The 20 Most Fascinating People in the Poker World

Michael Phelps
All-time Olympic medal leader Michael Phelps.

Today we handpick the 20 most fascinating, accomplished and original individuals in the wide world of poker.

There's plenty of talent to choose from and as we've seen so often, success at the poker table is usually mirrored by success in other areas.

From astronaut-billionaires to childhood chess-prodigies this list gives a brief glimpse of the brilliant and unique characters that make up the poker community.

Keep reading to learn more about the 20 most fascinating people in poker and chime in using the comments to tell us who we forgot.

Steve Albini

steve albini
"I like noise. I like big-ass vicious noise that makes my head spin." - Steve Albini
 

If you were alive in the 1990s chances are you've heard Steve Albini's work, even if you've never heard his name.

A musician and audio engineer with credits like Nirvana's In Utero and the Pixies Surfer Rosa on his résumé, Albini estimates he's worked on as many as 2,000 albums in his career.

And, contrary to the industry standard, he never charges royalties for his work.

Away from the studio Albini's passion is poker, specifically Seven-Card Stud and Razz.

He's published coaching videos on the subject on Cardrunners.com and narrowly missed a final table at the 2010 WSOP in a $1,500 Seven-Card Stud event.

Jeff Sarwer

Jeff Sarwer
Jeff Sarwer
 

Few can boast the kind of eclectic background that molded Jeff Sarwer into the man he is today.

At age four Sarwer learned chess and by the time he was six he had so impressed the manager of the Manhattan Chess Club in New York he was granted a lifetime membership usually reserved for grandmasters.

At age eight, he was a world champion.

"Jeff at nine is stronger than Bobby (Fischer) was at 11," said Allen Kaufman, head of the American Chess Foundation.

Sarwer's childhood was anything but conventional as his father home-schooled him and his sister and traveled across North America living anonymously to stay ahead of social services, who had once taken custody of both children.

Now Sarwer plays poker and has racked up $630,000 in earnings on the live tournament circuit.

Heather Sue Mercer

Heather Sue Mercer has cashes at the WSOP and WPT but it's her back-story that makes her one of poker's most fascinating people.

Heather Sue Mercer
Heather Sue Mercer
 

In 1994 Mercer made history by earning a spot on Duke University's NCAA football team but was cut from the roster in 1996.

Mercer sued the school for discrimination and in 2000 was awarded $2 million.

Mercer was an all-state placekicker in high school but according to the school, and six other Duke kickers who testified in court, she lacked the skills necessary for Division I football.

But the jury agreed with Mercer, ruling that her sex was the motivating factor in how she was treated.

Mercer now runs a bakery in New York City with her two sisters and plays poker in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps
"You can't put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get." - Michael Phelps
 

Michael Phelps has been called a freak of nature, a machine built to swim, but poker players know him as an easy-going, approachable guy who loves poker.

The all-time Olympic medal-winning swimmer has been playing cards for years and he's been spotted playing live poker in London, Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

He also recently played his first-ever $10,000 tournament at the PCA in the Bahamas.

TMZ even reported that he won $100,000 in a high-stakes cash game in Las Vegas although Phelps denied the story.

If he needs more of a tie-in to poker, just consider that the bong in those infamous photos actually belonged to WCOOP winner Carter “ckingusc” King.

Andy Beal

Extensively detailed in the wonderful poker book The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King, Andy Beal is a self-made billionaire who played some of the highest-stakes poker in history against the toughest group of professionals to ever team up.

Beal's story is too long for a list like this. Luckily we've already written the internet's definitive Andy Beal biography.

andybeal
Andy Beal
 

A few of the highlights include winning $13.6 million from players like Doyle Brunson, Ted Forrest and Phil Ivey, and then losing $16 million back to Ivey just a week later.

He also funded his own space program with the intention of privatizing the space transportation industry and has a standing $100,000 prize for anyone able to disprove his complicated math calculations, known as “Beal's Conjecture”.

Forbes estimates put Beal's net worth at $7 billion, good for 133rd on its list of the world's richest people. Suffice to say, Beal's mystique far transcends a simple poker list.

Griffin Benger

Griffin Benger 3
Griffin Benger
 

We've been shining the spotlight on Canadian Griffin “Flush_Entity” Benger for a while now, including in an episode of our short documentary series Easy Game, but he's worth it.

Benger first found fame playing CounterStrike, a multi-player first-person shooter video game that took him around the world.

After making the switch to poker Benger has become the top-ranked online tournament player on the planet with over $4 million in earnings.

Benger is our number one pick for a major live win in 2013.

Fatima Moreira de Melo

Fatima Moreira De Melo
Fatima Moreira de Melo
 

One of two Olympic medalists on this list, Holland's Fatima Moreira de Melo took gold in Women's Field Hockey at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

She's now a professional poker player and a member of Team PokerStars Pro -- not to mention the recent winner of Benelux's Survivor.

As if those two things weren't enough to earn her a spot on this list, she has a Masters Degree in Law, has worked as a TV presenter for local and national stations in Holland and has a career as a singer.

To date de Melo has earned $232,000 playing live poker tournaments.

Chamath Palihapitiya
“I would crush Zuck heads-up.” - Chamath Palihapitiya
 

Chamath Palihapitiya

Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Canada, Chamath Palihapitiya has been playing high-stakes poker and making big waves in business for the last decade.

A part-owner of the Golden State Warriors and former VP for companies like AOL and Facebook, Palihapitiya got his start in poker while working in Finance on the East Coast.

Just a few years later he was skipping work to play the $200/$400 game at the Borgata.

Last year Palihapitiya entered the first-ever $1 million tournament, held at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Jon Finkel

According to poker pro and Magic: The Gathering veteran David Williams, if there was a Phil Ivey of MtG it would be Jon Finkel.

“In my eyes Finkel is the very best,” Williams told PokerListings.com.

Finkel Winning PT KL
Jon Finkel
 

Finkel is so legendary in the MtG world they even put his face on a card.

But while Finkel is extremely successful playing Magic, blackjack and poker, he's perhaps best known for two dates he had with Gizmodo.com reporter Alyssa Bereznak

The two were matched through dating site OKCupid and Bereznak went on to post a devastating review of her date that blew up all over the internet.

Vanessa Selbst

Vanessa Selbst is unquestionably one of the great poker minds of her generation.

Vanessa Selbst
Vanessa Selbst
 

She's the winningest female tournament player in history with two WSOP bracelets and over $7 million in earnings.

Incredibly she even won the NAPT Mohegan Sun main event two years in a row.

She was also the first openly gay poker pro. Ever.

Selbst has a law degree from Yale Law School and was head of the Queer-Straight Alliance at that school and hopes to earn enough money from poker to create a foundation to fight for civil rights in the US.

David Einhorn
David Einhorn
 

David Einhorn

Hedge fund manager David Einhorn is fascinating for many reasons, perhaps the least of which being his participation in the world's first $1 million buy-in poker tournament.

Einhorn finished third in the Big One for One Drop and donated the $4.3 million prize to City Year, an inner-city mentoring program operating across the US.

It wasn't too surprising considering the precedent he set in 2006 when he finished 18th in the WSOP Main Event and donated the entire $659k prize to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

If that's not fascinating enough, his company is also one of the biggest shareholders of one of the world's most notable companies, Apple.

Guy Laliberté

The 11th-richest person in Canada and the first Canadian space-tourist ever, Guy Laliberté could easily find himself on a list of most-fascinating people worldwide.

Guy Laliberte
"We are each but a quarter note in a grand symphony." - Guy Laliberté
 

From his roots as a street performer in Montreal to his development of the circus/acrobatics leviathan Cirque de Soleil, Laliberté has been an original his entire life.

In 2009 Laliberté visited the International Space Station and dedicated the trip to raising awareness for the water issues facing humankind.

Laliberté pledged $100 million of his own money to his charity One Drop, and also organized the world's first $1 million buy-in poker tournament to benefit the same organization.

Laliberté finished fifth in that event, donating the $1.83 million prize to One Drop.

Nate Silver

American statistician Nate Silver has absolutely blown up in the media this year after correctly predicting the outcome of every single state in the last presidential election.

Nate Silver
"Every four years in the presidential election, some new precedent is broken." - Nate Silver
 

Truth is, he's been making dead-on predictions in politics, sports and at the poker table for years.

Author of the New York Times best-seller The Signal and the Noise, Silver played poker professionally online in the mid-2000s.

For more info check out the interviews we did with him at the World Series of Poker and the Aussie Millions.

Jennifer Tilly

Born in LA but raised on a small island near Vancouver, Canada, Jennifer Tilly has been a fixture on the poker scene since she won a WSOP bracelet in 2005.

Formerly married to Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon and now with poker pro Phil Laak, Tilly plays big buy-in tournaments and televised cash games around the world.

Tilly brings an impressive acting resume to the table including an Oscar-nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway.

jentillycannes2
"If I was like some of the characters I played, I'd probably be dead by now." - Jennifer Tilly
 

In 2008 Tilly announced that she was giving up her dream of playing poker professionally, but that she'd continue to play recreationally.

"I love poker but greatness in poker is an elusive dream. There are too many variants. Trying to find validation in poker is like trying to find a virgin in a whorehouse.

“I'm not giving up poker entirely – gambling is an addiction after all. I'm just going to treat it more like a hobby and less like a career,” she told Bluff Magazine at the time.

Gaëlle Garcia Diaz

Born of Spanish and Belgian parents supermodel Gaëlle Garcia Diaz has been the Belgian TV presenter for the PokerStars European Poker Tour for the last couple years.

She's also appeared in such wonderful publications as Playboy and Che Magazine. We can't remember at the moment whether her clothes joined her in those appearances.

Diaz first appeared on the poker world's radar when she got a PokerStars commercial. From there she made it onto the EPT presenting team and can now be found in front of the cameras at most EPT events.

Video is the best way to get to know her so we'll just go ahead and post that.


Dan "Jungleman" Cates

In terms of online poker success stories it doesn't get much better than Dan “Jungleman12” Cates.

In 2008 he made a small deposit and started working his way up the stakes. In 2010 he profited roughly $5.5 million on Full Tilt Poker alone.

Dan Cates
Dan Cates
 

Particularly impressive was his absolute domination of Tom Dwan in the yet-to-be-completed durrrr Challenge.

Cates is a nomad, traveling the world playing online and live poker for astronomical stakes. Originally from Maryland, the last time we saw Cates he was leaving Malta bound for Morocco, with a 16-hour layover in Libya along the way.

It was right after we shot an episode of Easy Game with him in the streets of Valletta.

You might as well throw a dart at a world map if you're looking for Jungleman. He could be anywhere.

Dutch Boyd

Russ
Dutch Boyd
 

If Hollywood was looking for a life story to put to film they could do worse than Russell Aaron Boyd, known to poker players as Dutch.

Boyd started college at 12 years old and had earned a law degree by age 18.

But instead of becoming a lawyer Boyd began playing poker. Over the next few years he won two WSOP bracelets and finished 12th in the Main Event in 2003, the year of Chris Moneymaker's historic victory.

During this time Boyd had opened an online poker room, PokerSpot, which eventually went bust and failed to refund customers roughly $400,000.

He made news recently by being turned down for a job at a call center.

Isai Scheinberg

For someone as instrumental in making the poker world what it is today surprisingly little is known about PokerStars founder and head honcho Isai Scheinberg.

He has zero interaction with the poker community or the media but, nevertheless, if this was a list of the most powerful people in the poker world, he'd be number one.

This Israeli-Canadian pioneered an international computer code when he worked for IBM in the '90s and started Rational Entertainment Enterprises, the company that would birth PokerStars, in Toronto circa 2001.

Almira Skripchenko
Almira Skripchenko
 

Since then Scheinberg has steadily grown his online poker room into the single biggest poker brand on the planet.

Almira Skripchenko

The second chess player on this list, Almira Skripchenko has been playing poker since the early 2000s.

The daughter of a Ukranian father and Armenian mother, both chess coaches, Skripchenko holds FIDA International Master and Woman Grandmaster titles in chess.

She was ranked 44th in the world among female chess players in the 2012 FIDE World Rankings.

In 2001 she was named “Best Sportsperson” in Moldova and awarded the country's Order of National Merit.

As a poker player Skripchenko has earned over $260,000 playing live tournaments. Her biggest result to date was a $84k third-place finish on the France Poker Tour in 2010.

Until early 2012 Skripchenko was a member of Team Winamax. She plays online using the screen-name chessbaby

Nolan Dalla

It's safe to say the World Series of Poker would not be what it is today without Nolan Dalla.

Poker author, historian and self-proclaimed contrarian, Dalla has worked behind the scenes at the WSOP for years coordinating media and players.

Nolan Dalla
Nolan Dalla
 

Dalla has also contributed to PokerListings.com including his groundbreaking interview with poker legend Amarillo Slim.

The author of One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar, Dalla took a very unusual route to the poker world.

In the late 1980s Dalla worked for the US Department of State and worked at the American Embassy in Bucharest, Romania.

He was there for the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. He also reportedly hosted the most popular poker games on the Eastern European diplomatic circuit.

Dalla returned to the US in the early 90s to work as a speechwriter and information officer at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC.

Much of his writing now appears on his own website.

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assets/photos/authors/_resampled/croppedimage6060-matthew-showell.jpg
About Matthew Showell

Matt Showell was born and raised in the fair city of Vancouver, Canada. He now spends the bulk of his time traveling the globe, reporting on the world’s biggest poker tournaments. Matt has lived and breathed poker since the end of high school when he learned the most common variants at home games with his friends. In university he made his living playing low-stakes cash games and multi-table tournaments online while following the professional circuit on television and the Internet and in magazines.

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Charles 2013-12-04 15:39:30

@MikeOwens

You don't think a guy who started college at 12 is kinda fascinating? Must be a pretty elite group of people you know.

acesacesaces 2013-02-27 08:10:14

I second Haralabob for this list!

Mark 2013-02-25 16:21:06

Surprised Bob Voulgaris wasn't on the list tbh.

jeff 2013-02-14 22:52:02

how come roberto luongo wasnt on the list?

acesacesaces 2013-02-14 08:37:07

What's so interesting about Isildur beyond being good at poker? Never heard the guy say two words.

Mike Owens 2013-02-14 03:38:01

Dutch Boyd ripped players off from his Pokerspot failed site. He has no business being on this list. He's not fascinating, he's hated.

cap60c 2013-02-13 22:10:09

no isildur that's a joke

Ryan 2013-02-13 22:10:05

Didn't know that about Nolan Dalla interesting past

Calvin 2013-02-13 16:34:24

Very varied list. Would have liked to see some more hard-core poker players in there like Dwan, Ivey, Isildur. I think those guys qualify as "fascinating" on basically any list. Like your choices though!

Grant 2013-02-13 16:07:22

My guess is this really only scratches the surface of fascinating people. Haven't even hit on the criminal underworld yet.