Top 5 Poker Pros from the Boom Era Who Still Play at an Elite Level

by Michael Stevens
on January 5, 2019
10

Minute Read

For any poker player of a certain vintage, the industry’s glory days definitely occurred between 2003 and 2006 – an era known today as the “Moneymaker Boom.”

The boom was sparked at the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event when a previously anonymous accountant by the name of Chris Moneymaker made the impossible possible. With a camera crew from ESPN on hand to record the action, Moneymaker was included along with other recreational players as part of the broadcast’s “Dead Money” segment.

Those brief intervals in the Main Event coverage supposedly spotlighted folks who had chips in play, but no real shot at winning poker’s World Championship. And his inclusion certainly made sense at the time, what with Moneymaker winning his $10,000 entry fee via a $39 online satellite on PokerStars.

Prior to that year’s WSOP, Moneymaker was like so many millions of American gamblers, dabbling in sports betting and poker to pass the time.

But after winning his seat into the most prestigious poker tournament on the planet, Moneymaker proceeded to put on a show for the ages. Competing against professional tournament players and poker veterans 20 years his senior – including the likes of former Main Event winners Johnny Chan, Scotty Nguyen, and Dan Harrington – the satellite qualifier seemed to have an out of body experience.

Here he is busting Chan, better known as “The Master” thanks to his back-to-back Main Event wins in 1987-88, in a memorable hand that propelled Moneymaker to the top of the chip counts. And when action wound down to the unofficial final table of 10, Moneymaker found a miracle Ace on the river to send Ivey – the overwhelming favorite to win it all by that juncture – out in a flash.

Finally, squaring off against savvy pro Sam Farha with the title – not to mention the gold bracelet and $2.5 million in prize money – on the line, Moneymaker pulled off what poker players forever afterward refer to as the “Bluff of the Century.

One hand later, Moneymaker claimed the last of Farha’s chip stack to finish off the most miraculous victory in the history of tournament poker.

And as the clips above show, the best part of Moneymaker’s improbable Main Event win was ESPN cameras caught every flop and fold along the way. A few months later, viewers worldwide – from college dorm rooms to family night in the living room – turned those WSOP shows on ESPN into a bona fide hit.

Millions of new players were exposed to poker for the first time and coupled with Moneymaker’s amazing satellite qualifier story, the poker boom had officially begun.

The Poker Boom Breeds a Generation of Pros-Turned-Stars

Before long, poker was being televised with wall to wall coverage. Shows like High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark delved into the high-stakes cash game scene, while the World Poker Tour (WPT) introduced viewers to yet another colorful cast of characters chasing cash on the tournament circuit.

Just scan the list below to get a feel for the breadth of poker coverage between 2003 and 2006:

Poker on TV During the Boom

Channel Event Years Aired
ESPN United States Poker Championship 1997 – 2000; 2003-2006
The Travel Channel World Poker Tour 2003 – 2007
GSN World Poker Tour 2008-2009
Fox Sports Net World Poker Tour 2009 and onwards
Sportsnet Canada European Poker Tour 2004 and onwards
Bravo Celebrity Poker Showdown 2003 – 2006
Fox Sports Net Poker Superstars Invitational 2004 and onwards
Syndication Ultimate Poker Challenge 2004 and onwards
GSN Poker Royale 2004 – 2006
GSN High Stakes Poker 2006 – 2011
The Travel Channel Professional Poker Tour 2006 – 2007
NBC National Heads-Up Poker Champ. 2005 and onwards
Fox Sports Net Poker Dome Challenge 2006 – 2007

As you can see, viewers had an abundance of poker shows to choose from during the boom days – and with them, dozens of pros to follow as newfound fans.

If you were partial to High Stakes Poker, with its ubiquitous bricks of cash standing in for chips, you probably enjoyed the antics of Daniel Negreanu and Gus Hansen. This duo squared off in many memorable hands, but this full house vs quads collision for a $575,000+ pot is surely one of the best.

And if the tournament action captured by the WPT was more your thing, watching pros like Scotty Nguyen and Michael Mizrachi – dubbed the “Prince of Poker” and “The Grinder,” respectively – duke it out heads up with nearly $1 million on the line was nothing less than a thrill.

Whichever brand of televised poker you preferred during the boom, part of the fun was following your favorite pros work their magic on the felt. Back then, production crews recognized the value of creating characters – hence the laundry list of nicknames attached to the boom era’s biggest stars.

And so many stars were born out of the boom. Between the annual bracelet chase at the WSOP, led by loudmouth extraordinaire Phil Hellmuth, to Tom Dwan’s endless quest to claim the largest pot in televised poker history on High Stakes Poker, succeeding on the big stage back then turned previously unknown players into legitimate celebrities.

But what happens when we take a page from the old music network VH1, and asked “where are they now?”

Poker is a transitory game by nature, with big winners often walking away into the sunset to spend their winnings in peace, and others blowing their whole bankroll in a matter of months.

Many top players simply “age out” of the industry, losing the steam and stamina needed to tour the circuit while regularly putting in 14-hour work days. For others, the passion for poker wanes after a while, leading them to pursue new intellectual challenges.

For a select group, however, their heyday during the poker boom was only a preview of things to come. Despite the game’s constant evolution, and endless waves of young guns arriving to take their throne, some players have managed to survive – and indeed, thrive – more than a decade after the boom came and went.

On that note, let’s take a deeper dive into the top-5 poker pros who made their name during the boom days*, but still play at a world-class level in 2018.

*This list defines the Poker Boom as occurring between 2003 and 2006 when the federal government authorized the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), a law which essentially ended legal online poker in America

1. Daniel Negreanu

Topping the list, naturally, is “Kid Poker” himself.

And while he earned that nickname two decades ago – when the then 24-year old captured his first WSOP bracelet in 2004 – Negreanu is still a kid at heart on the felt. After earning three gold bracelets during the boom, in addition to a pair of WPT titles, Negreanu emerged as one of the game’s most recognizable figures.

His long-term sponsorship as the face of PokerStars certainly helped, as did Negreanu’s memorable appearances on High Stakes Poker and other made-for-TV poker programs.

Between his infectious table chatter, and his uncanny ability to call out his opponent’s exact hole cards, poker fans had a lot to love when Negreanu was running deep.

He hasn’t slowed down one bit since then either, steadily piling up cashes to establish himself as the world’s all-time top tournament prize money winner for an extended stretch. In fact, until Justin Bonomo’s incredible 2018 run in high-roller events, Negreanu’s status as the tournament earnings kingpin was believed to be untouchable.

As of today, Negreanu has $39,656,194 in tournament earnings to his credit, a truly staggering amount which encompasses nearly 300 cashes.

A huge chunk of that total came in one tournament, when Negreanu finished as the runner-up in the 2014 WSOP Big One for One Drop – a $1 million buy-in high roller – to earn an astounding $8.2 million.

In 2015, Negreanu nearly pulled off a final table run for the ages, when he wound up finishing in 11th place at the WSOP Main Event. And while his exit was especially heartbreaking for fans of Kid Poker – who has never made the game’s most prestigious final table despite two 11th place runs – Negreanu returned with a vengeance in 2017.

Last summer saw Negreanu cash 11 times in WSOP bracelet events, including 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th place runs that nearly added to his six wins on the WSOP stage.

Throw in his increasing participation in the high-roller circuit -which immediately produced a runner-up finish in the 2018 Super High Roller Bowl, turning his $300,000 buy-in into $3 million – and Negreanu may very well chase down Bonomo to reclaim his all-time tournament earnings crown.

You can check out the table below for a tour of Negreanu’s top-five results – in terms of cash earned – since 2010:

Top Five Cashes of the Decade

Place Event Earnings
2nd $1 MillionNLHE Big One for One Drop at 2014 WSOP $8,288,001
2nd $300,000 NLHE at 2018 Super High Roller Bowl $3,000,000
4th AUD$250,000 NLHEat 2014 Aussie Millions $1,119,610
1st AUD$10,000 NLHEat 2013 WSOP-APAC $1,087,160
2nd $100,500NLHE Super High Roller at 2011 PCA $1,000,000

2. Phil Hellmuth

The self-styled “Poker Brat” holds a special distinction on this list, having burst on the scene as a poker star nearly 15 years before Moneymaker launched the boom.

And fittingly enough, Hellmuth announced his arrival in the poker world by winning the same WSOP Main Event way back in 1989. At that time, Johnny Chan was the two-time defending World Champion of poker, winning the Main Event in 1987 and 1988.

Thus, it was no surprise to see Chan sitting on a big stack heads-up with his third consecutive title on the line.

But a 24-year old babyface by the name of Hellmuth sat across the table, and when it was all said and done, the “Brat” became the youngest player (at the time) to ever win the Main Event.

That was the first of his gold bracelet wins, but by the time Moneymaker showed up at Binion’s Horseshoe for the 2003 WSOP, Hellmuth had amassed seven of the coveted prizes. And in 2003, he grabbed two more to put himself in a three-way tie with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan for the all-time lead.

But while Brunson and Chan both aged out of regular tournament play, Hellmuth kept chugging along. His rivals won a bracelet each in 2005 to make it an even 10, but Hellmuth stormed right back in 2006 to tie it up. And since then, he’s only put the all-time bracelet race out of reach.

This summer, Hellmuth polished off yet another bracelet at the 2018 WSOP, winning the $5,000 NLHE Turbo event for $485,082.

Hellmuth now owns an incredible 15 gold bracelets via WSOP victory, and aside from Phil Ivey with 10, no active player even comes close. But don’t sleep on Hellmuth going forward, as the Poker Brat has established a goal of 24 bracelet wins when it’s all said and done.

Top Five Cashes of the Decade

Place Event Earnings
4th $1 Million NLHE Big One for One Drop at 2012 WSOP $2,645,333
4th $300,000 NLHE at 2016 Super High Roller Bowl $1,600,000
1st €10,450NLHE Main Event at 2012 WSOP-Europe $1,333,841
2nd $50,000 Poker Players Championship at 2011 WSOP $1,063,034
6th $111,111 NLHE High Roller for One-Drop at 2015 WSOP $696,821

3. Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi

Poker players everywhere like to call themselves “grinders,” but there’s only one player on the planet who deserves to be called “The Grinder.”

Michael Mizrachi burst on the scene with a big splash in WPT events between late 2004 and early 2005. Over the course of three months, Mizrachi took down a side event at the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic, then finished in 5th place at that stop’s Main Event.

Undeterred, he returned to the WPT final table stage to finish off a $1.8 million victory at the L.A. Poker Classic Main Event.

All the while, Mizrachi was a steady presence in many of the highest stake cash games held all over the world.

It wasn’t until 2010 that The Grinder broke through for a bracelet win, but boy did he ever. Mizrachi’s victory in that year’s $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship – an eight-game mix favored by pros as the “new Main Event” – produced another $1.5 million in earnings.

He wasn’t done yet though, and just weeks later, Mizrachi wound up in 5th place at the real WSOP Main Event.

That career year happened eight years ago, but over the interim, Mizrachi has added not one but two wins in the Poker Player’s Championship. The most recent came this year, in fact, proving that Mizrachi is still playing at the top of his game some 14 years after announcing himself to the poker world.

Top Five Cashes of the Decade

Place Event Earnings
5th $10,000 NLHE Main Event at 2010 WSOP $2,332,992
1st $50,000 Poker Players Championship at 2010 WSOP $1,559,046
1st $50,000 Poker Players Championship at 2012 WSOP $1,451,527
1st $ 50,000 Poker Players Championship at 2018 WSOP $1,239,126
1st €10,400 NLHE at 2011 WSOP-Europe $448,861

4. Chris “Jesus” Ferguson

At first glance, Ferguson’s list of post-boom accomplishments below doesn’t appear to be all that impressive.

After all, adding up the five cashes isn’t enough to touch one of the big results from our top-three entries. Even so, Ferguson’s rise from the dead – fitting for a man blessed with the nickname “Jesus” – is enough to warrant a high placement here.

While other pros simply benefited from the boom, Ferguson actually helped to create it. As the software designer behind Full Tilt Poker, which at one time ranked higher than PokerStars among global online poker rooms, Ferguson’s contributions helped bring millions of new players into the fold.

And he was no slouch on the felt either, piling up five gold bracelet wins at the WSOP between 2000 and 2003 – including the 2000 WSOP Main Event title.

But when the feds raided Full Tilt Poker and shuttered the site, alleging it acted as a Ponzi scheme, Ferguson’s fall from grace was swift and merciless. While no proof has ever been established linking him to the site’s financial malfeasance, Ferguson’s status as co-founder and majority stakeholder linked him with the crimes in the eyes of many.

For that reason, Ferguson didn’t play in a single poker tournament between 2010 and 2016, banishing himself in a self-imposed exile.

But when Full Tilt players finally received refunds for their “stolen” bankrolls, Ferguson emerged from the shadows and showed up at the 2016 WSOP. Showing no rust whatsoever, he accumulated 10 cashes that summer, nearly winning another bracelet in the process.

In 2017 he won WSOP Player of the Year on the back of 17 cashes, including his sixth gold bracelet victory.

And this summer, he backed it up with a second straight 17-cash performance at the WSOP, proving once and for all that – despite what people may think of him personally – Ferguson is still a consummate pro at the tables.

Top Five Cashes of the Decade

Place Event Earnings
4th $10,000 NLHE Six-Handed at 2016 WSOP $183,989
4th $2,500 NLHE at 2018 WSOP $161,371
2nd $10,000 Seven Card Stud World Champ. at 2017 WSOP $151,700
4th $10,000 Pot Limit Omaha World Champ. at 2017 WSOP $150,929
1st €1,650 Pot Limit Omaha 8 or Better at 2017 WSOP-Europe $45,677

5. Erik Seidel

Another holdover from the pre-boom days, Erik Seidel was best known for his runner-up finish to Johnny Chan in the 1988 WSOP Main Event.

The final hand was immortalized by the movie “Rounders,” and the $280,000 score was the first tournament cash of Seidel’s career. He’s added nearly 300 in the money finishes since then, including eight gold bracelet wins.

Oddly enough, Seidel had already picked up six of those bracelets before Moneymaker even arrived in Vegas. And while his bracelet output has declined to only two since 2003, Seidel has more than made up for the lack of hardware by claiming cold, hard cash.

When the high-roller concept – huge buy-in events beginning at $100,000 and up – developed in 2011, Seidel immediately took to the scene like a fish to water. He won the first Super High Roller title at the Aussie Millions, turning a $250,000 buy-in into $2.475 million.

A few months later, Seidel parlayed $100,000 into more than $1 million with yet another high roller victory at the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic.

Despite his best live cash topping out at just over $2.4 million, Seidel has over $34.5 million in tournament earnings today – good for 3rd on the all-time list.

And as you can see in the table below, the bulk of those bucks have been added through outright wins on recent high-roller events.

Top Five Cashes of the Decade

Place Event Earnings
1st $250,000 NLHE High Roller at 2011 Aussie Millions $2,500,000
3rd $300,000 NLHE at 2016 Super High Roller Bowl $2,400,000
1st €100,000 NLHE at 2015 EPT Grand Final $2,222,222
1st $100,000 NLHE High Roller at 2011 WPT 5-Star Classic $1,092,780
1st $100,000 NLHE High Roller at 2014 Aussie Millions $879,028

Conclusion

Staying power in poker can be an elusive beast, as evidenced by the countless pros who came and went following the boom. Strategies evolve, circumstances change, and opponents adapt, making sustained success in the tournament poker world incredibly difficult to say the least.

But the five players listed above have managed to roll with the punches, keeping pace with a new generation of young guns who have set out to “solve” No Limit Texas Hold’em.

Whether it’s Negreanu nearly making the WSOP Main Event final table 16 years after his last close call, Hellmuth extending his bracelet lead to a seemingly insurmountable total, or Mizrachi winning three Poker Player’s Championship titles in the decade – these pros are simply cut from a different cloth than their peers.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016.

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