How the Mighty Have Fallen in the Poker World

Annie DukeThe Poker Boom made a lot of people very famous and very wealthy, but like the many horror stories you hear about lottery winners it seems that poker players are not immune to bankroll busting life-leaks. For every Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu there are five players who appeared to have it all during the Poker Boom but now find themselves down on their luck or their reputations in shambles.

In this column I’ll take a look at the poker superstars from the Poker Boom era that have fizzled out.

The Poker Boom Giveth and the Poker Boom Taketh Away

If you were a young male in the early and mid-2000’s it’s a good bet that you played home poker games and you are friends kibitzed about the latest episode of the WPT or WSOP Main Event where E-Dawg or The Unabomber dominated. And if your home-game was anything like mine, I’m sure there were one or two serious poker players (the ones who visited 2+2 and other outlets) who regaled their friends with the tales and adventures of poker’s biggest online stars and their crazy prop bets and superhuman win-rates.

But when the well ran dry, and the outside money and sponsorships started drying up, all of those humorous stories started to become a bit more cringe-worthy, and the men (and a few women) who were propped up like poker gods on Mount Olympus started to exhibit the same character flaws of the real Greek Gods and Goddesses.

Looking back at this era of superstars is enough to repulse anyone who once thought of these people as grounded individuals who put a lot of stock in their reputation. This wasn’t just a case of a guy like 2004 WSOP Final Table participant Al Krux getting arrested in a drug bust, or any of the countless stories of crimes and debauchery involving periphery players in the poker world. The players who have fallen (some really, really hard) were the elites; the best of the best during the Boom, including a number of WSOP Main Event winners.

The dubious list

Before I start listing players keep in mind that I’m not comparing their crimes or transgressions to one another –in no way am I equating Russ Hamilton and Mike Matusow. The list simply demonstrates the sheer number of poker superstars who have found themselves on hard times, be it personally, financially, or in trouble with the law.

Mike Matusow has had several personal setbacks, including going to prison over drug charges and is by no means rolling in money at present. It’s pretty safe to say that most people are rooting for Mike to win his battle against his demons, and for all his bluster he really does seem to have good intentions.

By his own account, Erick Lindgren owes seven-figures to various people. Matusow’s addiction was drugs and Lindgren’s was gambling, specifically sports-betting.

Dutch Boyd, one of ESPN’s first stars, is essentially broke and auctioning off whatever poker trinkets he has left and trying to fund his latest project on Kickstarter. And that’s after being sued (and losing the case) for cybersquatting, going through his bi-polar diagnosis, and let’s not forget

Mike Mizarachi has gone through foreclosure and owing hundreds of thousands in back taxes, before an incredible run at the 2010 WSOP got him back on his feet.

Annie Duke and Howard Lederer anyone? I could write a whole separate column on these two.

Then we have the countless players selling their WSOP bracelets from TJ Cloutier to Dutch Boyd, to Brad Daugherty, to Jamie Gold.

Or how about the myriad of problems Main Event winners like Russ Hamilton, Chris Ferguson, and Jamie Gold have been caught up in? And to a lesser extent Jerry Yang (the IRS seized his personal items), Greg Raymer (busted in a prostitution sting), Phil Hellmuth (Ultimate Bet ties), Scotty Nguyen (his 2008 WSOP Poker Players Championship behavior), Peter Eastgate (his bizarre decision to quit poker and auction off his bracelet, only to later come back to the game and downplay a sports-betting problem).

So what is causing this?

My guess (putting on my amateur psychologist hat here) is that like lottery winners, most of these players simply weren’t ready for prime-time, and the sudden influx of money, after years of grinding and hustling just to make a living, was too sudden.

And let’s not overlook the fact that poker, by its nature, tends to draw nonconformists, and a high number of degenerates, gamblers, and hustlers. Sure, there are some level-headed intellectuals in the game, but by and large the poker community is a collection of misfits who don’t really function all that well in regular society and are not what I would call “rule followers.”

The list of famous poker players with zero flies on them may actually be blank –even Phil Ivey has found himself in the middle of several brouhahas, from the post-Black Friday Full Tilt poker fiasco to some questionable behavior on the golf course, and more recently filing a $12 million lawsuit against Crockford’s Casino after he won through a technique called “edge-sorting.”

These were the people we cheered on, and while many of them are simply hard luck stories and people we can now root for to turn it around, some of them really let us down …


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