After going through a “Lost Year” in 2020 and a debacle in December 2021, the world of poker emerged even stronger in 2021. Tournaments came back with a vengeance and cash games exploded around the globe. There were some changes in laws that had an effect on the game and there were some unfortunate moments, however.
2021 wrapped up on what was a dubious note. The World Series of Poker, despite running an online series during the summer that crowned Stoyan Madanzhiev the champion of the “Main Event,” decided to run a second, hybrid “Main Event” during December. International players played in an online event before bringing the final table together to determine a “European champion,” while the same situation played out in the U. S.
The international leg of the tournament crowned Damian Salas as its victor, while Joseph Hebert won in the U. S. Those two men then went to a heads-up match with a million-dollar bonus and the title of “World Champion” on the line. Salas was able to defeat Hebert to claim those prizes, but the WSOP tarnished its image in the blatant money grab of the second tournament and the complete disavowal of Madanzhiev’s achievements earlier in the year.
The world of poker, seeing vaccines start to roll out for the COVID-19 virus that had paralyzed the world, began to emerge from the lockdowns that took place around the world. It was too late for one of the major events on the poker calendar, however, as the 2021 Aussie Millions was cancelled by its host casino, the Crown Casino in Melbourne. Citing the pandemic, the Crown Casino stated that, if the pandemic subsided during 2021, that it should be back in 2022 for action.
In other news, two-time WSOP bracelet winner Brent Carter was arrested for sending a “white, powdery” mixture to the New York Gambling Commission in what was a years long disagreement. The federal charges are still pending against Carter, who also allegedly phoned in threats to the NYGC and cited the 2017 Mandalay Bay shootings, stating that it “looks like it missed you guys.” After several delays, Carter is set for a jury trial in January 2022, unless there is a plea deal in the case.
The news was not all bad for the start of 2021. In January, the state of Michigan opened its doors to sports betting. The new gaming outlet joined with the previously allowed Michigan online gaming industry, and poker would follow later in the year.
For the first time in a year, the World Poker Tour held a live event in the U. S. The WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open headed to the felt, the first event that the WPT had held live since the 2020 WPT Rolling Thunder had concluded in March 2020. Ilyas Muradi would walk away with the title from the 1573 entry field that built a prize pool totaling more than $5 million.
The parent company of partypoker, Ladbrokes, bwin and other gaming companies, Entain, was accused of being the “money” behind a customer group on Facebook. The Players’ Panel came up in the United Kingdom in February as a group that featured the stories of punters who regaled audiences with why they enjoyed gambling and, in particular, betting on sports. Entain, after initially hiding its financial backing of the group (or “astroturfing” by making the group seem like an organic group that had come to life), admitted that they were “amplifying” the voices of players.
While it was initially active, The Players’ Panel has not had an active post since September 20. It only has 615 members despite being active for over 10 months now.
The month of March saw one of the biggest “grudge matches” of the year begin. Phil Hellmuth, after being extremely critical of Daniel Negreanu’s play against Doug Polk in another heads-up battle, was challenged by the Canadian pro. Hellmuth accepted the bet as a part of his High Stakes Duel series that aired on the streaming network PokerGO. Negreanu, for his part, was quite dismissive of Hellmuth’s cash game skills, but he walked into a buzzsaw against the 15-time WSOP champion.
Hellmuth would go on to defeat Negreanu in three consecutive matches that eventually totaled $350,000 in losses for Negreanu. But Negreanu might be able to get some of that money back; in a continuing prop bet, Hellmuth has put up $200,000 against Negreanu’s $400,000 that the 1989 WSOP Championship Event winner could emerge “in the black” from 50 “High Roller” events. As of yet, that bet is still ongoing.
In the U. K., betting on football (soccer in the U. S.) was on the minds of many after the collapse of a betting site dedicated to the sport. Football Index, which utilized a stock market-style approach to betting rather than the traditional betting lines, was initially successful until the site learned that punters were actually making money through the dividend system they had established. In trying to fix this, Football Index in fact torpedoed themselves, with the resulting bad press tanking the stock for the company and resulting in the site (and the company) being shut down.
The United Kingdom Gaming Commission currently is investigating the company. No reports have been issued at this time.
The tournament poker world came back in full force in the month of April. ARIA Las Vegas opened back up their High Roller Series, weekly $10,000 and $25,000 tournaments that consistently draw the crème of the poker world to their tables. The WPT also was in action with their highly popular stop in Florida at the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown. The WPT also announced when they would finish three of their postponed tournaments from 2020; the 2020 WPT Borgata Poker Open, the 2020 WPT Gardens Poker Championship and the 2020 L. A. Poker Classic all were completed in May, more than a year after they had set their final tables.
April would also be the anniversary of one of the darkest moments in poker history. The 10th anniversary of “Black Friday” came in 2021, the day that completely changed online poker around the world. The indictments of the three major online gaming companies – PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and the CEREUS Network rooms UB.com and Absolute Poker – saw the sites shut down from players in the U. S. PokerStars, which had already segregated their players’ money from the business, was able to pay back the players; the others were not, eventually shutting down operations and seeing many players affected worldwide.
It was a busy month for the WSOP. In addition to announcing the delayed schedule for the 2021 festivities, WSOP officials announced that they were leaving their longtime broadcast home, ESPN, for a multi-year deal split between the streaming outlet PokerGO and CBS Sports Network. While many of the same components of the ESPN broadcasts were kept in place – including the duo of Lon McEachern and Norman Chad as the presenters – the lack of “free” viewing of poker’s premiere event has drawn some scorn in the poker community.
Without the WSOP, many people spent the summers outdoors. But the poker world would heat up once again in…
Phil Hellmuth was in the limelight again as he went into heads up poker one more time. After defeating Antonio Esfandiari in late 2020, Daniel Negreanu early in 2021 and amateur player/sportscaster Nick Wright during the High Stakes Duel series on PokerGO, Hellmuth was flying high and $750,000 richer entering August. But Hellmuth would face his biggest challenge in an old nemesis, Tom Dwan.
Dwan, who has basically become a mystery man because of his penchant for playing in the high stakes games in Macau, ventured out to be the next man to take on Hellmuth in the High Stakes Duel format. Picking up the baton from Wright, Dwan finally got his long-awaited shot at Hellmuth. After defeating Hellmuth in 2008 during the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, in which Dwan used rags to smash Hellmuth’s pocket Aces, Dwan (who was predominantly an online player then) boldly challenged Hellmuth to a heads-up match.
Dwan did not waste his shot in 2021. In a hand eerily reminiscent of their tete a tete in 2008, Hellmuth would limp in with pocket Aces and Dwan, holding 9-3, called and caught a trey on the flop. Hellmuth shipped his remaining chips and, after Dwan called, saw the “poker gods” gift him with a nine on the turn for two pair. A river blank would end Hellmuth’s streak in High Stakes Duel and Hellmuth send $100,000 to Dwan.
For the first time in over two years, the fully live 52nd Annual World Series of Poker was held, albeit without many international players who could still not travel to the U. S. for the festivities. This allowed for a predominance of U. S. players to capture the gold, including Hellmuth earning his 16th bracelet. A change in travel guidelines by the U. S. government allowed for international players to be able to make the run to Las Vegas for the Championship Event and it had an effect on the event.
The final table of the $10,000 WSOP Championship Event featured more international players than U. S., with Germany’s Koray Aldemir, Argentina’s Alejandro Lococo, Turkey’s Ozgur Secilmis, and the United Kingdom’s Jareth East and Jack Oliver joining the United States’ George Holmes, Chase Bianchi, Joshua Remitio and Hye Park to make up the official final table. In the end, __________ was able to defeat _______________ to take home the $8 million first place prize and title of “World Champion of poker” for 2021.
So, what will happen in 2022? The poker world seems to be returning to normal, with the return of the WSOP Europe in Rozvadov at the end of November and the European Poker Tour getting back into action in December in Prague, Czech Republic. Normalcy seems to have returned to the world of poker after a couple of years of tumult.