Top 5 Best Poker Players of All Time
Who are the best poker players to have graced the green felt? Which players have perplexed their opponents, wowed the crowds, bluffed, betted and folded with that flair of genus that only a handful of men, out of millions, attain?
From the steamboats to the saloons, from Vegas to the internet, poker has undergone a dramatic evolution. Today there are more players, and more professionals, than ever before.
But among the novices, tourists, mathematicians, degenerates, rounders, high-rollers, hustlers and online grinders, a tiny elite of legendary names regularly surface in the ongoing debate about the greatest poker player of all time.
#1. Stu Ungar
Ungar was an enigmatic New Yorker and son of a bar owner and illegal bookmaker. A self-destructive but generous reprobate with a razor-sharp mind and a supernatural instinct for reading the game, his talents extended far beyond the poker table. He was unbeatable at gin rummy and destroyed his closest rivals with such fierce certainty that the queue of challengers dwindled to zero. He applied his genius to blackjack too and won hundreds of thousands of dollars before the casinos banned him from playing. But it was poker where he achieved immortality.
The fast-talking gin prodigy settled in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and was soon a regular in the high stakes poker cash games. Despite having limited experience, Ungar took to poker with lightening speed. Doyle Brunson later claimed that he’d never seen anyone pick up the game as quickly as Stuey. In 1980 he became the youngest ever winner of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and was christened with a new nickname, “The Kid”, a reference to his tender age and scrawny frame. He successfully defended his title the following year.
Ungar had an unrivalled record in the world’s biggest poker tournaments. He became the only player to win the WSOP and Superbowl of Poker Main Events three times each. His success spanned several variations of the game including holdem, draw and stud. By the end of his career it was estimated that he had won over $30m from poker.
Ungar’s talent for poker was matched by a capacity for self-annihilation. Money won from cards was usually squandered on sports bets. In the early eighties he developed a cocaine addiction that would torment him for the rest of his life. He constantly went from millionaire to bust and would often solicit loans for drugs under the pretence of rebuilding his poker bankroll.
In 1997, emaciated and gaunt, his nose septum completely devoured by cocaine, Ungar begged a fellow player to lend him the £10k needed to sit in the WSOP Main Event. He came first, crushing a field of 312 players and announcing his return as the king of the card room. Eighteen months later, having declined to defend his title, Ungar was found dead in a low rent Vegas motel room.
At his very best, Ungar played poker with an aggression and creativity that was years ahead of its time. Sadly, we’ll never know how far his potential could have gone.
#2. Chip Reese
Chip Reese very nearly sidestepped poker immortality. On his way to Stanford University to study law in 1974, he dropped by Las Vegas for the weekend for a little low stakes poker. His bankroll was a modest $400 but within days he had won $60’000 in a seven card stud tournament. And so it became. Goodbye Law School, Hello Poker.
Reese honed his card game skills as a young boy under the guidance of his mother. At college he won so much money from his fellow students and lecturers that they named the campus card room after him. Settling in Vegas in the mid 1970s, he quickly built a reputation for himself as one of the best cash game players in the city. Reese mainly shunned the tournament scene, favouring cash games which he felt where more profitable. Despite this, he still claimed two WSOP bracelets in 1978 and 1982 before adding a third in 2006. His 2006 victory came in the inaugural $50’000 H.O.R.S.E event which is a tournament combining five variations of poker. Success at H.O.R.S.E. requires extensive poker ability; success in the biggest H.O.R.S.E tournament in the world takes genius.
In 1979, Reese was asked by fellow player, Doyle Brunson, to write the seven card stud chapter of Brunson’s seminal strategy book, Super/System. He became such a respected and trusted figure in the game that the Dunes casino asked him to manage their cardroom. Later on he was part of “The Corporation” which took part in the highest stakes poker game in history and was also a pivotal figure in The Big Game at the Bellagio Card Room. At the age of 40, he was the youngest ever inductee into the poker hall of fame.
Chip Reese died aged 56 in 2007. Doyle Brunson gave him a fitting farewell. “He’s certainly the greatest poker player that ever lived,” said Doyle.
Chip Reese: A Tribute
#3. Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey is a relatively recent addition to the poker aristocracy but is already considered one of the game’s legends – a testament to the numerous honours and vast wealth he has built over the last decade. Ivey is both a throwback to yesteryear and a thoroughly modern pro. He goes searching for action with the same lunacy and indifference to money as Stu Ungar, Jack Strauss and the old Texas gamblers who were capable of betting on any event at any price. At the same time, Ivey maintains a presence in online and televised poker, building the kind of reputation and public profile that is considered the hallmark of professional players in the 21st century. Despite this, he rarely makes self-promotional media appearances, relying instead on an audacious playing style and sixth sense to fortify his place at the top of the poker community.
Ivey learnt the game in Atlantic City in the 1990s. Anchored to his seat in the Taj Mahal card room for days on end, he was soon given the nickname “No Home Jerome”, thanks in part to his fake ID which bore the name Jerome. Like many budding legends, “No Home Jerome” lost money to the best poker players and card sharks of Atlantic City in those very early days but improved his game immeasurably and took it to Vegas where he won his first WSOP bracelet in 2000. Over the course of the next decade he added seven more bracelets to that tally, becoming the youngest and quickest player ever to reach that figure. Victories in the Monte Carlo Millions and World Poker Tour boosted his bankroll further.
Ivey is one of the few poker players to succeed in the largest cash games in both live and online play, whilst notching victories in the world’s biggest tournaments seemingly at will. His expertise pervades through all formats of poker – a rare talent! Between 2004 and 2006, he was a member of the infamous ‘Corporation’ which relieved billionaire banker, Andy Beal, of millions of dollars in the biggest game in history. Beal, a gifted mathematician and card player, had come to Vegas and challenged the local big name professionals to a heads-up Texas Holdem contest with betting units ranging between $25k, $50k, $100k and $200k. A syndicate of players combined their bankrolls and took it in turns to play Beal. Ivey’s role in the game was crucial; he pulled the “The Corporation” out of the red by beating his opponent out of $16m. A demoralised Beal ended the challenge shortly after.
#4. Johnny Moss
Johnny Moss is perhaps best known for his role in establishing the WSOP as the biggest poker extravaganza in the world. The inaugural event in 1970 was contested by six of the most prominent names in the game and the winner decided by ballot. Moss received the backing of his peers and became the first ever poker world champion. In 1971, when the WSOP reverted to a winner-takes-all tournament format, he won again. In all, Moss won a total of nine first-place bracelets and was the most successful WSOP player of the 1970s.
Born in 1907, Moss was an old-school Texas road gambler who dodged bullets and lawmen in search of action in the Deep South. In the late 1940s he accepted an invitation from his casino-owner friend, Benny Binion, to move to the newly burgeoning Las Vegas and play a high stakes game against Nick ‘The Greek’ Dandalos. The match was said to have lasted for five months. When Nick the Greek finally stood up from the table for the last time and infamously announced “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go”, the Texan had won in excess of $2’000’000 – a momentous fortune in 1949. Over the following sixty years, the Moss-Dandalos encounter become enshrouded in mystery but remains one of the enduring gambling tales from Vegas’ early days.
Johnny Moss continued playing poker tournaments right up until his death in 1995 at the age of 88.
#5. Doyle Brunson
Doyle Brunson has been called The Godfather of Poker. He is the elder statesman of the poker world, a father figure to the game who has witnessed firsthand the staggering transformation that poker has undergone in the last sixty years. Now in his late seventies, Doyle remains competitive in the biggest cash games and tournaments in Las Vegas. Behind the grandfatherly and genial demeanor lies the battle hardened soul of a man who first made a living from poker when it was necessary to carry a gun as protection.
Doyle was a promising basketball player and runner in his youth but a leg injury ended any possibility of a career on the courts or athletics’ tracks. After briefly flirting with a job as a salesman, Doyle found that he could make far more money playing cards and turned to poker for a full time income. He teamed up with other rounders including Amarillo Slim, and they pooled their resources and toured Texas looking for action. Many of the games in those days were organized by crime syndicates. Brunson was the victim of several robberies and assaults during those days on the road and even claimed to have once seen a player shot dead.
In the early 1970s he moved to Vegas and became a fixture in the newly formed World Series of Poker. He would go on to win ten first place bracelets over the next thirty five years, currently lying in second place on the alltime list, one behind Phil Helmuth. Unlike Helmuth however, Doyle’s bracelets have come from several variations including holdem, stud, razz and draw. Alongside his WSOP success, he has also added a World Poker Tour title to his trophy cabinet at the 2004 Legends of Poker. Like Chip Reese, Brunson has played a prominent role in the biggest cash games in Las Vegas for over three decades. Despite his advancing years, Doyle even became skilled at internet poker (without quite matching his betting stakes in the real world) and also has a large following of devoted poker fans on Twitter.
In 1979 Brunson published Super/System or How I Made over $1’000’000 Playing Poker. The book was one of the first poker instructional guides and in it Brunson shared his poker philosophy, endorsing an aggressive style of play.
Doyle Brunson is perhaps poker’s most famous face. He has kept himself at the forefront of every major develop in poker since he arrived in Vegas in 1970, adapting his game and persona to each new passing generation. He is a poker legend in the truest sense
Best Poker Players of All Time
Who is YOUR Number One?
Who do YOU think is the best?
With all the different variations and formats of the game, and so many playing styles, any article featuring the top five best poker players of all time is bound to be highly subjective and maybe a little controversial. Do you agree with the list above? Perhaps your own list would be made up of five entirely different players? Or possibily you concur with my selection but disagree with the order? Feel free to vote in the poll below or leave a comment.