If the millions of dollars and excellent poker played in 2005 wasn't enough to impress the average person, the play by a select few was truly stunning. Whether they were the winners of big tournaments or simply showed their skills on the year-long tournament poker circuit, the men (and the one woman!) listed below upped their games in 2005 and made their impression on what was a great year in 2005!
While the Best Players of 2005 may look like the list of usual suspects at the top of the Player of the Year race, there were some dominating performances put on by some players who aren't necessarily among those names there. With that said (and in no particular order), we take a look back at the people who made the best impression in the game of poker in 2005!
1. Men "The Master" Nguyen - Whether he is able to hold onto the Player of the Year championship or not, Men Nguyen has had one of the most memorable second halves of 2005 as anybody! Back at the beginning of June, "The Master" was significantly back in the pack of players who were competing on the circuit, making only two final tables at smaller events on the poker tour. The veteran professional, it seemed, was one of the longtime players that seemed to have been passed by in the game.
It seems that Men was only warming up for what has been a dominant and powerful performance since then! Two final tables at the 2005 World Series of Poker started the engine on "The Master" and, since then, he has gone on to win three WSOP Circuit championships. He has also made eight other final tables in the second half of the year and cashed in four tournaments in September and November, only outdone by his five cashes in October. With this late season drive, Nguyen has catapulted himself to the top of the Player of the Year race and, depending on the outcome of some of the competition at the $15,000 Championship Event at the Bellagio's Five Diamond World Poker Classic, can capture his fourth ever Player of the Year title (which he last won in 2002). It would be icing on the 2005 cake for Nguyen and shows that "The Master" is still among the top players in the game.
2. John Phan - No 2005 list of the best players would be complete without the young professional from California. John Phan, with an attacking and sometimes maddeningly thoughtful game, made his first noise in 2005 with a major win at the L. A. Poker Classic in February. He continued to dominate tournaments throughout the poker hotbed of Los Angeles as he earned final table finishes (and two more championship trophies) in each month of the year through July, including a fourth place finish in the WPT Championship in April.
While Phan has slowed since that point and allowed the pack to catch up to him here in December, he has shown that he has the game to be a longtime force in tournament poker for years to come. It isn't exactly like he snuck up on us, either; he was the 21st rated player in the world in 2004 and, with a great performance in the final tournament of 2005, can recapture the Player of the Year championship and cap off 2005 in style!
3. Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi - With his back to back World Poker Tour final tables in January (at the Jack Binion World Poker Open in Tunica, only derailed at the final table by a bad beat from 2004 Player of the Year Daniel Negreanu) and February (at the L. A. Poker Classic, where he took the championship), Michael Mizrachi burst onto the poker scene in 2005. He wasn't exactly a mystery either; with a Top Fifty ranking in 2004, it was only a matter of time until "The Grinder" powered his way into the upper echelons of the tournament scene.
Mizrachi has been very visible on the tournament scene in 2005, traveling the country and playing in any tournament imaginable. His aggressive style has been one of the toughest things for many at the tables to crack and he has a shot at capping off 2005 with the POY award with a championship at the Bellagio. One of the things you can count on, however, is that Michael Mizrachi will be at the forefront of the poker world for decades to come.
4. Phil Ivey - Already recognized as one of the best cash game players around, Ivey has gone on to show his dominance at the tournament tables as well. Winning his fifth WSOP bracelet at the age of 29 has set himself up for a run at the legendary names in the game who dominate the top of the "most bracelets" list. He was also at the final table of the WPT Championship in April and the WSOP Circuit event in Lake Tahoe in May.
What was perhaps one of the most dominant two day runs in tournament history occurred for Phil during the month of November. At the Monte Carlo Millions in Monaco, Ivey dominated a stellar field to take down the $1 million first prize. The very next night, Phil came back to defeat six of the best in the game today in the FullTiltPoker.net Invitational Live from Monaco to add another $600,000 to his bankroll.
With Phil's intense concentration and skills, it would not be out of the question to see him be, in another twenty to thirty years, what Doyle Brunson is to the game today. To say that Ivey is a legend in his own time isn't too much of a stretch! While 2005 has been a great year for him, expect even greater things from Phil Ivey in the decades to come.
5. Allen Cunningham - After a dismal performance in the 2004 World Series of Poker, Allen Cunningham vowed it wouldn't happen again. The 2005 event brought him some of the greatest success of his career and also added the WSOP Player of the Year title to his mantle. By winning what was, at that time, the second largest No-Limit tournament in history in Event #2 of the 2005 tournament, Cunningham rocketed to the POY award by making three other final tables during his run at the Rio. With that performance, he also became the first man to win over $1 million in one year at the World Series without winning the Main Event.
Not one to sit back on such success, Allen has played great poker throughout the year. With a preliminary tournament championship at the Five Diamond, Cunningham has quietly worked his way into contention for the year-long POY championship as well and could be one to sneak his way past the other contenders for the title. The future is bright for Allen Cunningham as one of the preeminent tournament poker players in the game today.
6. Mark Seif - The former attorney turned poker player has long been in the shadows of the poker world. With his deliberate and aggressive style, he has been able to garner some attention from those in the poker world, but lacked the one defining moment to signify his poker career. 2005 brought that to him at the World Series.
In perhaps one of the greatest week runs in recent memory, Seif was able to become the only player who captured two bracelets in the 35th renewal of the greatest poker tournament in the world. He took down the Limit Hold 'Em Shootout title on June 17th, then turned around exactly one week later to pick up the $1,500 No-Limit title as well. By doing this, Mark was able to place his name alongside some of the greats in the game and demonstrate to the world that he belonged at the felt.
Continuing to show his skills at all forms of poker, Mark went on to capture the Seven Card Stud title at the U. S. Poker Championships in Atlantic City in October of 2005. With such a diversity in skills, Mark Seif has truly broke from the ranks in the tournament poker world and should be a threat to any title he competes for in the future.
7. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson - Already one of the preeminent tournament masters, Ferguson only added to that reputation in 2005. The only man with two Main Event victories on the WSOP Circuit events, that was by far not the only achievement earned by Chris in 2005. He also was able to cash in five events at the World Series in June (placing him in contention for the World Series POY) and has continued to show off his unmistakable talents on the tournament trail.
While it seems that he is only concentrating on the Championship Events of many tournaments around the world, that is probably more of "Jesus" than many poker opponents want to see! Chris Ferguson continues to be one of the favorites to take championships whenever he steps to the tables. Don't expect that to change as the years go by!
8. Max Pescatori - Perhaps the only player who could combat Men Nguyen's second half success story is "The Italian Pirate," Max Pescatori. Ranked in the 200's in 2004, Max has been able to drive to the top of the poker world with his performances in 2005. Like "The Master", Pescatori has been on a tear in the second half of 2005 that many poker players would love to be on. His six cashes at the World Series only got him started, as in the second half of 2005 he has cashed in seventeen tournaments and can count fifteen final tables for his efforts in 2005. The one thing he hasn't been able to accomplish is that one major victory that would catapult him into the poker world's collective consciousness, but Max has shown that he should be a dominant force in any tournament for years to come.
9. Jennifer Tilly - Perhaps it is odd to see her name listed alongside the other eight men listed here, but I would be amiss not to give Jennifer her due. She not only won the Ladies' Event at the World Series of Poker this year, she did it in a dominating fashion, playing a game that stunned many around the tables. Tilly then followed that up by taking on (and defeating) the ladies again during the "Ladies' Night" event put on by the World Poker Tour.
The two titles have only whet her appetite for more poker competition and Jennifer has been seen playing in coed poker tournaments more often now. With her World Series victory, she has already helped the game by bringing more attention from the mainstream media. What would happen if she was to win a major World Series or World Poker Tour event against the men? We may actually see that happen at some point, as Jennifer has already stated she's "addicted" to the game and going to play from now on!
As we continue to look back at 2005 in greater detail, we'll take a look at the good and the bad as well. In the next part of this series, we'll warm our hearts with the good things that poker has brought during the year. Part IV will bring us the "Scrooge" side of poker that reared it's head along the way as well. Finally, we'll wrap it up with a look ahead to 2006! Be sure to check out "The Final Table" as we relive the year that was 2005!
Ed Note: There's still time to make your own final table in 2005 at Pokerroom.com