The rise of online casinos has made poker more popular and accessible than ever before. Even the most humblest of players dream of winning big, but few are those who manage to clamber into the ranks of the elite. Here is our take on the top 10 best poker players of all time, and a few honorable mentions too.
Johnny Moss is a legend of the game, an iconic figure on the best poker players list. Born just a few years after Queen Victoria died (1907), Moss holds the distinction of being the first person to win the WSOP (World Series of Poker) Main Event. At the time this was by means of a player vote, but he also won the Main Event twice more in 1971 and 1974 under the current format rules. Moss was born and bred in Texas, and learned to handle cards at a young age. He also learned how to cheat but used his skill as a poacher turned gamekeeper to ensure games at a local saloon stayed on the straight and narrow. This experience also helped Moss to understand the strategy behind poker.
During his lengthy playing career Moss took millions from one of the most famous gamblers in the world,Nick the Greek, in mob-organized games in 1949, and was still active and successful in 1995, amassing nine WSOP bracelets. When the Poker Hall of Fame was created in 1979, Moss was one of the charter members.
Stu Ungar, nicknamed the Comeback Kid, lacked the longevity of others on this top 10 best poker players of all time list, but during his brief time he achieved great things and many consider him to be the single best Texas hold 'em player the world has ever seen. He was born in 1953 and passed away in 1998, making his whole life shorter than Doyle Brunson's poker career, but despite this Ungar shares with Brunson the rare accomplishment of having won WSOP Main Events back to back. In its day, Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker was one of the top tournaments and only one man won it three times: Stu Ungar. On top of that, he's one of only two players to win the Main Event of WSOP three times.
He was not always a poker player, though, starting off with gin (another game in which he's considered an all time great). Winning tournaments from 10 onwards, Ungar became so good he destroyed his own gin career because nobody would play him. Ungar himself regarded his skill at gin rummy to be greater than his poker talent.
Our top 10 list of iconic poker players is mostly dominated by those from the USA, but one man born farther afield is Johnny Chan. Born in Guangzhou (China) in 1957, Chan these days is a resident of Las Vegas. He also has a couple of interesting records in common with Doyle Brunson (see below), including bagging himself no fewer than 10 WSOP bracelets, and winning back to back WSOP Main Events (1987 and 1988). Although not born in the USA Chan moved there as a boy in 1968 when his family migrated (having previously moved to Hong Kong, still leased by the British in those days and rather freer than mainland China for it). At the age of 21 he took a big risk, dropping out of university to become a poker pro.
It turned out to be a gamble worth taking, and Chan became the first foreign national to win the WSOP Main Event in 1987 (backing it up, as mentioned above, by repeating the feat the subsequent year). In 1989 he was runner up, just missing out on making it three in a row. Although Brunson and Ivey both have 10 WSOP bracelets too, Chan was the first to make this milestone in 2005.
The iconic Doyle Brunson is the second oldest entry on our best poker players of all time list, having been born way back in 1933. Retired nowadays, Brunson was a poker pro for more than half a century and, in addition to making a bundle playing the game, he also wrote numerous books on the subject. Born in Texas, Brunson might have been an NBA star but a knee injury put paid to that dream. His first serious poker games were not strictly legal affairs, but the occasional gun being pulled or robbery didn't stop him.
Brunson moved to Las Vegas and became a WSOP regular, winning ten bracelets during his career and placing him joint second on the all time list. Away from the table, he's best known as the author of one of poker's best books: Super/System. It was self-published in 1978, with a revised version getting released in 2004 (the book also benefited from multiple other major players contributing). In addition, Brunson is one of only four players to ever win the Main Event of WSOP on more than one occasion (back to back in 1976 and 1977).
Born in Ohio, Chip Reese is a man widely considered to be the best poker player of all time when it comes to cash games. An early brush with rheumatic fever forced him to take a year out of school, during which his mother taught him various games, enabling him to excel at poker from an early age. An economics major at Dartmouth, Reese's university days were also notable for poker success. After winning $60,000 in Las Vegas he opted for cards over Stanford Law School. In fact, Reese enjoyed visiting Sin City so much he never left.
In addition to substantial winnings, Reese is remembered for working on the seven card stud part of Doyle Brunson's Super/System book, poker's bestseller of all time. Brunson described him as the best seven card stud player he had encountered. Meanwhile, Reese was concentrating on cash games and in 1991 was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame as the youngest living player. He won a trio of WSOP bracelets, including a $1.7m prize when he won the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship in 2006, but just a year later he passed away.
Vanessa Selbst is an unusual figure among the top 10, being the only woman to ever hit number 1 in the rankings, and having a 'proper' career with an investment management firm yet also making more than $11m in career earnings to make her the top earning female player of all time. Selbst is the only woman to date who has won three WSOP bracelets, and is the only player of either sex to win the same North American Poker Tour Main Event two years on the bounce. A graduate of Yale, Selbst had a fantastic year in 2014, when she won the $25,000 Mixed-Max No-Limit Hold'em to take home prize money of $871,148.
No fewer than twenty-one of her tournament victories have yielded six figure paydays for poker's most successful woman, including a cool three-quarters of a million dollars from the 2010 North American Poker Tour $5,000 Mohegan Sun Main Event alone (and she won the tournament in 2011 too). But Selbst's biggest single prize came courtesy of a first place result in the 2010 Partouche Poker Tour, for €1.3m ($1.8m). It takes a lot of practice at the top video poker casinos to get this good.
Phil Hellmuth is one of the more controversial men on this list but also one of the best poker players of all time, and a record holder when it comes to WSOP bracelets with an almost comical fifteen of the things. Hellmuth, born in 1964, hails from Madison (capital of Wisconsin) and had a slightly tricky start to life, dropping out of university to pursue poker on a full time basis. This turned out to be a smart move, and during his lengthy career Hellmuth has racked up a number of all time records, including most WSOP cashes (148) and most WSOP final tables (64).
In 1989 Hellmuth became the youngest player (at the time) to win the Main Event of the WSOP. In WSOP earnings he has made more than $15m over the decades, putting him fourth on that earnings list, and has earned a record fifteen WSOP bracelets (thirteen from Texas hold'em). On the World Poker Tour Hellmuth has made final tables on five occasions. Away from playing, he's made a number of tutorial videos to help budding players (although it would perhaps be best to avoid emulating his bratty personality).
Another worthy entrant on our top 10 players of all time list is undoubtedly Phil Ivey, who has achieved a string of consistent successes over the years and in 2017 was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Ivey's excellent career had humble beginnings, playing against his telemarketer co-workers in the 1990s. From this modest start he won a trio of WSOP bracelets in 2002, something only half a dozen players have ever achieved. Over the course of the years, Ivey would amass a total of 10 WSOP bracelets and earn himself the nickname 'the Tiger Woods of Poker'. The 2005 success in the $5,000 Pot Limit Omaha was Ivey's biggest WSOP win, netting him a tasty $635,603, and he's reached nine final tables of the World Poker Tour, winning the 2008 $10,000 L.A. Poker Classic outright on a single occasion (winning just over $1.5m).
It's worth mentioning that Ivey has also been involved in edge sorting litigation from casinos on both sides of the Atlantic, with the courts finding in favor of the casinos and leading to settlements and asset seizures.
Highly regarded as one of the top 10 best poker players of all time, Daniel Negreanu is the most iconic player to come out of Canada and certainly vies for the top spot on this list of the best card sharks ever. How much has he won playing poker? North of $42m, putting him in the same league as the likes of Bryn Kenney. Among Negreanu's unique achievements is being the only player to date to be named the WSOP Player of the year on two separate occasions (2004 and 2013). Unsurprisingly, he has his spot in the Poker Hall of Fame, having been the first player to get WSOP bracelets at the select few locations that offer them (Las Vegas, Europe, and Asia-Pacific).
Initially, he had wanted to become a snooker player, but this dream of glory on the baize gave way to a love of poker, which he learnt as a teenager. Negreanu's career has been one of astonishing success, including half a dozen WSOP bracelets and a brace of World Poker Tour (WPT) championships. The shark himself attributes his success to the importance of being able to read players.
Who has earnt more playing poker than Bryn Kenney? Not a single soul. Perhaps ironically, his first love when it came to cards was actually Magic: The Gathering, but he shifted to poker and it proved a very wise, and lucrative, decision. Kenney's success in poker is in a different mould to many of the other top 10 individuals on this best poker players list, because WSOP actually plays a minimal role (which goes to show you can take an alternative route to others and still achieve great things). In fact, to date, he has just the one WSOP bracelet, from 2014, when he won $153,220 for victory in the $1,500 10-Game Mix Six Handed event.
That's a nice sum, but where does his huge career earnings (over $55m) come from? A big part of it was down to events in 2016, when Kenney won the Pokerstars Caribbean Adventure $100K Super High Roller event and a prize of more $1.6m. But better even than this was the £1,050,000 No-Limit Hold'em - Triton Million for Charity Event. Kenney won the largest single payout in poker history of £16,890,509 (more than $20m).
Willie Nelson is a household name and an iconic star in the country music firmament. What some people may not know is that poker is among his pastimes and he frequently hosts his own games. He's been known to play against his actor friend Woody Harrelson, and on one occasion won so much cash he was able to build an extension for his home in Hawaii. To rub salt into the wound, the iconic Nelson named it the Woody Wing. Much like any player who wins from a no deposit bonus offer, he's also a stickler for ensuring he gets what is owed.
Floridian Dan Bilzerian has delved into many areas of the human experience, from acting to business and social media influencing. But he's also an amateur poker player, and not a bad one at that. He participated in the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event (placing 180th) and the readers of Bluff magazine voted him one of the funniest players on Twitter in 2010. In 2014 Bilzerian claimed to have won $50m throughout the year which some might suggest could be hyperbole.
Victoria Coren Mitchell is best known to British audiences as the hostess of the quiz show Only Connect, as well as a regular columnist for The Telegraph newspaper. However, this talented celebrity also has a keen poker mind, and was the first woman to win a European Poker Tour event as well as being the first player to win two European Poker Tour Main Events. Coren Mitchell has also acted as a commentator/presenter for poker-related programmes on multiple channels. Her total career winnings now exceed $2.5m, putting her 14th on the best earning female player list.
With so many online casinos now offering poker which includes the likes of Ladbrokes in the UK, Bovada for all US states, and Bodog for online poker players in Canada, it's no wonder we have lots of up and comers. Wile there are plenty of experienced card sharks, their great success means young guns are constantly looking to break into the game and make their fortune. One of the best new poker players is Ali Imsirovic. Born in 1995, this young Bosnian-American player started his career at the age of 18 and has already won the US Poker Open twice. Another up and comer is Blaz Zerjav, who made over half a million dollars in 2020, when aged just 23 he came fourth in an online WPT World Championship event. One more hot prospect for the future is American Melanie 'Callisto5' Weisner. This 25 year old lady has won around $400,000 online, and a similar sum in live tournament winnings (let's hope she shared some with her brother, who introduced her to the world of poker). Expect to hear a lot more about these players in the coming years.
Imsirovic also looms large on the list of youngsters with huge winnings, as he's already made more than $11m, which is incredible given his youth. Another high earner barely out of school is British player Charlie Carrell, who has enjoyed multiple six figure paydays and amassed some $9.6m to date, with plenty more on the horizon. And finally, Fedor Holz is a young German said to have a high IQ (around 155) and a bank balance just as large, with $32.5m to his name thanks to reaching multiple final tables in the WPT and WSOP circuits. Holz, born in 1993, dropped out of school to focus on poker, which proved a smart decision given how much cash he's amassed already.
That concludes our look at both the best poker players the world has ever seen and a handful of celebrity honorable mentions. Always remember to only bet what you can afford to lose, and play the player as much as the cards.