WSOP Main Event Champions Ranked: Best to Worst

Date IconLast Updated : May 24th, 2023
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WSOP Main Event Champions Ranked: Best to Worst

The World Series of Poker has been the preeminent poker tournament since its inception in 1970 at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas. Being crowned the World Series of Poker Main Event Champion is among the highest honors in poker, with only 47 people able to call themselves a World Series of Poker  Main Event Champion.

Poker’s Championship, a no-limit Texas hold 'em tournament, is as egalitarian as it gets. You don’t have to prove your skill or qualify to enter; you need to get yourself to Las Vegas with the $10,000 buy-in. And because of that, the list of WSOP Main Event winners is an interesting mix of talent, traits, and character.  

Ranking WSOP champions by skill, the impact of their victory, or their overall legacy would be relatively easy, with only some minor quibbles. A ranking system that considers all three factors is more volatile. So, of course, we had to try. 

Ranking WSOP Champions

In terms of skill, WSOP champions run the gamut from legendary names at the pinnacle of the poker food chain for decades to one-hit wonders with little success before or after their title run.

But skill is only one component (a very important one) of ranking WSOP Champions. Beyond skill, we also must look at the short-term and long-term impact these poker players have on the game.

As such, WSOP Champions are ranked in the following three categories.

Skill: Our skill ratings are relative, based on the player’s era. Each skill score is weighted double.

  • 1-3 = A subpar player
  • 4-6 = A middling player
  • 7-8 = A long-term winning player
  • 9-10 = A legendary player

Impact: Our impact rating looks at the immediate impact on the game at the time of their victory. Each impact score is weighted triple.

  • 1-3 = Little to no impact
  • 4-5 = Minor impact
  • 6-8 = Significant impact
  • 9-10 = A game changer

Legacy: The legacy score looks at whether the person has been good or bad for poker, with the caveat that poker, and being a professional poker player, was not seen as an above-the-board activity for much of its history.

  • 1 = A stain on the game of poker
  • 2-4 = The bad outweighs the good
  • 5 = Neither good nor bad legacy
  • 6-9 = The good outweighs the bad
  • 10 = A positive legacy
  • *Because impact and legacy are significant, the last 10 WSOP winners will not be considered in the Top 5 and Bottom 5 WSOP Champions as their scores will change over time.

The 5 Best WSOP Main Event Champions

Doyle Brunson – Total Score = 57

  • Skill - 20 (max score)
  • Impact - 27
  • Legacy - 10 (max score)

The Godfather of Poker earned a near-perfect score. The longevity of Brunson’s career is unparalleled, and it’s hard to envision the modern world of poker without Brunson, who has inspired countless people to take up the game of poker and try their luck as professional poker players.

Doyle Brunson is the rare mix of being the best for a prolonged period (live tournaments or high-stakes cash games) and being among the best over his entire poker career, which spans some 50 years. He wrote what was the treatise on poker for close to 30 years, Super System, and was always ready to offer up a perfect story from the old days. 

Brunson died in May 2023 and will go down as the Babe Ruth of poker. Proficient as a cash game player, a tournament champion, and a mentor and inspiration to many.


Johnny Chan – Total Score = 53

  • Skill - 20 (max score)
  • Impact - 24
  • Legacy - 9

Johnny “Bleeping” Chan. Were it not for the movie Rounders, Johnny Chan might have fallen outside the Top 5. His cameo and the repeated mentions of his skill in Rounders turned him into a legend and one of the most famous poker players of all time. Everyone who rushed to the poker tables during the Poker Boom wanted to be Johnny Chan and beat Johnny Chan.

How good was Chan in his prime? He won the Main Event in 1987 and 1988 and finished second to Phil Hellmuth in 1989. Chan has won 10 WSOP bracelets, tied for second-place all-time with Doyle and Phil Ivey.


Stu Ungar – Total Score = 52

  • Skill - 20 (max score)
  • Impact - 24
  • Legacy - 8

Stu Ungar’s life is tragic, but the stories of his skills are on par with Greek myths. Ungar had a risk aversion score of 0 and was completely indifferent to winning and losing money.

Ungar was a naturally talented cardplayer who was using a loose-aggressive style of play that was about 25 years ahead of its time. One of the most amazing things about Ungar was that for all his skill playing poker (with little effort), he was an exponentially better gin player. He was clearly among the best poker players of his era and hands down the best gin player.

Without his demons, there is no telling how dominant Ungar could have been, and imagining him in today's high-roller tournaments makes poker fans salivate.


Phil Hellmuth – Total Score = 51

  • Skill - 16
  • Impact - 27
  • Legacy - 8

The Poker Brat is widely considered one of the best tournament poker players the game has ever seen. His cash game bona fides are less secure. Still, Hellmuth will go down as one of the all-time greats and a favorite among poker fans.

Often forgotten is that when Hellmuth won the WSOP Championship, he was the youngest champion at 24 years old, making him the original poker wunderkind. That record stood for nearly 20 years until 22-year-old Peter Eastgate won the Main Event in 2008. That record fell the following year when Joe Cada captured the title at the tender age of 21.

Hellmuth also proved he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder and quickly cemented his credentials as a top-notch tournament player in the years following his big win. Interestingly, Hellmuth hasn't replicated his WSOP success on the World Poker Tour or in other major poker tournaments.

If you asked a random person in 1995 to name famous poker players (Family Feud style), the most likely response would have been Phil Hellmuth. If you ask a random person in 2023, Hellmuth will still be one of the most frequent responses.

Hellmuth’s legacy has a couple of black spots (he was the public face of Ultimate Bet and has a penchant for cursing out anyone with the audacity to beat him in a pot), but every endeavor needs a villain, and he has played the role of poker villain for most of his career.


Chris Moneymaker – Total Score = 50

  • Skill - 10
  • Impact - 30 (max score)
  • Legacy - 10 (max score)

Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP victory was a pivotal moment for poker. Everything was set for a poker boom. Rounders infused the poker world with a new younger demographic of poker players. The hole card camera and the newly created World Poker Tour gave viewers and would-be poker players their first glimpse at the mind games that were taking place at a poker table. And online poker was exploding in popularity. The fuse just needed to be lit, and Chris Moneymaker was that fuse.

He had the perfect name, the perfect backstory, and the perfect counterbalance to the cool and confidence of the professional poker players he mowed down on his way to the title.

As Eric Raskin titled his book on Chris’s 2003 WSOP run, Moneymaker wasn’t just a poker player. He was an effect.

Honorable Mention

Scotty Nguyen (total score 45) – Scotty Nguyen is above average in every category of our rankings, but that was only good enough for sixth place. Like several other poker players on the list, Nguyen isn't known for dominating cash games. Instead, he is a tournament specialist.

Amarillo Slim (total score 44) – Amarillo Slim rivals Chris Moneymaker in terms of impact, but a tainted legacy kept him out of the Top 5. Few people did more to mainstream poker, and despite not being the best, Amarillo Slim was the most famous poker player of his time.

Chris Ferguson (total score 43) – Ferguson’s legacy (because of his prominent role with Full Tilt Poker during its post-Black Friday collapse) also keeps him out of the Top 5 and the Poker Hall of Fame. Ferguson has six WSOP bracelets and 168 WSOP cashes.

The 5 Worst WSOP Main Event Champions

Before diving into the bottom five WSOP champions, it’s important to note that inclusion doesn’t speak to reputation or skill level – although it sometimes does. Perusing the full rankings shows that the easiest way to land on the bottom half of the list, based on our metrics, is to be an average run-of-the-mill tournament poker player and not much of a cash game player.

Robert Varkonyi – Total Score = 19

  • Skill - 2
  • Impact - 12
  • Legacy - 5

Robert Varkonyi was a harbinger of what would come during the online poker era.

After a string of high-level players winning the WSOP title, the 2002 WSOP was the first year in quite some time that an unknown was crowned the champion. Five of the previous seven champions are members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and a sixth, Chris Ferguson has a HOF resume (Ferguson is a multi-time finalist), but the whiffs of scandal keep him out.

And then there is Varkonyi, whose play was so amateurish Phil Hellmuth promised to shave his head if he Varkonyi won – Hellmuth kept his word (Varkonyi was willing to let him out of the bet) and shaved his head, donating the proceeds to charity. 

The 2002 WSOP Championship was Varkonyi’s first tournament cash and first WSOP bracelet, and while he has tallied dozens of cashes in live tournaments since, they only amount to a total of $350,000 in live tournament winnings over 20 years.

Hamid Dastmalchi – Total Score = 18

  • Skill - 10
  • Impact - 3
  • Legacy - 5

There is not much to say about Hamid Dastmalchi. He was known for his skills in cash games and had some tournament success in the 1980s and early 1990s but is otherwise just another poker player – a common occurrence throughout the early 1990s Main Event winners.

He was part of a three-year run of Iranian domination of the Main Event, with Mansour Matloubi and Hamid winning in 1990 and 1992, respectively. He also made some news in 1999 when he sued new ownership for not honoring older Binion’s chips he possessed – Hamid won the case.

Brad Daugherty – Total Score = 18

  • Skill - 10
  • Impact - 3
  • Legacy - 5

Few would remember Brad Daugherty’s name if not for his WSOP bracelet turning up on eBay. The 1992 champ has cashed in live poker tournaments in four decades, but his $1 million WSOP Main Event prize money is more than the remainder of his lifetime live tournament earnings of $826,599.

Like Tom McEvoy (a frequent coauthor with Daugherty), Brad parlayed his WSOP bracelet win into a writing career, authoring several books on poker. None of those books were considered groundbreaking or consequential and can usually be found on thrift store shelves.

Bill Smith – Total Score = 17

  • Skill - 10
  • Impact - 3
  • Legacy - 4

If people do know the name Bill Smith it’s not because of poker per se; instead, it’s because of his drinking while playing poker - poker tournaments or cash games.

As T.J. Cloutier once said of Smith:

“Bill was the tightest player you'd ever played in your life when he was sober. And when he was halfway drunk, he was the best player I'd ever played with. No one could read opponents’ hands better than half-drunk Smith. But when he got past that halfway mark, he was the worst player I'd ever played with."

To Smith’s credit, he did final table the Main Event the year after his victory, bowing out in fifth place in 1986. Removing the $700,000 he won for his 1985 WSOP win, Smith tallied just over $300,000 in tournament winnings during his career.

That said, when your legacy is beer, it’s safe to say you won’t have a huge influence on the game.

Russ Hamilton – Total Score = 14

  • Skill - 10
  • Impact - 3
  • Legacy - 1

Far from the least-skilled player on the WSOP Main Event champion list, Russ Hamilton earns the top spot based on his reputation and legacy. Hamilton was central to the Ultimate Bet super-user scandal, which bilked online poker players out of an estimated $50 million.

How bad is Russ Hamilton’s reputation in poker? If Hamilton turns up in a poker room, it’s front-page poker news. It’s so bad that the World Series of Poker won’t display his winner’s banner. That may not seem important, but as Hamilton said after winning, "There was only one thing that mattered — having my picture up on that wall and winning the bracelet. They can take the money, they can take the silver, but they can never take that picture off the wall."

Narrator: They can take your picture off the wall.

Hamilton was always a poker heel, considering that on top of the prize money, the 1994 WSOP Champion was awarded their weight in silver. Hamilton, a huge man to begin with, is rumored to have tried to weigh in with $2,000 in half-dollars in his pockets. After removing the added weight, he collected 330 pounds of silver.


There are a handful of players that can be considered. WSOP champions like Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Brunson are in the running for the title of best player in poker history. Also on the list are Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey, both possessing two World Poker Tour titles. All are Poker Hall of Fame members and multi-time WSOP bracelet winners.

Phil Hellmuth has won an astonishing 13 WSOP bracelets. Hellmuth also holds the record for WSOP final tables with 53. There is a tie for second, with Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan having 10 WSOP titles. Other notables are poker players Phil Ivey with nine, Erik Seidel with eight (and one WPT title) and Daniel Negreanu with six.

The top spot on poker's all-time money list (not to be confused with cash game winnings) is held by Justin Bonomo, who has $60 million in career tournament earnings. Bonomo got his start in online poker tournaments but has really shown his poker skills on the high-roller circuit and in super high-roller tournaments.

The 2023 World Series of Poker is May 30-July 18 and will be played at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas and the Paris Las Vegas poker rooms. The flagship event is the $10,000 No-Limit Hold'em World Championship, best known as “The Main Event,” which runs July 3-17. In 2022, there were 8,663 entrants.