It's a fascinating question that will elicit a range of different answers depending on whom you ask. Stu Ungar, Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu will all be names touted as likely candidates, but finding a consensus opinion is easier said than done.
Part of the reason is that the criteria for attributing greatness in poker are not clear. There are many facets to the game, and one judge may weigh one particular aspect as more important than another.
How do you measure greatness?
For some it will be just how many Benjamins the player has accumulated in her career, for others it will be a player's impact on the development of poker, whereas others will look at how many bracelets a player has strapped to his wrist.
Let's break some of these down.
Total Cash Won
Correlating poker greatness with cash winnings is a flawed system in reality, partly because it is such a nebulous area. First off, it is very hard to ascertain cash-game winnings.
In contrast to some of the outspoken, colorful tournament characters, many highly talented cash-game players are of the school of "getting it quietly."
Players such as Ted Forrest and Doyle Brunson languish in 30th and 31st of the all-time tournament cashes, yet both have been silent but big winners in the highest-stakes cash games for decades.
By the same token, if you look to the top of the tournament cash winnings, you find Jamie Gold, with $12,170,024, yet $12 million of this came purely as a result of running good in one crucial tournament.
Another point to consider is that on the list of tournament cashes, no record is made of a player's actual profit, which is likely to be considerably less than his tournament winnings.
Throw in inflationary factors and it seems unfair to use cash as the primary definitive yardstick for determining greatness, at least without full disclosure of cash earnings and tournament profit.
Top cash-game players are often heard deriding the skills of tournament players. "They can't play flops!", "Put a top tournament player in my game, he'll be the fish!", "LOL donkaments!" are oft-heard responses to claims that players can have great tournament prowess.
This appears to be an oversimplification - there is clearly a distinct skill set that applies purely to tournaments and not cash games.
You get top cash players who can't make the transition to tournaments, although the reverse is more often true, and the necessity to play flops deep and constantly modulate your game in cash games perhaps makes them the more demanding form of poker.
Certainly that is the argument most cash-game players would put forward. So should the best cash-game player be judged as the best?
Some would contend that the World Series of Poker attracts the best players and as such should be the benchmark for greatness.
Doyle Brunson won back-to-back Main Event titles, has picked up 10 bracelets stretching over several decades and has 30 WSOP cashes. This puts him high up the rankings when it comes to WSOP performances.
Johnny Chan is another figure who has dominated the WSOP over the years, collecting 10 bracelets himself, including a Main Event victory back in 1987.
Neither of these though has the number of tournament victories of the one-and-only Poker Brat himself, Phil Hellmuth. It can't be ignored that Hellmuth, famed for his whiny outbursts, has racked up an incredible 11 bracelets in his time at the WSOP. Virtually every year he pulls in at least half a million in tournament winnings, and his 65 WSOP cashes also put him well ahead of the field.
Does this make him the best?
There's an argument that the best poker player should be the one with the best all-around game. Someone who is equally at home playing Stud, Hold'Em, Omaha, Razz or other variant of the game.
There are various players who have all-around skills. Daniel Negreanu is equally at home playing NLHE as 2-7 Triple-Draw. His four bracelets have come in Limit Hold'em, Pot-Limit Hold'em and the mixed S.H.O.E. game, demonstrating great adaptability on his part.
Allen Cunningham has won six bracelets in PL Hold'em, NL Hold'em, NL 2-7 and Seven-Card Stud. Does this make him the best?
Doyle Brunson of course is well known for being an all-around great poker player. His bracelets have come in a mix of events; as well, he has played the top cash games for years, and published the poker bible Super/System.
Maybe that promotes him to top of the pecking order?
Regard of Peers
Being recognized by your peers is what many exponents of their art strive for. Ask most players who the best player in the world is, and the name Phil Ivey will crop up. Expert at many disciplines of poker, as well as being a formidable cash-game player, Phil strikes fear in the hearts of many highly experienced players, and although he remains bracelet-less at NLHE for now, that is surely an issue that will be remedied at some point.
So where does that leave us?
Well, slightly confused really! Judging the best is a subjective process and it's pretty tough to put a solid set of independent criteria on what makes the best poker player. Things like attitude at the table and external contributions for poker can be taken into consideration. How about Barry Greenstein, for many years donating his tournament winnings to charity while at the top of the game. He should get some credit for that, right?
In my next blog, I will suggest a formula, using many of the above criteria, for working out who exactly is the best of the best. It should prove interesting to see who comes out on top!