Let's face it – the poker subculture remains relatively obscure to mainstream society. Sure, poker remains very popular as a form of entertainment among recreational and serious amateur players. Over the past two decades, and thanks largely to the overwhelming and enduring success of Texas Hold'em, professional poker has boasted several annual, world class tournaments where pros face-off over multi-million dollar pots.
Yet still, who else but a poker aficionado would be able to identify even one or two names or faces from the rosters of the world's elite players? And what should the criteria be for choosing the globe's most popular denizens of this felt top domain?
Surely winnings must count. However, even though the highest known winnings payout in poker history occurred within the current millennium and was in excess of $18 million, the name of the winning player is hardly of household status.
Then there are the celebrity poker stars, the jet setting jocks and Leo Ds who have been known to play a hand or two. Some even play televised tournaments for big jackpots (though not nearly in the same realm as professional tourneys), each playing for their charity of choice. Undoubtedly, the footage of celebrities playing for high stakes contributed to creating the groundswell of mystique and popularity of poker among the masses.
What about fictional players? The realms of legend and popular story-telling are stacked with the exploits and infamy of gamblers and cardsharps, wherever the game has spread.
With these things in mind I have compiled a list of the most popular players of poker and what it is that got them nominated. The first three are actual professional players who, between them, have amassed tens of millions of dollars in winnings. The next include those who got on the list mainly because of their day jobs, but who none-the-less can boast of some prowess around the button. Finally, I decided to mix it up a little and go in a different direction.
1. Antonio Esfandiari – highest single winnings of all time.
Antonio (American, by way of Persia; birth name: Amir) is nicknamed "The Magician", due to his previous occupation, from which he is now retired. A potential reason for his retirement, and his claim to fame, is being the winner of the largest cash payout in poker history. On July 3, 2012, Antonio paid $1 million to buy into the Big One for the Drop and proceeded to eliminate 47 opponents on his way to winning $18,346,673.
To date, the 37-year-old has amassed poker earnings of over $26 million. His winnings at the table have also led to appearances in television and movies, appearing alongside Robert De Niro and "50 Cent" Jackson as an undercover police officer in the major motion picture Freelancer. Antonio is not the last magician we'll meet on this list.
2. Vanessa Rousso – hottest poker player of all time?
The 5'7" and blonde 33-year-old has developed a reputation for herself both at and away from the tables. At the tables she does more than hold her own. Vanessa, or "Lady Maverick", is ranked 5th winningest female poker player of all time, with career winnings to date totalling $3.5 million. She has appeared in numerous world tournaments, including the World Championship of Online Poker, The World Poker Tour and The World Series of Poker.
Her activity and activism away from the table has also contributed to her ubiquitous quality. Vanessa is a strong advocate for gambling as a serious pastime. She successfully campaigned for changing Florida's gambling laws to allow a richer experience for card players with above-average skills. Vanessa is also a spokesperson for GoDaddy, alongside then IndyCar driver Danica Patrick.
However, as an attractive and successful female star in a mostly male gaming culture, it is no surprise Vanessa has many male fans. Officially regarded as among the sexiest poker players in the world (18th in Bleacher Report and 20th in Maxim), she has also appeared in Maxim and in Sport's Illustrated prolific Swim Suit Edition, where she continued her dedication to changing the image of poker forever.
3. Phil Ivey – the best all-round player in the world.
Phil Ivey is widely considered by those in the know in the poker community as being the best overall player today. Since 2000, Phil has dominated the professional poker scene to such a degree that his nicknames range from "The Phenom" to "The Tiger Woods of Poker".
Some stats that support his reputation include:
Phil regularly participates in the annual Big Game, a mixed cash game at Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Perhaps the biggest event took place in 2006 when Ivey won a total of $16 million from Texas billionaire Andy Beal, over three days of heads-up Limit Texas Hold'em.
Ive's participation and accomplishments in other world class tournaments such as the World Poker Tour have consistently seen him place well enough to be considered a factor, though he has not been as dominant as in the WSOP.
Overall, Phil's reputation as the best over-all world-class poker player is well-earned.
4. Gabe Kaplan – celebrity yes, but old school
Gabe of course gained fame through that hit 70s TV show Welcome Back Kotter. Who knew then that the oft-beleaguered "Mr Kot-tare" was actually adept with the cards. Well, Gabe for one. His opponents also had a good idea.
During the success of Kotter, Kaplan started playing poker. Now realize this was back in the day, before the convenience of online casinos, software learning tools and the books and seminars containing scads of information and analysis from the experts. Long before poker was "mainstream cool" or "celebrity cool". Gabe played old-school. Head-to-head. When cash talked and everything else walked. You get the idea.
And Gabe didn't break his bones on a bunch of wanna-be amateurs. During the 1970s, when the newly established World Series of Poker was attracting more members (largely due to its attraction to recreational amateur players) Gabe was going up against hardnosed and flint-eyed seasoned professionals.
From 1979 through 1991, poker legend Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker (SBOP) was the top world-class poker tournament for professional and serious amateur players. So much so that six of the SBOP's thirteen main matches were won by future members of the Poker Hall of Fame. In 1980, Kaplan won the Super Bowl and established himself as a world-class calibre player, a champion of champions.
Kaplan won the 1980 SBOP Main Event, earning $191 000, propelling Kaplan into the elite of world-class poker. Because of his daytime job his victory sent a message across the country that poker was not exclusive to the traditional stereotypes. It could be learned and mastered by anyone. After all, wasn't he that dorky comedian with that annoying catch-phrase "up your nose with a rubber hose" (you may need to look that one up)? The point though was - if he can win big at poker, maybe I can too...
And Gabe was no flash-in-the-pan. In the same year, following on the heels of his victory at the SBOP, Kaplan finished 6th at the 1980 WSOP. In the years to follow, Kaplan remained a force of contention at the Super Bowl. In 1982 he placed third in the Main Event. In 1983 and 1984 he won titles in the low-ball events.
Now entering his 70s, Kaplan continues to earn money and be a serious opponent in professional events. As recent as 2014, the comedian from Brooklyn competed in the Super High Roller Hold'em in Las Vegas, finishing 8th and taking away over a quarter of a million in winnings. Up your nose indeed!
Time to switch it up a bit. We've looked at important and influential poker players whose impact on the modern game has been significant. But it's time to get to some really famous poker players, players who captured the attention of millions with the tension and drama that can only be found when the name of the game is high stakes poker. Strangely enough, though, the most popular poker stars are pure works of fiction, alive only on the big screen and in the imaginations of the audiences they entertained.
However, don't let that throw you. Read over the next few installments. Do you recognize any stereotypes, and perhaps a few of your own perceptions, in these portrayals of the poker player?
1. Brett Maverick – world-class con artist, lucky in cards and love
This character first appeared in the 1950s TV series Maverick, originally starring James Gardner in the title role. Later, in the 1994 movie of the same name and based on the same character, Gardner would play a supportive role while Mel Gibson played the dashing, devil-may-care, riverboat cardsharp.
What makes Maverick relevant to our list is the stereotype he reflects, a stereotype that is etched deeply into the psyche of American culture. As you may guess from his name, this "maverick" roams outside the conventions of social norms and expectations.
He is a risk taker.A lone wolf. A stylish master in deception. He prefers money won over money earned. And while his charms work on the ladies, his everlasting mistress is Lady Luck herself, with whom he is stuck on, for better and worse and through thick and thin 'til death do they part.
It sounds corny and certainly the plots are exaggerated and ridiculous. But the themes are alive enough and live on wherever the game is played. While there can be pride and honour in money earned, who can deny the intoxicating and giddy fragrance on money won?
2. Bill Denny and Charlie Waters – welcome to the dark side of the... uh, button
The 1970s was the Golden Age of American cinema, known for the daring chances directors and actors were taking by ripping the lids off of social issues to show to audiences the often grim and gritty realities that lay both beneath and within.
One such depiction was the highly praised Robert Altman film California Split, with the main characters played by George Segal and Elliot Gould. Far away as possible from the charming rogue gambler portrayed in movies like Maverick, Altman shows us that gambling, including poker, is a dangerous vice similar to a narcotic that can quickly gain control of the unlucky and take his life to desperate ends.
As with Maverick, Bill and Charlie reflect the stereotypical view that fed the general perception held by the public upon card playing, albeit with a different angle and flavour. For, unlike Maverick, Bill and Charlie don't have much of a comedic grace about them. Neither are they outsiders, but insiders – you and me – who are looking for the edge and find it in the luck of the cards. However, for them it is a draining, empty experience. Poker, and gambling in general, is engaged in by those who seek to escape and end up chasing the dragon.
These stereotypes were portrayed vivid and raw. They remained fresh in the mind of the general public. Then a goofy-looking comedian with a Brooklyn accent (remember Gabe?) makes headlines when he of all people enters into this potential pit of inequity and vipers to emerge not a burned out casualty but a goofy-looking, wise-cracking poker champion. The tide was changing in public perception, but it would continue to change until an invention called "the internet" would help transform a common draw poker game into a household name "Texas Hold'em".
3. Ricky Jay – Another magician
The last person on this list is bit of a darkhorse. Technically I suppose he doesn't really belong in this list of the world's most popular poker player since his day job and reputation are not based in the world of poker. As matter of fact, when watching him perform, many wonder exactly what world he is based in. I'm not kidding. If you haven't seen this guy work you need to check him out. His name is Ricky Jay.
He is employed as a magician. Which is like saying Frank Sinatra found work as a singer. Forget the wand and rabbit bit. While his acts are varied his specialty is cards. There are videos on YouTube of Jay demonstrating card techniques so flawlessly that, even with close-up camera lenses and Ricky describing beforehand exactly what he was going to do, they are impossible to detect.
Jay shuffles decks so that each player in the game gets exactly what he is meant to get. He'll play with cards face up – and win every time. He lets players choose the cards they want leaving Ricky with whatever is left – and beats them. He'll deal from the bottom of the deck. Like watching a master pool hustler pot each ball when and only when it will look like a lucky shot, Jay knows where every card in his poker game will be, and when, even before the players sit down at the table.
I don't know if Ricky Jay does play poker. I'm sure when he does he keeps his masterful slight-of-hand arts at home. But it does introduce another theme of the poker game and mystique that we'll have to save for another time – poker and the art of deception.
By the way, if you are music fan and you are interested in exploring more of some of the themes we hit upon today you may want to check out a CD Ricky Jay released, called Ricky Jay Plays Poker. It contains a wide and rich collection of performances – from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan – all based on the poker player/gambler theme and its place in American mythology.
I hope you have enjoyed this list. If you are new to the game or have been known to play a hand or two I recommend finding out more about poker's rich legacy. It may reward you in ways unexpected.