As a music buff, the deaths of David Bowie and Prince shook me a bit. I’ve always been a big fan of both, and recognized them for the musical geniuses they were, but their deaths caused me to reflect on just how consequential they were to music.
This got me to thinking about poker – as most things do. Who are the poker equivalents of Bowie or Prince? Who are the true legends of the game that were bigger the game? As the fake Babe Ruth said in the Sandlot, “Heroes get remembered but legends never die.”
During the poker boom, the barrage of World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour episodes created a number of poker celebrities. The heroes up and coming players could emulate. A lot of these poker celebrities were like the musical act that creates a few good records. Even more were one hit wonders. But some turned into legends, joining a couple of already existing legends as extremely consequential figures who not only rose to the top of the game, but fundamentally changed poker and the way it’s played.
Compiling this list was a lot harder than I first thought it would be. There were many additions and subtractions along the way, and ordering them was even harder. In the end, I landed on these 10 names.
Bobby Baldwin was the first poker wizard. Baldwin won the 1978 World Series of Poker Main Event at the tender age of 28, which was extraordinary considering the average age of the winner up to this point was around 115 – that may be a bit overstated.
But it’s Baldwin’s role behind the scenes, assembling games, running poker rooms, and eventually landing high-profile executive roles with major casino corporations that nabbed him a spot on this list.
Basically, whatever project Baldwin was working on at the time became the center of the poker universe, which is why Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio is named in his honor. Without Baldwin who knows what state live poker would be in today.
Baldwin was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2003.
Because of his relative freshness, Jason Somerville was a difficult addition to this list. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the overall impact he’s already had on the game of poker. He’s ushered in a new era of poker media, through new mediums, that are so cutting edge there were arguments if what he was doing was actually poker media when he was nominated for an American Poker Award earlier this year.
Somerville’s contributions to the game away from the felt are so grand they’ve overshadowed his poker prowess, which includes $3.5 million in live tournament winnings (and Somerville is mainly known as an online player), and a WSOP bracelet.
No offense to Daniel Negreanu, but it’s Somerville who is the current poker ambassador par excellence.
Phil Ivey was the best of the best during the poker boom, which means the general public thinks he’s the best poker player of all time – which he very well may be.
Ivey’s story is utterly amazing – from using a fake ID to hone his poker chops in Atlantic City to the ongoing edge-sorting scandal that saw Ivey take two casinos for over $20 million – and his poker achievements are even more amazing:
Ivey is a shoe-in for the Poker Hall of Fame this year.
Johnny Chan was Phil Ivey before Phil Ivey.
He can also lay claim to the sickest poker accomplishment in the game’s history (at least in my opinion), as he finished 1st, 1st, and 2nd in back-to-back-to back World Series of Poker Main Events from 1987-1989 – Johnny Chan man… Johnny F’ing Chan.
For a decade-plus, Chan was the epitome of a poker high-roller, and thanks to the numerous mentions of his poker prowess and his cameo appearance in the movie Rounders, Chan is an absolute poker legend and one of the game’s most recognizable players.
Chan was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002.
In the early days of the poker boom, there were plenty of mini-online-poker-legends – SpirtRock, ElkY, Hollingol, NeverWin, and so on. But it was a young, ultra-aggressive online poker player named durrrr who captured the imagination of the entire poker world.
durrrr, real name Tom Dwan, is the definition of a game changer.
His style of play was so unorthodox that the top pros of the day thought very little of him – just another fish on a heater. And oh, how wrong they were. Dwan’s game was so innovative it took several years of success before he started getting the credit he deserved.
Suffice it to say, Dwan is the godfather of online poker.
Before the poker boom, the only time you saw a poker player on TV was if you were watching ESPN at 3 AM… except for Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston.
Slim’s ability to tell a story (true or not) helped him become a cult figure of sorts during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and promote poker for the first time since the days of the Wild West.
Even his peers realized Slim was the perfect poker salesman, as it’s widely believed he was allowed to win the 1972 WSOP Main Event so he could do what he loved to do; promote the game.
Slim was the first player to figure out poker could be sold as entertainment, which he tried to do in a variety of PT Barnum-esque ways. From his Super Bowl of Poker, to hosting tournaments and casino openings from Marrakesh to Columbia, to his Tonight Show appearances, to his Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King style gender match, the wheels were always turning in Slim’s head.
There was a darker side to the man that has tarnished what would have been an incredible legacy worthy of Top 3 on this list. But anyone drawn to poker before the poker boom, Amarillo Slim was likely a factor.
Amarillo Slim was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1992.
Stu Ungar’s feats and accomplishments are the stuff of a tall tales book, and for the most part, they all really happened. Part of Ungar’s legacy is the superhuman plays he made at the poker table, but another part of his legend was the air of mystique that surrounded Ungar, not unlike Prince – he was such a genius that people simply couldn’t wrap their mind around the way he thought.
For Prince, making music consumed most of his waking hours. For Ungar it was gambling.
Ungar was a poker dynamo, playing the modern loose-aggressive style when all of his contemporaries were playing tight-aggressive. Completely ahead of his time, Ungar racked up an impressive poker resume (and poker wasn’t even his best game) including three WSOP Main Event wins, and the hard to fathom feat of winning 10 of the 30 tournaments he entered with buy-ins of at least $5,000.
Ungar was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.
Daniel Negreanu flipped the image of a professional poker player on its head. The diminutive, affable, trendy, and outspoken player put to rest the notion of the wizened and grizzled gambler.
Negreanu was approachable and the first player to truly engage his fans, which has led to him becoming the face of PokerStars.
His resume is pretty impressive as well, as he’s the winningest tournament player in poker history with over $32 million, and is one of the few people who has a lot of experience, in cash games and tournaments, booth live and online.
Negreanu was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2015.
Doyle is the living legend of poker.
The 10 time bracelet winner, including back-to-back WSOP Main Event titles in 1976 and 1977, authored the transformative book Super System, and despite his age was at the forefront of the online era.
The remarkable thing about Doyle is his longevity. Doyle beat the highest stakes games in the world for 50 years, and to this day he can still hold his own.
Doyle was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 1988.
If you asked a random person on the street to name five poker players, I’d wager money that the name Phil Hellmuth would have more mentions than any other poker player.
Hellmuth is a brand unto himself (and a chronic self-promoter), and even though his current playing schedule consists of about six weeks during the World Series of Poker he’s ubiquitous in the poker world. He pops up on TV, at charity events, and is constantly posting pictures of himself with A-list celebrities on social media. The man is simply everywhere, and has been the most visible poker player for the past 25 years.
Phil also holds virtually every major World Series of poker record – cashes, final tables, and bracelets.
Hellmuth was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2007.
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