WSOP's Biggest Winners and How Strategy Plays its Part

Poker strategy might be somewhat complicated but it can sure pay the bills, as the leading pros will testify.

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There is a famous saying in poker circles that the game of poker is very easy to learn but much harder to master. Sure, poker is by no means a complex game in terms of its rules. You can pick up the gameplay within a matter of minutes. But genuinely mastering the game and consistently turning a profit can take many years to achieve.

Once you have got to grips with starting hand rankings and the way the rounds of betting work, you soon realize that the dynamics of poker are far more complex than they seem. Why? Because you’re not only playing the cards but your opponents too; lots of them. Aside from the statistics and probability of hitting our card “outs”, you have to read your opponents and come out on top in the mind games. When you put all of that into the equation, it can seem like a minor miracle that players outlast monster fields of opponents to bag the biggest life-changing payouts.

The most impressive wins at WSOP

• Antonio Esfandiari - $18.3m It was unheard of when, in 2012, the World Series of Poker announced a brand-new tournament called Big One for One Drop. It might sound a little innocuous, but it was far from that. Players had to pay an eyewatering $1m to enter, with more than 10% of entry fees going to charity. With 48 entrants and a prize pool of around $43m, a mix of poker professionals and the world’s richest entrepreneurs took to the tables, with poker pro and former magician Antonio Esfandiari coming out on top to take the $18.3m first prize – earning the second of his three WSOP bracelets to date.

• Elton Tsang - $12.2m So successful was WSOP’s Big One for One Drop that they opted to go for it again, this time staging the event in the glitz and glamor of Monaco. The One Drop Extravaganza Monaco attracted a field of 28 players from all four corners of the globe, including Hong Kong-based Elton Tsang. Tsang, who is credited with the formation of the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour, eventually took the $12.2m first place, overcoming Russian, Anatoly Gurtovy heads-up.

• Jamie Gold - $12m Of the top three biggest wins in poker to date, it was Jamie Gold’s $12m WSOP Main Event win in 2006 that sent shockwaves around the world. The 2006 Main Event saw a monstrous 8,773 entrants, underlining the poker boom. Remarkably, it was Jamie Gold, a Los Angeles-based talent scout and television producer and amateur poker player, who would outlast them all to scoop an incredible payday. Only the 2019 Main Event has come close to that size of entry field, which suggests that poker is back firmly on the agenda after a quiet few years.

Jamie Gold's bizarre tactics were able to put even the best poker strategists off their game

Poker’s most strategic stars and the models they employ

When it comes to poker strategy, Jamie Gold by no means played orthodox “ABC” poker to win the 2006 WSOP Main Event. Far from it, in fact. As a part-time poker player who hadn’t dedicated his time to honing his poker strategy and improving his skills, Gold’s approach was rather more unorthodox. His distracting chat at the tables often spooked his opponents into folding better hands and Gold even had the audacity to show one of his hole cards at times.

Antonio Esfandiari’s Big One for One Drop also cemented him as one of the most interesting personalities in the poker scene. However, his strategy tends to be at the other end of the spectrum compared with Jamie Gold. He’s a player that typically plays solid poker, throwing in the odd passive premium hand for good measure. He’s also well known for his hand-reading abilities.

Ironically, poker’s most analytical and strategic pros might not hold the record for the biggest individual tournament wins, but that doesn’t mean they are less successful. Take Canadian poker ace Daniel Negreanu for example. He ranks third in the all-time money list, with over $42m in total live earnings. Negreanu is considered one of the most intelligent thinkers in the poker world, with incredible intuition of his opponents and unrivaled perception of pacing his way through big tournaments. He is one of the best exponents of ICM to monitor tournament equity, allowing him to work with short, medium or big stacks and still generate regular profits - even if he doesn’t always win the tournaments outright.

Poker strategy has come a long way from 10th century

China The way today’s poker professionals analyze data and crunch the numbers is in stark contrast to the very infancy of the game of poker. The game is believed to date back as far as the 10th century, with historians claiming that a Chinese emperor coined a domino-card game that plays out in a very similar way to the poker played today. Others believe the 17th century was the real dawn for poker with “poque” catching on across many European countries.

Poque even made its way to North America thanks to the earliest settlers in the Louisiana region. The game meandered along the Mississippi River and into other integral US waterways, and the rest is history. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Independent Chip Model (ICM) or Game Theory Optimal (GTO) poker, the latter of which focuses on modeling opponents’ behavior and their ranges rather than focusing on results, wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of 19th-century poker players.

Accessible poker strategies have helped bridge the gap between amateurs and the pros

Many amateur or part-time poker players will fantasize about taking the plunge and “going pro”. Although it might sound glamorous, life as a poker professional is hard work. It takes a lot of effort and time to hone your poker strategy, plugging leaks in your game to improve your profitability. Fortunately for today’s amateur poker fanatics, they too can equip themselves with the same knowledge as the pros if they so wish. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips online that can turn casual “everyday” players into players worthy of playing at the WSOP. Learning to build a poker strategy that can win consistently and keep that bankroll ticking over is key to bridging the gap between amateurs and the big boys.