The Evolution of the Poker Millionaire

By James Guill
March 15, 2018

A new record was set in 2017 that seems to have been overlooked by the poker industry as a whole. The number players that have won at least $1 million in live tournaments grew to 125 in 2017, an increase of 21 from 2016.

Poker has grown and evolved over the decades. As a result, the number of “poker millionaires” has steadily increased. It’s no secret that high stakes tournaments have changed the landscape of poker in recent years, but since 2012 in particular they have helped redefine what it means to be successful in the game. Of course, it is not the only reason that poker continues to grow.

In this article, we’ve crunched the numbers and take a look at the number of poker millionaires created over the years.

644 Players Have Won $1 Million in One Year Since 2000

Since 2000, 644 players have won $1 million or more in a year in live tournaments. Even more remarkable is that 180 of those players have gone on to win $1 million or more at least twice.

If you ever need an example of how poker is a game of skill, just take a look at the table below. As of this publication, 25 players have won $1 million or more in a year five times since 2000. Daniel Negreanu, currently #1 on Poker’s All-Time Money List, has done so 11 times. Jason Mercier has done so nine times.

PlayerNumber of Years Winning $1 Million or More
Daniel Negreanu11
Jason Mercier9
Erik Seidel8
John Juanda8
Phil Hellmuth8
Phil Ivey8
Brian Rast7
Isaac Haxton7
Dan Smith6
Erick Lindgren6
Igor Kurganov6
Justin Bonomo6
Ole Schemion6
Stephen Chidwick6
Steve O’Dwyer6
Bertrand Grospellier5
Bryn Kenney5
Dan Shak5
David Peters5
Jake Schindler5
Michael Watson5
Mike McDonald5
Mustapha Kanit5
Scott Seiver5
Thomas Marchese5

You’ve probably noticed that the top of this list consists of mostly the “older generation” of elite players while the remainder is dominated by younger pros and high stakes elite players. Some people have argued that high stakes tournaments would completely overshadow the great players of our game. As you can see from this list, the greatest players still find a way to excel on a consistent basis.

Poker Boom Created an Explosion of Poker Millionaires

Believe it or not, the first player to ever win at least $1 million in tournaments in a year was Phil Hellmuth. His won $1.06 million in 1989, the year he won the WSOP Main Event, but that big score only accounted for $755,000 of that total. He cashed 14 times that year, winning four times (including the Main Event) to achieve that total.

Hellmuth started a trend that would continue for another decade, where poker’s top earner eclipsed $1 million. Each time, the top earner was also the WSOP Main Event Champion.

YearTop EarnerTotal Won
1989Phil Hellmuth$1,062,839
1990Mansour Matloubi$1,060,000
1991Brad Daugherty$1,008,307
1992Hamad Dastmalchi$1,027,300
1993Jim Bechtel$1,030,880
1994Russ Hamilton$1,056,225
1995Dan Harrington$1,570,250
1996Huck Seed$1,006,012
1997Stu Ungar$1,000,000
1998Scotty Nguyen$1,125,862
1999Noel Furlong$1,017,935

You’ll notice in the table above that Dan Harrington outpaced the others on this list by a wide margin, close to $500,000. That year, he won four tournaments including the WSOP Main Event and the Four Queens Poker Classic. His 1995 run was the greatest by a live tournament player in terms of cash won until 2000.

The turn of the century also brought a new era of poker millionaires. In 2000, there were three players with $1 million or more in annual earnings. Current WSOP Player of the Year Chris Ferguson won the Main Event and $1.7 million that year. John Duthie (yes, partypoker’s John Duthie) won the Poker Million that year for $1.4 million. T.J. Cloutier was the Main Event runner-up and made $1.02 million.

Following the Poker Boom in 2003, the number of poker millionaires jumped dramatically with 23 in 2004, 42 in 2005, and then 58 in 2006. As you notice from the chart below, that number hovered from 58-69 until 2012.

YearNumber of Players Who Won $1 Million or More
201814 (as of this publication)*

High Stakes Events Partially Contributes to Continued Growth of Millionaires

You’ll notice in the table above that starting in 2013, the number of poker millionaires per year jumped to 80 and has been steadily growing since that time. In 2016, that number eclipsed 100 for the first time. Last year, the record for annual millionaires increased to 125. That’s more than double the previous number of millionaires in just 2011.

High stakes tournaments really started hitting their stride around 2011-2012 and by 2013 they started to become a regular staple of the poker circuit. What started as a novelty is now a regular occurrence, with many stops on worldwide tours hosting their own version of high roller events. In addition to the familiar faces of high roller pros, you’ll often see some wealthy business people at these events. The fact is that all you need to take a seat is enough money for the buy-in, so even if, for example, you’ve just started off in an online casino with a no deposit bonus and have gotten lucky enough to run that up to a sizable bankroll, you can plunk that cash down and hope to parlay your success into becoming a  poker millionaire.

Up until 2012, the top earner each year was consistently the winner of the WSOP Main Event. However, starting in 2012, the winner of the Main Event has only been the top earner once. Antonio Esfandiari’s victory in the Big One for One Drop started a new run of top annual earners who were non-Main Event winners.

And that trend will likely continue in 2018 as the $1 Million Big One for One Drop returns to the WSOP. Odds are that the winner of that event will be the year’s top money winner. Unless a high stakes regular happens to win the Main Event, odds are that this year’s World Champion of Poker will finish in 2nd or even 3rd place amongst this year’s poker millionaires.

Industry Leaders Deserve Part of the Credit

To say that high roller events are the only cause behind the continued growth of poker millionaires would be unfair and inaccurate. After Black Friday, there were many who were fearful that poker as an industry would be devastated.

It was at this point that the industry appeared to collectively say “not on my watch” and in the years since Black Friday, we have seen numerous innovations in how poker is offered to the masses.

One prime example is the World Series of Poker. Just look at the number of changes and innovations they’ve gone through since Black Friday. I’ve never been a fan of gimmick tournaments, but the WSOP is the king of gimmicks and has consistently found ways to draw in more players to the felt each year.

You can also look around the industry to see what other organizations have done to draw people to the game at all levels. Industry officials have taken risks and many have paid off. This has resulted in new players coming to the game and others finding a way to continue playing the game they love after the major online poker operators were forced to abandon the US.

More “Winners” Does Not Necessarily Equal More “Winning”

We would be remiss if we didn’t point out the fact that some of the numbers presented above are very deceptive. While there are many players winning millions each year in poker tournaments, a sizable percentage of these players are also shelling out millions in order to play in all the high roller events around the world.

Daniel Negreanu has won $1 million+ in a year more than any other player in history (11 times), but he is also on a multi-year losing streak. He revealed recently that he finished 2017 in the red despite earning over $2.7 million at the tables.

At the highest levels of poker tournament play, you’re looking at buy-ins of $25k or more each time you sit down to play. If you played $25k buy-ins exclusively and win $1 million once, you’ve won 40 buy-ins. If you play $50k events, a $1 million win is just 20 buy-ins. Those playing $100k events get a “paltry” 10 buy-ins for every $1 million won.

Knowing this, it’s easy to see why even a player of the caliber of Negreanu can finish in the red despite having what many would consider a “very successful” year.

Will The Number of Annual Poker Millionaires Continue to Grow?

For the time being, it is feasible to assume that the number of poker millionaires will continue to steadily increase. Each year, new “must play” events are being created such as the US Poker Open and the Poker Masters series.

In addition, tournament organizers at all levels are always looking for ways to draw in new players and retain old players. Successful initiatives create more opportunity, which results in more money to be won in tournament prize pools.

How long this growth will continue will remain to be seen. Some will argue that the industry is waiting with bated breath for iGaming to expand and that this will help usher in another poker boom.

In the meantime, industry leaders and tournament directors are taking matters into their own hands and ensuring that the game continues to grow.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

Image used for illustrative purposes only

Writers Note: If you know anything about poker history, you know that tournament results were seldom reported. The figures given pre-Boom are based exclusively on available data. Stats provided are courtesy of The Hendon Mob.



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James Guill poker author
Written By.

James Guill

James Guill started his poker career playing semi-professionally from 2006 to 2008. In 2008, a colleague suggested he try his hand at poker writing and the rest was history. Since 2008, James has written for numerous publications including PokerNews, PokerUpdate, Ivey Poker, PokerJunkie, PokerListings and PokerNews Australia. James also spent several years providing content for […]



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