If you look at photos of the very earliest poker tournaments, not only is every player a white man, but every player is an old white man. Back in the early days, you had to have been around the block a bit before you were accepted at the top tables.
But through the back end of the 20th century, and certainly since the advent of online poker and the ensuing boom of the 2000s, poker tournaments have been dominated by brilliant young upstarts. In the boom era, young people could watch poker on TV, open an online account the minute they were legally old enough, and then quickly hone their skills and master poker strategy.
After that, the only barrier to entry into major live tournaments was the age restriction of the specific jurisdiction. And once these whiz-kids were seated, they quickly began to win.
Here’s a look at some of the most notable achievements by young players in the world of poker.
WSOP MAIN EVENTWhen Johnny Moss won the first edition of what would become known as the World Series of Poker (WSOP), he was 63 years old. The year was 1970 and Moss was the archetypal poker player of the era. Not many youngsters could find $10,000 to play poker with in the 1970s. Despite that, Moss was quickly unseated as the WSOP’s youngest winner in 1972 by a sprightly 43-year-old named Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, but nobody younger won the title for another six years.
However, the 28-year-old strategy geek Bobby Baldwin set a new mark when he won the WSOP Main Event in 1978, and Stu “The Kid” Ungar bettered Baldwin in 1980, when he won it aged 26. It wasn’t until 1989 that another player came along to better even Ungar’s mark: Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth, who was born in 1964, became the youngest WSOP champion, aged 24.
Hellmuth’s record stood as the WSOP grew dramatically in size through the 1990s and early 2000s. But then, with the tournament series now taking place at the Rio, and the November Nine concept having been introduced, a fresh-faced Danish player named Peter Eastgate snatched Hellmuth’s crown. Eastgate was 22 years old.
With the legal gambling age in Nevada set at 21, it might have been reasonable to expect Eastgate’s record to stand for at least as long as Hellmuth’s. But it actually lasted precisely one year. In November 2009, Joe Cada won the WSOP Main Event aged 21, 11 months and 24 days — 340 days younger than Eastgate.Cada’s record stands to this day, but with the tournament having now abandoned the November Nine format, wannabe challengers have a three-month advantage on Cada. He was only 21 years, seven months and 16 days old when the tournament started, but had to wait all that time to close it out. That doesn’t happen any more.
WSOP ELSEWHEREFor its first 37 years, the World Series of Poker took a bit of a liberty with its name. Its “world” stretched only as far as Las Vegas, Nevada — and that meant that its youngest players would have to be at least 21, the legal gambling age in the state (and, indeed, the States).
But when the WSOP expanded to Europe, specifically to London in xxx 2007, players only needed to be 18 to get involved. That appealed to a whole raft of online phenoms — the most phenomenal of whom went all the way to the title.
Back in 2007, Annette Obrestad was still best known by her online moniker “Annette_15”. After all, it was the name by which she had put the fear of god up thousands of opponents on PokerStars. She quickly demonstrated that she was equally as formidable in the live arena too by besting a field of 362 players in a £10,000 buy-in event. When she clinched the victory, beating John Tabatabai heads up, she became £1 million richer — one day before she turned 19.
As of 2020, Obrestad is still the only player to win a WSOP bracelet as an 18 year old.
THE EUROPEAN POKER TOURIt wasn’t just the beautiful locations, superlative tournament organisation and huge prize pools that made the European Poker Tour (EPT) an enormously popular entity right from the word go. In Europe, almost all countries have a legal gambling age of 18 which meant the online poker players of North America could test their mettle in the live arena by heading to the EPT, even if they still had three years to wait until they could play closer to home. The easy qualification route through PokerStars online satellites made the journey even smoother.
The first American to win the EPT Grand Final, Georgia’s Jeff Williams, is still the youngest winner of that particular event. The man known at the time as “yellowsub86” was only 19 when he prevailed in Monte Carlo in 2006, earning close to $1.1 million.
However, the youngest winner of any EPT Main Event went on to even greater things than Williams. Mike “Tîmex” McDonald was only 18 years, four months and 23 days old when he won EPT Dortmund in February 2008, booking a win worth €933,600. He had a youthful smile and braces on his teeth but a game that was more sophisticated than anyone else’s at the time. Perhaps even more remarkably, it wasn’t even his first EPT cash. The previous December, only three months since he turned 18, he had finished 14th in the EPT Prague Main Event.
McDonald was a fixture for the next decade at high-level poker, tournaments, building live career earnings of more than $13 million. Though he plays a lot less these days, because of a ton of other business and gambling pursuits, McDonald is a brilliant “youngest ever” for the EPT.
THE WORLD POKER TOUR (WPT)For its first few seasons (and similar to the WSOP), the World Poker Tour (WPT) defined “world” as meaning no further than the boundaries of the United States. It meant that its youngest winners would be a minimum of 21 years old. But when the WPT also started travelling overseas to jurisdictions that allowed poker at 18, the youngsters suddenly starting taking over.
Here are the four landmarks in WPT history that established new youngest champions (with thanks to Matt Clarke in the WPT press office). Take a look at Ryan Van Sandford’s achievement in particular. He became a WPT champion only four days after his 21st birthday.
In the United States:
Won WPT World Poker Finals at Foxwoods (Season 4) on November 18, 2005 at age 21, two months and one day.
Ryan Van Sanford
Won WPT bestbet Bounty Scramble (Season 13) on November 11, 2014 at age 21, and four days.
Won WPT Barcelona on June 30, 2009 in Season 8 at age 20, 10 months and 23 days.
Won WPT Barcelona on May 29, 2011 in Season 10 at age 18 years, 10 month and six days.
POKER’S TRIPLE CROWN
Only nine players have won poker’s so-called Triple Crown — an EPT and WPT Main Event, plus a WSOP bracelet — and there are disputes about whether a couple of those qualify. But it’s an exclusive club, even if we rule in favour of Davidi Kitai, who won an invitational WPT, and Roberto Romanello, whose WSOP win came during 2020’s online series. Not many players have even got that close.
There’s no disputing the dominance of Jake Cody, however, when we come to look at records surrounding the Triple Crown. He won an enormous and prestigious EPT in Deauville in January 2010, followed up by winning a £5,000 buy-in WPT tournament in London seven months later, and finished the job at the $25,000 buy-in WSOP heads-up tournament in June 2011. It took him one year, four months and 11 days, which is the quickest Triple Crown by far.
Cody was also the youngest player to wrap it all up, beating Gavin Griffin to that particular accolade. Griffin was the first player to complete the Triple Crown, winning a WSOP bracelet in 2004, an EPT title in 2007 and a WPT event in 2008, but was 27 years old when he won the third of those. Cody started his surge when he was 21 years and six months old, and got the final piece aged 22 years and 11 months.
Of all the “youngest evers” in this article, Cody’s Triple Crown success is likely to be the most difficult ever to beat.
NOT TO FORGET…
Daniel Negreanu was once the youngest player to win a World Series bracelet. At 23 and fresh from the underground clubs of his native Toronto, Negreanu won the first WSOP event he ever played, a $2,000 pot limit Hold’em event in 1998.
The youngest player to win a WSOP bracelet in the Las Vegas phase of the tournament is Steve Billirakis, who won a $5,000 mixed hold’em tournament in 2007 a mere 10 days after his 21st birthday.
Adrian Mateos won an the WSOP-E Main Event aged 19 and won the EPT Grand Final at 20, but was not the youngest player to do either. He is, however, the youngest player to win three WSOP bracelets.