The poker world has seen many great players throughout the years. These pros have earned their fame by winning huge tournaments and/or beating the highest cash-game stakes.
They’ve done everything from cheating online players to failing to repay debts again and again.
Nobody wants to live in infamy when they are/were a highly successful player. But the nine pros discussed below have had their poker careers overshadowed by controversial exploits.
1 – Scotty Nguyen
Scotty Nguyen was once one of the most beloved poker players in the game. His thick Vietnamese accent and iconic sayings like “nut, nut” and “baby” made him an instant star during the poker boom.
Nguyen backed up his infectious personality with a number of stellar poker results, including winning the 1998 WSOP Main Event ($1 million). But beneath the winning and boisterousness was a severe drinking problem that would be exposed at the 2008 WSOP.
Scotty made a deep run in the 2008 WSOP $50k Player’s Championship, which was created to honor the late Chip Reese. Nguyen grabbed a huge final table lead and ran away with the event, earning a $1.99 million prize for his efforts.
But the “Prince of Poker” was anything but during the final table, as he guzzled numerous alcoholic beverages and berated both players and cocktail waitresses.
The young poker player celebrated after he won a particular pot, which launched Scotty into a profanity-laced tirade.
Nguyen also tried soft-playing Erick Lindgren at one point during three-handed play. But Lindgren bet back, which caused Nguyen to get angry and exclaim that he was trying to help him.
Scotty issued an apology following the tournament. He cited a number of excuses for his poor behavior, including everything from exhaustion to DeMichele celebrating a winning hand.
Nguyen later dropped the excuses and stopped blaming others for his shameful display. However, his reputation has never recovered from this incident.
2 – Chris Ferguson
Chris “Jesus” Ferguson became one of the most iconic poker players during the boom years from 2003 to 2006. Jesus was easily recognizable thanks to his trademark cowboy hats and appearances on High Stakes Poker.
He also has plenty of poker accolades to his name, including winning the 2000 WSOP Main Event and capturing six gold bracelets overall.
For good measure, this guy can also cut fruit in half with a thrown playing card and has completed one of the most insane bankroll challenges ever.
He used freerolls to earn his initial bankroll and then took these small winnings to $10k.
Jesus’ success on the poker table allowed him to make a sizeable investment in Full Tilt Poker. He served on the board of directors and became one of the biggest beneficiaries from Full Tilt’s rise to prominence.
However, Ferguson’s reputation came crashing down along with Full Tilt following Black Friday (April 15, 2011). He was among four Full Tilt executives who were indicted by the US Department of Justice for money laundering and bank fraud.
Full Tilt Poker was forced out of the US market and exposed for not being able to cover some $350 million in player deposits. Many wondered how the execs could pay themselves tens of millions of dollars while the company only had $60 million in assets left over.
Jesus proved he could walk on water after negotiating a sweet deal, whereby he forfeited a bank account (unspecified amount) and another $2.35 million to avoid jail time.
However, he couldn’t win over the poker community like he could the courtrooms.
Ferguson remained a pariah along with other Full Tilt execs, including Howard Lederer and Ray Bitar. He finally surfaced in the poker world again, competing in the 2016 WSOP. He’s proven that he can still play after cashing a record 17 times in the 2017 WSOP.
So far, Ferguson has managed to play in live tournaments and succeed without any major harassment. But part of the poker community still views him in a negative light due to his heavy involvement with Full Tilt.
3 – Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey should be remembered as one of the, if not the, greatest poker players of all time. He’s won in every way imaginable throughout his career.
Ivy has earned 10 WSOP bracelets, won numerous other tournaments, and beaten the highest stakes in both live and online cash games. Given these accomplishments, it’s no wonder why he was previously referred to as the “world’s greatest all-around poker player.”
It all started with Full Tilt Poker, which Ivy had a sponsorship deal with and an investment in.
He was receiving millions of dollars every year to represent the Full Tilt brand. The payouts apparently stopped coming after Black Friday, at which point he leveled a lawsuit.
Ivey claimed that the motivation behind suing Full Tilt’s parent company, Tiltware, was to stand up for the players who lost their funds. But most eventually came to believe that it was nothing more than self-serving litigation.
In reality, the lawsuit did more harm than good considering that Full Tilt already had enough trouble repaying players. But the poker community largely overlooked this incident and instead focused their anger on Ferguson and other execs.
In 2014, Ivey launched another lawsuit against London’s Crockfords Club Casino. He beat them in punto banco (baccarat) to the tune of $12 million using an advantage-play technique called edge sorting.
However, Crockfords refused to pay out on the grounds that they felt Ivey went beyond normal advantage play. His lawsuit was eventually thrown out because the judge believed that the techniques he used bordered on cheating.
This case gave Atlantic City’s Borgata casino all the confidence they needed to level a case against Ivey. They sought $10.1 million in damages.
The poker pro earned $9.6 million against them through edge sorting and used a portion of this money to win an additional $500,000. The Borgata also won their case against Ivey, who was supposed to repay the $10.1 million amount.
But he’s since been dragging his feet and claims that he doesn’t have the money. The Borgata, meanwhile, has permission from a judge to explore Ivy’s Nevada assets and potentially recoup what they’re owed.
In contrast to some of the pros on this list, Ivy isn’t universally hated by other poker players. He may have brought a self-serving lawsuit against Full Tilt, but this isn’t enough to place him in the same category as, say, Russ Hamilton (discussed later).
He’s simply becoming better known for his court cases than what he’s done on the felt. Ivy has been the subject of numerous mainstream news headlines within the past five years, which are all centered on his edge sorting cases.
4 – Stu Ungar
Some believe that Stu Ungar was the best poker player to ever grace the tables. Despite having a relatively short career, he won three WSOP Main Event titles and beat some of the world’s top cash-game players.
Ungar is also in the running for the greatest gambler of all time. After all, he was so good in Gin Rummy that the best pros wouldn’t even give him action.
This lack of action is what pushed him to take up poker. Of course, most people would’ve taken quite a while to get acclimated to a different game — especially at the highest levels.
But not Ungar, who quickly made a name for himself by beating Billy Baxter out of $40,000 in a heads-up match. He would then go on to win back-to-back WSOP titles and become known as one of the game’s best players.
He started using cocaine on the advice of other pros so that he could stay awake longer during long sessions.
But “The Kid” overdid it and often went on coke binges. His poker career eventually flamed out by the early 1990s.
He made a comeback, though, by winning the 1997 WSOP Main Event. Ungar stayed up the entire night before the tournament and started to raise funds for the $10,000 buy-in.
Baxter backed him under the condition that they split any potential winnings. Ungar had difficulty staying awake on the first day, given that he didn’t have any sleep.
However, a tongue-lashing from Baxter motivated him to make it through the first day. After a good night’s sleep, he dominated the second day and never look back en route to winning the $1 million prize.
After a $500,000 split with Baxter, he seemingly had a large enough bankroll to reignite his gambling career. But Ungar spent most of the money on drugs and losing sports bets.
He died just one year later in a seedy Las Vegas motel room. He had a heart attack that was brought on by his many years of cocaine abuse.
Rather than being remembered for the great poker player and all-around gambler that he was, Ungar instead serves as a cautionary tale on drugs and bad bankroll management.
5 – Annie Duke
Annie Duke was one of the trailblazers for women in poker. Her brother, Howard Lederer, encouraged her to get into the game in the early 1990s.
She started playing in Montana, where she and her ex-husband lived at the time. After a strong showing at the 1994 WSOP, Duke moved to Las Vegas to become a full-time pro.
She’s since earned a number of notable cashes, including a $2 million score for winning the 2004 WSOP Tournament of Champions. Annie also won a gold bracelet the same summer in a WSOP $2,000 Omaha Hi-Lo Split event.
Instead, they focus on her association with UB Poker and a failed run as the Epic Poker League (EPL) Commissioner.
Duke was one of the primary players sponsored by UltimateBet (a.k.a. UB). This is significant when considering that UB was not only involved in a massive cheating scandal (see Hamilton) but would also go offline with players’ money following Black Friday.
It’s unclear exactly how much Duke knew about the operational side of UB. But the simple fact that she was featured in many of their promotions was enough to hurt her reputation.
Nevertheless, Duke survived her negative association with the scandalous poker site and would remain in the game. She eventually became the EPL commissioner in 2011.
The EPL was designed to be something of a professional sports league of poker. Each tournament was televised on TV, and many of the same players were invited to compete at each event.
The inaugural EPL season was supposed to be highlighted by a $1 million freeroll at the end of the year. However, financial difficulties forced the league to close early and renege on the $1 million freeroll.
Pros were outraged and directed much of their anger at Duke. After all, she was the commissioner and had a major say in the league’s direction.
She’s since appeared on NBC’s The Apprentice and has landed high-profile speaking engagements. But Duke certainly won’t be welcomed back into the poker world anytime soon.
6 – Erick Lindgren
Erick “E-Dog” Lindgren is another poker pro who experienced quite a bit of success during the boom years and beyond. He’s won over $10.5 million and has captured two WSOP bracelets and two World Poker Tour (WPT) titles.
Thanks to his highly successful tournament career, Lindgren became one of the main faces of Full Tilt Poker. He’s rumored to have been paid $3 million per month for his sponsorship deal at one point.
But hiding beneath the surface of his success and lucrative sponsorship deal, Lindgren had a serious sports gambling problem. E-Dog’s problem first surfaced in poker forums when players began bashing him for not repaying money he either borrowed or lost.
Lindgren was sued by Full Tilt Poker for failing to repay $2 million that was accidentally credited to his account.
He eventually came out and admitted his gambling problem, promising to pay people back when he could. But after two bankruptcies and limited winnings within recent years, it’s doubtful that he’ll ever be able to honor all of his debts.
7 – Chino Rheem
David “Chino” Rheem has always been a somewhat controversial player. But through it all, he’s managed to carve out a successful poker career that includes $10.8 million in live tournament winnings.
He’s still going strong, having won the 2019 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event along with $1.57 million. Hopefully, he can use some of this money to pay back debts he owes to fellow players.
He has the social skills to secure backing from many players, but he doesn’t usually come through when it’s time to settle debts.
Rheem has been accused of bilking players like Joseph Cheong, Will Molson, and Tom Dwan. He once secured a $111,111 stake from Guy Laliberte for the WSOP One Drop tournament, only to blow the money on high-stakes baccarat.
Nobody doubts Chino’s poker talents, as he’s been able to win several big tournaments over his career. However, many have come to doubt him with regard to repaying debts.
8 – Russ Hamilton
It’s somewhat of a stretch to call Russ Hamilton a great poker player. However, he fits the criteria so well for somebody who will be remembered for the wrong reasons.
Hamilton began his poker career by playing in Detroit’s underground cash scene. He was pursuing an electrical engineering degree, but a professor convinced him that a poker career would be his best route to success.
The professor’s advice was good because Hamilton has had a fairly successful career that’s seen him win the 1994 WSOP Main Event ($1 million). He was also a highly skilled blackjack player at one point.
He helped consult executives on how to run the site and also convinced a number of prominent pros to play at UB.
One might think that he was just trying to make sure his investment turned out well by recruiting these pros. But Hamilton had a much more sinister plan in mind.
He had access to various “superuser” accounts that allowed him to see other players’ hole cards. Hamilton used this insider knowledge to make at least $20 million off other grinders.
It’s unknown just how many other UB execs/workers had access to the program. But the Kahnawake Gaming Commission’s report claims that Hamilton is solely responsible for the cheating.
He’s been the biggest pariah in all of poker ever since. Hamilton is the only WSOP Main Event champion to have his picture removed from the Rio’s wall of champions.
9 – Prahlad Friedman
Prahlad Friedman is a fitting follow-up to Hamilton because he was the biggest victim of the UB cheating scandal. He’s estimated to have lost around $3 million to Hamilton’s superuser accounts.
That said, Friedman should be remembered as a cheating victim. He should also be thought of as one of the greatest high-stakes online players of all time.
He routinely played against other high-stakes studs and has been called online poker’s “original end boss.”
But in more recent years, he’s become more known for his lame rapping skills, a WSOP incident with Jeff Lisandro, and shilling UB poker.
As for the rapping, he belted out a few verses during ESPN’s airing of the 2006 WSOP. You can get an idea on how this went from the following lines: “Poker is fun for everyone, except my opponents. They should’ve practiced avoidance.”
Regarding the WSOP incident, he claimed that Lisandro didn’t pay his ante. This sparked a huge debate between the two, which prompted Lisandro to threaten, “I’ll take your head off, buddy!”
The WSOP production later replayed the incident and showed that Lisandro did indeed pay his ante. A third player who wasn’t involved in the argument failed to put their ante in.
Again, Friedman was one of the biggest UB Poker victims. However, he made a shocking decision to represent their brand in 2009 after they repaid a portion of his cheated funds.
They assured him that UB was under new management, which he preached to fellow players. However, UB duped Friedman once again and fully crushed his reputation when they went offline after Black Friday.
He now spends his time playing in live cash games around the LA area. He also raps with his girlfriend, Aida, as part of the group Pragress and Aida. However, it’s doubtful that his rap group can ever attain the same success he had in online poker during the early and mid-2000s.
Poker offers gamblers the easiest path towards fame and fortune, but being in the public eye has backfired for some players.
Scotty Nguyen was a feelgood story who immigrated from Vietnam to the US and eventually became a poker success. Unfortunately, he destroyed his image after playing the final table of the 2008 WSOP Player’s Championship in a drunken rage.
Chris Ferguson used his unique look and poker skills to become one of the most popular pros, but his reputation was permanently damaged when Full Tilt Poker couldn’t repay customers.
Phil Ivey hasn’t done anything overly shady in his career. However, he’s becoming more known for his lawsuits against casinos than anything he ever did in poker.
Stu Ungar could’ve possibly become the best player in history. He’s instead best known as a cautionary tale on avoiding drug use.
Annie Duke may have once been a poker idol to women, but she tarnished her reputation by shilling UB and running a failed poker league.
Erick Lindgren once had a lucrative sponsorship deal and plenty of success on the felt. Unfortunately, he’s now known as the guy who can’t repay his debts.
Add Chino Rheem to this same category. Despite his continued poker success, Rheem continues to take heat for borrowing money that he doesn’t pay back.
Russ Hamilton is a player who needs little introduction. After all, he’s known as the biggest poker cheat ever after bilking UB players out of over $20 million.
Prahlad Friedman may have been known as a victim first thanks to Hamilton, but he would later shill the same site that cheated him in what turned out to be a terrible career move.
However, they’ll always be among the most infamous to do so.