5) Will Kassouf
Love him, hate him, or completely loathe him, Kassouf had the poker community talking in 2016. Kassouf dominated ESPN coverage of the WSOP Main Event, not so much with his play but with his mouth. His relentless table chatter ignited a debate about what is acceptable at the poker table. He elevated the catchphrases “Nine high like a boss” and “speech play” into the poker vernacular. The controversy surrounding Kassouf came to a head on his final hand against Griffin Benger, which had all the tension and excitement of Game 7 of the World Series. Kassouf’s competitors admitted that it was not so much his talking which irritated them, but rather his endless tanking on seemingly trivial decisions. This has also added to the debate about whether a shot clock should be implemented in poker tournaments. Despite finishing just 17th in the event, Kassouf stood out as one of the most memorable players the Main Event has seen in recent history. His performance will be remembered and talked about for years to come.
4) David Peters
The Ohio-native Peters has been a consistent performer on the poker circuit for years, but took his game to a new level in 2016. He either won or finished second in seven High Roller events during the year, including a $2.3 million cash by being runner-up to Fedor Holz in the Philippines. He also managed to win his first WSOP bracelet in a $1,500 No Limit Hold’em, outlasting a field of 1,860 players. Peters finished the year with a third-place finish at the final EPT event in Prague, leapfrogging Holz atop the leaderboard for Cardplayer’s Player of the Year. In total Peters earned over $7 million on the felt in 2016, elevating himself into the discussion as one of the top players in the world.
3) Qui Nguyen
The 39-year-old Nguyen came into the 2016 WSOP Main Event as just one of thousands of unknowns looking to make a name for themselves on poker’s biggest stage. He definitely accomplished that. Few would have given Nguyen a chance to win the Main Event. At the start of Day 7 he was in 25th chip position out of 27 players and needed a six-outer on the river to double up and stay alive. He rode that momentum to enter the November Nine in second place on the leaderboard, then put in a performance for the ages when play picked up on October 30. Nguyen’s unpredictable and unorthodox play left opponents guessing and unable to adjust. Heads-up against Gordon Vayo, his relentless aggression constantly put Vayo to the test and whittled away his stack. Finally, on the 181st hand of heads-up, Nguyen captured the title. Even Daniel Negreanu was impressed with his play, tweeting “QUI NGUYEN PLAYING TO WIN!!!! 44 for all the cheese. Wow,” and “QUI NGUYEN WHAT A BOSS! I was kidding with Phil that he might find a way to win this pot. What insane and consistent pressure. Just wow.” The former nail salon owner came into 2016 with just a single WSOP cash on his resume, but is now a household name in the poker community. The question now will be whether Nguyen will establish himself as a consistent pro and embrace his role as poker ambassador, or fade away like many past Main Event champions.
2) Jason Mercier
Mercier’s year began with a drunken bet at the PCA by Vanessa Selbst that he could not win three WSOP bracelets. Selbst gave him 180:1 odds on $10,000, then attempted to back out of the bet. Mercier refused, then proceeded that summer to put in a historical performance. In less than a week he won two bracelets in 2-7 Draw Lowball and H.O.R.S.E., but lost out on a third bracelet with a runner-up finish in Razz. Mercier added eight more cashes during the WSOP and won nearly $1 million, but never could capture the elusive bracelet, allowing Selbst to breathe a sigh of relief. His performance, however, did lead to him winning the WSOP Player of the Year. Mercier also made headlines at the WSOP for another reason. After his girlfriend Natasha Barbour busted out at the final table of the $5K No Limit Hold’em event, Mercier came off the rail to surprise her with an engagement ring. The couple was married in November.
1) Fedor Holz
Few, if any, poker players have ever enjoyed a year like Holz did in 2016. The German pro elevated himself to the upper echelon of the poker elite. He won over $16 million in live tournaments over the course of the year, including three cashes of over $3 million. His results began right from the start, winning a High Roller event in the Philippines for nearly $3.5 million on January 4. Holz didn’t let up from there. In May he was runner-up to Rainer Kempe at the Super High Roller Bowl, then in June he won three High Roller events in Las Vegas over a two-week span. He then added his first World Series of Poker bracelet in the One Drop High Roller event, defeating Dan Smith heads-up for a nearly $5 million payday. He didn’t stop there, winning another $1.5 million at the Super High Roller event at EPT Barcelona in August. Holz’s winnings were not restricted to the live circuit, but also came on the virtual felt. In September he was runner-up in the Super High Roller World Championship of Online Poker event on PokerStars after a chop with Swedish player “bencb789.” All this came in the year when Holz turned 23. It will be difficult for Holz to replicate these results in the future, but he has the talent to be a top player for years to come.