Imagine winning millions by playing a card game — mostly because of your own skills rather than pure luck.

Then imagine losing everything you’ve won in a few weeks. Because of bad luck and a change in your behavior.

There are many stories about poker players who went broke, once or multiple times in their life.

This article is about seven famous professional poker players who, despite their success, went through periods in which they lost big, and not just because of bad luck.

Some of them had a drug problem, some made mistakes, and some loved gambling too much.

Keep reading…

Players who went broke or had money problems

1. Stu Ungar

Stuart Ungar was a professional gambler who had a superior IQ and whose skills, both mathematical and psychological, were far ahead of his time. This made him an exceptional poker and gin rummy player.

Unfortunately, he had a dark side. His love for gambling led him to spend almost all his poker winnings on other casino games, where the odds would always be against him.

Stu also developed a drug problem, which eventually ruined both his health and his career. He died at the age of 45 in a hotel room. Despite having won millions during his career, Stuart had virtually no assets at the time of his death.

Notable winnings

1980WSOP Main Event$365k
1981WSOP Main Event$375k
1997WSOP Main Event$1m

2. Jamie Gold

After winning a few poker tournaments, in 2006 Gold came first in the Main Event of the World Series of Poker. He won 12 million dollars, which is, to this day, one of the biggest prizes ever awarded in poker history.

Now, it’s not clear whether he lost most of his winnings, or only a small part of it. What we do know is that Gold was sued by TV producer Bruce Leyser shortly after his tournament win.

Apparently, Leyser had paid the tournament buy-in, and the two had agreed to split the money had Gold won. This resulted in a dispute which was then settled for an undisclosed amount. It has also been rumored that Gold lost some of his winnings in high stakes cash games against more experienced players.

Notable winnings

2005$200+25 NLHE$54k
2006WSOP Main Event$12m
2016$1,500+175 NLHE$140k (2nd)

3. Mike Matusow

Mike’s personality has earned him the nickname the Mouth. He is known for his table talk, as well as his blow ups, although they probably aren’t as bad as those of Phil Hellmuth — one of his main rivals at the table.

Despite having won countless poker tournaments, Matusow admitted that he’s lost large amounts of money, either by playing poker foolishly or gambling. In a recent interview hosted by Doug Polk, he said he was $783k in debt until three years ago.

In other interviews, he also said he’s suffered from depression and that he has struggled with drug addiction, which affected both his health and his finances. Thankfully, Mike seems to be in a much better situation now. He also has a YouTube channel where he vlogs regularly.

Notable winnings

1999$3,500 NLHE$265k
2008$5,000 NL 2-7 Draw$537k
2010$1,000+100 NLHE$103k

4. Gavin Griffin

Gavin discovered poker by chance while visiting a college friend. He was instantly intrigued, and even got a job as a poker dealer. His goal was to improve his poker skills as fast as possible, and he certainly did.

In 2004, he won a WSOP bracelet in a $3,000 pot-limit Hold’em event, in which he cashed over $270k. He then won the EPT Grand final in Monte Carlo in May 2007, with a prize of over two million dollars.

Despite his talent, Gavin admitted that, just like other poker players, he had developed a gambling problem which cost him large amounts of money. He said he had to switch to lower stakes games as some of his gambling losses eroded his bankroll.

Notable winnings

2004$3,000 PLHE$270k
2007€10,000 NLHE€1.8m
2008$10,000 NLHE$1.4m

5. Scotty Nguyen

Another legend of poker, Vietnamese Thuan Scotty Nguyen moved to the US at the age of 14. At the age of 21, he was hired as a poker dealer at the Harrah’s poker room in Las Vegas. He also started playing cash games, and despite losing most of the time, he kept playing and learning.

What followed was a series of highs and lows — Scotty would win a major tournament, or profit from cash games, then gamble most of his bankroll. He also used recreational drugs and eventually developed an addiction to them, which obviously had an impact on his finances.

Despite his roller coaster, Scotty has won five WSOP bracelets, which is impressive, and cashed in countless other tournaments. His most famous quote is you call, it’s going to be all over — he said that on the last hand of the 1998 WSOP Main Event, which he won.

Notable winnings

1997$2,000 Omaha 8 or Better$157k
1998WSOP Main Event$1m
2008$50,000 H.O.R.S.E.$2m

6. Viktor Blom

The Swedish player has gone through many swings at the poker table. He first began playing poker in 2004, at the age of 14 — he would play with his friends and win small amounts.

He then started playing online, and gradually improved his skills and built his bankroll, which reached $275k within a few months. Impressive, but unfortunately he lost it all by playing high stakes cash games shortly after.

In 2009, Blom began playing on Full Tilt Poker with the username Isildur1 and became famous for playing against top-tier professionals such as Phil Ivey. He won big, and lost big. He once lost $3.2 million against Phil Ivey, in just three days, and $3 million against Patrik Antonius in only one day.

Notable winnings

2012$100,000 NLHE$1.2m
2014€10,000+300 NLHE 6-max€130k (2nd)
2018€5,000+300 NLHE€850k

7. Thomas J. Cloutier

Finally, there is the story of T. J. Cloutier, an ex oil rig worker turned poker pro once he discovered he could replace his job income, plus more, by playing the game.

Cloutier has won an impressive six WSOP bracelets. He also came 2nd at the WSOP $10,000 Main Event in 2000, with a payout of almost $900k. And his total tournament winnings exceed eleven million dollars.

Now, unlike some of the examples mentioned in this article, Cloutier never faced actual financial hardship after winning the major tournaments. But we do know that he loved craps, and that he has lost ridiculous amounts playing it.

In an interview, he mentioned that throughout his life and career he lost about three million playing craps. We also know he sold one of his WSOP bracelets in 2010 for about $4,000.

Notable winnings

2000WSOP Main Event$896k (2nd)
2005$5,000 NLHE$657k
2007$5,000+150 NLHE$240k

Why do so many poker players go broke?

Every player is different and has a different story. However, there are five common reasons as to why so many poker players eventually go broke despite their initial success.

  • Gambling. Poker itself isn’t really gambling as if you know what you’re doing, you are likely to have a long-term advantage over worse players and therefore win most of the time. Unfortunately, this isn’t true in the case of roulette, craps, and gambling in general. Some poker players love the highs and lows of gambling way too much, to the point where their whole career could be ruined by it.
  • No bankroll management. I’ve heard the same story countless times. A decent player manages to win a few minor tournaments, then win a major one… then reinvest the winnings in high stakes cash games and lose it all. After you’ve won a big prize, it’s easy to overestimate your skills and justify spending your entire bankroll in a short period of time. This is why bankroll management is so key.
  • Drug addiction. Stu Ungar is probably the main example of this, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Many professional poker players have had issues with illegal substances and struggled to overcome their demons. In this case, going broke isn’t even the worst part — it’s your whole life falling apart, or even the end of it. Ungar’s premature death was almost certainly caused by years of drug use.
  • Poker burnout. Poker is a beautiful game, but grinding for hours every single day certainly isn’t fun. The life of some professional players, especially online players, isn’t as glamorous as it appears to be. For some, poker can turn into an incredibly stressful emotional roller coaster, which leads to burnout sooner or later. When this happens, you typically make really bad decisions and that affects your finances.
  • Living beyond their means. Having a million dollars is better than having a thousand dollars. The problem is, for those who are not able to manage their money, the actual amount they own is almost irrelevant as they tend to live beyond their means. Some poker players assume they can afford to live a very expensive lifestyle forever and do not take into account things like variance or unexpected events.

Final thoughts

As I mentioned in this post, discipline is key in both poker and life in general.

Ironically, some professional players are great geniuses and have complete control over their emotions at the table, but then in terms of willpower and discipline in life, they are much worse than the average person.

Poker is a fascinating game as it’s based on both skill and luck, and there is definitely an element of risk.

This means the game tends to attract risk-takers as well as those with an addictive personality. In the worst case scenario, this results into a vicious cycle where you’ll play until you lose everything you’ve won plus more.

And yes, even some of the best players in the world can struggle with this.