The Best Poker Player
A question that often comes up in interviews with professional poker players, magazines, and table side talk is, “Who is the best poker player in the world?”. I was intrigued with Barry Greenstein’s analysis in Ace on the River in which he eventually comes to the conclusion that no one really is and that all we can do as poker players is make the best decisions as often as possible. That is probably the best answer, but I’ll try to analyze the question based on my own opinions and experiences.
When thinking of the best players in the world, many poker fans think of those that are given the most exposure. These days, that’s in the form of televised tournaments thus big tournament winners like Gus Hansen, Michael Mizrachi, or Antonio Esfandiari at the heart of WPT airings receive a lot of attention. It’s well-deserved attention because of their accomplishments against huge fields, but does that make them the best? Poker outlets like CardPlayer Magazine try to name a Player of the Year and nominate the best overall player, but can they really gauge the entire poker population through tournament points? Do they go inside private high-stakes games to see who is a consistent winner?
Players like David Williams, Greg Raymer, and Dan Harrington are mostly tournament specialists. While they have excellent skills at reading their opponents, playing the right cards at the right time, and adjusting to tournament blind structures, do they do as well in cash games? The top tournament players who bust out of big events are usually the best prey for high-stakes side game pros. Cash games contain the real money in the poker world with sometimes millions of dollars being exchanged nightly at the biggest poker games in Vegas. The winnings that a top player can earn in these side games makes tournament prizes look paltry. Yet excellent tournament players often struggle in cash games. Their personality and poker strategy is often much too suited for tournaments to beat the toughest players in high-limit games. A player who mostly excels in one (albeit important) aspect of poker probably shouldn’t be considered “the best”.
At the same time, one could also make the argument that strictly side game players don’t excel at all forms of poker. However, I don’t believe that the playing fields are even. Overall, I would tend to say that cash games require more skill than tournaments because of the structure. In cash games you’re playing with your own money with fixed blinds having to constantly make good decisions in order to make a profit. Tournaments only ever force players to lose their initial buy-in. Also, the sometimes insane blind structure in tournaments makes luck a much more important factor. Any player can get lucky for a day or a few days in a tournament, but ring games often favor the skilled much more.
If I had to name names, I would probably choose a player who consistently had an edge in both tournaments and side game such as Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan, Barry Greenstein, or Daniel Negreanu. These players have shown that they can make a more-than-comfortable living at the top cash games but still dominate tournaments when they take a “pay cut” and enter a few major events on the circuit. These players all do well in mixed games, make a ton of money, and can handle any situation at the poker table. Also, these players don’t seem to have a large amount of personal vices that might deteriorate their overall game.
But who is really the best? I think that I’ll have to agree with Barry on this one and say that no one really is. It is a somewhat futile thing to figure out, although I have named a short list of players whom I would choose if I had to. Although, who can really decide who has an edge over you or me? What should the qualifications be? Heads-up matches? Money? Fame? Tournament wins? WSOP bracelets? The fact is that anyone can win on any given day in poker and that will continue to be the beauty of the game.
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