Type “Greatest poker player of all time” into Google and the name Phil Ivey comes out as the highest-ranking answer.
Further down the first search page is the Wikipedia entry for Stu Ungar, alongside Top 10 lists of players, often ranked with subjectivity rather than science.
After all, how does one reasonably determine who is the best poker player ever? Is it the player who has amassed the most career prize money, even though this favours the modern-day player over those racking up the tournament wins in the 1970s?
Is it the player to have cashed the most times? The player to have competed at the top of the tree for the longest? The player to have accumulated the most tournament victories? The player who has shown the most versatility by winning more World Series of Poker Bracelets in different poker disciplines? After all, poker shouldn’t just be looked at through the limited lens of no-limit Texas Holdem.
To try to answer the question once and for all, we have devised our own ranking criteria, analysing the performances of 30 legendary poker players in the following areas:
- World Series of Poker Main Event wins
- Total World Series of Poker bracelets
- Versatility (bracelets collected in different poker disciplines)
- Tournament wins
- Years active
- Career winnings
- Career cashes
- Poker books published
- Biggest career payday
- World Poker Tour wins
- European Poker Tour wins
Each player was ranked in all of the 11 categories and the 15 players to have performed best overall progressed to the final table. Unfortunately for Jason Mercier, he finished on the bubble.
Each category was then given a weighting based on how important they were deemed in deciding the greatest poker player ever. The weighting system was based on the order of the categories above.
So the player who has been rewarded with the biggest career payday was handed 15 points, while the lowest in this category received just one.
Meanwhile, the top player for Main Event wins collected 150 points and the lowest just 10.
Once the top 15 had a score in each category, these were totalled up and the greatest poker player of all time was unveiled. Here are the final 15:
15) Vanessa Selbst
Despite having a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon, Selbst is the most successful female player ever in terms of earnings.
Her style is based around being aggressive pre-flop and getting involved in big pots, which often means either busting out of tournaments early or getting into strong chip positions from which others can be bullied.
In both 2010 and 2011, Selbst earned over seven figures at the tables and she has even found the time to complete a law degree.
14) Antonio Esfandiari
Esfandiari burst onto the scene during the midst of the poker boom in 2004 when winning the LA Poker Classic on the World Poker Tour, before following up with his first WSOP bracelet later in the same year.
However, it was eight years later when the magician performed his most stunning trick, securing the biggest single payout in the history of poker when trousering over $18 million by beating 47 other players to land The Big One for One Drop, an event set up with the intention of raising money for charity.
13) Barry Greenstein
Charitable is certainly the best word to describe Greenstein, both to his fellow players and organisations that require financial support.
For players eliminated from tournaments at Greenstein’s expense, they receive an autograph and a free copy of his book Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide. Meanwhile, he donates his net earnings from tournament to charities.
12) Barbara Enright
Selbst may have made the most money of any female playing poker, but she has Enright to thank for being one of the first women to break down the gender barriers associated with the game.
She placed fifth in the 1995 WSOP main event, having already gained two bracelets during her career, and in 2007 became the first woman to be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.
11) Stu Ungar
“Some day, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a better no-limit Holdem player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen.”
This is one of the more famous quotes from Ungar, who is a three-time WSOP main event winner and one of only a trio of players to achieve the feat in consecutive years. Two of his successes also came 16 years apart.
In an era when most players were generally conservative, Ungar’s aggressive approach was often deadly, especially when holding a chip advantage.
10) John Juanda
Juanda is one of the most easy-going poker players in existence, although he often prioritises appearances in high-money cash games, rather than tournament play.
After a break from the game, resting and prop betting in Japan, Juanda hit the headlines again last year in a first tournament appearance for over 12 months when winning the European Poker Tour main event in Barcelona.
9) Johnny Moss
Moss’ status within the game is visible by the fact that he won the 1970 WSOP main event not through winning a tournament, but by election from his poker peers. Any doubt about his talents were dispelled the following year when Moss was champion again, this time in a freeze-out tournament.
Another followed in 1974, albeit with a buy-in that only attracted 16 players.
He had dominated in cash games for a long period before the World Series was created, with a coolness that was unshakeable regardless of how a table was running.
8) Daniel Negreanu
The highest-earning tournament poker player in history originally had dreams of being a snooker player, but the decision to switch the green baize for green felt has proven a profitable one.
He finished in the money more than anyone else in the 2009 World Series and was crowned Player of the Year in 2013. His greatest skill is considered to be his reading of opponents and assessments of the hands they are holding.
7) Phil Ivey
Ivey may have never won the WSOP main event, but four finishes inside the top 25 between 2002 and 2009 highlight the strength of his game.
His versatility across poker varieties have often seen Ivey considered towards the top of the game’s classification and his ability to show no emotion, treating a big win and bad-beat loss with the same reaction, makes him especially tough to read.
6) Erik Seidel
Seidel is a bit of an unsung hero when it comes to ranking the greats of poker, with his big career highlight being the final hand of the 1988 WSOP main event, which he lost to Johnny Chan. A copy of the hand, in which Seidel is trapped by Chan after flopping a straight, features in the film Rounders.
However, Seidel has done his fair share of winning too, cashing at the World Series in every year between 1991 and 2015 and winning over $25 million in his career through live games.
5) Scotty Nguyen
Final-table tournament appearances may be rare in the last eight years for Nguyen, who has a preference for tournament play over cash games because the environment is friendlier.
The 1998 main event winner, with a tendency to drop the word ‘baby’ into most of his sentences, is at his best playing fixed-limit games, where one moment of bad luck is less likely to upset hours of good work.
4) Johnny Chan
Chan’s previously-mentioned victory over Seidel in 1988 was his second in succession in the WSOP main event and he was incredibly close to being the first ever player to win three on the bounce, making it to a heads-up showdown with Phil Hellmuth in 1989 before losing.
He was also the first to reach 10 WSOP bracelets and is well remembered for bringing an orange to the table with him to act as not only a lucky mascot, but to provide a nicer smell than the heavy smoke which typically engulfed poker rooms.
3) Doyle Brunson
In terms of influential names within the world of poker, few have the credentials of Brunson. His Super System book is one of the most authoritative ever written on the game, he is a multiple main event victor and a frequent bracelet collector.
He was also the first ever player to earn over $1 million from playing in poker tournaments.
2) T.J. Cloutier
When it comes to specialists of tournament poker, few hold greater sway in the game than Cloutier, whether it be Texas Holdem or Omaha, no limit or pot limit.
The one blot on his copybook is a failure to win the WSOP main event, although he has finished in the top five on four occasions. Cloutier was runner up to Bill Smith in 1985 and then again to Chris Ferguson in 2000.
1) Phil Hellmuth
Hellmuth is a main event winner, a bracelet record holder and is ranked in the top 10 in poker’s all-time money list. He is also the frontrunner for WSOP cashes and final-table appearances.
His website ends with the ambition: “I want to be the greatest poker player of all time.” Based on this research, his goal has been reached.