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Top 10 US Poker Influencers

Top 10 US Poker Influencers

Paring down a list of influential US poker personalities to just ten is a monumental task that will invariably leave out important entries. As the literal birthplace of the game, the US is littered with poker stories throughout its history, and a comprehensive list of influential people would extend into dozens of entries, if not more.

This list will focus primarily on historic contributions to the modern era of poker and features OG players, legendary industry personalities, and a few guys named “Phil”.

Phil Hellmuth

Phil Hellmuth staring down his opponent at a poker table.
Phil Hellmuth
  • $28,430,994 in live career earnings
  • All-time bracelet leader with 16
  • 188 WSOP cashes
  • Only person to win WSOP (1989) and WSOP-E Main Events (2012)
  • Born July 16, 1964 in Madison, WI
  • Nicknames: The Poker Brat

There are few, if any, personalities in the game of poker more instantly recognizable than Phil Hellmuth Jr. A master of self-promotion, Hellmuth isn’t shy about extolling his skills and virtues both on and off the felt, but with a record 16 WSOP bracelets to his name, he’s clearly got the game to back up his boasts. His 16 WSOP Gold Bracelets aren’t just a record – they destroy the competition, with his closest competitors sitting well back on 10 bracelets. But his WSOP dominance doesn’t stop there – he has racked up 188 cashes in WSOP events of various kinds, nearly 170 of them in the Las Vegas live series alone.

He is the only player in history to win both the WSOP Main Event, something he achieved in 1989 by defeating two-time champion Johnny Chan, and the WSOP-E Main Event, which he pulled off on 2012, some 23 years after his initial Main Event win. Hellmuth’s WSOP stats get even more impressive when you drill down a bit though.

Of his 188 cashing finishes in WSOP events, 77 of them resulted in a final table appearance (9th or better) while 61 cashes saw him finish 6th or better. Astonishingly, 30 of his 188 cashes resulted in heads-up play and his 16 bracelets show he won the majority of those duals. Based on his past results, if Hellmuth makes the top nine in a WSOP event, he has close to a 40% chance of getting heads up.

Hellmuth was born in Madison, WI in 1964, and wasn’t the best student as a kid. He called himself the ugly duckling of his family when he was younger and he struggled in both primary school and university, eventually dropping out to pursue his poker career.

Hellmuth’s style both on and off the tables tends to the loud, earning him his well-known moniker of The Poker Brat. He is well known for arriving late to tournaments, and being very chatty once he gets there. His chattiness can often elevate to a tirade when things don’t go his way at the tables, and he’s well-known for berating opponents in the heat of the moment after a beat.

Off the tables, Hellmuth tends to be less combative, but just as loud. He is a master of self-promotion, rarely missing a chance to name-drop or promote an upcoming venture. When confronted with on-table antics, the calmer off-table Hellmuth is generally contrite and apologetic, and while he still has the occasional blow-up (some of which have gotten truly out of hand), Hellmuth’s more recent persona at the tables has been more ambassadorial and less combative than in his earlier years on the circuit.

In his own estimation, Hellmuth is the greatest of all time, and he’s rarely been too shy to brag about it. Many top pros in the industry criticize his play, but while Hellmuth’s success on tours other than the WSOP has been limited, his record in WSOP events speaks loudly enough on its own. (Image from wpt.com).

Phil Ivey

Phil Ivey giving a little smile at the poker table.
Phil Ivey
  • $38,281,867 in live career earnings
  • 10 WSOP bracelets
  • 9th or better in 40 of 79 WSOP cashes
  • Final table of Main Event in 2009
  • Born Feb 1, 1977 in Riverside, CA
  • Nickname: No Home Jerome

There are few American players in the game as recognizable as Phil Ivey. Though he has often cultivated an air of mystery around himself, his game spoke loudly enough for Bluff Magazine to name him Player of the Year in 2005.

He was the youngest player to win nine bracelets at the WSOP and is a master of all forms of poker. In fact, none of his ten bracelets are in Texas hold’em – he has wins in several mixed games as well as lowball, four-card, and seven-card games.

Ivey is no stranger to big scores, racking up 10 cashes worth $1 million or more over his career. Interestingly, none of his bracelets figure in that list, though his runner-up finish in the 8-Handed High Roller event in 2022 made the list, as did his 7th place finish in the WSOP Main Event in 2009.

Ivey’s three biggest scores all came from Australia from 2012 through 2015. In both 2012 and 2014 he won the $250,000 Challenge at the Aussie Millions in Melbourne for $2 million and $3.6 million respectively. The following year in 2015 he bagged the LK Boutique Challenge, another $250k event in Australia, for $1.7 million.

Ivey caught the poker bug playing with co-workers as a teenager, and famously acquired the nickname No Home Jerome from a fake-id card he got in the name of Jerome Graham to play poker in Atlantic City in his teens. He was a cash-game phenom in his early years but also crushed the poker tournament scene, winning his first bracelet in 2000 and three bracelets in 2002.

Ivey has generally been something of a mystery-man on the poker scene, with a quiet demeanor both on and off the tables. While he has tended to avoid a lot of controversy on the poker felt, he has run into some controversy in other gambling activities, not least with a famous edge-sorting scandal at a London casino that culminated in a court loss for Ivey in 2017. At the poker tables however, Ivey is seen as a fierce competitor with a piercing stare, and one of the all-time greats of the game. While he recently took a few years away from the game and the spotlight, he is now back with a vengeance, nearly binking his 11th bracelet in 2022 with a 2nd, a 3rd and two 7th place finishes.

Phil Galfond

Phil Galfond playing poker. Filtered picture.
Phil Galfond
  • $2,966,023 in live career earnings
  • More than $10 million in online earnings
  • 3 WSOP bracelets
  • Undefeated in the Galfond Challenge
  • Born Jan 16, 1985 in North Potomac, MD
  • Nicknames: OMGClayAiken, MrSweets28, Jman28

Phil Galfond is among the most respected voices in the poker industry, renowned for his integrity and balanced approach to any topic. He is an accomplished high-stakes crusher online, but he is no slouch on the live felt either with three WSOP bracelets to his name and almost $3 million in winnings.

He is widely recognized as one of the best Pot-Limit Omaha players in the world, especially on the virtual felt, and he puts his money where his mouth is. Over the past few years, Galfond has played in several Galfond Challenge matches where he’s pitted himself against some of the best in the world in high-stakes heads-up PLO matches and emerged victorious.

While Galfond is one of the most feared players on the online felt, he is also a respected figure behind the scenes. In 2012 he founded the well-regarded training site Run It Once and eventually launched his own online poker site under the same name in 2019.

That venture was acquired by Rush Street Interactive, with Galfond and his team included in the acquisition, and the site is now retooling for a focus on the US poker market. He is not just a successful businessman in the poker arena however – his opinions also carry a lot of weight across the industry and he is often called in by players to mediate disputes because of his reputation for fairness and honesty.

While there are players in the world with more wins than Galfond, there are very few people in the poker industry, player or otherwise, who command the respect that Glafond rightly enjoys.

Doyle Brunson

The father of poker, Doyle Brunson.
Doyle Brunson
  • $6,176,737 in live career earnings
  • 10 WSOP bracelets
  • First player to win two Main Events
  • Dominated WSOP in 1970s and early 1980s
  • All-star basketball and track athlete in high school
  • Born Aug 10, 1933 in Longworth, TX
  • Nicknames: Texas Dolly, The Godfather of Poker

Doyle Brunson spans poker eras in a way that no other player can claim. A bona fide “original gangster” from the old days of outlaw poker, Brunson was a driving force in bringing the game out of the backrooms and into the global spotlight. As one of the key personalities at the WSOP in the early years, Brunson promoted the game with more than his “Texas Dolly” personality. He was one of the masters of the game, crushing the WSOP from 1976 into the early 80s with multiple bracelets including two Main Event wins and top-three finishes littering his early results.

He was famously on his way to his third Main Event win in 1980 when he ran into the powerhouse of Stu Ungar, who makes an appearance elsewhere on this list, and had to settle for second. Brunson continued to crush the WSOP games through the 80s and into the 90s and was very much one of the main faces of the early emergence of tournament poker in the public consciousness.

In Brunson’s early life, he was an all-star athlete with a shot at the NBA. In high school he excelled at basketball and track and was scouted by the Minneapolis Lakers before an injury sidelined his pro basketball ambitions. If Brunson’s only contribution to the game was in the early development, it would be enough for a place on this list, but Brunson has remained active at the highest levels until virtually the present day. At 89 years old, he’s slowed down a bit in recent years, but “the Godfather of Poker” was a regular fixture in televised high-stakes cash games through his 70s and 80s as well as a regular fixture at the WSOP spanning six decades and his contributions to the modern game are unquestioned.

Matt Savage

Matt Savage. The guy behind the scenes.
Matt Savage
  • Co-Founder of TDA
  • Officiated more than 400 episodes of televised poker
  • Worked with WSOP, WPT, Commerce Casino, Bay 101, and others
  • $140,382 in live career earnings
  • 9 WSOP cashes as a player including a 5th place

Matt Savage is the one entry on this list who did not earn his place by playing the game. Instead, Savage has been a force behind the scenes as one of the main drivers of standardizing tournament poker over the years.

Along with Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher, and David Lamb, Savage helped found the Tournament Directors Association in 2001. Over the past two decades, the TDA has been a key part of setting basic standards for tournament poker and bringing the tournament game into the modern world.

Savage has been a part of some of the biggest games in the industry behind the scenes. He worked with the WSOP in early years, and then spent almost two decades with the WPT as Executive TD. He has worked with several different TV networks for televised poker, and overseen games like the Poker Dome Challenge and King of Vegas.

Whether or not players have actually played in a tournament that Savage was in charge of, they have felt his impact on the tournament game. The evolving TDA rules help resolve disputes and give players a consistent tournament poker experience no matter where they play.

Vanessa Selbst

Vanessa Selbst. A bracelet winning, fearless, poker player.
Vanessa Selbst
  • $11,906,247 in live career earnings
  • All-time money leader for women
  • 3 WSOP bracelets
  • Only player to win NAPT Main Event back-to-back
  • Only woman to reach #1 on GPI
  • Born July 9, 1984 in Brooklyn NY

Vanessa Selbst was a powerhouse on the poker tables from 2008 when she won her first bracelet through the mid-2010s. While she has played less poker in recent years, instead concentrating on her education, career, and family, she still ranks as the winningest woman poker player ever with almost $12 million in live earnings. Selbst was the first woman to win three bracelets in open events and is also the only player to win back-to-back Main Event titles on the now-defunct North American Poker Tour. She has three scores of $1 million or more with her biggest lifetime win coming in 2010 at a Partouche Poker Tour event in Cannes when she bagged the Main Event for $1.8 million.

Selbst has also been an active voice off the felt for equality in poker. She has been a vocal supporter of equity on the felt, promoting the idea that all players at the table are equal in both her words and deeds. As the only woman to achieve #1 status on the Global Poker Index, she has clearly showed her skills on the felt but she’s also been a vocal supporter of inclusion in poker, promoting both women and LGBTQ+ players in the game.

Selbst officially announced her retirement as a poker pro in 2018, but she continues to play occasionally. Most of her attention today is focussed on a burgeoning finance career and her family. She married Miranda Foster in 2013 and the two had a baby boy in 2018, helping cement her decision to move on from the world of professional poker.

Mike Sexton

The well-known poker host Mike Sexton.
Mike Sexton
  • $6,708,146 in live career earnings
  • 1 WSOP bracelet and 1 WPT title
  • Long-time face of WPT broadcasts
  • Co-founder of partypoker.com
  • Born Sep 22, 1947 in Dayton Ohio, Died Sep 6, 2020
  • Nickname: The Ambassador of Poker

For many poker fans, Mike Sexton’s face may well be the one they first associated with poker. As the long-time host of World Poker Tour broadcasts along with partner Vince van Patten, Sexton was at the forefront of the emergence of televised poker in the US and beyond.

Sexton was an accomplished player with a bracelet and a WPT title to his name, not to mention more than $6.7 million in winnings. He had two scores of $1 million or more, including a 9th place finish in the 2012 Big One for One Drop.

He stayed at the top of his game throughout his career and had big wins spanning several decades. He won his bracelet back in 1989 in Seven Card Stud Split and he won his WPT title in Montreal in 2016, just four years before he passed away.

While Sexton is most recognized today as the face of the WPT, many of his accolades on the felt came in the pre-modern poker era. After moving to Las Vegas in 1985 to take up poker full-time, he was a constant presence on the Vegas poker scene.

Off the felt, he was widely recognized as one of the friendliest people in the game. It is rare to find someone with a bad word to say about Sexton, something that is itself rare in the industry. He was deeply involved in various charity projects throughout his career, including co-founding PokerGives.org, an organization that helps simplify charity giving for poker players.

Stu Ungar

Poker legend Stu Ungar leaning over a pile of cash.
Stu Ungar
  • $3,677,961 in live career earnings
  • One of two people to win the Main Event 3 times
  • 5 WSOP bracelets
  • Called by many poker analysts one of the greatest pure-talent players ever to play the game
  • Born Sep 8, 1953 in Manhattan, NY, Died Nov 22, 1998
  • Nickname: The Comeback Kid

While Stu Ungar’s legacy ended with his tragic death in 1998, many of his friends and fellow players called him among the greatest natural talents the game has ever seen. Playing a hyper-aggressive style long before that was in vogue, Ungar destroyed the WSOP Main Event in the early 80’s with wins in both 1980 and 1981.

He was a force to be reckoned with at the poker tables throughout the 1980s notching more than 20 cashes and 13 wins in the decade. However, Ungar’s life off the felt was beset with drug abuse and gambling addiction problems meaning the money he won at poker often went quickly into drugs, sports betting, and the pits.

Friends recall that he was very generous when he was winning, often treating friends to lavish dinners and evenings out. However, he is also remembered as a fierce competitor who wasn’t shy with his opinions during play and he was known to berate opponents he felt were inferior.

Despite his well-known problems with drugs, he was a devoted father to his daughter Stephanie, especially after the loss of his adopted son to suicide. He famously kept a picture of Stephanie with him during his epic 1997 Main Event win and dedicated the win to her. It was that bracelet win that earned him the moniker The Comeback Kid but he would hold it for barely a year before his death.

It’s impossible to say how Ungar might have navigated the modern poker world – he was using aggression in his play long before the rest of the world and had a natural feel for the game that may well be unrivaled in history. But he was as self-destructive as he was talented, leaving the poker world to wonder what might have been.

Chris Moneymaker

The 2003 WSOP Main Event champion Chris Moneymaker.
Chris Moneymaker
  • $3,979,552 in live career earnings
  • 1 Main Event win
  • Credited with starting poker boom with satellite Main Event win in 2003
  • Born Nov 12, 1975 in Atlanta, GA

There are few names more closely associated with the modern era of poker than Chris Moneymaker. His epic win in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, broadcast on repeat on ESPN, helped create a perfect storm immediately following that win and push tournament poker into the public consciousness in a way it never had before.

The poker industry saw huge growth both online and live as a result of the broadcast and Moneymaker’s unique and compelling story. He famously got to the Main Event that year from an $86 satellite game on PokerStars, building an “everyman” image that caught on like wildfire.

Before his life- and industry-changing win, Moneymaker was living the quiet life of an accountant in Tennessee. After earning a master’s degree in accounting, he worked as a comptroller and with a local restaurant.

The 2003 win changed all that. He became a household name almost overnight with the $2.5 million win, and he lent his vivacious personality to various sponsorships, including a long-time partnership with PokerStars. While his results on the felt have never again reached his 2003 heights, Moneymaker remains the face of the modern poker era.

Linda Johnson

Linda Johnson. A bracelet winner and nicknamed the first lady of poker.
Linda Johnson
  • $441,228 in live career earnings
  • 1 WSOP bracelet
  • One of the founders of WPT, TDA, and PokerGives.org
  • Long-time publisher of CardPlayer Magazine
  • Born Oct 14, 1953 in Long Island, NY
  • Nickname: The First Lady of Poker

While Linda Johnson’s name may not be immediately recognizable outside the poker world, and in fact many players might not even instantly recognize the name, her contribution to the modern game is hard to argue. While she has a bracelet in razz and more than $400k in live earnings, her biggest contributions to the game came off the felt.

In fact, whether they know her name or not, she is someone who has influenced every modern tournament poker player through her co-founding of the Tournament Directors Association. The TDA has been a guiding force through the last two decades of tournament poker helping to provide a consistent and fair game across the world and she continues to work with the TDA today on the Board of Directors.

She was also one of the co-founders of the WPT which has evolved into one of the preeminent poker tours in the world. She also served as an announcer to the studio audience for the first six seasons of WPT and in 2017 received the WPT Honors Award to recognize her contributions to the WPT and poker in general.

She was also the owner and publisher of CardPlayer Magazine for eight years and still writes for the magazine today. She is also a partner in Card Player Cruises, showing she remains committed to the poker community.

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