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Top-10 WSOP Main Event champions of the decade

28 December 2009

It was a remarkable decade for the game of poker and, more specifically, the World Series of Poker.

To put it into perspective just how far the game's grandest tournament has come in 10 short years, log onto YouTube and watch the highlights of a young Chris Ferguson winning the 2000 Main Event over T.J. Cloutier by catching a miracle nine on the river. Then take a peek at a clip from just last month when Joe Cada took down the 2009 Main Event.

The stage is bigger, ratings are up and prize money and the amount of players in the field have erupted. In short, poker has gone from a game played in dark corners of a casino to being a primetime TV event garnering ratings on ESPN similar to Major League Baseball and the NBA.

Much of the success of the game is due to the 10 men who captured the Main Event title. Some of these players had more of an impact on the game than others. Some used their Main Event bracelet to go on to enjoy prosperous careers. Others have yet to come close to any kind of similar success.

With the decade coming to end later this week, we decided to rank the Main Event champs from the last 10 years. As a measuring stick we used three criteria and weighted them -- from most important to least important -- in this order:

  1. The impact the player's Main Event victory had on the game.
  2. The manner in which the player embraced the role as Main Event champ.
  3. How the player is currently perceived by fellow players and poker fans.

Here's what we came up with. Whether you agree or disagree, we'd love to hear from you. Send your comments along to me at

Happy New Year!

10. Robert Varkonyi – 2002
A "fluke" is how Varkonyi's victory at the 2002 Main Event as an amateur is usually described, so he's never really received a ton of respect from his peers since that landmark victory. In fact, after he eliminated Phil Hellmuth during the '02 Main Event, the Poker Brat said on TV during the final table that he would shave his head if Varkonyi went on to win the whole thing and, sure enough, Hellmuth was bald in the end.

The New York native hasn't had a ton of success since his landmark victory, securing just one other Main Event cash, although he did come into this past summer's inaugural Champions Invitational with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and managed to finish second to Tom McEvoy.

Through no fault of his own, Varkonyi's Main Event victory – which earned him a record at the time of $2 million -- really didn't provide much for the game of poker and since then he's basically been a non-factor. For that, he lands at No. 10 of our list.


Jerry Yang made a monster run at the 2007 final table to become an unlikely champion.

9. Jerry Yang – 2007
Yang is another former Main Event champion whose victory is often referred to as "fortuitous." He entered the final table as the second-shortest stack and went on to knock out seven of the eight other players at the final table, thanks mostly to some brash "all-in" calls. The fact that Yang was an amateur player who won his seat at the Main Event through a $225 satellite in California made for a great story. His day job was as a social worker and he is the father of six children. He donated 10% of his $8.25 million in winnings from the Main Event to a host of charities all geared towards children in need. In addition, Yang is one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet.

With all of that said, however, Yang never fully embraced his role as "poker ambassador." He didn't play in many tournaments following his win and he was never really media-savvy, despite his engaging personality. And the fact that he hasn't cashed at the WSOP since the big win in 2007 hasn't exactly helped him earn much respect as a player from his peers.

8. Juan Carlos Mortensen – 2001
Considering his acumen as a poker player, El Matador probably deserves to rank a bit higher on our list, but the fact that his Main Event win came well before the "poker boom" and didn't mean a lot to the game overall has him in the No. 8 spot.

Mortensen is considered the last true "old school professional" to win the Main Event. Although both Peter Eastgate and Joe Cada were playing professionally when they won the Main Event, both got their start in the game online. Mortensen, who has more than $8 million in worldwide winnings, won the big one against a formidable final table that included the likes of Hellmuth, Mike Matusow and Dewey Tomko, who was the runner-up. He has a pair of WSOP bracelets to his name, as well as 18 cashes overall (four in 2009) and he has also had success on the World Poker Tour with two titles and 12 cashes.

Unfortunately for Mortensen, he simply isn't well known to the casual poker fan because he's not an overwhelming TV presence. But make no mistake about it, he is a feared player and will likely continue to contend on the big stage for the next decade.

7. Jamie Gold -- 2006
You could say that Gold is the anti-Mortensen, because his victory came at the cusp of the "poker boom," but he's done "squadoosh" (to steal a phrase from Norman Chad) to prove himself as a worthy champion both at and away from the felt since capturing poker's top prize.

If this were a list based solely on what the player's win meant to poker, Gold would have ranked much higher. He battled through what is still the largest field in Main Event history (8,772) and he won the biggest first-place prize in history ($12 million). Both of those staggering numbers, as well as Gold's brazen and sometimes unethical performance for the ESPN TV cameras, brought the WSOP some mainstream media attention. Gold became the type of player that fans love to hate. He was arrogant and obnoxious and the camera loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, it turned out that this was no act. Gold's controversial nature quickly generated some controversy. Within weeks of his Main Event victory, Gold was sued for half of his winnings by Bruce Crispin Leyser, who claimed he was promised half of whatever Gold won at the Main Event as part of an informal arrangement.

So while Gold's win helped poker gain some attention and much-needed positive exposure, the ensuing lawsuit certainly put a stain on that good will, thus dropping him in our rankings.

6. Joe Hachem – 2005
There's absolutely no denying that Hachem is likeable, marketable and once heck of a poker player. He is of just five players to win both the World Series of Poker Main Event and a WPT title and he's also had two other cashes in the Main Event since his 2005 victory.

When he beat out a field of 5,619 to win the Main Event, Hachem became the first Australian champion, which certainly helped the game Down Under (Does the chant, "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" ring a bell?). And since that time he has become a magnet for poker on TV and is one of the most recognizable players in the game

5. Joe Cada – 2009
Only time will tell how Joe Cada responds to becoming the youngest Main Event champ and how he handles the attention that comes with it. But, so far, so good.

Less than two months after his monumental victory, Cada has proven that he is more than capable of carrying the Main Event champion torch. He has come across as a genuinely nice kid with a Hollywood smile during his numerous interviews with the likes of David Letterman, CNBC and Fox News. He says all the right things and makes a good impression for the sport of poker. His victory was impactful because it came at one of the most highly publicized final tables in history, thanks to a Mr. Phil Ivey being there and the fact that this was the second edition of the November Nine.

As for his potential going forward as a player, don't allow the "suck outs" you saw him benefit from on ESPN fool you. Cada is highly skilled and is committed to his game. You don't get three cashes – including a Main Event victory – at your very first WSOP just by luck. Count on Cada being around for a very long time.

Eastgate wins

Peter Eastgate shows off his new bracelet after winning the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event. Photo by Gary Trask, Casino City

4. Peter Eastgate – 2008
Eastgate's victory was particularly notable for a couple of key reasons. First off, he was the first champion of the November Nine Era, a key moment for the WSOP this decade and going forward. Secondly, he broke Phil Hellmuth's 19-year-old record of the youngest champion in Main Event history by winning it when he was 22 years, 10 months, and 28 days. This didn't just break Hellmuth's record, but smashed it by nearly two years since Hellmuth was 24 years, 10 months, and 5 days at the time of his victory in 1989.

Eastgate's record, of course, was broken by Joe Cada one year later, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Eastgate was able to break a record that stood for nearly two decades. Not only did Eastgate win the Main Event and break Hellmuth's record, but also the manner in which he won the title during the final table was especially impressive. He came into the final table with the fourth-best stack, but was clearly the best player at the table during the first session before taking a commanding chip lead into his heads-up battle with Ivan Demidov.

Many members of the media have taken issue with Eastgate's performance as the "poker ambassador" after he won the Main Event title, but I find it difficult to come down too hard on him for his lack of media presence. How can you fault a guy for not speaking English well? That's the reason why Eastgate wasn't attractive to the mainstream media in the U.S. When speaking with him one-on-one, Eastgate is actually very personable. He just isn't the type of person who likes the media spotlight.

As for his talent as a poker player, there's no question that Eastgate is well respected by his peers. He made a great run at this year's Main Event as the defending champ, before finishing 78th and nobody will be surprised if he goes on to win multiple bracelets in the next decade.

3. Chris "Jesus" Ferguson – 2000
While Ferguson's win didn't have a huge impact on the game, he has used his victory to become one of the most popular and successful players in the game. And for those reasons he gets high marks on our list.

When Ferguson won the Main Event in 2000, the game was still a relative unknown in the mainstream media. He beat a field of just 521 players and won "only" $1.5 million. But Ferguson has thrived as the game has grown and has proven he contend even in big fields of players. He's been dominant at the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship with two runner-ups and a victory and his 59 cashes and five bracelets at the WSOP are further evidence of his success. Ferguson is also part of the group that started Full Tilt Poker.

The fans love him – and for good reason. With his cowboy hat, long, black, leather jacket and trademark beard, you can see "Jesus" coming from a mile away. I love watching him make the walk down the hallway of the Rio during the WSOP. He gets stopped for an autograph or picture nearly every 10 strides, and he always politely stops and honors the request with a smile.


2004 champ Greg Raymer is one of the more recognizable and well-liked players in the game today. Photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City

2. Greg Raymer – 2004
Simply put, poker is a better game with a guy like Greg Raymer walking around as a former Main Event champ.

Not only is Raymer an ultimate professional and an all-around good guy, but his win was very important for poker because it came one year after the "Moneymaker Effect" came into play. The field for the Main Event mushroomed from 839 players to 2,576 in just one year and the whole world was watching. The game was very fortunate that Raymer -- with the combination of class and skill -- prevailed. Since that win, Fossilman has continued to make his mark on the game.

He's had success at the table, earning 11 more WSOP cashes, including a remarkable 25th-place finish as the defending champ. He's also become one of the more popular and recognizable faces in the game and has handled everything that has come with that package admirably.

1. Chris Moneymaker – 2003
Moneymaker hasn't exactly torn it up at the poker table since winning the Main Event, but that single victory was probably the biggest development in the history of poker and for that he belongs at the very top this list.

Think about it. Where would poker be today without the unfathomable story of an amateur player named Moneymaker winning an online satellite tournament for $39 and then going on to bluff a pro's pro named Sammy Farha for the Main Event title? It's stuff that the best writers in Hollywood would have had a difficult time coming up with, but it was all a true story and the entire sport benefited handsomely. It is the reason why millions of people across the world started to play poker and it gave the concept of online poker some legitimacy.

Truth be told, if Sammy Farha calls Moneymaker's bluff with his pair of nines (a play that our friend Norman Chad called "the bluff of the century") and if Moneymaker doesn't make the call on Farha's all-in call with two pair, I'm probably not even writing this list. He had that much of an impact and when and if the biggest moments of the century are compiled for the game of poker, there's no doubting that Moneymaker's victory will rank at or near the very top.

Top-10 WSOP Main Event champions of the decade is republished from
Gary Trask

Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor. He also manages new business ventures for Casino City.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor. He also manages new business ventures for Casino City.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:!/casinocityGT