It is one of the great things to discuss around the bar or during a home game when the drinks and chips are flying. “Who is the greatest poker player of all-time? Who is the G.O.A.T. in poker?” There have been plenty of people who have tried to quantify that answer but, in all honesty, it truly depends on the criteria that you might use to attempt to answer that question. Even then, however, people might not agree because of the criteria that they use to come up with the answer.
Is it the Money? Or is it the Time?
If you want to look at the amount of money that someone has made from playing in poker tournaments, then you are going to have a few contenders for the crown. Currently the all-time money leader isn’t Phil Hellmuth or even Daniel Negreanu. That honor goes to Bryn Kenney, who has made an astronomical $56,403,506 during his 13-year poker career (thank you, Hendon Mob Database). Most of that money has come from “high roller” poker tournaments, however, which means that some people may not consider him a legitimate contender for such accolades as the G.O.A.T.
If not Kenney, then who? Even second place Justin Bonomo’s resume is a bit tainted by the “high roller” bug, so it might be Negreanu who gets the nod. He has been around for over 25 years now (sorry, Daniel…you’re getting old!) and has racked up over $42 million in lifetime earnings. Coming in behind Negreanu is another argument for the G.O.A.T., Erik Seidel, who has only been at this for 32 years and earned over $37 million himself.
But there is another consideration – time. What about a person who has spent their entire life playing the game at a high level, making a living from sitting on the green baize? Then you would have to look no further than the legendary Doyle Brunson, who has been playing poker for a living since he was in his early 20s. Now 86, Brunson might have retired from the tournament poker scene, but he still holds his own against the greatest poker players in the world in cash games that frequently run in Las Vegas.
Other than Brunson, you would have to look at someone like Johnny Moss, who was on the tables for most of his life. He was arguably still playing at a high level before he passed away in 1995, not bad for a guy who first came to light back in the 1940s.
What About the Gold? Or a Particular Game?
Should we perhaps judge greatness by the number of championships that a player has won? There is perhaps no greater stage than the World Series of Poker’s $10,000 Championship Event, which has used Texas Hold’em to determine poker’s “world champion.” For that, there is no better person to hold up than the late Stu Ungar, the only player to legitimately win the Championship Event three times (Moss won it twice and was “elected” once). He also won ten out of 30 No Limit Texas Hold’em tournaments he entered – that is a rather good percentage.
We could also throw Hellmuth into this mix. The 15-time WSOP bracelet winner is the only player to have won the WSOP Championship Event on two continents – Las Vegas (the Americas) and in Cannes, France (Europe) with the WSOP Europe Championship Event. And, when it comes to overall cashes in the WSOP, Hellmuth (148) has a decent lead over the runner up (Chris Ferguson, 138).
But what if you’re looking at the G.O.A.T. of overall poker play? Then there are several players you could propose for that title. The late Chip Reese made a very lucrative living from playing virtually ANY poker variant for more than 30 years until his untimely passing. Phil Ivey, besides being an outstanding tournament poker pro (something we probably will never see again, at least in the U. S.), is also one of the greatest cash game players of all time in any form of poker. Then there is a player that many might not think of – Michael Mizrachi, the three-time WSOP $50,000 Poker Players’ Championship victor, a tournament that is built around mixed game prowess.
Do We Even KNOW Who is the G.O.A.T.?
But here’s a theory for you…what if the greatest poker player of all time is someone that nobody has ever heard of? Maybe it is that player who goes to the casino a few times a week, plays the game well, makes a few thousand dollars and goes home. He/she pays their bills, has a nice condo or home, lives well and has a healthy bank account to live on. This person does not seek out any plaudits, does not want the fame…they are simply happy to make a nice six-figure take a year simply from playing a card game?
Poker isn’t like regular sports in that there are career statistics that can be compared against the past. There aren’t “live ball” versus “dead ball” eras that have a distinct way of breaking down the competitors over the span of time. The question of who is the greatest of all time in poker is one that is great for passionate discussions but, without any criteria set, is one that cannot be answered by anyone.