The boom has long since come and gone. However, the game, loved and played by millions around the world, has endured. This year, it even thrived. Attendance was up at major events around the world and mid-stakes tournaments across the country. High rollers put up more and played for more than ever before.
The way poker content is consumed continued to change. However, the volume of it rose immensely with a new generation of poker superstars bringing the game to new audiences.
In the US, there was even some growth in online poker. States offering the game made plans to share player pools and one more came aboard. The future of online poker in the US looks brighter than ever as a result.
But for now, as the year comes to a close, we look to the past. The past 12 months to be exact, and five of the biggest poker stories making headlines in 2017.
5. Doug Polk’s Silver Play
From high-stakes heads-up specialist to social media star, 2017 has seen Doug Polk grow into one poker’s most engaging, entertaining and informative content creators.
With help from longtime poker video producer Thomas “SrslySirius” Keeling and a bevy of click-bait headlines, Polk’s YouTube channel moved over 150,000 subscribers this year, making it poker’s most watched.
He regularly critiques poker hands and gives viewers an interesting take on the latest poker news. Plus, he often takes his own personal poker vendettas to the YouTube streets. The most watched video is far and away Polk’s personal take on Dan Bilzerian’s poker ability, which received widespread media attention across the globe when it first aired in early 2017. The video now has over one million views and counting.
Polk’s meteoric rise in popularity even earned him the YouTube Silver Play Button this year. It’s an award given to YouTube channels that surpass 100,000 subscribers.
We’re in an era where the amount of poker on TV appears to be shrinking and one new live streaming service says you have to pay to hit play. However, Polk has gone about proving there’s still an audience for poker, or at least his take on it.
4. Kirk V. Tsoukernik
Aussie gambler Matt Kirk and Czech casino mogul Leon Tsoukernik got together for a heads-up match in the wee hours of one May 2017 morning inside the high-stakes Ivey’s Room at the ARIA Casino & Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Unfortunately, it ended with the pair in a lengthy legal battle that has dragged both their reputations through the gutter.
According to various legal filings, Tsoukernik had a few adult beverages and got stuck. Ultimately, he borrowed $3 million from Kirk just to stay in the game.
Attempts were made to broker a deal and settle the debt after the fact. Kirk ended up with $1 million of the money. He then filed a lawsuit against Tsoukernik to try to recover the rest.
In October, a Clark County District Court Judge threw out most of Kirk’s claims, calling it an unenforceable gambling debt. However, the door was left open for Kirk to go after Tsoukernik on claims of fraudulent inducement and unjust enrichment. In layman’s terms, that means if Tsoukernik borrowed the money with no intention of ever paying it back, he could be at fault morally and responsible for the debt.
Kirk’s lawyers continued to pursue the matter on those grounds. In November, Tsoukernik fired back with a $10 million counterclaim against both Kirk and ARIA.
The $10 million counterclaim
Tsoukernik now claims he was taken advantage of by Kirk and the casino, alleging ARIA over-served him to the point where he was visibly intoxicated, impaired, and induced to play for big money. The countersuit claims Tsoukernik was so drunk the dealer had to count chips for him and he was misreading his cards.
It also claims Kirk knew exactly what was going on and took advantage of it. Claiming his reputation as a gambler has taken a big hit, Tsoukernik is seeking $10 million in damages for defamation of character and emotional distress.
The only problem with that claim appears to be the fact 2016 €1 Million Monte-Carlo One Drop Extravaganza winner Elton Tsang went public in the middle of all this accusing Tsoukernik of stiffing him on a $2.4 million debt after a private high-stakes game in 2016.
This big story will continue into 2018 where the courts will decide who is at fault. In the meantime, both players’ reputations have been besmirched and the entire high-stakes community is nursing a bit of a black eye.
3. Steffen Sontheimer dominates Poker Masters
ARIA Resort & Casino and Poker Central got together to host the inaugural Poker Masters in September. The whole thing aired on the new poker content subscription service PokerGo.
The high-stakes tournament series featured four $50,000 buy-in prelims and a $100,000 buy-in championship event and was completely dominated by Germany’s Steffen Sontheimer.
Sontheimer made the money in three of four $50,000 buy-in prelims, winning one and bubbling the money in the fourth. He then went on to win the $100,000 championship event, getting the best of a 36-player field over three days to earn a $1,512,000 first-place prize and the Poker Masters purple jacket.
The jacket was awarded to the player earning the most money throughout the series and in the end, Sontheimer earned $2,733,000 overall to win it.
Poker Masters, Sontheimer succeed
The format might need some tweaking, considering a championship event win could have given just about anyone the purple jacket victory despite Sontheimer’s domination of the prelims. However, the inaugural Poker Masters was widely considered a success, giving the high-stakes circuit a championship-style series for the first time.
Of course, it was particularly a success for Sontheimer, whose career earnings vaulted to over $6.2 million as he made a name for himself as one of the best players on the tough high-roller circuit.
He even managed to earn an additional $50,000 from Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu, who reportedly made dozens of $50,000 side bets to win the purple jacket. Negreanu stood to collect seven figures by capturing the jacket thanks to all the side action. In the end, he managed just one cash for $102,000 through the prelims and was forced to pay out that $50,000 to Sontheimer.
2. The 2017 World Series of Poker Main Event
Poker crowns a new World Champion through the World Series of Poker Main Event every year. Sometimes, the player who finishes 11th is a bigger story than the eventual winner.
That was certainly not the case this year, as Scott Blumstein, a 25-year-old online poker professional from Brigantine, New Jersey outlasted 7,220 players to earn the title and $8,150,000 first-place prize.
Blumstein was far from the biggest personality at the final table. That title went to 64-year-old Hull, UK small business owner, and recreational player John Hesp. Hesp charmed the other players and fans alike, wearing outlandish suits and spreading good cheer throughout, as he went on to finish fourth and succeed in making poker seem fun again.
Live coverage of the Main Event
The live coverage of the event on ESPN and PokerGo was also an interesting storyline this year. The way people watched the WSOP Main Event changed. Gone was the three-month wait to play a final table in November. In its place was a live sporting spectacle the likes of which poker has never seen. It was as gripping as anything ESPN has produced for the past few years. It still fell short of providing the great storylines and characters edited coverage of the early 2000s gave fans. However, it was the next best thing.
Blumstein appeared to have a smile on his face the whole way, in contrast to the gloomy image most have of the average sunglass-wearing, hoodie-clad 25-year-old online poker professional.
He also put a smile on a lot of other people’s faces. Blumstein reportedly sold small pieces of his action to dozens of investors, helping them turn a few hundred dollars into a few hundred thousand. In the end, he made poker staking look like a good investment and renewed interest in the game even for those who don’t play it.
Thanks to a worthy champion and a new coverage angle. Plus, the players injecting a little personality into the game, the 2017 WSOP Main Event should be remembered as one of the biggest stories of this year or any other.
1. Chris Ferguson Wins 2017 WSOP Player of the Year
Former Full Tilt Poker founder and board member Chris Ferguson has yet to own up to his involvement in the scandal that effectively shut down online poker in the US and left thousands of US players out of pocket millions of dollars.
Ferguson and other Full Tilt executives were accused of turning the site into a Ponzi scheme in 2011. After that, he disappeared for five years. The scheme ultimately bilked the poker community out of close to $450 million. Ferguson returned to poker at the 2016 WSOP after PokerStars bailed out Full Tilt and the US Department of Justice gave US players most of their money back. He did so without a word to players, fans, or media. There was no apology to affected players.
Ferguson wins, poker community loses
This year he came back again and managed to win WSOP Player of the Year. Ferguson led the race after booking a record 17 WSOP cashes in Las Vegas, Nevada this summer. This included two final four finishes. He wrapped up the title booking six more cashes and a WSOP bracelet win at WSOP Europe in Rozvadov, Czech Republic.
Ferguson will get free entry into the 2018 WSOP Main Event and banner displaying his likeness in the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. Affected players are still likely to get nothing from him.
For all the wrong reasons, Ferguson’s continued success, and silence was one of the biggest stories in the poker world this year.