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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

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Top 10 players we'd like to see at this year's WSOP Main Event final table

5 Jul 2016

By Gary Trask
One year ago, Joe McKeehen was not a household name in the world of poker. Same goes for Martin Jacobson the year before, Ryan Riess in 2013 and Greg Merson in 2012.

Today, of course, all of the above names are forever part of poker history after winning a World Series of Poker Main Event, instantly going from an unknown to someone whose face will be plastered on a banner inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino for as long as the WSOP is held there.

My point? The WSOP Main Event is rarely a tournament in which a "big name" prevails — particularly over the last 11 years, when it started drawing fields with a minimum of 5,619 players (2005) and maximum of 8,773 (2006). Yes, we saw Phil Ivey make a final table in 2009 and Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi in 2010, but overall, there's so much variance and so many players in the field that we will never see a Main Event final table full of "big names," as much as ESPN would like that to happen.

Having said all that, a poker fan can dream. We can sit back and handpick the 10 players we would most like to see outlast another huge field. And with this year's Main Event set to begin on Saturday, that's exactly what we did, coming from the point of view of a poker fan (players we like rooting for), a poker media member (players who make for good copy) and a poker industry advocate (players who would be "good for the game" if they survive and advance to the final table).

10. Phil Hellmuth
Love him or hate him, there is no arguing with the fact that the Poker Brat is entertaining. Whether you've seen his act on TV or live and in person, Hellmuth is a ticking time bomb that can be triggered by anything from a devastating bad beat to a random three-bet. On top of that, he remains one of the most talented and most decorated players in the game.

It would be compelling to have him stick around and make a run at the final table, much like Daniel Negreanu last year, but the best case scenario would be to have Hellmuth play the role of Main Event "Bubble Boy." That way we would get the much-desired fireworks and epic blowup, but we also wouldn't have to listen to Phil for the three months leading up to the final table, which will be played Oct 30 to Nov. 1.

9. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson
Admittedly, this is a selfish pick, based solely on the multitudes of stirring storylines it would create. For those not familiar with the situation, Ferguson, once one of the most popular players in the game, was a co-founder of Full Tilt Poker, which the U.S. government accused of being a "global Ponzi scheme." He hadn't appeared at a live poker event since "Black Friday," when the Department of Justice swooped in and shut down online poker in the U.S., freezing millions of dollars of player funds, while prosecutors in the case alleged that Ferguson collected $42 million from stolen Full Tilt player funds.

Ferguson, wearing his signature black cowboy hat — now more appropriate than ever, due to his "bad guy" status — made his return to the WSOP this summer, along with Howard Lederer, another Full Tilt associate involved in the scandal. But while Lederer issued a public apology, Ferguson has been defiant. In fact, last week Ferguson further fired up his growing list of enemies when he suggested there was no need for him to offer any kind of apology.

Bringing even more drama to the table is the fact that Ferguson is actually having a very good WSOP. The 2000 Main Event champ has cashed in eight events, including three top 20s and a final table in the $10,000 Six-Handed No Limit Championship. So, after not having cashed since 2010, Ferguson, who as of Monday was 12th in the WSOP Player of the Year standings, has added to his Hall of Fame-worthy career and now has 78 career cashes, the sixth most in history.

While most of the poker world is rooting hard against Ferguson enjoying any speck of success — and deservedly so — we'd love to see the outrage, dramatics and drama unfold if he made a deep run in the Main Event and snuck into the final table.

8. Fedor Holz
We had Holz ranked No. 1 on our list of "Players to Watch" who haven't won a bracelet entering this year's WSOP, and while he's managed just two cashes this year and has yet to break through with that landmark victory in Las Vegas, the Main Event would be a great time to do so.

The 22-year-old German made his first big-stage statement last year in his first WSOP when he finished 25th in the Main Event, but 2016 has been his breakout year. Holz is now the all-time German money leader with $13.5 million in winnings, and more than half of that money has come in the last seven months. In January, he won the World Poker Tour Triton Super High Roller in the Philippines and pocketed $3.4 million, then in May he was runner-up in the Super High Roller Bowl and took home another $3.5 million.

Holz, the 2014 World Championship of Online Poker champ, is the polar opposite of a guy like Ferguson. He's young, the cameras love him and he's well-liked.

7. Neymar Jr.
First off, this is not as far-fetched as you might think, since there's actually a chance the wildly popular Brazilian soccer star may be in the Main Event field after winning a satellite at the Rio in early June.

What's more, Neymar, who is no stranger to the felt and is sponsored by, has the charming good looks and personality to be a huge hit — and with the 2016 Olympic Games on tap next month, he would bring massive mainstream media attention to the WSOP, especially since the final table would conflict with his FC Barcelona schedule.

According to the WSOP Media Guide, NASCAR driver Jason White recorded the highest Main Event finish by an athlete in 2014 when he took 348th place. The only other athletes to cash are NHL goalie Roberto Luongo in 2012 (634th place) and Olympic skier Petter Northug in 2010 (653rd).

6. Cate Hall
Speaking of boosting interest in the Main Event, having a woman at the final table would do wonders for the WSOP. Each year, there is a big deal made about the "Last Woman Standing," and Barbara Enright remains the lone woman to make the Main Event final table, when she finished fifth in 1995.

While there are plenty of talented and deserving women players out there, we'd most like to see Hall join Enright in this rare feat. Not only is she personable and opinionated, but the 32-year-old from Arizona has an intriguing backstory. She was working in Washington, D.C. as a lawyer in 2015 when she decided just before last year's WSOP to leave her job and give it a run as a poker pro. Although she only earned one cash last summer, she used the experience as a springboard for a magical run on the World Poker Tour circuit in 2016, where she nearly won Player of the Year before finishing fourth in the standings with seven cashes and $461,102 in earnings.

While she hasn't been in contention for bracelet, Hall has notched six WSOP cashes this summer and her popularity is growing rapidly, thanks to a lively Twitter feed and outspoken personality.

5. Thomas Cannuli
A return trip to the Main Event final table would be a shot at redemption for the animated 24-year-old pro from New Jersey.

Cannuli finished sixth last year and took home $1.4 million, but there was a sentiment among his supporters — most notably his "coaching staff," consisting of poker heavyweights Brian Rast, Jeff Gross and Jake Schindler — that, if not for being dealt a heavy dose of bad luck at the final table, he would have fared much better in November. Not only was Cannuli pinned into the worst seat at the final table by sitting to the immediate right of McKeehen, the overwhelming big stack and eventual winner, but he was also brutally card dead on Day 1. When play resumed on Day 2, Cannuli was eliminated 10 minutes after the cards went in the air when Steinberg cracked his pocket aces. Who knows how far Cannuli could have gone if his monster hole cards had prevailed there.

But bad fortune and bad beats aside, Cannuli is most certainly the kind of player and personality the WSOP would benefit from having front and center again. He's young, personable and respectful of the game, and he brought one of the most raucous rails to the Main Event final table has ever seen. A sequel in 2016 would be fun to watch.

4. Mike Sexton
"The Ambassador of Poker" has been one of the most popular personalities in the game for decades. And while he ranks in the top 10 all time in both WSOP cashes (62) and WSOP Main Event cashes (seven), he's never made the Main Event final table (his best finish was 12th in 2000) and he has only one bracelet in his jewelry box — and that was 27 years ago, when he took down a $1,500 Limit 7 Card Stud Hi/Lo event.

Don't get me wrong. Sexton could walk away from the poker today and never play again, and the Poker Hall of Famer would still go down in history as one of the game's greats. But a Main Event final table would certainly be a nice feather in the cap of a guy who would undoubtedly embrace the situation and elevate the status of the event even further.

3. Justin "stealthmunk" Schwartz
You may remember the polarizing Schwartz from last year's Main Event, when he took 14th place and along the way caught the attention of the ESPN cameras with his boorish behavior while sitting at a table with Negreanu and eventual November Niner Max Steinberg.

While at first Schwartz's behavior irritated me as a viewer, I have to admit his personality and poker prowess have grown on me over the past eight months. He's obviously a very talented player (10 WSOP cashes since the start of the 2015 WSOP), but in addition, his Twitter feed — where he uses the handle @stealthmunk — is a must-follow because you literally never know what's coming next. He'll chime in on more than just poker (his thoughts on abortion, the NBA and virtually anything else is fair game) and, much like his antics at the table, he's outspoken and obnoxious.

But we have a feeling there's a method to his madness, and that much of his act is calculated. For that, and the fact that he's reportedly survived a rash of personal problems, including a nasty drug habit, we give him credit. An appearance by "stealthmunk" at the Main Event final table would be must-see TV, for sure.

2. Jason Mercier
Mercier is putting on a clinic at this year's WSOP. So, much like Tiger Woods or Mike Tyson in their prime, when a guy is in that zone that separates him so far from everyone else in the pack, it's best to sit back and enjoy the greatness. Because you never know when or if you will see such a run ever again.

Not only would a Main Event final table put an exclamation point on one of the best individual performances in WSOP history, but if Mercier goes into the final table with just the two bracelets he's already won this summer, it would extend the much-publicized theater surrounding his side bet with Vanessa Selbst, who, apparently while drunk, gave him 180-to-1 odds to win three bracelets during this year's WSOP. Selbst booked the action for $10,000, meaning she's on the hook for $1.8 million if Mercier pulls off the hat trick.

1. Phil Ivey
Ivey hasn't cashed in the WSOP since 2014, and he's more likely to be standing at a baccarat table in some remote destination than in the Amazon Room come this weekend.

But, as we said at the top, we can dream about who we want to be the last player standing when the Main Event comes to a close in November, and Ivey would undoubtedly generate the most excitement from poker fans from all generations and walks of life. From his steely glares at opponents to his over-the-top aggressiveness, watching Ivey work his magic is fascinating for anyone who has ever sat down at a poker table.

Now to be fair, Ivey didn't exactly embrace the spotlight the last time he made the Main Event final table. He's not going to play nice with the media or sit there and smile for the cameras the entire time. But if we're using the criteria set forth at the top of this column (good for poker, fun to watch, and compelling copy for the media), Ivey checks all of the boxes more than any other player in the game. Let's hope he's sitting somewhere in the Rio this time next week.
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