Ex-athletes: Poker Pros With a Background in Sports

Poker pros come from all types of backgrounds. The game isn’t exclusive to hardcore gamblers and hustlers; some pros are amateur accountants, others have doctorates, and others are millionaire businessmen.

One surprisingly common background for poker players is an ex-athlete. There are quite a few pros who used to be sports prodigies, their careers cut short thanks to injury or lack of motivation. Some of poker’s biggest names like Doyle Brunson follow this formula, and there are many more pros you might not know. Let’s dive into them!

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Timothy Adams: Soccer and hockey fanatic

Timothy Adams is the third highest-earning Canadian poker player in the world. Hailing from Burlington, Ontario, he has over $30 million in live earnings, making him the 18th highest-earning pro in the world. 

He’s had a lot of success at high-profile tournaments like the Triton Poker Series and European Poker Tour, along with one World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet. His biggest score was a massive $3,600,000 win at the 2020 Partypoker MILLIONS event in Sochi, Russia. 

Growing up, poker was the last thing on Adams’ mind. He was fiercely competitive and spent almost all his time playing two sports: Hockey and soccer. Soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter summed up Adams’ childhood. 

Of the two, Adams eventually decided to pick up soccer full-time when he was 14. He went far, making it to the top league in his province and even joining international tournaments. Eventually, however, his passion faded, and it shifted to poker when he won $4,000 in an online tournament during his college years. 

Huck Seed: 6’7” Basketball Star

Huckleberry “Huck” Seed is one of poker’s old guard with an impressive resume at the WSOP. He has four bracelets, one from the 1996 Main Event. He’s made two final tables in the WSOP Main Event and the Poker Players Championship. 

The latter is often considered one of the most prestigious events at the tournament, even surpassing the Main Event for some due to its mixed-game format and high buy-in. Seed has also won the WSOP Tournament of Champions, an invitational that doesn’t give a bracelet, and the 2009 National Heads-up Poker Championship. 

He’s even a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, inducted in 2020. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him is that he was a college basketball superstar at the California Institute of Technology, appearing in the 2006 documentary Quantum Hoops. 

This is a bit less surprising if you know about his massive 6’7โ€ frame, which was why his athletic family recommended him to join the basketball team in the first place. 

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Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson: NBA level basketballer

Doyle Brunson was one of poker’s oldest and most iconic pros. Having played professionally for over five decades, he has a ton of contributions to the scene, like authoring Super/System, a poker strategy book still considered essential reading in today’s modern era.

He has two WSOP Main Event wins and ten bracelets overall. Fun fact, his two Main Event wins led to the 10-2 hand getting nicknamed “The Doyle Brunson” because he made a full house with them to win in both years, an insane back-to-back feat that remains one of the luckiest moments in WSOP history. 

With how much Doyle Brunson has shaped poker, it can be hard to think of him as anything other than a poker player. From a young age, Brunson was already a skilled athlete. He set a distance running record but chose to focus on basketball, which he was also a natural at. 

He made the All-State Texas Basketball Team and earned a sports scholarship to Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. At the peak of his career, he received offers from the Minneapolis Lakers. 

The reason we know him as a poker player today and not an NBA superstar is the tragic knee injury he suffered during his teenage years. This led to him picking up poker to pay for his medical bills, and the rest is history.  

T.J. Cloutier: Footballer on two different teams

Another member of poker’s old guard who had a career in sports is Thomas James “T.J.” Cloutier. He’s earned six WSOP bracelets, made 39 final tables, and finished runner-up in the Main Event twice. 

Cloutier is the only player ever to win bracelets in all three Omaha variants the WSOP has: Pot Limit High, Limit High, and Limit 8-or-Better High-low Split. He won the Player of the Year title from Card Player Magazine in 1998 and 2002 and is a 2006 inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame. 

Unlike Brunson, who was a basketball star, Cloutier was a prodigy in football and baseball. He emphasized the former, even playing in the 1959 Rose Bowl, an iconic annual college football tournament. After finishing military service, he became a professional footballer for two different teams: The Montreal Alouettes and the Toronto Argonauts.

Tragically, like Doyle Brunson, his sports career ended with a knee injury, leading him to pick up poker after playing it at an oil rig. 

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Which player inspired you?

These are just a few pros who’ve had sports-related backgrounds. If any of them inspired you to try poker yourself, go for it! Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams because players like Chris Moneymaker have proved that poker pros can come from any possible background. Still, keep yourself grounded in reality and remember being a pro takes time and hard work. Good luck!

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