As much as poker is like a sport, it differs considerably from most popular team and individual sports with regard to its record-keeping. The truth of the matter is the best poker players — and the best poker hands ever played — aren’t necessarily a matter of record or able to be statistically defined.
Sure, Hendon Mob provides us with an endless supply of stats related to the results of poker tournaments and players’ winnings, although how that information gets interpreted is a matter of great debate.
Creating a list of the top 10 or 15 or 20 poker hands in the game’s history is thus an insurmountable challenge if the list-maker wishes to adhere strictly to any kind of “objective” criteria. There’s just too much ambiguity both with regard to how to make such judgments and in the game’s history, especially when we look back before there was ongoing, comprehensive poker news and televised poker and have to rely on uncertain (and often embellished) accounts of poker hands.
With all those caveats in mind, however, we’ll forge onward anyhow and list 15 especially memorable poker hands below, many of which would certainly rate to be included on most “best hand in poker ever”-type lists either because of their historical significance, their eye-popping pots, and/or their sheer entertainment value.
We’ll arrange these hands chronologically, adding the qualification before we start that the first few hands on the list are not only full of uncertainty regarding details, but in at least a couple of cases might not have happened at all!
- June 15, 1853: Danielson and Morgan begin the “endless hand”
Just a couple of weeks ago PokerStars Blog shared an excerpt from my book Poker & Pop Culture in which I tell the story of a legendary “endless hand” played between a couple of Texas landowners that supposedly lasted decades. While the hand is certainly fanciful, the story of it was told and retold enough to make it a famous one in the annals of poker.
- 1860s (?): “Here is the other six,” says Hickok
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok features in multiple poker stories from the 19th century, including one involving a hand of five-card draw in which Hickok (allegedly) called a final bet and watched as his opponent turned over a full house, jacks full. Hickok then showed his hand and declared he had a better full house, aces full of sixes. His opponent was confused, though, when he only saw a single six alongside three aces. “There’s only one six,” he said. Hickok then drew his pistol. “Here is the other six,” he said. His opponent understandably conceded the pot.
- August 2, 1876: The dead man’s hand
Hickok is in the Poker Hall of Fame, so it stands to reason he’d show up more than once in a list of best poker hands ever played. His “dead man’s hand” in which he is said to have held two black aces and two black eights (and a mysterious fifth card) in a game of five-card draw the moment he was shot and killed is probably the single most famous poker hand in history. It goes without saying, though, it was decidedly not the best poker hand from his perspective.
- September 8, 1928: Rothstein cuts himself a deuce
In part to help carry us from the 19th century into 20th, we can include reference here to what The New York Times called “a stud poker game famed in the annals of Broadway,” namely the one in which notorious mobster Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein lost over $300,000 to opponents who likely cheated him. The game became even more infamous when two months later Rothstein was shot and killed, an event seemingly connected to his refusal to pay his debts. While there are no specific hands to describe from the game, there was a report of Rothstein losing $40,000 in one hand of high card. “I cut a card with him,” one of the players admitted in court. “Rothstein cut himself a deuce.”
- 1949 or 1951 (?): The Greek thinks he has a jack in the hole
Here’s another famous “best poker hand” ever that, well, probably didn’t really happen. Or at least not the way the story of the hand has been told over and over. In my book I tell how accounts of the famous heads-up match between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandolos that supposedly took place at Binions’ Horseshoe around mid-century is largely inaccurate (a conclusion Jack Binion confirms). In any case, the tale of their match always includes one hand of five-card stud in which Dandolos starts out betting, then keeps calling as his board comes x-8-6-4-J. Moss meanwhile has x-8-9-2-3 with a nine in the hole for a pair of nines, and is said to have raised big on the end to make the pot over a half million dollars. “I guess that I have to call,” said Moss, “because I think I have a jack in the hole.” “If you’ve got a jack in the hole, Greek, you’re going to win one hell of a pot,” answered Moss (so the story goes).
- May 15, 1977: Doyle Brunson wins the Main Event with 10-2 again!
Finally we arrive at some Texas hold’em hands. The legendary Doyle Brunson won his first WSOP Main Event title after beating Jesse Alto heads-up with 10-2 versus Alto’s A-J. The pair got all in on a A-J-10 flop, but running deuces gave Brunson an full house to win. A year later Brunson won the Main Event again, and once again 10-2 — hardly one of the best poker starting hands — was the winning hand for “Tex Dolly.” This time the opponent was Gary Berland and the chips went in on the turn with board showing 10-8-5-2 to give Brunson two pair. That was better than Berland’s 8-5 for a lesser two pair, and while Brunson didn’t need it, a 10 on the river gave him a full house again as he clinched his defense of the Main Event title.
- May 25, 1979: Fowler’s cracks Hoff’s aces with the ol’ seven-six off
On his way to becoming the first amateur ever to win the World Series of Poker Main Event in 1979, Hal Fowler played a number of pretty wild hands. The capper was the last one in which he picked up 7♠6♦ versus his heads-up opponent Bobby Hoff who had A♣A♥. Fowler called a preflop raise from Hoff, then after the 5♥3♣J♠ flop called another bet. Then when Hoff shoved following the 4♠ turn, Fowler was more than ready to call again to show his opponent he was drawing dead. You can read more about that hand and other craziness from that year in “Remembering the 1979 WSOP Main Event.”
- May 17, 1990: The Matloubi-Lund rollercoaster
Mansour Matloubi and Hans Lund played an amazing hand while heads-up in the WSOP Main Event. With stacks nearly even and Lund slightly ahead, the pair got all in on a 9♠2♣4♠ flop with Lund holding A♣9♦ and Matloubi 10♦10♣. The A♠ on the turn then put Lund in front, but Matloubi hit a two-outer when the 10♠ river completed the board, and Matloubi went on to win. “This is without question the most incredible hand in the history of the World Series of Poker,” went the commentary, and (at least up until then) it’s hard to disagree.
- Spring 1990: Ungar calls with 10-high
Not long after the 1990 WSOP Main Event was over, Stu Ungar challenged Matloubi to a high-stakes heads-up match and won. The duel featured a wild hand in which Ungar, holding 10-9, was able to guess Matloubi had made a big river bluff on a 3-3-7-K-Q board and called with just 10-high. He was right, as Matloubi had but 5-4. You can read more about that hand in “5-Card Fiction: Evoking Stu Ungar with a 10-high call on ‘Billions.’”
- May 14, 1998: Nguyen for the win, or “You call, gonna be all over, baby!”
Heads-up for the WSOP Main Event title, Scotty Nguyen pushed all in on a 8♠8♥9♥9♦8♣ board, putting Kevin McBride to a test for the rest of his stack. McBride held Q♥10♥, meaning if he called he’d be playing the full house comprised by the community cards. While he brooded Nguyen stood and took a swig of his beer, saying “You call, gonna be all over, baby!” Finally McBride did call, fulfilling Nguyen’s prediction as he turned over J♦9♣ for a better full house.
- May 24, 2003: The bluff of the century
We’ve all seen this hand countless times, and would probably all agree that for many reasons it counts as one of the best ever played. Amateur Chris Moneymaker bluffed all-in on the river with nothing but king-high against cagey pro Sam Farha when heads-up for the 2003 WSOP Main Event title, and Farha backed down by folding his pair of nines. Soon after Moneymaker won the bracelet and $2.5 million first prize. Like the Fowler-Hoff hand above, the hand happened after midnight, and at the time it occurred a limited number of people witnessed it or understood its significance. It wouldn’t be until early October that it aired as part of ESPN’s WSOP coverage — with hole cards up, so we all knew the Tennessee accountant was bluffing. It was a hand and moment that proved key in helping spark the “poker boom”
- August 14, 2006: Hansen-Negreanu for more than half a milly on High Stakes Poker
It was the first hand with a pot worth more than half a million on High Stakes Poker, the popular TV show featuring high-stakes cash game action involving mostly professional poker players and a few amateurs. If you watched the show you will remember this one. Gus Hansen raised with 5♦5♣, Daniel Negreanu three-bet with 6♠6♥, Hansen called and the flop came 9♣6♦5♥ to give both players sets. There was more betting on that street, then the 5♠ landed on the turn to make Hansen quads. Hansen bet, Negreanu called, then they got it all in after the 8♠ to make a $575,700 pot for Hansen. Watch below (starting at the 32-minute mark):
- November 21, 2009: The fearless Finn vs. the Swingy Swede
For this one we turn to the world of poker bonuses, tiled screens, and terms and conditions to share a hand from the virtual felt — the largest single real money pot in online poker history! Amid all of the “nosebleed” action occurring online in late 2009, Patrik Antonius of Finland and the (then mysterious) Viktor “Isildur1” Blom of Sweden played a heads-up cash game hand of pot-limit Omaha on Full Tilt in which Antonius wins a pot worth $1,356,946 (or almost 1,357 big blinds). In one hand! If you’re curious, Blom had 9♠8♥7♦6♦ and Antonius A♥K♥K♠3♠, and Blom called a five-bet preflop before the pair got all of their very deep stacks in on the 4♠5♣2♥ flop. The 5♥ turn and 9♣ river sealed it, sending all those riches Antonius’ way.
- June 14, 2010: The Poker Brat runs it four times, loses three
While there were certainly some crazy straight flush over quads hands we might have included, for some probability-defying fun it’s hard to beat this one from the very first episode of PokerStars Big Game in which Phil Hellmuth squared off against amateur “loose cannon” Ernest Wiggins. Hellmuth had A♥9♦, Wiggins K♠K♣, and the flop had come 9♥10♠9♠. “All right, I’m all in,” said Hellmuth and Wiggins snap-called. At Hellmuth’s behest they chose to run it four times, employing one of his favorite poker strategies to minimize variance. Wiggins agreed, and, well, the title gives you an idea what happened. After Hellmuth wins the the first one, Wiggins hits a king on the second, turns a flush draw and gets there on the third, then hits the case king on round four. Even knowing all that, though, it’s still hilarious to watch:
- July 18, 2010: Duhamel cracks Affleck’s aces
With 15 players left in the WSOP Main Event, Matt Affleck was eliminated in a huge hand versus eventual winner Jonathan Duhamel. Duhamel was all in on the turn with pocket aces versus Duhamel’s pocket jacks and an open-ended straight draw, and Duhamel hit his straight on the river. Relive the moment from the PokerStars Blog’s WSOP coverage in “The long, lonely walk of Matt Affleck.”
As noted above, this list is surely only a start, with dozens of other hands from throughout poker’s long storied history no doubt worth including, too. Which hands not on this list would you rate among the best poker hands ever played?