High-stakes poker games have always caught the imagination of players and fans of the game, attracting huge audiences and spoken about in reverential terms since they first appeared. Players love the idea of staking millions on the turn of a card, while fans are in awe of the ability of legendary poker pros to shove their entire bankroll across the felt without skipping a heartbeat. Here we are going to take a look at the most incredible high-stakes players and their amazing stories.
Before we take a walk down memory lane to visit the biggest names in poker history, let’s start with the almost unbelievable tale of…
Karas had a troubled childhood, running away from an abusive father at the age of 15 and working his passage to the US where he soon became a feared pool shark. When the line of opponents willing to hand him their money dried up, he turned to poker, soon becoming a skilled player who could win millions – but lose them just as quickly.
In 1993, down to his last $50, he returned the pool tables of his youth and found a very wealthy opponent, one who would unwittingly bankroll him all the way to the top of the gambling world. Taking $1.2million from his luckless mark at the pool tables for stakes up to $40,000 a game, he more than tripled his money by taking the same guy to the cleaners on the poker felt.
“I took that one million I won shooting pool with him and went on to win three million more from him playing poker in only a few days", stated Archie. “We started at $4,000/8,000 Limit 7-card Stud and quickly moved up to $8,000/$16,000 Limit, which was unheard of in those days.”
He hit Vegas with his $4million and had soon increased it to $7million, and sat in the famous Binion’s Horseshoe Casino waiting for anyone rich – and brave – enough to take him on. Stu Ungar was the first to fall to Karas’ red-hot poker sword, quickly dumping $1.2million Karas’ way. “It didn’t take long to demolish Stuey,” boasted Karas as he eyed up new victims.
Chip Reese stepped up to the challenge and lost $2million and within six months Karas was sitting on $17million with nobody to play. Soon Karas had won all of Binion’s highest-denomination chips and the casino had to actually buy them back!
Karas’ $50 into a $40million fortune run didn’t have a happy ending though, his degeneracy at craps and blackjack eventually costing him every last cent.
Short Archie Karas Documentary
If Karas had a legendary poker run, then Chip Reese lived a legendary poker life - as Al Moe described him in 2006, the year before Reese passed away, ‘the quintessential Hall of Fame poker player - the essence of a successful poker player in the purest and most concentrated form, a demigod’.
Born in Centerville, Ohio in 1951, Reese was one of those genius minority of people in the poker world who seemed destined for a life on the felt, plans for law school at Stanford abruptly interrupted by a visit to Vegas which saw him turning a $400 stake into 100 times that – a bankroll which set him on the path to greatness.
That road, as with all of poker’s greatest high-stakes players, was never a smooth one, but for Reese at least it encompassed everything the world of card playing had to offer: he became manager of his own poker room at Dunes Casino in the early 70’s, landed the first of his WSOP bracelets in 1978 and became the youngest-ever Poker Hall of Fame inductee in 1991, at the ripe old age of 40.
The list of legends who claim Reese was the best-ever is as long as your arm, long-time friend and poker opponent Doyle Brunson calling him the best seven-card stud player he had ever played, a view echoed by famous poker mathematician David Sklansky.
Fellow high-stakes pro Barry Greenstein rated Reese as one of the best ever at side games, stating that ‘his skill and control make him the prototype successful big-time player’, while Daniel Negreanu once said that:
“Chip just won every day he played,” adding that, ‘Every time he was in a hand, when analyzing his play, it always made sense. You’d never go ‘Huh? What was he thinking?’ like I do when I see some of the young kids play today.”
Playing every game for the highest stakes, Reese became a legend in his own lifetime, and when he passed away way too early at the age of 56 in 2007, the genuine outpouring of mourning and memories was a fitting testament to perhaps the greatest all-round player to have graced the game.
In 2008 the inaugural David 'Chip' Reese Memorial Trophy was added to the winner’s haul in the $50K buy-in H.O.R.S.E event at the WSOP and it will likely remain as one of the most sought-after pieces of silverware for decades to come.
By the time of Reese’s death in 2007, high-stakes poker was not only confined to the private games of the greatest pros – the internet had provided a new outlet for those with nerves of steel and bankrolls big enough to make Croesus weep.
Johnny ‘bad_ip’ Lodden
One of the first players to make the headlines in the online nosebleeds was the young Norwegian pro, Johnny ‘bad_ip’ Lodden, regularly battling it out for millions on the Prima network against the likes of Freddie Deeb, Prahlad Friedman and Fuat Can with Lodden claiming that $300/400K swings were “standard”.
In one interview he explained:
“When I was 18 I had roughly a million pounds… but it was just a figure online… in my head I didn’t understand what I had. I’d lose $200k one day, win $500k the next. When you’re that young, it’s almost meaningless.”
In the early days of online poker it was often hard to track the biggest cash game players, bulletin boards and forums playing guessing games as to identities and bankrolls, but Lodden was rumoured to have won between $10 and $20million in a devastating run online.
Long before he reached these dizzy heights, however, Lodden had learned the fundamentals of the game by sitting at a friend’s shoulder for several months in his hometown of Jorpeland, close to Stavanger, but was soon playing on his own account and focusing on No Limit Hold’em.
When he finally had the bankroll to play the bigger games, his epic battles online soon became the stuff of legend – an infamous ‘tilt session’ on Prima against the appropriately named ‘TiltmeNot’ – Patrik Antonius – covering 13 separate YouTube videos with Lodden emerging ahead by some $½milllion – a huge sum in the pre-Full Tilt days which saw the nosebleed games and $multi-million pots let alone sessions become the norm.
As ever, huge swings lead to huge crashes, and Lodden’s happened in 2007 when he somehow spewed off an estimated $10million, although to whom exactly it is not clear – a combination of rumours suggesting casino games, his account being hacked and the more likely variance at such stakes being to blame.
By 2008 the Norwegian, having had some success in the live arena, was back to grinding it out at $10/20 instead of $200/400 and bigger, admitting the glorious run was all but over.
"You have to win such sick amounts to afford to sit there. And there's no point in playing the players up there. It's just the same guys sitting, waiting, and they're good, to say the least," Lodden said.
Of course ‘good’ doesn’t even begin to describe the skills of one of those lying in wait, Patrik Antonius, the Finnish poker pro with the looks of a male model who destroyed the online nosebleeds for more than 8 years, taking the best of the best to the cleaners for an incredible $16million – his winning graph likely to scare even the most-skilled mountaineer!
The 36-year old was one of the few top players who would regularly mix his online play with live cash games, featuring heavily in some of the biggest pots ever seen in the game, such as the following against Sammy Farha on High Stakes Poker…
…and the $1,356,946 pot he won against Viktor ‘Isildur1’ Blom in 2009 is still the largest single pot recorded in the history of the online game, in the days before Isildur’s identity was revealed.
The Scandinavian connection with the high stakes has always been a strong one, Antonius part of a quartet of famous players, Lodden, Blom and Gus Hansen accounting for a huge chunk of the non-US money in play at any one time. It wasn’t all rosy for the handsome former tennis coach, however…
He told Cardplayer magazine in 2009 that:
"It might look like I did very well, but I lost millions, millions, millions of dollars with other stuff last year. It looks like no matter how much you win, you never have a lot of money."
Non-poker gambling, it seems, is the number one cause of high-stakes players never being as rich as they ought to be.
Changes in the game affected Antonius as much as anyone, the Full Tilt legend explaining last year that:
"I lost about a million straight and then I realized that I couldn’t beat the ring-games anymore and that was largely due to tracking software. I would take my chances against any high-stakes player live, but online I don’t like my chances anymore, unfortunately."
Nevertheless, more than a decade after hitting the high-stakes scene as a member of Marcel Luske’s ‘Circle of Oulaws’, Antonius can still be found playing the Big Game in Vegas, huge cash games in Leon Tsoukernik’s King’s Casino, tournaments in his new home in Monte Carlo and online as ‘Finddagrind’. Few, if any poker legends, can match this longevity at the biggest stakes.
If there is one man who can definitely challenge Antonius for the title of GOAT at the highest stakes, it is Phil ‘Polarizing’ Ivey – bursting on to the poker scene at the turn of the Millenium, quickly snagging several WSOP bracelets and soon becoming the most feared exponent of the game.
Having spent the majority of the late nineties learning his trade in Atlantic City and earning the name ‘No Home Jerome’ for his round-the-clock casino play, Ivey’s rise to the top saw him mixing it with the old school (Thomas ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston's last final table appearance at the World Series of Poker was his heads-up match against Phil Ivey where Ivey won his first bracelet) and the poker boom years new school (Negreanu, Dwan, Hansen etc).
It was Ivey whom ‘the Corporation’ called on to deal with Andy Beal – the team of pros he challenged initially losing many, many millions back to the Texan billionaire in 2006 – and Ivey’s involvement at stakes of $25,000/$50,000 and $50,000/$100,000 saw Beal lose back more than $16million over the course of just 3 days, leading him to vow never to play poker again.
For a player whose biggest live cash was a $4million payday at the Aussie Millions in 2014, Ivey’s 10 (ten!) WSOP bracelets have surprisingly all been in non-Hold’em events, and he is considered by many to be the best poker player who ever lived.
His online winnings on Full Tilt of close to $20million saw him clash with the likes of Antonius, ‘durrrr’ and ‘Isildur1’, the 4th biggest pot of all time coming in PLO between Ivey and Blom back in 2009…
Black Friday hit Ivey’s online ambitions just as it did everyone else, but as one of the original designers for Full Tilt he was already wealthy beyond compare in the poker community.
He was a regular in all the televised high-stakes games, introducing a young Jason Mercier into the ways of the poker ‘ninja’ class…
…and was an even more regular in the private games in Vegas - and then in Macau as he looked for pastures new to ply his trade. In recent years he seems to have spent more time in legal battles with casinos over multi-million baccarat winnings, but he can still walk into any high-stakes card room and be the main attraction… as evidenced by Gus Hansen’s Instagram post from 2017 at the Bellagio.
Although there are quite a few ‘whales’ out there who have lost countless millions over the years, there are very few excellent pros who have somehow managed to do the same, but Gus Hansen unfortunately is one of them.
The Norwegian high-stakes legend has amassed a wealth of tournament and cash game wins, but it is his $20million+ losses in the online nosebleeds which have marred his ‘legacy’ - $more than $5million of them coming in the year 2014 alone which as David Huber wrote, made the ‘Full Tilt headline sponsored pro by far the biggest cash game loser on the site in both the all-time and Year To Date categories’.
40-year old Hansen, nicknamed the Great Dane, now lives in the popular ‘tax exile’ of Monaco, but he started out in poker when an exchange student at UC Santa Cruz, soon climbing through the ranks –his first recorded cash being a cool $556,460 for winning the $10k Five Diamond World Poker Classic in Las Vegas, his second being another $½ million scoop when he took down the WPT LA Poker Classic the following spring.
A regular on the televised show High Stakes Poker, Hansen will long be remembered for an amazing hand against Daniel Negreanu, turning quads as Negreanu filled his full house, and taking down a cash pot of $575,700 against a disbelieving Canadian.
Hansen became the face of poker over many years, a WPT and EPT star, creating and then selling his own poker site, and fronting Full Tilt Poker both before and after Black Friday. He also produced training videos, worked in poker commentary and was basically involved in every niche imaginable in the game. However, it is his incredible high stakes plays which he will remain famous for, such as this memorable moment against Antonio Esfandiari…
Hansen’s ability and willingness to gamble may have been what caused his horrendous online losses, but it made him an amazing character to follow at the table, changing many players’ perceptions of what poker was about…
The massive losses on Full Tilt and some questionable business decisions kept him away from poker for a while, but the last year or so have seen the Great Dane dipping his toes back in the water, the Big Game at the Bellagio welcoming him back with open arms.
As he told PokerNews’ writer Frank Op de Woerd:
“My endeavors throughout my life have led me to gambling, whether it's one game or another. That's always going to be a part of me and I'm always going to be seeking that. Obviously, I'm not going to play as much as when I played fucking 24/7, every day. But I will always be around in some way, shape or form because I like it and overall I've done pretty well at it.”