Many poker players dream of winning on the game’s biggest stages – becoming a champion. With so many tournaments around the world, though, what makes a player truly stand out?

There are many factors to consider, for example:

  • Number of titles
  • Longevity
  • The importance of the title won.
  • Competition level, and many other factors. 

So, determining which champions are the best isn’t an easy task. But here’s a look at some of those who stand out, in no particular order.

Top 9 Biggest and Best Poker Champions Are:

1 – Phil Hellmuth

It would be hard not to include the 15-time WSOP bracelet winner in any list of poker champions. Along with most WSOP hardware, he also became the youngest Main Event winner at the time when he took down the title in 1989. He sits fourth in WSOP winnings.

  • If that weren’t enough, he’s also the only player in history to win the WSOP Main Event and WSOP Europe Main Event. He won the latter in 2012 for €1 million. 
  • At the WSOP alone, Hellmuth has also notched 11 runner-up finishes – quite an impressive feat in itself.

Beyond the WSOP, Hellmuth remains one of the biggest names in the game. He’s competed in major televised poker events and has many other titles and final tables appearances. 

That includes winning the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2005.

In 2020, Hellmuth scored three straight wins over Antonio Esfandiari on the PokerGO show High Stakes Duel. 

  • He added another heads-up win over Daniel Negreanu in 2021.

The one spot Hellmuth might be lacking is adding a WPT crown. He’s had five final table appearances, including a runner-up and a third-place finish. But no doubt he is looking to add a WPT title to his resumé.

👑 Titles: 15 WSOP bracelets
📛 Trademarks: “white magic”
👶 Personality: “Poker Brat”

2 – Johnny Chan

After his family emigrated to the U.S. from China in the late 1960s, Chan moved from Houston to Las Vegas when he turned 21. He went on to become one of the biggest names in poker and is tied with Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey with 10 WSOP bracelets, just behind Hellmuth.

  • Chan’s first bracelet came in 1985 when he won a $1,000 Limit Hold’em Championship for $171,000. 
  • In 1987, his first Main Event title became his second bracelet – taking home $625,000.
  • A year later, Chan became just the third person to win the Main Event two years in a row. This time he scored $700,000. 
  • In 1989, he came so close to making it a three-peat. Hellmuth came out on top, with Chan finishing runner-up after a massive three-year run.

Seven more bracelets headed his way in the coming years, including three Pot-Limit Omaha titles. Chan became a role model for many young players. 

That played out with a cameo in the film Rounders in 1998 – bluffed out of a pot by Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott.

👑 Titles: 10 WSOP bracelets
📛 Trademarks: Back-to-back Main Event titles and lucky orange at table
🚂 Personality/Nickname: “Orient Express”

3 – Darren Elias

This poker pro, originally from Medford, New Jersey, leads the pack when it comes to WPT titles. 

  • Elias has captured four WPT titles and made 12 final tables on the tour.
  • Those are both WPT records, and he also holds the record for most cashes at 42. 
  • Elias has $4 million in live poker earnings on the WPT alone.

After high school, Darren attended the University of Redlands in California but was often gone for major tournaments. He graduated in 2008 with a degree in creative writing and then went on to play poker full time.

Beyond the WPT, Elias also snagged several major online titles during the poker boom. Despite winning several other titles, a WSOP bracelet has so far remained elusive. 

That’s something he’ll be looking to change in the coming years.

👑 Titles: 4 WPT Titles
📛 Trademarks: Intimidating presence
🔚  Personality/Nickname: “End Boss”

4 – Phil Ivey

When it comes to poker success, Phil Ivey is a poker champion many admire. Along with 10 WSOP bracelets, Ivey has one WPT and has become an extremely popular poker champion.

Ivey grew up in New Jersey and, by the age of 16, was playing in games all over the state, including Atlantic City with his fake ID. After becoming the legal age, Ivey’s first significant win came in 2000 at the first Jack Binion World Poker Open for $53,297.

  • In May 2000, at age 23, he added his first WSOP bracelet for $195,000. 
  • The 2002 WSOP showcased an impressive Ivey performance – scoring three bracelets.
  • In 2003, Ivey finished runner-up to poker legend Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot in the first WPT Championship for $290,130. 
  • From 2002-2007, he found his way to eight WPT final tables, including a win at the L.A. Poker Classic in 2008 for $1.6 million.

Ivey now has 10 WSOP bracelets and excelled in high rollers, online events, and live cash games as well. 

As of April 2021, he had more than $31 million in live tournament winnings.

👑 Titles: 10 WSOP, 1 WPT
📛 Trademarks: Fearless play, advanced skills
⏲️  Personality/Nickname: “No Home Jerome”

Massive Moments

5 – Antonio Esfandiari

There was a time when nosebleed stakes high roller events weren’t so prevalent. Nowadays, finding major five-, six-, and even seven-figure tournaments streamed online and on television is common.

The WSOP broke new ground a bit with the debut of the Big One for One Drop in 2012. The event came with a charity angle and A $1 million buy-in.

The tournament benefitted the One Drop Foundation, which provides freshwater services for third world countries. Well-known poker pros and as well as well-heeled businesspeople clamoured to get in.

  • With $111,111 of each buy-in going to One Drop, the event raised a hefty amount for the charity and paid out a $42.7 million prize pool. Esfandiari undoubtedly wasn’t a nobody coming into the event and had won a bracelet in 2004.

The WPT had proven particularly lucrative for “The Magician.” In 2004, he won the LA Poker Classic for $1.4 million and the Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2010 for $870,124.

Those winnings saw a significant increase when he took down the One Drop for the Herculean sum of $18.3 million

He topped a field of 48 for what had been the biggest payout in poker history.

👑 Titles: WSOP, WPT
📛 Trademarks: Plenty of action and table talk.
🎱 Personality/Nickname: “The Magician”

6 – Doug Polk

The Big One for One Drop was scaled back in subsequent years, and an intriguing name emerged as the winner in 2017. Doug Polk played at some of the highest stakes online and survived a field of 130 to score the title in the $100,000 High Roller for One Drop.

  • Polk added his third WSOP bracelet and $1.3 million guaranteed. He now has more than $9.5 million in live tournament winnings.

That total doesn’t include significant winnings online in major events in challenges. One of these made plenty of headlines in 2020-21 when Polk faced off online against Daniel Negreanu.

The two played $200/$400 heads-up No-Limit Hold’em over 25,000 hands in two sessions. 

Polk only added to his deep resumé by scoring a cool $1.2 million.

👑 Titles: 3 WSOP, online high stakes events
📛 Trademarks: Social media star
🥊 Personality/Nickname: Not afraid to spar online with others.

Longevity

7 – Doyle Brunson

The Godfather of Poker remains one of the biggest names in the game. His incredible career spans all crucial modern eras of the game. 

His experience stretches from old school underground poker to major Las Vegas events to televised poker to online poker.

If there’s a major poker accomplishment, Brunson has achieved it and could fit under all the headings listed here. 

Just a few of those include the following – 

  • Winning the WSOP Main Event twice
  • Holding 10 WSOP bracelets
  • Playing in some of the biggest cash games in the world well into his 80s, and much more.

Brunson also holds a WPT title after winning the WPT Legends of Poker in 2004 for $1.2 million. Age 71 at the time, he remains the oldest person to win a WPT title.

“Texas Dolly” was even the face and brand image of a popular online poker site in the 2000s. Many poker players view the Texan as the poker champion they admire the most. 

This poker champion has had staying power, unlike many others.

👑 Titles: WSOP, WPT
📛 Trademarks: Poker legend
🤠 Personality/Nickname: “Texas Dolly”

8 – Justin Bonomo

  • WSOP titles? Check. 
  • High roller event championships? Check. 
  • An EPT title? He’s got one of those too. 

Justin Bonomo has been one of the winningest players in poker over the last decade.

  • His first WSOP bracelet came in 2014 when he won the $1,500 No-Limit Hold'em Six-Handed event for $449,980. 
     
  • He followed that up by winning the $10,000 Heads-Up Championship in 2018 for $185,965.

Also, in 2018, Bonomo took down the $1 million Big One for One Drop for $10 million. These high-roller events have been a favourite for him, and his success in this arena may be unmatched.

Bonomo has won high rollers at the PCA, Triton High Roller Series, PokerGO’s Super High Roller Bowls, Aria High Rollers, and more. 

This “Mr High Roller” remains one of the biggest names in the game.

👑 Titles: WSOP, numerous high rollers 
📛 Trademarks: occasional pink hair 
💤 Personality/Nickname: “ZeeJustin”

9 – Bryn Kenney

High rollers are also the forte of this player from New York. As of April 2021, Kenney sat at the top of the all-time poker winnings list with $56 million.

Kenney has won and scored big on almost every nosebleed level imaginable in the following poker series – 

  • WPT
  • PCA
  • Triton Million
  • Triton Super High Rollers
  • US Poker Open
  • EPT
  • Aussie Millions and so many others.

One of his most significant achievements came in Montenegro in 2019 when he won two Triton Poker Super High Rollers for $4.1 million.

Along with his many high-roller scores, Kenney also won a WSOP bracelet in 2014 in a $1,500 10-Game Mix Six-Handed event for $153,220. 

Kenney is a regular poker champion in some of the biggest events around the world.

👑 Titles: WSOP, many high rollers
📛 Trademarks: Former competitive Magic: The Gathering player
🍎 Personality/Nickname: New York sports team gear

♦♥♣♠

Poker has surged in popularity over the last 20 years. Players can find poetry of minor, major, and massive events – both live and online. 

There are more opportunities than ever to play. 

These are just a few of the most recognised poker champions around.

About the Author
By
Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast
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