There is a growing debate in today’s poker world over who is the best player around. Many names get offered as the best of the best but there is truly no way to know who the best Texas Hold’em player in the world is. As the game of poker has grown followers have been able to follow the world’s best on television, through the internet, and many other mediums. Even still, with all of the information at our disposal, a clear cut number one has not been settled. Today, we are here to settle the debate. Not with one player, face, or game, but with a combination of the world’s best.
There are many factors that go into creating a great poker player, whether it be aggression, hand-reading, ego, table presence, or any of another handful of characteristics, the $6,000,000 poker player must have them all! By picking and choosing from the best in the world we can create our own super-human poker player who will be head and shoulders above the rest. Our test subjects, the current “best” in the world, can be seen on High Stakes Poker Cash Games, Poker after Dark, WSOP broadcasts, and even in nosebleed high-stakes online games at FullTilt Poker and PokerStars.
Let’s first dive into creating the best live poker player possible and then we’ll briefly touch on the best internet player(s) as well.
Fundamentals – Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari
What strikes most as odd when turning on a televised cash game is just how out of the ordinary the players appear to operate. Hands such as Q3s and A4o are played as monsters and there seems to be at times a total disregard for poker fundamentals. Here to squash that bug is Antonio Esfandiari who plays as technically sound as anyone on televised cash games today. Antonio is known as a tight player before the flop but has shown an ability to open his game up when surrounded by nits. This “adjustment” is proof positive that Antonio understands the basic fundamentals of the game of poker. Instead of continuing to play tight and pass the blinds back and forth between TAGs, Antonio opens up his game and forces these players into situations to which they are unaccustomed.
Antonio also appears to understand the difference between value-betting and turning your hand into a bluff as well as semi-bluffing. While he may not be in the upper-tier of cash game players, these traits separate him from all of the other live players who rely solely on a tight PF style to make money.
Aggression – Phil Ivey
If you look up “aggression” in the dictionary, well, it probably has a few sentences about the term, but it should just have Phil Ivey staring directly at you. While this may be enough to cause you to close your Webster’s and never open it again it certainly has similar effects to his opponents at the poker table. Phil Ivey is relentlessly aggressive; once he takes the lead in a hand it is hard for him to take his foot off the gas. Ivey makes a lot of money from taking down small, uncontested pots with a huge range of hands. It seems a lot of the tighter players are unconcerned with these small, seemingly insignificant pots, but rest assured they do add up rather quickly. What Ivey (and other aggressive players) understands better than most is by picking up these small pots he does not need as much equity to get a lot of money in later on in the game. Instead of sitting around waiting for a single all-in situation Ivey makes his money in small-to-medium sized pots and then gets the money in the middle with marginal equity. What ends up happening is fairly obvious by his great results, a lot of profit. While he may average 35-45% equity in all-in situations the small edge he gives up there is dwarfed by the hours upon hours of small pots he picks up along the way.
Ivey also understands his image as seen through his opponents’ eyes and takes full advantage when he happens to make a strong hand. This is another key to being aggressive; you must remain so with even the strongest of holdings. You will very rarely see a player of Ivey’s caliber slow-playing a strong hand as doing so would weaken his betting range and not allow him to pick up as many small pots. He never gets to the river with a huge hand and a small pot with this style, which allows him to gain maximum value from his strong hands. Conversely, his opponents rarely get to the river without a strong hand either as he has given them ample opportunity to fold their weak/mediocre strength hands earlier. This allows Ivey to have a better understanding of his opponent’s range than they do of his which the fundamental theorem of poker tells us is a great advantage to possess.
Creativity – Tom “Durrrr” Dwan
While Dwan possesses many desirable traits of great poker players he is without a doubt the most deceptive poker player on the planet. With extremely wide/balanced PF and post-flop ranges, Dwan puts his opponents in a lot of situations where they are making a mistake no matter which action they decide to take. Durrrr, as he is known around the internet poker community, may not have the best poker “face” in the world but his possible holdings are so diverse it is almost futile to try to get a read anyways. What makes Dwan so special is his ability to analyze every possible action before making his decision and sticking with his instincts. This could mean calling in a spot where most players might only consider a fold/raise, or raising in a spot where most would just fold/call. It also means varying his bet-sizing to exploit his opponent’s ranges or what they might think of his own holdings. No one seems to get the better of his opponents when the bets get big than Dwan which can be chalked up to those at the table having little idea of his hand strength.
Another aspect Durrrr excels in is being unafraid of, quite simply, looking stupid. In order to make the best possible decision every time you cannot be scared of being wrong. A lot of players shy away from difficult decisions, situations, etc… from the fear of taking the incorrect action. This type of thinking has no place in the mind the best poker player in the world, and certainly cannot be found in Dwan’s thoughts. He makes so many unconventional decisions, plays, bluffs, value-bets, etc… that it should be obvious to all that he could care less what others think about his own game. This ability, much overlooked by the poker world, is an absolute necessity to becoming the best you can be.
Table Presence – Patrik Antonius
This category could be filled by many different poker players but there is one that “sits” above the rest. Patrik Antonius has a commanding presence at a poker table. Antonius sits quite upright in his seat and seems to never move. This can be quite an intimidating sight for those new to the game and can cause equally different problems when it comes to reading his hand-strength. Antonius gives nothing away at the poker table; during hands he is a total statue, emotionless and still. His style also plays a role in his table presence. The man dresses to the tee and just looks like a winning player. He is always presentable and his shaved head is another intimidating aspect of his appearance.
Tilt Control – Eli Elezra
When playing poker it is very easy to get upset over a bad run of cards, tough beats, and annoying opponents. The key here is to not let these variances in the game affect the way you play. One of the best in the world at taking beats and remaining upbeat is Eli Elezra. The Las Vegas businessman has been a staple on televised cash games from the very beginning and has a great demeanor at the poker table. Always seen smiling and joking, Elezra never lets off if he is winning big or losing even bigger. It can be difficult to bounce back after a bad beat, but take Elezra’s cues when it comes to recovering from a tough break. The best in the world might take a small break, grab some food, and come back with a good attitude. If leaving is not an option, taking deep breaths and keeping negative thoughts out of your head will go a long way in keeping your bankroll intact.
Ego – Illari “Ziigmund” Sahamies
Busting onto the poker scene a few years ago was a Finnish superstar named “Ziigmund”. This Pot-Limit Omaha juggernaut quickly found himself playing the highest stakes games on FullTilt against the best in the world including fellow countryman Patrik Antonius as well as Durrrr, Phil Ivey, and Phil Galfond. Illari Sahamies is a great example of how playing against the best competition in the world can help you accelerate the learning curve. This is where ego comes into play. In order to be the best poker player in the world you have to play (and beat) the best. Sahamies is not afraid to do either. He routinely battles players who have trouble getting action and takes them on at the highest stakes available. In fact, sometimes he creates stakes players never knew existed as he and Dwan battled it out at $3,000/$9,000 blinds on FullTilt earlier this year. While some might say this is foolhardy and will cause a player to bust, others understand that you need to have a certain feel of invincibility to play for such high stakes against great competition. This belief in yourself and your game will come off as having a big ego but will give you the opportunity to reach your full poker playing potential.
Hand-Reading – Phil Galfond
I know what you’re thinking, how could Daniel Negreanu not be here? Unfortunately for “kidpoker” his reign as the world’s best hand-reader has long passed and he has been replaced by the new king of hand “ranges”, Phil Galfond. When poker first became televised it was common to see professionals calling out a single possible holding for their opponents. While this now seems silly and narrow-minded it was the way the game was played in the early 2000’s. Players had such narrow and unbalanced ranges that they typically found themselves at the river holding only 1-2 possible hands. While those days are well in the past some of the world’s “best” players thinking has not moved forward as quickly. That’s why for this category we had to go to the online poker world to find Phil “OMGClayAiken” Galfond. Galfond could have found himself as our man for the fundamental or tilt control section but he lands himself here for the ability to not only understand an opponent’s range but to take the correct action against that range as well.
Being a great hand-reader means nothing if you are constantly acting against your reads, calling when you understand you are not getting the correct price against a certain range and doing the opposite when you are. Galfond not only breaks down your range correctly, but he is not afraid to act upon his reads and make an unconventional decision. Great poker players have to be able to discern hand strength and there is no one better than Galfond.
There we have it, the best poker player in the world. The fundamentals of The Magician, the aggression of Ivey, creativity of Durrrr, intimidation of Antonius, ego of Ziigmund, patience of Elezra, and hand-reading of Jman. Combined, these skills make for an unbeatable live professional, but what about online? Who should be replaced and who is the best in both worlds?
Fundamentals — Phil “Jman28/OMGClayAiken” Galfond
While Galfond took the hand-reading portion of our live segment he is not head and shoulders above the rest of the online community when it comes to ranges. However, he has always been the most fundamentally sound player in today’s online games and that includes all forms of poker. Galfond understands the basic inner-workings of each game and rarely gets out of line. His best game has to be Texas Hold’em where he excels at all levels including $500/$1,000 blinds against the best in the world.
Aggression – Cole “cts” South
Cole South and aggression are synonymous when it comes to online poker. For the past 4-5 years CTS has been widely considered one of the best heads-up poker players in the world and you do not reach such heights without being wildly aggressive. Still, South’s LAG game relies on more than just pure aggression; he also displays great hand-reading ability and a certain fearlessness that only true greats possess.
Creativity – Rich “nutsinho” Lyndaker
The man best known for crushing $25/$50 on PokerStars for some time is one of the toughest players to compete against due to his unconventional style and ability to deceive his opponents. Not only does nutsinho take weird lines but he couples it with strange bet-sizing that leaves his opponents scratching their heads. On top of this he is great at manipulating his opponents into doing exactly what he wants them to do. From there he exploits their tendencies/weaknesses and mounds of profit awaits.
Table Presence – Tom “Durrrr” Dwan
It’s not secret one word, “Durrrr”, strikes fear into the entire online poker world. Ever since online poker became popular Tom Dwan has been crushing the high-stakes games on all sites. His previous avatar on FullTilt, a seemingly innocent puppy, became a symbol for a man who ranks 2nd all time in online poker winnings. There are not a lot of players willing to challenge Dwan online and the majority of those who have done so have seen their bankrolls dwindle. Dwan’s creativity knows no bounds and this coupled with tremendous aggression makes him a force to be reckoned with online.
Tilt Control – Phil Ivey
This may surprise those who do not know it, but Phil Ivey is the king of “stop losses” online. Ivey refuses to play after losing a certain number of buy-ins which can be as low as two. This commitment to only playing when winning is a big part of why Ivey has been the number one earner in online poker history despite playing about 10% as much as players such as Dwan, Galfond, and CTS. Ivey does not succumb to tilt, he merely turns off the computer and comes back at a different time when he is more focused.
Ego – Aaron “aejones” Jones
Frankly there are probably 100 players who could be placed here, but when thinking about ego and online poker Aaron Jones certainly comes to mind. The player known as aejones has been known at times to be quite brash, challenging players to heads-up battles and taking on the world’s best at nosebleed stakes on FullTilt. Just like Sahamies earlier, ego is certainly a necessary evil when discussing great poker players; you must have an undying belief in yourself and your game. Jones certainly does not lack in this category.
Hand Reading – Brian “aba20” Townsend
This is the toughest section to place one person because as a whole, the high-stakes online community is very good at hand-ranges. In fact, this is what separates online poker from live; there is a much bigger importance placed on hand-ranges than reading your opponent’s body language and reactions. Enter Brian “aba20” Townsend who, along with Durrrr, helped to put online poker on the map many years ago. And just like Galfond, Townsend could find himself as the lead for many of our categories above including tilt control and fundamentals. Aba20 was one of the first players to really break down his opponents and analyze all facets of their games. This allowed him to have a great feel for their hand-strength in all sorts of situations which led to him making seemingly perfect decisions at will.
So who is better, our live pro or the internet sensation? That, I’ll let you figure out for yourself.