Each and every grinder, every nearly-man, every five-time bracelet winner, there’s one thing they want above all else: To win the World Series of Poker. Only a select group of players have actually done it.
Gathered here today is a list of my favourite Main Event champions. There’s no strict category or convoluted numerical numbering system. Just the guys I think are most interesting, exciting, and inspiring.
10. Greg Raymer
The Fossilman! That’s a great name isn’t it? Greg was the first champion of the poker boom. Coming a year after Moneymaker’s landmark victory, it seemed fitting that another unknown should come out of the blue to win it all.
The next year he came incredibly close to doing the impossible, winning back-to-back post-boom Main Events. His run ended in 25th, but he had already confirmed his place as a worthy member of the poker pantheon.
9. Johnny Chan
I’m pretty sure Johnny Chan was the first professional poker player I ever became aware of. I didn’t know what he looked like or even what bitcoin blackjack he had done, but the name was synonymous with the game. Not just with poker itself, but the glitzy alien world of Las Vegas.
When I had my inevitable Rounders moment, his star was cemented. He might not make so much of a splash these days, but back-to-back main event titles form a comfortable seat on which to rest your laurels.
8. Stu Ungar
I have a pretty hazy sense of Stu Ungar. Like an infamous relative who died when I was a child. The family talk warmly about his antics, but there’s a sad after-taste to the conversation.
Stu played in his last world series when I was 10 years old, so I was never aware of him in his zenith, but the legend lives on. If Doyle Brunson says he’s the best Texas Hold’em player ever to walk the Earth, I suspect he deserves more than a little attention.
7. Scotty Nguyen
“You call and it’s gonna be all over baby.”
For that moment alone, Scotty makes the top 10. It is undoubtedly the greatest final hand in the history of the main event. Taunting his opponent into handing over the final few chips, Scotty became a legend.
If it weren’t for his foul mouthed, abusive, run at winning the Chip Reese trophy a few years ago, the Poker Prince might have featured higher on this list.
6. Huck Seed
Huck is one of the few champions who’s stuck around long beyond his victory and made a real impact. In the 15 years since acquiring Main Event bracelet he has been a world-leader everywhere from Vegas cash games to international tournaments. He now has a total of 4 bracelets to his name, not to mention the 2009 NBC National Heads-Up Championship trophy.
5. Chris Moneymaker
I don’t think people give this guy enough credit. I know he’s often cited as the catalyst that sparked the poker boom and that without his victory in 2003 we would not have seen Main Event fields balloon. But, he’s continued to play at a high standard and has never shied away from furthering the good name of poker.
If you don’t believe in his ability, just take a look at the most recent NBC Heads-Up Championship and note who finished runner up.
4. Carlos Mortensen
Now here’s a guy who definitely doesn’t get enough credit. There are few more consistent tournament players in the world. Ten years ago he burst onto the scene and captured a Main Event title, but since then has not courted the spotlight as much as some of his elite compadres.
He has over $10 million dollars in life-time winnings, making him the 12th most successful tournament player in history. Among those payouts are three WPT titles. Consider that a few guys who sit above him on the money list are there by virtue of massive Main Event births and I think it’s fair to name him among the top 10 tournament players in the world.
3. Chris Ferguson
“Jesus” was my first poker idol. While sojourning in the great state of California I caught a glimpse of the game-theory master on ESPN’s World Series coverage. In a way he looked ridiculous. Long hair and dark glasses, topped off with an over-sized black cowboy hat that teetered oddly atop his wiry frame.
I took that image home to the grey British countryside and it has never left me. To the 18-year-old me, Chris Ferguson is professional poker.
2. Phil Hellmuth
I can’t get enough of The Poker Brat. That’s not to say I like the man, not in the least. Like many of the finest sportsmen he has an unerring self-confidence that doesn’t merely border on arrogance, it invades and appoints itself king.
He might have taken his eye of the ball a little lately, in favour of becoming a celebrity, but his high opinion of himself and low opinion of others hasn’t changed. That makes him even more volatile at the table and even more watchable. As far as the popularity of the game is concerned, there’s no one better for poker than Phil Hellmuth.
1. Doyle Brunson
How could I not put the Godfather of Poker in first place. No one has lived poker like Doyle. No one is more deserving of respect than this legend. He’s like a living gargoyle at the table, perching to remind you of history, but with more than a little fight left in him.
Doyle has two Main Event titles to his name and was still picking up bracelets in 2005. He only needs one more to tie Phil Hellmuth for the most ever.