Whether they’d admit it or not, any poker player, whether they are cash game specialist or tourney junkie, dreams of taking down the World Series of Poker Main Event. Maybe it’s for the millions of dollars made, or the poker fame, or the general feeling of badassery that comes with finishing first in the biggest poker tournament in the world, but either way, it is the undisputed holy grail of poker careers. It’s the Super Bowl that everyday people get to play in.
We can all take a minute and thank Chris Moneymaker for all this. in 1980, the WSOP Main event had 73 entrants. In 1990, it had 194. In 2003, the year Moneymaker won, it had 839 entrants, with 1st place being $2.5 million. In 2004 it more than tripled in size to 2576 entrants. In the years since then it’s usually been between five thousand and nine thousand entrants each year. How did this happen? Well, Chris Moneymaker made it into the tournament winning a series of satellite tournaments to earn the 10k buy in. How much did it cost him? $39. Couple that with his infamous name (yes that was his name before he won, he did not change it), his everyman demeanor that made fans out of viewers around the U.S., and his epic duel with the almost cartoonishly gambler-looking poker pro Sammy Farha which was televised for the world to see, and you get what would be a script for a Hollywood poker movie. Except it was real life. Here comes the poker boom. Really, that’s what it was called, Google it if you like. Texas Hold’em became the game. And rightly so, because America, and let’s face it, now the world, loves poker. They should, because it is as elegant as it is awesome.
These next ten lucky fellows are all the gleeful Hilton-babies of Moneymaker’s improbable rise to poker legend. Inevitably, an amateur like Moneymaker was going to win the event. But would it have been as epically non-scripted if someone else had won? Probably not. If I were one of the post-2003 Main Event winners, I’d be sending Moneymaker a Christmas card every year thanking him and the horseshoe lodged in his colon for accomplishing what was seemingly impossible.
10. 2006 Paul Wasicka — 2nd — $6.1 million
That’s right, the number ten spot is filled not by a Main Event winner, if you can believe it. In 2006 the Main Event was so huge it had 8773 entrants with a total prize pool of $82 million. Wasicka actually beats out the 2004 Main Event winner Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer for this spot because of the size of this event. Just wait till you see who came in first. As for Wasicka himself, despite not winning the bracelet, he’s a pretty solid pro who started his career online before making it out into tournaments. He’s made about $1.8 million in tournament earnings outside of this one event, a very respectable number.
9. 2005 Joe Hachem — 1st — $7.5 million
Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi! Was the extremely annoying chant that followed Joe Hachem when he won a pot, stood up to stretch, or shuffled slightly in his chair. In seriousness though, this loveable Australian has followed his 2005 Main Event win with a pretty solid tournament career, having won about $4.3 million in tournament cashes since 2005. At the time that he won, I wasn’t sure if he was all that skilled of a poker player, or had just been the chosen one (there’s one every year) to be given the blessing of fortune like so many other Main Event winners. It doesn’t hurt to have to go heads up with the underwhelming Steve Dannenmann to win the championship. I take it back, Dannenmann was the chosen one, he was just too bad at poker to let luck hand him the win (see: final hand of 2005 WSOP Main event).
8. 2007 Jerry Yang — 1st — $8.25 million
Speaking of being the chosen one, Jerry Yang was one of those rare few in every WSOP that had more luck on his side than he could sell at an auction. Jerry Yang (not to be confused with this Jerry Yang) was a somewhat controversial figure because he was a very devout Christian and he would pray to God that he would win the hand when all-in. To his credit, God must have been listening because he basically just miracled his way to the Main Event title without any real poker skill. Maybe Jerry didn’t realize ‘shove and pray’ was just an expression. Many people were incensed about his prayers’ seemingly selfish motives, but before anyone gets on a pedestal, this man donated $2 million of his winnings to charity after becoming champion; a pretty incredible feat of philanthropy coming from a man raised in a Thai refugee camp.
7. 2013 Ryan Riess — 1st — $8.36 million
Mr. Middle America, Ryan Riess is the first WSOP Main Event winner to have been born in the 90’s. A Michigan State University Alumnus, he was born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan and would be some dude you could see at a taco hut and not take any notice of. For 99% of America he’s probably still some dude you could see at a taco hut and not notice. Definitely a risk-taker at the poker table, he has a very aggressive poker style that served him well in the 2013 WSOP. There are about a thousand others that play pretty similarly to Riess and bust out in various places in the tournament. That’s not to detract from his win, though. He legitimately played his way to first place rather than other Main Event winners who basically got handed millions through sheer luck.
6. 2012 Gregory Merson — 1st — $8.53 million
A complete unknown to the poker world before 2012, Greg Merson has the interesting duality of being one of internet-poker generation that is normally attributed to the pale, indoor nerdy types who also overcame addiction to cocaine and marijuana before winning two WSOP bracelets in 2012. His addictions became the focal point of who he was during the media coverage of the 2012 November Nine. To his credit he spoke openly about it, calling it therapeutic to talk about it on camera for millions to see. As aforementioned, he did win another bracelet besides his Main Event, the six-handed Texas Hold’em event in 2012 for another $1.1 million. Heck of a year, eh Greg?
5. 2009 Joe Cada — 1st — $8.54 million
Another internet poker kid who found himself at the November Nine in 2009, Joe Cada had a pretty decent online career before his fated WSOP victory. He claimed to have made six figures in online winnings before the tournament, but had a string of losses that caused him to sell off half his action in 2009, so he really made half of the $8.54 million winnings. He was insanely lucky during the final table, winning a number of low-probability hands to upset a number of players and get himself heads-up with the infamous Darvin Moon. Moon was a very kind, friendly, and utterly clueless poker player who went on one of the most unprecedented lucky streaks of all time in the WSOP. A gracious winner and very self aware, Moon famously said he was probably only a better player than 100 people out of the 6500 who entered. When the November Nine started he had a staggering 59 million chips – 30% of the total chips in play. Darvin Moon and Steve Dannenmann could probably go head-to-head for title of worst 2nd place finisher and they’d probably both lose somehow.
4. 2011 Pius Heinz — 1st — $8.71 million
The lone German on this list and one of two Europeans, Heinz was also an online poker pro who hasn’t really done much else on the tournament circuit aside from his monster win in the 2011 Main Event. Supposedly he had already made about $700,000 in online winnings before he won his only WSOP bracelet, and had a hard time adjusting to live play, calling it ‘pretty boring’ and ‘requiring a lot of patience.’ Well, you toughed it out to win nearly nine mil, Pius. Poor baby.
3. 2010 Jonathan Duhamel — 1st — $8.94 million
Canadian sighting! This hockey-loving Quebecois took down the 2010 Main Event in one of the most interesting and competitive final tables in recent history, with the play of John Racener, Joseph Cheong, Michael Mizrachi and Duhamel. However, his win will always be linked with his epic suck-out against Matt Affleck, calling all-in in an enormous 41 million chip pot with pocket Jacks on a Board of 7-9-T-Q against Affleck’s pocket Aces, with a soul-crushing 8 on the river giving Duhamel a straight. This knocked Affleck out of the tournament and propelled Duhamel to his eventual win. He’s made another $3 million in tournament winnings since then. If you want to know about Duhamel getting mugged by his ex-girlfriend after his victory, you can read about it here. Canadians chicks don’t mess around.
2. 2008 Peter Eastgate — 1st — $9.15 million
Quiet, mild-mannered, thoughtful and reserved, this Dane is far from your average poker player, let alone Main Event winner. After playing a European heads-up for the title versus Moscow native Ivan Demidov in a very competitive match, Eastgate became a multimillionaire at the age of 22. Both players had a lot of respect for each other during the final table, Demidov saying he was purposefully avoiding Eastgate because he thought he was a very good player. Eastgate famously took a Hiatus from poker in 2010 after saying he’d lost his love for high-stakes competition, saying he wanted to focus on ‘Peter Eastgate, the person.’ He then sold his bracelet on Ebay for $147,500 and donated the money to UNICEF. Winning the bracelet couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. There’s nothing rotten in Denmark.
1. 2006 Jamie Gold — 1st — $12 million
The biggest WSOP Main Event prize in history thus far has gone to the least accomplished player ever to win the event. Isn’t that the way of things? For those who do not know Jamie Gold, his past and his business dealings are as dicey as they come. Not surprisingly, at the poker table he is an aggressive table-talker, trying to finagle every opponent into whatever decision Jamie thinks he wants with his chatter. That’s just about the only thing going for him in terms of anything resembling poker skill. He absolutely tiptoed through the raindrops to win this event, the cards going his way every single time he needed them. Unlike Jerry Yang who luckboxed his way to millions and gave his money away in unprecedented generosity, Jamie Gold was embroiled in a scandal where he tried to welch out of a deal he had made to give half his winnings ($6 million!) to a coaching sponsorship deal in return for having his entry into the tournament paid for him. It was later settled out of court. Like a fireworks display, his $12 million prize dazzled all who look upon it, and now its gone.
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