Any student of poker history will tell you – this is a tough question to answer.
This question came up among me and some poker buddies the other night. I realized - this question is also the perfect opportunity to teach a little poker history.
It's hard to choose the best all-time anything. Ask people who was the greatest baseball player ever, and you'll hear a dozen different names - Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and I'd even throw in Pete Rose, gambling admissions notwithstanding. If you want to witness a full-throated sports debate, ask hockey fans to choose between Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. You'll hear statistics aplenty, and I'll bet there won't be any kind of consensus.
Unlike fighting over Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett, judging the skills of professional poker players involves something more than statistics. With athletes, you can compare things like scoring averages. You can look at performances during the regular- and post-seasons to determine which athlete is more dominant. You can compare their progress from a premiere in their rookie season to their peak performance.
When comparing poker players, you're making a comparison of statistics (when available), but you're also comparing players' wits, their use of strategy, their decision-making, and a dozen other intangibles. When researching the poker players listed on this page, I considered things like tournament winnings as well as those valuable intangibles, things like impact on the game and overall reputation.
The five players listed below are my nominees for the title of Best Poker Player Ever.
1) Johnny Moss
Active: 1970 - 1995
Known as The Grand Old Man of Poker, Johnny Moss is not just the oldest player on this list, he was part of the origins of modern poker itself. A (likely apocryphal) story has Moss at the final table of the tournament that led directly to the birth of the World Series of Poker alongside players like Nick the Greek and Benny Binion. He makes the list for his long career in the game, and for being the first truly dominant WSOP player.
Fun fact: Johnny Moss is the oldest player to ever win a WSOP bracelet, having won the $1,500 Ace to Five Draw tournament in 1988 at the age of 81.
2) Doyle Brunson
Active: 1970 - Present
Doyle Brunson's name is synonymous with poker. Brunson has been playing for more than five decades. Doyle Brunson is an icon, a tourney-dominating professional known as much for his personality as for his consistent wins in high-stakes games. Brunson began his career in the illegal card rooms of Fort Worth, where he befriended players who would later become world-famous, guys like Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts.
If the only thing you know about Doyle Brunson is that he's reached the money at the WSOP Main Event for five decades in a row, isn't that impressive enough to warrant him one of history's greatest players? If so, then the fact that he's served as an honorable ambassador for the game might seal the deal. To many poker fans, Doyle Brunson is the Babe Ruth of poker, the easy answer to the question: "Who is the greatest player ever?"
Fun fact: Among Brunson's many contributions to poker is Super/System, his 1979 book that's still considered an authority on the game and its strategy. The book is a basic introduction to high-level poker strategy, and focuses not just on Texas hold'em, but on five other popular variants as well. Brunson once said that his book is so successful, it's probably cost him more money at the tables than he was paid for writing it.
3) Stu Ungar
"The idiot savant of poker" (now there's a nickname that wouldn't fly today) was totally dominant from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s. Stu Ungar had the kind of decade-long dominance you see more often in brain sports like chess. The biggest case against Stu Ungar as the Best Ever is his reputation for getting bored in even the most complicated situations and losing a lot of money on what it's safe to call tilt. Basically, Ungar had poker skills above and beyond even the professional standard at the time.
Ungar's professional poker career began in 1980, when he entered the WSOP Main Event, hoping to play in more high-stakes games than the illegal ones in Atlantic City and Las Vegas he'd already blown wide open. Ungar once told ESPN's Gabe Kaplan that the 1980 Main Event was the first time he ever played Texas hold'em in a tournament. Doyle Brunson later said that Ungar seemed to learn and master the game over the course of the final table. Ungar easily beat Brunson and became (at the time) the youngest champion in the tourney's history. Ungar was called "the Kid" from then on.
The Kid's story doesn't end well. I'm not going to drag the man's name in the dirt. Let's just honor his feat of taking home the Main Event bracelet three times. Only Johnny Moss can claim something similar, but one of his victories was by vote rather than by performance. To this day, no one has matched Ungar's dominance during the decade of the 1980s.
Fun fact: Ungar's dominance wasn't limited to Texas hold'em – he was also a celebrated gin player. Ungar was quoted as saying "Someday, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better hold'em player than me. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me."
4) Chip Reese
Active: 1978 - 2006
In his New York Times obituary, Chip Reese was called the greatest cash game poker player of all time. Players like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Laak have all called Reese the greatest that ever lived. While Reese may not have as many accolades as the others on this list, he was poker's beating heart while he was alive.
Reese is the only player on this list who didn't earn his reputation playing hold'em and other tournaments. While Reese had bracelets to his credit, he chose to become the master of cash games, perfecting the art of seven-card stud. He was also the world's first HORSE expert, claiming that event's first-ever WSOP event in 2006.
Fun fact: Chip Reese aced his course at Dartmouth, and was on his way to Harvard Law when he took a side-trip to Vegas with some friends. The rest is history.
5) Phil Ivey
Active: 2000 - Present
Phil Ivey is a dominant player, a household name in contemporary poker, and an easy answer to the question of World's Best Poker Player. Only one player has more WSOP bracelets – Ivey's ten represents a tie with big names Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson. Phil Ivey's influence extends past the WSOP Main Event – he's a fixture at the famous Big Game in Las Vegas, and has sponsored or participated in dozens of TV and online tournaments over the years.
Fun fact: In the year 2000, a baby-faced Phil Ivey became the first person to beat Amarillo Slim heads-up at a WSOP event.
You didn't think I was going to pick one of these guys as the Greatest of All Time, did you?
No way am I opening myself up to that kind of criticism.
Instead, I'll say that all five of the players on this list have a legitimate claim to the throne. Some have a stronger resume in terms of statistics. Others are poker legends with household names, part of the myth of the game. For my money, it's hard to top the appeal of a misunderstood genius like Stu Ungar. However, part of me appreciates the steely gaze and massive pay days of a player like Phil Ivey.
Ultimately, who you choose as the greatest poker player in history says more about the reasons you enjoy poker than it does about the performance of these six giants.