors for February.
Polk and Dwan weren’t done keeping the poker world entertained as the season of High Stakes Poker stretched into March and both high-profile players continued to impress. Polk made what some have called “one of the best laydowns ever” in a massive hand against Phil Hellmuth that had the poker world buzzing for days while Dwan’s domination earned him another half-million win, showing that despite not being in the public eye he wasn’t showing any sign of rust.
Another massive winner in March was Vanessa Kade. Coming off her high-profile social media clash with Dan Bilzerian, Kade took that energy into the PokerStars Sunday Million 15th Anniversary online event and walked away with the win for a life-changing $1.5 million payday.
Looking to replicate the same fervor of Polk and Negreanu’s heads-up battle, former #1-ranked online pro Fedor Holz sparked a beef with high-stakes cash game crusher Wiktor Malinowski and the pair agreed to take their feud to the felt. The feud was likely manufactured, and the heat wasn’t very hot, but fans were treated to a pair of high-stakes pros dedicating some time to entertaining viewers with the four-session challenge.
Brunno Botteon lost his grip at the top of the Online Poker Rankings as Bert ‘Girafganger7’ Stevens took his third turn at the top but by the end of the month he made way for the surging Yuri Dzivielevski who took control and held on it in for the next six months.
In case you missed these popular profiles of some of poker’s best we talked with Alex Butcher about becoming the #1-ranked player in the United States and the work he needed to do on himself in order to get out of his own way and be open to success.
Speaking of success, Kevin Rabichow opened up about what led him to switch gears from being one of the world’s top online cash game grinders to taking up tournaments and dedicating himself to success.
By the end of the month, Joao ‘Naza114’ Vieira took home the title of March Online Player of the Month.
One of our most popular articles of the year was published in April when PokerStars found Isai Scheinberg agreed to be interviewed for the first time after settling all of his legal troubles stemming from Black Friday. Scheinberg stepped into the spotlight and talked about the early days of PokerStars, the beginning of the poker boom, the fallout from Black Friday, and what he’s doing with his life after selling the company for nearly $5 billion.
“I valued privacy, but I was not secretive. That’s not the same thing,” Scheinberg said talking to the media for one of the very first times. “I was working hard. I was very busy and I’m not the type of guy to go out and do PR.”
The heads-up craze continued in April as Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu played in the first of three High Stakes Duel matches on PokerGO. The first was, for many, the most memorable as Negreanu had Hellmuth down to a 19-1 chip disadvantage. But Hellmuth used his #WhiteMagic to spin it back up and defeat Negreanu in what was about to become a reoccurring theme for High Stakes Duel.
Both PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker and GGPoker’s Spring Festival took over the online poker scene, both offering massive guarantees and non-stop action in the middle of the pandemic. One person who couldn’t get enough was former #1-ranked Niklas Astedt who couldn’t keep himself out of the headlines, taking down multiple GGSF titles and adding to his SCOOP Legacy.
Speaking of former #1’s performing in the spring, Simon ‘C Darwin2’ Mattsson picked up two SCOOP titles on the same day. Plus, Chris Moorman finally added a SCOOP title to his resume, after taking home the first SCOOP in his career.
With an accumulation of a massive amount of leaderboard points, high-stakes legend Sami ‘LarsLuzak’ Kelopuro took down the Online Player of the Month title in April.
The 2021 Poker Year In Review continues in Part 2.