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The 15 Best Poker Players of All Time
Real or fictional, there is no shortage of poker greats in our books. These are our 15 Best Poker Players of All Time:
He was a troubled genius, a card savant with a nasty drug addiction. But Stu ‘The Kid’ Unbar was widely regarded as not only the greatest Texas Hold’em player ever, but the greatest gin rummy player as well. Astonishingly, he won the World Series of Poker main event three times, (1980, 1981 & 1997), a record to this day. He is one of only four players to capture the world championship back-to-back, joining the likes of Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan.
After his 1980 main event victory when he defeated Brunson heads-up for the title, the New York native admitted it was the first time he had ever entered a poker tournament. In fact, he only played 30 tournaments in his life, and amazingly finished first in 10 of them. Ungar won five gold bracelets and close to $4 million at the WSOP.
Sadly, after his comeback win in 1997, when he earned $1 million for first, vices like cocaine caught up with him and the following year he was found dead in a cheap motel room at the end of the Las Vegas Strip with only $800 to his name.
We will focus only on the positive though, and his legendary prowess at the poker table. You might want to check out his autobiography, One of a Kind: The Rise & Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player. It was named so for a reason.
Canada Rocks, and ‘Kid Poker’ does just that at the poker table. Daniel Negreanu is one of our favorites to win in this line-up, and that’s not just because we’re playing favorites with the Canadian flag. His achievements stand on their own. He’s pocketed more than $42 million playing tournaments, nearly half ($18 million) at the World Series of Poker. He is third on poker’s all-time money list, the owner of six WSOP bracelets, has reached more than 50 final tables, and is the only two-time winner of the WSOP’s ‘Player of the Year’ award. If that’s not one of the worlds best poker players of all time, then what is?
Fun Fact: Daniel Negreanu has resided in Las Vegas for years now and is a huge sports fan. He cheers on the Golden Knights in hockey and the Toronto Raptors in basketball.
Baccarat is his game of choice, but James Bond is more than handy at poker as well. We don’t need to provide much detail here, Team Maple has already outlined 007’s legendary exploits in a recent article, but it goes without saying James Bond makes our list. With charm, charisma and a license to kill, he’s won an incredible $120 million at the casino over the course of 24 films. That’s a lot of winning pots, shaken not stirred of course.
Mike McDermott & Teddy ‘KGB’
Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) and Teddy ‘KGB’ (John Malkovich) from Rounders, who can forget their epic heads-up clash, in the climax scene? “The kid’s got alligator blood,” KGB muttered aloud as he dealt out the cards, seemingly on tilt after squandering the chip lead. After a flop of 6, 7, 10, McDermott checked, Teddy bet, and McDermott called. It went check-call again after the deuce fell on the turn, and then check-call again with the ace on the river.
“That ace could not have helped you, I bet it all,” KGB said with an air of confidence, as if he was about to rake in all the chips and bust his younger nemesis. “You’re right Teddy, the ace didn’t help me,” McDermott replied, as he flipped over the 8, 9 of spades. “I flopped the nut straight.” Game over. McDermott was off to Las Vegas with dreams of fame, fortune and the World Series of Poker.
“He beat me straight up,” Teddy finally admitted. “Pay that man his money.”
If McDermott makes the cut for one of the best poker players of all time, then so does KGB. Let’s not forget this was the rematch, Teddy prevailed in the first game. They need to meet again for the rubber-match.
Speaking of Rounders, we have to reserve a seat for Johnny Chan. His winning hand in the 1988 main event was immortalized in the film. Chan had flopped a straight and slow played it to perfection against Eric Seidel.
The ‘Orient Express’ has 10 WSOP bracelets to his name, including those back-to-back world championships in 1987 and 1988, and is one of the best poker players of all time who is absolutely feared at the table.
The Cincinnati Kid
Norman Jewison’s 1965 classic introduced us to Steve McQueen and his character Eric Stoner. The Cincinnati Kid, was a crackerjack New Orleans stud poker player who decides if he wants to be the best, he has to play the best. The plot sees Stoner test his wits against ‘The Man,’ a veteran gambler known for cheating and rigging games. Despite being on the wrong end of a highly improbable final hand, where his full house of aces and tens was beaten by a straight flush in a game of Five Card Draw.
Stoner makes our list because he exemplifies everything good about poker. He’s got gamble, isn’t afraid of the highest stakes and, perhaps even more importantly, plays a fair game.
Nobody wants to mess with Phil Ivey, nobody! Hailed as a phenom from his teenage days, when he was crushing his competition under an assumed name because he was too young to play, Ivey’s numbers are impressive. According to thehendonmob.com, he’s won a whopping $30,311,759 in tournaments worldwide, good enough for 11th on the all-time money list. He’s had five scores of a $1 million or more, and has won millions more in side cash games. On celebritynetworth.com, Ivey’s net worth is pegged at $100 million, the true definition of a high roller. The 44-year old is the proud owner of 10 WSOP gold bracelets. He’s tied for 2nd all time with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan.
Fun Fact: Phil Ivey finished 10th in the 2003 WSOP main event, and was knocked out by Chris Moneymaker, who made a better full house on the river. Moneymaker went on to claim the championship, thanks in large part to that dramatic hand, and his victory triggered the poker boom, or the so-called ‘Moneymaker Effect.’
Flip through the World Series of Poker record books and this man’s name pops up time and again. Most cashes, final tables, and bracelets, the list goes on for Phil Hellmuth. Known for wild blow-ups and temper tantrums at the table, there are those who underrate his exceptional abilities. The ‘Poker Brat’ can play.
In 1989, at the age of 24, he became the youngest ever world champion (a record now held by Joe Cada, 21) after defeating Johnny Chan, who was vying for a third successive title. He’s been lighting it up ever since. At the WSOP alone, Hellmuth has won 15 bracelets – five more than his nearest rivals -, cashed nearly 200 times, reached 60 final tables and pocketed some $15 million.
One of the game’s most recognizable faces, he’s authored books, landed lucrative sponsorship deals and has even appeared in television shows and Hollywood movies. Love him or hate him, Hellmuth is certainly entertaining and therefore needs to be included in our game. Who can forget these memorable lines?
- If there weren’t luck involved, I would win every time.
- I can dodge bullets, baby.
- The guy can’t even spell poker.
Heralded as the Godfather of Poker, and author of the game’s Bible, ’Super System’, 86-year old Doyle Brunson has been crushing the game for more than half a century, and he’s still winning. He won the world championship in back-to-back years, 1978 and 1979, and has 10 gold bracelets on his mantelpiece.
To go along with tournament success, ‘Texas Dolly’ has won millions more in cash games, untold amounts, and has been long-time regular in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, home of the so-called ‘Big Game.’
Paul Newman, who won an Oscar for his performance in the Color of Money, is quite accustomed to playing cards on the big screen, and cracks our Top 15 based on his performance in The Sting. His character, Henry Gondorff, was an expert at reading people and identifying cheaters. In one memorable poker scene, he bested his opponent’s quad nines by tabling four-of-a-kind himself, jacks!
If he’s good enough to pull off a sting like that, he’s good enough for our game.
Perhaps emotion got to us here, with his recent passing, but Kenny Rogers merits a stake in this game in his own right. Not only did he star in the film The Gambler, but he sang a song by the same name, and it is one of the greatest ever. Remember the sage advice of that lyrical masterpiece? “You’ve got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table, there’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” Only one of the the best poker players of all time could come up with that.
Welcome to the game Kenny!
Harry ‘The Hat’
Where everybody knows his name, and everybody fears his game. Harry Anderson’s character on the hit sitcom Cheers was a tad shady, but he certainly had the skills. He proved it to the world time and again throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Whether by bar bet or quick hustle, the Hat put on a show. A masterclass in betting, and he always came out on top. In one unforgettable episode, Harry teamed up with the Coach in a poker game to foil an antagonist and win everyone in the bar’s money back.
Cheers to the GOAT?
By no means are we saying he is one of the game’s greatest ever, but since every tournament needs a surprise result, we’re going to take a flyer on Guy Laliberte. Admittedly, we may be biased here, he is Canadian after all, but he can play too. The founder of Cirque de Soleil was a stalwart on the hit show High Stakes Poker. He not only sat with the best but held his own too. He has reached a final table on the World Poker Tour. Also a regular on Full Tilt Poker, and playing in the nose-bleed cash games back in the day.
The Quebec City billionaire, ranked by Forbes as the 11th wealthiest Canadian, has another major poker accomplishment on his CV; he helped organize the richest and one of the most exciting poker tournaments in the history of the WSOP. The $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop. A percentage of the prize pool go to his philanthropic organization, the One Drop Foundation.
Let’s just say, he won’t be playing on scared money!
By the way, guess who won the first ever Big One for One Drop? Antonio Esfandiari did, and the scenes were scintillating. After the final hand was dealt, and 47 others had been toppled, Esfandiari claimed the crown in Rockstar like fashion. His friends and family hoisting him on their shoulders and carrying him around the room. It was almost like he, himself, was the Stanley Cup. The celebration was warranted though, as Esfandiari claimed a winner’s cheque worth an astounding $18,346,673.
He is called ‘The Magician’ for good reason. Esfandiari has won three WSOP bracelets and two World Poker Tour titles. With close to $30 million in earnings, sits 15th on the all-time money list. Will he have a trick or two up his sleeve?
The Best Poker Players of All Time? You decide.