Gambling is a phenomenon as old as time itself, and in most cases, all forms of gambling end in big losses for those who spend too much time doing it.
However, not every gambler in the world is a loser. There have been quite a few people in the world of gambling who were able to beat the odds and come out on top.
Many of the people on my list of the most famous gamblers in the world have gone broke more times than they can count. Still, they were able to live their entire lives around their gambling habits.
Today, I take a look at some of the biggest gamblers who ever lived and tell their stories. We will talk about some famous poker players, advantage players, and pure degenerates who only became famous for their losses.
Let’s kick off this list with a handful of well-known names.
1. Doyle Brunson
Known and Texas Dolly and the Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson is one of the most famous gamblers and poker players who ever lived.
Brunson started playing poker long before the Poker Boom and was already a celebrity in the gambling circles in the 60s and 70s.
He rubbed shoulders with other famous gamblers of his era, such as Benny Binion and Amarillo Slim, who also represented the gambling world in their own way.
Doyle was a proficient poker player even back in the day and was always one of the big winners in most games he would play in.
Before poker became a big thing, he would travel the country with his fellow rounders and play in games anywhere they could find one.
For many years, Brunson was considered the best gambler in the world, and besides poker, he would also take other bets, including some famous golf bets that reached millions of dollars.
While Doyle “retired” from poker in 2018, he never really stopped playing the big cash games in Las Vegas.
Just recently, he made a reappearance at the World Series of Poker as well, proving that his saying “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” holds true for him.
2. Edward Thorp
In 1966, there were no personal computers available and no easy way to make the difficult calculations that would help one beat a gambling game.
One man, a math teacher by the name of Edward Thorp, was able to make the necessary calculations himself. In doing so, he found a way to beat the game of blackjack without actually cheating.
Instead of altering the cards or doing anything shady, Thorp invented the first-ever card counting technique, which was enough to give the player an edge over the casino.
The card counting technique involved tracking the number of high and low cards left in the deck of cards. This would diminish the house edge over time and give the player an advantage.
Thorp’s techniques were used by the famous MIT team, and Edward used them himself to win thousands of dollars in the game before card counting was popular.
Thorp was even the first famous gambler to use disguises to trick the casinos into thinking he was a new player, hiding the fact he was able to consistently win at the game.
Thorp doesn’t come anywhere close to the top of the list of the gamblers who won the most money in their lives. However, his invention of the techniques that helped so many players beat the games earns him a spot on the list of famous gamblers.
3. Phil Ivey
Born in 1977 in California, “The Tiger Woods of Poker” became a true gambling celebrity at a very young age.
Even before he turned 21, Ivey would sneak into poker rooms and play around the clock, sometimes losing his last buck and not having the cash to pay for the bus ride back home.
This earned him his first nickname, “No Home Jerome.”
Ivey’s struggles in the early days paid off, however. He honed in his poker skills and learned what it took to survive in the gambling world.
Phil made a career for himself as both a poker player and one of the biggest gamblers around, playing games like baccarat or craps on a regular basis and somehow managing to win.
Ivey’s success took him around the world, as he won poker titles in the US, Europe, Australia, and Asia, taking home millions of dollars in cash along the way.
In 2012, Ivey was involved in a major scandal when he and a partner were caught “edge sorting” in London and Las Vegas casinos.
While this technique they were using to win at baccarat was not, in fact, illegal, the courts were not too fond of the way in which the pair won money at the casinos.
This “scandal” showed just how savvy Ivey is when it comes to gambling and the kind of tricks that have made him one of the most famous gamblers ever to live.
4. Nick “The Greek”
One of the most famous gamblers born in the 19th century, Nick “The Greek” was a Greek-born poker player and gambling shark who is widely attributed as one of the founders of what came to be known as the World Series of Poker.
Nick was a savvy gambler from an early age. He would win and lose hundreds of thousands of dollars betting on horses, playing craps, and gambling it up at the poker tables.
Certainly the most famous of all Nick “The Greek” stories is one of his heads-up poker match with Johnny Moss, another famous Las Vegas gambler.
The match was organized by Benny Binion and was meant to be a tourist attraction. The high-stakes game went on for five months, and by the end of it, Nick was down about $2 million, which was a massive amount at the time.
The match ended when The Greek lost a hand, stood up, and said his famous sentence: “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.”
This match in itself would not be such a part of gambling history if it was not the predecessor of the modern-day World Series of Poker. Binion decided to set it up realizing just how interesting poker was to the bystanders.
Nick “The Greek” is also a part of many other famous gambling stories, including the one in which he introduced Albert Einstein to his gambling buddies as “Little Al” from Princeton and his famous proverb: “Never bet on anything that can talk.”
5. Phil Hellmuth
Some people become famous gamblers for their willingness to take any risk out there. Others manage to make it to the list while avoiding risk whenever possible.
Phil Hellmuth is certainly one of the people on this list who had taken the least risks, as he was always one to only play when he knew he had an edge.
“The Poker Brat,” as he is commonly known in the poker world, holds the record for most WSOP tournaments won, along with numerous other records in the poker world.
He has won millions playing in poker tournaments and cash games around the world, and supposedly even more by capitalizing on the brand he built for himself over the years.
Hellmuth’s table antics have become part of many poker tales, while his unorthodox poker playing style has earned both praise and criticism at times.
Whatever you may think of him, Phil Hellmuth has stood the test of time. His track record easily earns him a spot on our list of the top gamblers in the world.
6. Amarillo Slim
Thomas Austin Preston Jr, also known as Amarillo Slim, was one of the partners to the great Doyle Brunson and was easily one of the biggest gamblers who ever lived.
Slim gambled for decades without taking on a job and was somehow always able to stay ahead and keep winning.
While he did become a famous poker player during the course of his gambling career, it is believed that he made way more money from the various side bets he would make.
Amarillo Slim was famous for making risky bets at the racecourses, but these were not always too successful.
However, his true specialty was finding people gullible enough to make side bets with him.
If Slim offered to bet you that something could or could not be done, you would be a fool to take that action. The entire thing was carefully designed to make you look silly in the end.
Slim died in 2012, twenty years after he was inducted into The Poker Hall of Fame.
The Texas-born gambler will forever live in the memories of anyone who came close to the world of gambling in the decades he was active. Amarillo Slim will never lose his spot on the list of the most famous gamblers of all time.
7. Archie Karas
Born in 1950 on the Greek island of Cephalonia, Archie Karas became a famous gambler in the early nineties, when he went on the biggest upswing recorded in gambling history.
Karas became familiar with gambling at an early age, as he would shoot marbles with other kids from his small town for pocket change.
Later on, Karas moved to America and started hustling in pool halls. When the action dried out for him at the pool tables, he started playing poker and became pretty good at the game.
However, he was not as good as he thought, and he managed to lose his entire $2 million bankroll, which he built up by playing some of the best players in the world, such as Doyle Brunson.
Yet, Karas would not give up, and he went to Las Vegas with nothing but $50 in his pocket. He took a $10,000 loan, and it turned out to be one of the best moves of his life.
“The Run,” as his famous upswing came to be known, lasted for three years between 1992 and 1995. During that time, Archie was able to turn his $10,000 loan into more than $40 million playing poker, craps, roulette, and other gambling games.
It would be impossible to talk about the biggest gamblers of all time without mentioning Karas, who was one of the few who truly didn’t care about money at all.
Eventually, Karas’ fortunes turned, and he lost his entire bankroll, the whole $40 million, back to casinos and poker players.
In 2013, Karas was arrested for marking cards at a San Diego casino, which begs the question of whether “The Run” was really all about luck or possibly involved cheating as well.
Nevertheless, Archie Karas is one of the most famous gamblers you will hear about. His incredible $40 million upswing remains one of the largest recorded to date.
8. Gus Hansen
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Gus Hansen is one of the biggest legends of the high-stakes live and online poker scene.
Gus is not one of the “old guard.” He is a player who joined the folds of Las Vegas high-rollers in the days of the poker boom.
He kick-started his career with multiple wins at the EPT and amazing results on the tournament poker scene overall, becoming famous for his, at the time unparalleled, aggression.
Hansen soon started playing cash games as well and joined the Big Game at the Bobby’s Room, where he is still a regular to this day.
Many say that he is one of the best players in the mixed games format played there, but his NLH and PLO prowess came into question after his less than stellar performances at online poker tables.
As of 2015, Gus has lost over $20,000,000 at Full Tilt Poker, the site he spent most of his time playing at. This made most of the poker fans question his actual abilities.
Whatever the truth may be, his incredible swings and his wins and losses certainly make The Great Dane one of the biggest gamblers who ever appeared on the poker scene.
Whatever financial problems Hansen may have had as a result of his online swings seem to be in his past now.
Gus is living his best life, still gambling it up for high stakes, and maintaining his status as one of the famous gamblers of Las Vegas.
9. Richard Nixon
Unless you dropped on earth from another planet, you have heard of Richard Nixon, the 36th and 37th President of the United States.
What you might not know, however, is that Nixon was a huge cards shark and an amazing poker player.
Nixon worked as a lawyer in Washington in his 20s, and at the age of 29, he joined the Navy. What many don’t know is that he played a lot of poker while on duty and won more often than not.
Nixon spent a lot of time in the Navy, and when he wasn’t busy fighting the Japanese, he would play poker with his Navy buddies, reportedly crushing them almost every time they played.
When he came back from WWII, Nixon had won so much money that he was able to fund his Congressional campaign himself, or at least that’s how the story goes.
This was all before poker was the big thing it is today, so it is hard to tell just how good of a poker player Nixon actually was.
But if his poker winnings set him on the course to becoming the US President, he certainly deserves a spot as one of the biggest gamblers of all time.
10. Guy Laliberté
Born in 1959, Guy Laliberté is a Canadian billionaire and entrepreneur whose passion for gambling showed its ugly side during the years following the poker boom.
While he could certainly afford it, Guy lost more than $31 million playing online poker cash games at Full Tilt Poker against all the big names out there.
For a long time, Laliberté was the player everyone would wait for to start the big games. Although he played under many different nicknames, it was quite easy for the pros to spot him.
Guy’s love for poker mixed in with his love for philanthropy as well, as he raised millions of dollars for his One Drop Foundation through poker tournaments he helped organize with some of the best poker players and richest businessmen in the world.
He never reached the status of an elite poker player or lost his entire net-worth gambling. However, his name will forever remain on the list of famous gamblers as one of the few immensely rich people who decided to rub shoulders with the rest and came out as the big loser.