For most poker players around the world, setting up shop in Las Vegas represents reaching the pinnacle of their profession. And it’s been that way through several generations, too, with serious poker pros settling in Sin City since the 1970s.
Before that, the best players in America were typically based in either Texas or New York City, but everything changed in 1970, when infamous casino owner Benny Binion invited the game’s greatest figures to an event which he dubbed the “Texas Gamblers Reunion.”
By 1972, Binion shifted gears to host the event, which he rebranded as the World Series of Poker (WSOP), as a $10,000 buy-in, freezeout format No Limit Hold’em tournament. The field grew in size every year afterward, and just like that, Las Vegas became what the 1998 movie Rounders proclaimed to be “the center of the poker universe.”
From then on, any poker player worth their salt simply had to pick up stakes and relocate to Las Vegas, either permanently or as a second home to ply their trade during WSOP season.
As a passionate poker fan, it’s my honor to present the top five best pro poker players to ever call this one of a kind city their home.
1 – Doyle Brunson
Picture if you will, Larry Bird or Michael Jordan suiting up in 2019 to take on pro basketball’s modern crop of superstars in a legitimate NBA game.
Obviously, those Hall of Famers’ advancing age would quickly turn such an affair into a farce. With that in mind, what Doyle Brunson continues to accomplish at the age of 86 is truly mind-boggling to behold.
Sure enough, Brunson continues to play the biggest poker game in Las Vegas even as he’s approaching his 90th birthday. Between taking part in the original World Series of Poker (WSOP), winning the WSOP Main Event in 1976 and 1977, and continuing to grind locally some 50 years later, Brunson obviously takes the top spot on this list.
Brunson was born in Longworth, Texas, but he’s called Las Vegas home ever since those halcyon days in the 1970s. Over that span, he’s captured an astounding 10 gold bracelets at the WSOP here in Vegas, while recording a 3rd place run at the World Poker Tour (WPT) Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2005. That tournament has since been named the WPT Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic, a fitting tribute to the game’s founding father.
All told, Brunson has accumulated over $6.1 million in live tournament earnings over his storied career. And of his 87 live cashes, 79 of them have come in his adopted home of Las Vegas.
2 – Daniel Negreanu
Brunson was the man for poker enthusiasts in the 1970s and beyond, but he has since passed the proverbial torch to Daniel Negreanu.
Known affectionately as “Kid Poker,” the Toronto-born Negreanu arrived in Las Vegas as a fresh-faced 22-year-old back in 1996, looking to take his game to the next level. Predictably, the local hustlers quickly beat Negreanu for his entire bankroll, but his persistence paid off in a big way.
After returning home to hustle up another bankroll playing poker and pool, Negreanu returned two years later to compete in the 1998 WSOP at Binion’s Horseshoe.
In his very first gold bracelet event on the WSOP felt, Negreanu outlasted the 229-player field to claim victory in the $2,000 Pot Limit Hold’em tournament.
Since that breakthrough win, Negreanu has captured six gold bracelets at the WSOP, along with an absurd $41.8 million in live tournament earnings. That haul, which for over a decade put Negreanu at the top of the Hendon Mob’s all-time tournament earnings list, includes an $8 million score from a single tournament, the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop at the 2014 WSOP.
Now 45 years young, Negreanu is still going strong. He regularly plays in the Big Game at Bobby’s Room, while also appearing in the highest-stakes tournaments held at the WSOP and the Aria.
And he’s become a fixture in the Las Vegas philanthropical scene as well, hosting the “Big Swing” charity golf event at Harrah’s Golf Course since 2009 among other contributions.
3 – Phil Ivey
Originally born in Riverside, California, in 1977, a young Phil Ivey made his way to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he discovered Seven Card Stud Poker cash games in the 1990s.
Despite being underage at the time, Ivey procured a fake ID which he used to enter local casinos like the Taj Mahal and sit in small-stakes Seven Card Stud games. Because he wasn’t based in Atlantic City, on losing nights, Ivey would simply sleep under the famous Boardwalk before returning to grind the next morning.
This habit led fellow players to nickname Ivey “No Home Jerome,” a play on the faux first name labeled his fake ID.
Ivey eventually found a true home in Las Vegas, building a multimillion-dollar mansion estate in the upscale suburb of Summerlin. That home has since been put on the market, but while he spends much of his time at the tables grinding ultra high-stakes cash games in Macau, Ivey still has property in Sin City.
Ivey’s greatest exploits in poker have taken place here too, as he’s racked up 10 gold bracelets to match Brunson and former two-time WSOP Main Event champ Johnny Chan for second place on the all-time leaderboard. With over $26.3 million in live tournament earnings to his credit, Ivey currently holds the 14th position on Hendon Mob’s all-time tournament leaderboard.
4 – David “Chip” Reese
The first player on the list who is unfortunately no longer with us, David “Chip” Reese flew under the radar for most recreational poker fans.
But during his lifetime, Reese impressed fellow pros to such a degree that even Brunson himself once called his best friend “certainly the best poker player who ever lived.”
Reese was born in Centerville, Ohio, in 1951 and went on to attend Dartmouth University after turning down an offer from Harvard.
Despite his affinity for card games, the economics major seemed like a shoo-in for the academic or corporate life, especially when Stanford Law School invited him to make the cross-country trip to California.
On his way there, however, Reese took a pit stop in Las Vegas and found his way into a poker game. Having started with just $400 on the table, Reese walked away from the game up $66,000. One day later, his bankroll had been built to over $100,000, prompting Reese to abandon his law school plans in favor of a career as a poker pro.
Reese won two gold bracelets (1978 and 1982) at the WSOP in the series’ early days, but he preferred to grind the biggest cash games in town while avoiding the limelight. But, in 2006, prompted by an urge to play on TV so his children could see him in action, Reese entered the inaugural $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. tournament at the WSOP.
In what was the largest tournament ever held at the time, in terms of buy-in, Reese defeated the 139-player field to earn $1.7 million and his third career gold bracelet.
Less than two years later, Reese passed away in his sleep due to complications from pneumonia and blood clots. He was only 56 years old when he died, but as this moving obituary makes clear, Reese left a lasting legacy in both Las Vegas and the wider world of poker.
After his death, WSOP organizers began awarding winners of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. Poker Player’s Championship with the David “Chip” Reese Memorial Trophy in honor of the late legend.
5 – Stu Ungar
Despite his youth, Stu Ungar dropped out of school in the 10th grade to pursue gin rummy in his native New York City.
Ungar was born in 1953, and by the 1960s, the precocious player was winning gin rummy tournaments all over the Big Apple by virtue of a photographic memory and a preternatural card sense. Eventually, his prowess in that card game led to fellow pros refusing to give him action, so Ungar took up poker as a fallback.
He arrived in Las Vegas in 1977, whereupon Ungar immediately began relentlessly beating the local gin rummy players like he did back home. Once again, however, his action dried up, forcing Ungar to take his bankroll to the local poker tables over the next few years.
Like clockwork, “The Kid” dispatched Las Vegas poker legend Billy Baxter for $40,000 in a heads-up game. Rather than hold a grudge, Baxter saw an opportunity and offered Ungar a staking deal in the upcoming 1980 WSOP Main Event.
He returned one year later to successfully defend his title, one of his five career WSOP gold bracelets.
Unfortunately, a hard-partying lifestyle and cocaine addiction caused Ungar to focus on all the wrong things. He never fully realized his potential, choosing instead to hang out in seedy Las Vegas motels to indulge his bad habits.
Ungar sobered up in 1997 at the behest of Baxter, who once again entered “The Kid” in that year’s WSOP Main Event. Only 34 at the time, Ungar’s years of drug abuse had clearly taken their toll, but he was still an almost supernatural talent at the poker table.
Ungar wound up winning it all for the third time, an unprecedented feat in modern poker.
One year later, a debilitated Ungar couldn’t even make it to the WSOP to defend his title, and November of 1998 he was found dead of a drug overdose.
Before he passed on, however, Ungar made it clear in an interview that he believed himself to be the best card player to ever walk Las Vegas’ streets:
“Someday, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a better No Limit Hold’em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don’t see how anyone could ever play gin better than me.”
Las Vegas has served as the focal point for professional poker players for five decades and counting, and for good reason. Dozens of world-class card rooms combined with a steady stream of tourists serving as the game’s “fish” combine to create an oasis of poker in all of its forms.
And as the five legendary Las Vegas poker figures listed here prove, the best place on the planet to play naturally attracts the best players on the planet.