Commentary

The best to never win a major

Updated: April 1, 2008, 11:55 AM ET
By BLUFF

Some will tell you exactly how many bracelets they've won or how many times they've made a TV final table, but professional poker players keep score with the almighty dollar: the more you have, the better you're doing. Still, even the most successful players in the world will tell you that the recognition that comes with winning a major tournament is nearly as important as the money.

Every month BLUFF's pages are full of stories on poker's biggest names or the latest millionaires from World Poker Tour or World Series of Poker events, but this issue we're showcasing the top six players who haven't yet won a major tournament.

For years Phil Mickelson was widely regarded as the best golfer without a win in one of the sport's four majors. The reputation of failing to perform in golf's most prestigious events dogged Mickelson until 2004, when he finally broke through with a win at the Masters. He's had little trouble winning the big ones since.

But as you already know, the poker world isn't like golf with its four designated "majors" every year, so what exactly defines a major tournament? It only makes sense to follow the same criteria used for the 2007 BLUFF Magazine Player of the Year award: a $5,000 minimum buy-in and a field of at least 100 players. That surely eliminates some of the biggest names in the game, but the players whose names fill up the next pages are bound to generate some controversy and discussion -- even among the players themselves.

With total career earnings of over $25 million, could these six players find greater success in the next year and cast off the label of being the Phil Mickelson of poker? Let's break down the names and let the cards speak as these players chase poker immortality and pursue the right to have their names removed from this list.

No. 6 Patrik Antonius
Career Earnings: $ 2,075,060
Career Cashes: 21
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 1
Season 4 Five Diamond World Poker Classic (second place)
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 2
• 2007 $10,000 pot-limit Omaha (second place)
• 2006 $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. (ninth place)
Career Wins: 1
Career Runner-ups: 1

As a regular in the Big Game, the Finnish whiz kid commands the utmost respect from the best players in the world, but he's had trouble breaking through on the tournament circuit. He first showed up in 2005, with two strong showings at WPT events. In a span of two months, Antonius finished 12th at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and 15th at the Bay 101 Shooting Stars event, and suddenly people had taken note.

He has only one tournament win to his credit, and it came in 2005 when he outlasted 44 other players in the Scandinavian Poker Open to take home $66,000. He has come close to winning a big one, including this past summer when he finished third in the $10,000 pot-limit World Championship at the WSOP. He also has a WPT runner-up finish from the Season 4 Five Diamond World Poker Classic, where he lost to Rehne Pederson after outlasting a final table including Doyle Brunson, Phil Laak, Darrell Dicken and J.J. Liu.

A student of Jennifer Harman, Antonius has the skills to play in the world's biggest game, and it won't be much longer until he finds himself in the winner's circle of one of the game's biggest events.

No. 5 David Williams Career Earnings: $5,776,702.00
Career Cashes: 31
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 3
• Season 3 Borgata Poker Open (second place)
• Season 4 Bay 101 Shooting Star (fourth place)
• Season 5 Mirage Poker Showdown (fourth place)
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 3
• 2006 WSOP $5,000 no-limit 2-7 draw lowball w/rebuys (second place)
• 2006 WSOP $1,500 seven card stud (first place)
• 2004 WSOP $10,000 no-limit hold 'em Championship (second place)
Career Wins: 4
Career Runner-Ups: 3

His closest call to poker immortality came in the first live tournament he ever played -- the 2005 World Series of Poker main event. As a fresh-faced newcomer, Williams got heads-up with Greg Raymer for the title. Not long after the contest began, Williams found himself all-in with the second-best hand and though he was instantly $3.5 million richer, getting that close to winning poker's most prestigious event and not being able to come through is something that still haunts Williams.

Despite that, he's managed to make three WPT final tables, including a star-studded Borgata Poker Open only weeks after the 2004 WSOP runner-up finish where he again came second, this time to Daniel Negreanu. Williams hasn't gone entirely without tournament success, mind you. This past summer he took down a $5,000 buy-in Bellagio Cup III no-limit hold 'em tournament but, thanks in large part to the WSOP going on across town at the same time, the event only had 63 entrants, thus making his win ineligible for the BLUFF Player of the Year.

The poster boy for cool also has a WSOP bracelet from 2006 when he took down a $1,500 buy-in 7-card Stud event. That same year he won a WSOP-Circuit H.O.R.S.E. tournament with a $5,000 buy-in, but the event again fell short of the 100-player minimum, with only 51 entering the multiple-game competition. At only 27 years old, Williams won't be on this list for long.

No. 4 Mike Matusow

Career Earnings: $5,079,314.00
Career Cashes: 55
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 3
• Season 6 Borgata Poker Open (sixth place)
• Season 6 Bellagio Cup III (second place)
• Season 3 UltimateBet Aruba Poker Classic (third place)
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 11
• 2006 WSOP $2,500 no-limit hold 'em (seventh place)
• 2005 WSOP $10,000 no-limit hold 'em Championship (ninth place)
• 2004 WSOP $1,000 no-limit hold 'em (fifth place)
• 2003 WSOP $2,500 no-limit hold 'em (third place)
• 2002 WSOP $5,000 limit Omaha high-low (first place)
• 2001 WSOP $10,000 no-limit hold 'em Championship (sixth place)
• 2000 WSOP $2,500 limit seven card stud high-low (seventh place)
• 2000 WSOP $1,500 limit Omaha high-low (ninth place)
• 1999 WSOP $1,500 limit Omaha high-low (fifth place)
• 1999 WSOP $3,500 no-limit hold 'em (first place)
• 1997 WSOP $2,000 limit Omaha high-low (second place)
Career Wins: 5
Career Runner-ups: 2

Surely two-time WSOP bracelet winner Mike "The Mouth" Matusow can't be on this list, right? You'd think not, given the huge fan base that Matusow has developed over the past five years. One of the biggest reasons for Matusow's popularity is his theatrics upon busting out of a tournament. But he's also a strong enough player that he's put himself in position to be getting TV time, with 11 WSOP final tables.

Such was the case in 2004 when Matusow busted out of the WSOP main event after getting his money in with the best hand. "What do I do to deserve this? I played the best poker of my life, man. Why do I do this for a living? I've gotta be the sickest… person in the whole entire universe. I thought this was my year. How does that happen? Oh well, I ain't playing to nickel and dime. I'm playing to win. I'm happy, I'll be fine. Damn."

Despite making sure the whole world knows when he's busted out of a poker tournament, Matusow has actually come the closest to erasing his name from this list. In 2002 he won his second WSOP bracelet in a $5,000 buy-in Omaha high-low event. Only problem is that the field was 79 players  21 short of being a qualifying event.

Surely just another bad beat for The Mouth.

No. 3 Todd Brunson

Career Earnings: $3,209,878.00
Career Cashes: 76
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 0
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 6
• 2007 WSOP $5,000 no-limit 2-7 draw lowball w/rebuys (seventh place)
• 2005 WSOP $10,000 pot-limit Omaha (sixth place)
• 2005 WSOP $2,500 Omaha high-low eight or better (first place)
• 2005 WSOP $5,000 no-limit hold 'em (eighth place)
• 2004 WSOP $2,000 Omaha high-low eight or better (fifth place)
• 1994 WSOP $1,500 limit hold 'em (eighth place)
Career Wins: 17
Career Runner-ups: 11

To casual poker fans, Todd Brunson is more famous for being Doyle's son than anything else, but talk to those on the inner circle of poker's biggest games, and they'll tell you that Todd's easily one of the most successful poker players of all time. Despite being on the tournament circuit since the early '90s, Brunson hasn't won a major tournament, mainly because he finds the cash games so much more lucrative than playing in time-consuming large-field tournaments.

Surprisingly, Doyle's boy has never made a WPT final table, but he has made six WSOP final tables including his only bracelet win in 2005 when he took down the $2,500 Omaha high-low eight or better event. His career includes 76 cashes, 11 runner-ups and an impressive 17 wins. With career earnings of over $3.2 million, he's certainly no slouch, but depending on which rumor you choose to believe, that amount is just a drop in the bucket compared to his cash game winnings.

No. 2 Kenna James Career Earnings: $2,930,330.00
Career Cashes: 99
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 1
• Season 4 Legends of Poker (second place)
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 3
• 2006/2007 WSOP-Circuit Caesars Palace $3,000 H.O.R.S.E. (fifth place)
• 2004/2005 WSOP Circuit Rincon $1,500 no-limit hold 'em (sixth place)
• 2003 WSOP $2,500 no-limit hold 'em (fourth place)
Career Wins: 12
Career Runner-ups: 6

"The Cowboy" is no stranger to the tournament circuit, and he's found success with 99 career cashes for nearly $3 million in tournament winnings. He's only made one World Poker Tour TV final table, finishing second to Alex Kahaner in 2005 at the Legends of Poker. He also had a runner-up finish at the 2006 PartyPoker Million.

His 12 career wins include his most recent win when he beat Michael Mizrachi heads-up to win a $2,500 no-limit hold 'em at the L.A. Poker Classic in 2006. Kenna is widely respected on the tournament circuit as one of the game's toughest players, having come up from the cash games in California before discovering tournament poker in the late '90s.

Most poker fans got their first long look at James in 2004 during the Ultimate Poker Challenge where he made four final tables, recording a fourth-place finish, a third-place finish, and two wins during the highly syndicated poker tournament. James was suddenly in the public's eye as one of the game's hotter newcomers -- despite the fact he'd been playing for years.

James followed up his seemingly overnight success and cast himself even further into the public spotlight during the 2004 WSOP main event when he finished 44th. In a tournament where so many pros were busting early, Kenna found himself lasting until near the end, and his fan base -- not to mention respect from fellow poker players -- grew exponentially.

No. 1 David Pham

Career Earnings: $6,570,713.00
Career Cashes: 174
World Poker Tour Final Tables: 5
• Season 1 L.A. Poker Classic (fourth place)
• Season 3 Foxwoods World Poker Finals (sixth place)
• Season 3 Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship (third place)
• Season 5 World Poker Challenge (third place)
• Season 6 Legends of Poker (second place)
World Series of Poker Final Tables: 8
• 2007 WSOP $3,000 limit hold 'em (fourth place)
• 2006/2007 WSOP-Circuit $5,000 no-limit hold 'em championship (sixth place)
• 2006 WSOP $2,000 no-limit hold 'em shootout (first place)
• 2005 WSOP $1,000 no-limit hold 'em (fourth place)
• 2004/2005 WSOP-Circuit $10,000 no-limit hold 'em championship (seventh place)
• 2001 WSOP $2,000 limit S.H.O.E. (first place)
• 2000 WSOP $3,000 no-limit hold 'em (eighth place)
• 2000 WSOP $2,000 no-limit hold 'em (fourth place)
Career Wins: 30
Career Runner-ups: 20

David Pham's tournament statistics are simply astounding, and there are more than a few fellow pros on tour who would gladly switch results with The Dragon. In over 15 years of playing tournament poker professionally, Pham has racked up $6.5 million in tournament winnings, knocking down 30 tournament wins, 20 runner-ups, and 174 cashes. It's those numbers that make Pham the obvious choice for the best player to never win a major tournament.

In 2007 alone Pham was a one-man wrecking crew and managed to top $1.8 million in tournament winnings. His four wins included a $2,500 no-limit hold 'em tournament during the Five Diamond Poker Classic in December. He also got ridiculously close to notching his first major tournament win at the Legends of Poker in August, where he finished second to Dan Harrington. It marked the fifth time that Pham made a WPT final table.

After learning the game from Men "The Master" Nguyen, Pham began playing tournaments in 1992 and hasn't looked back since. He has won two WSOP bracelets, his first in 2001 and another in 2006. Pham is bound to break through and capture one of poker's biggest events in the near future. He has the naturally aggressive and deceptive style that allows him to build huge chip leads against weaker competition, and he plays a high volume of tournaments, even when compared to other pros currently on the circuit.

Given his obviously strong game and his incredible results in all facets of the game, it's no surprise that many people consider David Pham to be the "Phil Mickelson of poker."

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