16 Famous Poker-Playing Sports Stars – Part 1

October 9, 2017

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At the beginning of October, former Premier League and French international footballer Bernard Mendy retired from ‘The Beautiful Game’ to refocus his efforts on playing professional poker.

Mendy, who played for Bolton Wanderers and Hull City in the Premier League during his impressive career, said he learned to play the game in his mid-20’s while playing for French giants Paris Saint Germain in Ligue 1.

“I learned how to play when I was with PSG,” explained Mendy. “Ten of us would sit round a table, put in 20 euros and it was winner takes all.

“I love to play suited hands like 5-6 or 7-8. When I first used to get those cards, I would start to count, and my opponents thought: He’s got a flush!”

The 36-year-old Mendy gained 3 caps for the French senior team in his distinguished playing career, and attributes his poker excellence to his experiences in football.

“Poker is like football with the competition, focus and adrenalin,” Mendy said. “When you sit across the table from someone you work out what type of player they are. Then it is hand-to-hand combat plus psychology. I love all that.”

Mendy has placed in two ranking tournaments so far, with a best finish of 21st and a top win of $2,058.

“It’s essential for their emotional wellbeing that they find an outlet for their drive and love of performance,” said former health and sports psychologist Jeni Heinemann, who also believes one of the most useful skills athletes have is their ability to stay cool under pressure which can be transferred to the poker table.

Mendy is far from the first athlete to go into the game of poker once their sporting career came to an end, with stars from swimming to martial arts all heading to the table in one way or another upon retirement.

In the first of a 3-part series (part 2 and part 3), we look at other well-known sports stars who have turned their attention to playing poker. And to master poker for yourself, have a read through our guide.

Michael Phelps – Swimmer

“I’m just learning more from what these guys do on a day-to-day basis and trying to just figure different things out. It’s always fun. It’s a challenge, but it’s entertaining for me. It’s something I’ve always liked, and my wife [Nicole Johnson] plays as well, so it’s in the family.”

Not content with being the most successful Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps is also a consistent member on the poker circuit. Phelps won 28 Olympic swimming medals throughout his career of which 23 were gold, and is still the world record holder in 100 metre butterfly, 200 metre butterfly, and 400 metre individual medley.

Phelps started playing seriously just before his record breaking Olympics in Beijing 2008 mostly online, but since retiring from swimming on 2016, Phelps has become more of a regular on the scene, and achieved his best finish in August 2017 placing 3rd.

“I’m really starting to understand the game more and I’m picking up more and more reads. I absolutely love the game, and I have so much fun playing cards,” said Phelps.

Phelps made his World Series of Poker appearance in 2013, and as time goes by it’s likely that we’ll see Phelps even more at live tournaments around the globe.

Global Poker Index Stats:

  • Tournaments placings – 6
  • Total winnings – $8,383
  • Biggest win – $5,213
  • Highest finish – 3rd

Shane Warne – Cricketer

“I’ve been able to use my experience from Test cricket to quickly learn to adapt my own poker play according to the play of my opponents. I must admit, I do like to play the dummy sometimes and ask stupid questions at the table to throw off my opponents. It works!”

Arguably the most famous cricketer of all time, Shane Warne is one of two men to ever take 700 test wickets, and upon retiring became the face of 888 Poker from 2008 to 2015, representing them at the Aussie Millions, the World Series of Poker, and the 888 UK Poker Open.

Warne has had a love-hate relationship with poker where he often uses his Twitter account to either tweet about his successes, or less commonly, his anger at the game.

“Still in shock at what just happened, so sick ! If anyone says that’s poker I will put 1 on their chin, game of skill my arse, get f#@?#%,” he tweeted in July 2016 after losing in the World Series of Poker.

It’s fair to say Warne had a lot less trouble playing cricket than he does playing poker, though his poker career so far is nothing to be sniffed at.

Global Poker Index Stats:

  • Tournament placings – 10
  • Total winnings – $93,572
  • Biggest win – $35,899
  • Highest finish – 3rd

Richard Seymour – American Footballer

“I really get to compete from a mental intelligence standpoint, while expanding and growing with the game. I have always thought that the game of poker was about people, relationships and situations where you have to make really good decisions on the spot. I am fascinated with poker and really enjoy the game.”

The 3-time Superbowl winner and 3-time All-Pro NFL defensive end Richard Seymour is considered one of the best defensive lineman the NFL has ever seen, but he’s also found himself equally at home at the poker table.

Seymour began playing from a young age with his father and uncles whilst watching football on the TV at weekends, and while at the New England Patriots, Seymour would organise weekly games with his teammates.

“We would play poker a lot of times on Monday nights, watching football and eating food. We didn’t play for high stakes, as it was more a place to kick back with your buddies, relax a little and have a little competitive environment at the same time”, said Seymour.

Now retired, Seymour says he plays the game mainly as a competitive hobby, though he is seen at tournaments all over the world where he’s had some very decent success.

Global Poker Index Stats:

  • Tournament placings – 12
  • Total winnings – $139,958
  • Biggest win – $52,174
  • Highest finish – 13th

Fatima Moreira de Melo – Hockey Player

 “Hockey is a really physical game but there is still a lot of mental stuff like dominating on the field, and putting pressure mentally on your opponent. It’s not same as poker, as the physical aspect doesn’t come in to play but it’s more an expression of your mental state”

Fatima Moreira de Melo is one of the most well-known Dutch female athletes of all time who won Olympic gold, silver and bronze with the Netherlands field hockey team in 2008, 2004, and 2000 respectively.

After retiring from international hockey in 2009, de Melo jumped straight into the world of professional poker and is now a consistent part of the European poker circuit. She is also part of the Team Pokerstars who consist of an elite group of poker champions.

“I was already playing poker with friends when I was still playing hockey. I always loved the mental aspect and the fact that it is an individual sport because you are not depending on any other players and you get all the credit when you do things right,” de Melo said in 2013.

Not content with being an Olympic gold medallist and poker star, de Melo also has a masters degree in law, is a jewellery designer, has released a pop album, has modelled for FHM, won the Dutch version of Survivor 2012, and was chosen as ‘Babe of the Year’ by Dutch website Mokkels.nl in 2007.

Global Poker Index Stats:

  • Tournament placings – 41
  • Total winnings – $490,523
  • Biggest win – $95,750
  • Highest finish – 1st

Boris Becker – Tennis Player

“I’m not a nervous character and I think that helps. I was never a nervous kid. That doesn’t mean I never had any doubts, of course I did. Everybody does. But I wouldn’t really show it. Once I realized that tennis – very much like poker – is a mind game where you have to control your nerves and emotions, I started to develop that as an art.”

In 1985, Boris Becker shot to fame becoming the youngest ever Grand Slam champion, winning Wimbledon at the age of just 17 (a record which still stands today). Becker later went on to win 5 more major single titles, and a further 43 single titles throughout his glittering career which ended in 1999.

Becker was first seen on the poker circuit 9 years later in 2008 finishing 7th in a tournament held in Monte Carlo where he pocketed over $18,000 in the process. In 2017 he became the PartyPoker.com ambassador where he spoke about his love for the game.

“I am equally competitive at the poker table as I was on the tennis court. I learnt to play poker a long time ago, it’s a game of skill and perseverance, so I’m hoping to use my experience on the tennis court to my advantage,” he said in early 2017.

Becker was declared bankrupt in June 2017 after failed business deals and tax evasion, but his use of money at the poker table can’t be questioned.

Global Poker Index Stats:

  • Tournament placings – 7
  • Total winnings – $111,416
  • Biggest win – $40,855
  • Highest finish – 7th

So that’s the first 6 sports stars turned poker players covered but there are still another 10 to go, including three World Cup winners and one of the most successful British boxers of recent times. Here’s part 2.


Author: Will H.

Will has been a part of the nitty-gritty world of gambling for over 10 years now in one shape or another, and though he mainly works in the background at Casino Circle, his vast experience and insight is always fascinating to read and listen to.


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