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Top-10 Most Fascinating (Poker) People of 2009

12 December 2009

The poker industry is chock full of interesting characters. And that's something I give thanks for everyday. Because it makes covering the poker beat not only entertaining, but pretty easy to pull off thanks to the personalities that surround the game.

So, as we get ready to pull the curtain on another year I am once again putting on my Barbara Walters mask and presenting The 10 Most Fascinating (Poker) People of 2009.

Just like last year, there were plenty of candidates. But the following 10 people are the ones that captured my attention the most and helped make for some compelling headlines. No, making this list won't get them any face time with "Babs," but they will get a heartfelt congratulations – and a big thank you – from yours truly.

Here's hoping 2010 brings an even better crop of poker personalities to the forefront. Until then, enjoy our 2009 list of The 10 Most Fascinating (Poker) People of 2009.

10. Vanessa Rousso
Rousso made her presence felt quite a bit in 2009, and not just at the poker table. The year started with rumors that she was going to be featured in the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But we broke the news that while she would appear in the issue, it would be as a "custom content" piece paid for by PokerStars. Nonetheless, Rousso did grace the pages of the issue and brought some mainstream media attention to poker thanks to a very classy photo spread of her on the beach in Aruba.

Vanessa_Rousso_B

It was a great year for Vanessa Rousso both at and away from the poker table.(photo by Stephanie Moore)

While that story stirred things up in the poker forums, Rousso proved once again this year that she's more than just someone with a bikini model physique. She's also a hell of a poker player. She started her year by placing seventh at the 2009 Southern Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Mississippi where she cashed for over $79,000. Just before the NBC National Heads Up Championship it was announced that Rousso had signed on as the newest "Go Daddy" Girl and then she went out and beat Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey to make the finals where she was knocked out by Huck Seed.

In addition, she cashed four times at the WSOP – including a 27th-place in the $40,000 40th Anniversary Event that was good for $71,858 – and in June she won a $20,000 Sit-n-Talk on "Poker After Dark" that added $120,000 to her bankroll.

This fall she appeared in the "PokerStars Million Dollar Challenge" on FOX and a French series called "Stars of Poker." And it looks like Rousso will continue to try and make more headlines away from the poker table in 2010. There's a story on her in the current issue of Hustler Magazine (no racy pictures, however) and just last week we received a press release about her starting a "poker boot camp celebration" at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in January called a "Strategy Symposium Under the Sun."

The press release begins by calling Rousso a "poker icon." While I'm not sure it's time to go that far just yet, Rousso certainly cashed in on her popularity in a number of different ways this year and was a no-brainer for our list.

9. Darvin Moon
The Darvin Moon Story was almost too good to be true. Moon took the WSOP mantra of "anyone can enter, anyone can win" to a whole new level when he tipped the Main Event upside down by not only making the November Nine, but carrying a huge chip lead into the final table.

The best part about this story had nothing to do with poker. What was so appealing was the fact that Moon had never even been to Las Vegas or on a jet plane before playing in the 2009 WSOP. He didn't have an e-mail and he had never played online poker. He repeatedly said he was the worst player in the field and he was insistent that he would continue to work his day job as a logger, even if he won the $8.5-million first place prize.

In the end, his dream run to become Main Event champ fell short when he made it to the heads-up portion of the final table and got knocked out by Joe Cada. But Moon, who won more than $5 million for finishing as the runner-up, made his presence felt in the poker world this year for sure. He was one of the dominating and most alluring personalities of the year. Let's hope he comes out of the woods in 2010 and continues to play in big events. The poker world can always use a guy like Darvin Moon.

8. Jeffrey Pollack
When Jeffrey Pollack abruptly stepped down as WSOP commissioner just days after the 2009 Main Event came to a close, it was not only surprising, but a curious move as well. Here's a guy who thrived at his job over the last four-plus years. The WSOP grew exponentially under his watch and, from all accounts, Pollack always seemed to relish his role as the face of the brand.

On the day that he officially resigned, Pollack told us that he simply felt it was time to move on and that he had accomplished "everything he had set out to do." Considering the WSOP prize pool was a combined $675 million during his tenure – almost double the total of the previous 36 WSOPs – this statement seemed to make sense.

That is until the only comment we could get from Harrah's about Pollack's departure was a cryptic statement sent out via e-mail with no name attached to it. The statement read: "We appreciate Jeffrey's contributions over the past four years and wish him the best in the future. The World Series of Poker remains the market leader with this year's tournament exceeding all expectations, and we are well positioned for the future. There is no intention at this time to replace the Commissioner role."

That's it. There was no "thank you" for Pollack's efforts. No recognition of his success. Read between the lines and Harrah's was basically saying that Pollack was leaving and they'll be just fine without him. Not exactly an overwhelming goodbye.

Hopefully someday the story behind the story of this divorce will be told. But either way, Pollack will be missed by both the media and the players.

7. Jeffery Lisandro
Lisandro had a WSOP that most players can only dream about this past summer. He ran away with the Player of the Year race by becoming only the fifth player to win three gold bracelets within a single Series, joining an elite list of players that includes Puggy Pearson (1973), Ted Forrest (1993), Phil Hellmuth (1993) and Phil Ivey (2002). Lisandro had six WSOP cashes overall and has now earned $2,578,137 in his WSOP career, ranking him 35th on the all-time list, one spot ahead of former Main Event champ Chris Moneymaker.

In addition to being one of the best poker players in the world, Lisandro is also an intriguing character with his trademark fedora hat and flashy dress shirts. The 43-year-old was born in Australia, but has lived Italy as well as the U.S. He owns a home in Santa Barbara, Calif., but asked that Australia be credited with this victory in the WSOP international standings.

It will be interesting to see if "The Iceman" can even come close to following up his incredible 2009 season with something of similar stature in 2010.

6. Phil Ivey
Ivey is the lone poker personality to repeat on our "Most Fascinating List." His run to the WSOP Main Event was the story of the 2009 poker year. It helped create even more buzz for the November Nine and it also proved that Ivey is indeed the most powerful personality in the game.

It was remarkable to watch the fans cheer his every move inside the Penn & Teller Theater at the final table. He was the lone player to receive a boisterous standing ovation from the entire crowd both when he was introduced and eliminated. He appeared on ESPN's E:60 and donned the cover of the network's popular magazine.

And, oh yeah, he won a ton of money playing poker. Ivey recorded one of the greatest WSOP runs in history this year by not only reaching the final table but by adding two more bracelets to his collection with wins in the $2,500 Omaha High Low/Seven-Card Stud High-Low split event and the $2,500 Deuce-to-Seven No-Limit Lowball event. Overall, Ivey now has seven bracelets, which puts him in a tie for sixth on the all time list with Billy Baxter. The only players ahead of Ivey are Hellmuth (11 wins), Doyle Brunson (10 wins), Johnny Chan (10 wins), Johnny Moss (9 wins) and Erik Seidel (8 wins).

And he also made his presence felt once again in the online poker world. The beginning of the year was a struggle for Ivey. According to Poker-King.com, he lost $2.087 million in the first few weeks of the year, but in February he took down $1.1 million during a night session at the Full Tilt tables, with much of his winnings coming at the expense of Tom "durrrr" Dwan.

Make no mistake about it. Phil Ivey is the most feared and most popular player in poker.

5. Annie Duke
Duke didn't have her greatest year at the poker table, but she admirably continued her multiple charity endeavors and she made an appearance on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" that introduced her and the game of poker to a whole new demographic.

Duke stole the show on "Celebrity Apprentice." No, she wasn't the most likable person on the show, but she was the most savvy, most prepared and the most feared. She went into the game not looking to make friends, but to win the game and she should have. In the end, Trump allowed the deplorable Joan Rivers to steal the show, but anyone who watched all of the episodes knows that Duke was the best player in the game and deserved to hear a "You're hired!" and not a "You're fired!" from The Donald, who more than a few times told Duke he was impressed with her demeanor and attitude.

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Mike Sexton made a poignant and emotional acceptance speech at the 2009 Poker Hall of Fame dinner. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

The best part about Duke's appearance on the show is that it opened the eyes of a lot of people who previously knew nothing about poker. She proved that – no matter what Rivers thought and said – professional poker players aren't always dregs of society and at the same time she made a string of appearances on some of the daytime shows like "Ellen" and handled herself very well in the process.

4. Tom "durrr" Dwan
When Dwan signed on as the newest Full Tilt poker pro last month, the press release announcing the news referred to him as the "one of the most influential and successful players in online poker history" and it's difficult to argue with that claim.

At just 23 years old, Dwan is one of the most successful players in online poker history and has made more than $1.1 million playing live tournaments, including three World Series of Poker cashes and one World Poker Tour final table. The New Jersey native is also one of the most sought-after players for the plethora of poker TV shows. He has appeared numerous times on "Poker After Dark," "High Stakes Poker" and Full Tilt Poker's "Million Dollar Cash Game," where he recently won a pot worth more than $1.1 million - the largest in televised poker history.

Then, of course, there is the highly publicized "Million Dollar Challenge," in which he agreed to play heads-up online against anyone except Phil Galfond for 50,000 hands, four-tabling $200/$400 or higher No Limit Hold'em or Pot Limit Omaha. Dwan made the challenge in January and stated that if his opponent was ahead after 50,000 hands, he would give them $500,000 plus an additional $1,000,000. Patrik Antonius took the bait and as of last week "durrr" was ahead $711,556 after many swings and balances during the 27,773 hands played in 44 sessions.

3. Mike Sexton
Sexton proved something in 2009 that may have already been assumed, but is now crystal clear: he is the most popular person in the game. Sure, other players have bigger fan bases, especially from the younger demographic that only think of Sexton as a TV announcer and not an accomplished player. But when it comes to the overall scope of the poker industry – including the fans, the players and the media – there is no one that is beloved more.

Sexton was the only player to get the necessary 75% of the vote from the Poker Hall of Fame committee this year – including from me. Throughout the entire process – beginning with the nominations from the fans and ending with the decisive vote -- he was the only player among the impressive list of nine candidates that got universal support. In fact, I would not be surprised if he was on 100% of the ballots.

During the dinner break of the Main Event final table, Sexton was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame in a touching ceremony that was packed with every big name in the game – including Doyle Brunson, Jack Binion and Tom McEvoy, who all spoke at the ceremony. Mike's older brother Tom introduced him with an elegant and touching speech that brought a lot of people in the room to tears.

Of all the compliments I heard about Sexton this year, the best one may have come from his brother when he said that fame and success has never changed him.

joe_cada

Joe Cada has handled himself with class and dignity since winning the Main Event. (photo by IMPDI for the 2009 WSOP)

2. Joe Cada
Joe Cada made history this year and will have his name forever etched in WSOP record books. At 21 years old, the Michigan native won $8.5 million in what many are calling the most exciting Main Event final table in history when he came from a stack of less than 3 million chips to win the prestigious title.

Ever since this pulsating come-from-behind victory that took a combination of skill, guts, patience and, yes, a lot of luck, Cada has been the face of poker. He has sat on David Letterman's couch. He appeared on Fox, MSNBC, the CBS Early Show, Bloomberg, and every single ESPN show. Through it all, he handled himself with grace and dignity. He smiles. He admits that he was very fortunate to win, but quickly reminds everyone that it took some poker skill as well. He says the money isn't going to change him and he sounds convincing when he says it.

In the end, Joe Cada's win was good for poker. Because unlike some of the other recent winners, Cada is embracing his role as the reigning Main Event champ and that's a positive for the game no matter how you look at it.

1. "Isildur1"
He burst onto the online poker scene in mid-September and as we head into the new year, "Islildur1" is still very much a mystery.

The enigmatic player named after a character from Lord of the Rings has taken on the best in the world in some of the highest-stake games online. He has routinely won and lost millions of dollars on a daily basis and in November he became the first player to lose a seven-figure online pot when Patrik Antonius won $1,356,947 in one hand. The next week, Isildur1 took down a pot worth $1.1 million and his victim was Phil Ivey. Isildur1 has also been personally responsible for nearly emptying Dwan's bankroll during the last few months, winning some epic pots over a player that's considered one of the best in the online business.

Last week, Isildur1 lost a whopping $4.2 million to college student Brian Hastings in a single five-hour session at Full Tilt, putting him at a loss of more than $2 million for the year. When the session was over, Isildur1 reportedly told Hastings in the chat feature, "Go ahead, take the last of my money!"

So, is Isildur1 really gone? Will we ever unmask him, or will he simply disappear? That's the real fascination with Isildur1. We have no idea who he (or she?) is. It's been reported that he is based in Sweden, but other than that we don't know if it's some young hot shot player that has never played live tournaments, or a well-known player having some fun by playing under an alias.

This is the type of story you would only see in poker, which makes Isildur1 the clear cut choice as the most fascinating poker personality of 2009. Unfortunately, we may have to wait until 2010 to see if his identity is ever revealed.

Top-10 Most Fascinating (Poker) People of 2009 is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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Best of Gary Trask
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT