How Top Poker Pros Started Out

We all know that in poker, not everyone is equal. Some players will lose, others will win. photo by WPT under CC BY ND 2.0

A tiny percentage will win a considerable fortune over a glittering career.

However, all poker players must start from the same point, so it’s interesting to see how some got off to such a whirlwind career playing cards while most of us remain enthusiastic casuals.

Here, we look at how five of the best-known names in poker started out.

Bryn Kenney

Back in the early noughties, Bryn Kenney was a high school student who, like so many of his age, had suddenly caught the poker bug thanks mainly to Chris Moneymaker. Moneymaker had made headlines by winning the World Series of Poker in 2003, having qualified via an online satellite. His success sparked a poker boom.

Kenney, now 37, loved the game and began playing sit and goes with his friends in high school. By the time he was 18, he had an online poker account and showed initial success, lucky that he made early gains while most of his pals were using play money poker to learn the winning habit.

Poker took over his life, he dropped out of high school and soon transitioned into the live poker circuit, where he has won a staggering $56.4 million, making him the world’s most successful player of all time.

Justin Bonomo

Like many other poker players of his generation,Justin Bonomo had started out as a prolific player of Magic: The Gathering. He began playing Magic aged nine, and by the time he had reached the age of 12, Bonomo was playing Magic tournaments all over the world.

The analytical skills and patience used by Magic players are vital credentials for moving into poker – and a love of games and cards makes for a good chance of success. So it was with Bonomo, from Virginia in the US, who began playing poker when he was 16. His first foray into online poker, on the Paradise Poker site, saw his bankroll rise to $10,000 and, like Kenney, he soon moved on to the live poker tournament circuit.

His first success was in February 2005 when, aged just 19, he placed fourth at EPT Deauville for $40,915. In a whirlwind 15 years since he has amassed live winnings of $49.1 million - $10 million of which came in the Big One for One Drop tournament in Las Vegas in 2018.

Daniel Negreanu

The energetic Canadian famously got his start in poker while hustling in the pool halls of Toronto as a teenager. He would play pool, take bets on the big game and soon began playing cards on the side. After excelling at school with math and probability, he put these to good use as he learnt the intricacies of poker.

He became so good in those pool halls that he dropped out of high school in his senior year to play full time. His early career provides a note of caution. He went to the casinos of Las Vegas with dreams of making it big, but lost everything, barely able to afford his plane fare back to Vegas.

But he rebuilt a roll again, and the rest is history. Aged 45, he’s currently third on the all-time live poker money list with $42 million in winnings.

Erik Seidel Photo by WPT under CC BY-ND 2.0

It’s interesting that the skills needed to become a top poker player suit certain professions. The ability to manage risk and use mathematics mean financial traders, in particular, have an affinity with the game.

Erik Seidel has been a consistent performer, winning $37 million in a long tournament career. From New York, he was once a pro backgammon player. Seidel played in the Mayfair Club in New York and soon dabbled in poker, finding he was a natural. Although enjoying a lucrative career as a trader on the US stock exchange, he was able to switch to the card table and never looked back.

Doyle Brunson

Known as the Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson will be familiar to all poker fans. Now aged 86, he has played professional poker for more than 50 years. But it could have been very different. Had it not been for injury, he could have been a pro basketball player.

While resting from injury as a young man, he honed his poker skills in five-card draw. After graduation, he took a job as a salesman, but on his first day, played in a seven-card stud game and won the equivalent of a month’s salary. He soon left and turned poker pro.

Although his live tournament winnings are listed as $6.1 million, he was a feared cash game player for decades and had one of the world’s most successful poker books called Super System.