PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site. To join the celebrations here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.
Today we go back to 2007, the year Daniel Negreanu joined Team Pro, the beginning of a 12-year relationship that would perpetuate both Negreanu’s fame and PokerStars’ image as the most prolific, star-studded place to play online poker.
Over the years, Team Pro has seen a great number of famous faces and elite players come and go. In this article, we take a look at the changing face of sponsored pros – from the early days when top live players ruled the ranks, to the compact roster of veterans and Twitch streamers who make up the team today.
Negreanu joins an elite team of live players
In June 2007, at the WSOP, Daniel Negreanu announced himself the newest member of a growing team – an assembly of the best players from around the world known as PokerStars Team Pro. His arrival was big news. Negreanu has always been hot on the live scene.
Daniel Negreanu’s sponsorship with Team Pro is highly regarded as one of the most important signings the company has ever made. By the time he left in May 2019, Negreanu had six WSOP bracelets to his name and had earned his place in the Poker Hall of Fame. A passionate and engaging ambassador, there’s simply no doubt as to the impact he had on the PokerStars’ brand.
But Negreanu wasn’t the first. Before this, Team Pro had already gathered elite players like Greg Raymer, Joe Hachem, Steve Paul-Ambrose, Lee Nelson, Jake Cody, Betrand “ElkY” Grospellier, and Barry Greenstein (also a Hall of Famer).
In those early days, few found their way into Team Pro via the online world. (There were a few, Noah “Exclusive” Boeken being one player who did). Most were invited following major wins on the live circuit.
Joe Hachem picked up his sponsorship deal after winning $7.5 million in the 2005 WSOP Main Event; Steve Paul-Ambrose won his contract along with $1.3 million for first place in the 2006 PSPC; and Lee Nelson showed strong form in the Aussie Millions prior to his signing.
In one of Team Pro’s most famous signings, Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event for $2.5 million after gaining entry via an $86 satellite. His story is legendary in poker, and contributed directly to the online poker boom. Moneymaker spent 14 years with PokerStars, departing earlier this year.
PokerStars has since continued to bring the world’s top live players into the fold by recruiting winners from prolific events.
Team Pro diversifies
Although the roster was already diversifying, online poker was fast becoming more popular across the world, particularly in South America and Asia. Team Pro stepped up its efforts to represent this growing global player-base.
In July 2007, Andre Akkari, who still represents PokerStars today, became the first ever Brazilian to join Team Pro. Alexandre Gomes soon followed as the second. Two of Europe’s top players at the time, William Thorson and Marcin Horecki, also joined. The Team Pro roster was soon brimming with successful pros from Mexico, Norway, Romania, Argentina, Brazil, Russia and beyond.
The push for an inclusive Team Pro never stopped. In 2015, Aditya Agarwal became the first member from India. Japan’s first Supernova Elite Kosei Ichinose, Chen-An Lin from Taiwan, and Yaxi Zhu from China all joined in the same year.
Team Pro also signed up the top women players in poker. Writer, player and broadcaster Victoria Coren was one of 2008’s high profile signings. Dutch Poker Hall of Famer Fatima Moreira de Melo joined in 2009, and the following year Team Pro welcomed Vanessa Selbst, Liv Boeree and Celina Lin.
Team Pro accomplished what it had always set out to do – to bring together a group of players who could represent the diversity of the online poker world.
Team Pro Online era
In 2009, Team Pro Online was born. Up until then, sponsored players consisted almost exclusively of successful live pros. The introduction of an online branch of sponsored players demonstrated PokerStars’ recognition of a new kind of celebrity; more well known for their usernames and avatars than their real life identities.
Nearly 2,000 applied for the original Team Pro Online and 23 players made it, 20 men and three women – among them Anders “Donald” Berg, Steve “stevesbets” Jacobs, and Thomas “Boku87” Boekhoff. The roster grew from there.
One of the most interesting signings of Team Online’s early years has to be the mysterious and enigmatic “ISULDUR1” (later revealed as Viktor Blom), who joined in December 2010.
ISULDUR1 pretty much defined nosebleed stakes, taking on pros such as Tony G and Daniel Negreanu in ‘Superstars Showdown’ cash games. Hundreds of thousands of dollars regularly changed hands at these tables.
It was the dawn of a new era. Online pros were competing with the most famous live players – and often coming out on top. Team Pro and Team Pro Online continued to grow side-by-side, both equally respected among the poker community.
Players who joined the ranks of Team Pro Online over the years included George ‘Jorj95’ Lind, Dusty ‘Leatherass9’ Schmidt, Mickey “mement_mori” Peterson, Adrienne “talonchick” Rowsome, Mikhail “innerpsy” Shalamov, Jorge “Baalim” Limon, and many more online players from around the world.
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Friends and SportStars
Aside from famous players on the live and online poker scene, PokerStars has long worked with celebrities and sports stars as brand ambassadors, known as the ‘Friends of PokerStars’ and ‘SportStars’, respectively.
One of the first celebrities to represent the brand was American film and TV actor Wil Wheaton, who signed up in 2005. Wheaton was soon holding private tourneys on PokerStars, and once hosted a charity tournament in aid of Hurricane Katrina.
Over the years, PokerStars have signed deals with Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt, actor and comedian Kevin Hart, tennis champions Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal, former LA Dodgers baseball star Orel Hershiser, Brazilian striker Ronaldo, and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo.
Currently, PokerStars are working with Neymar Jr as brand ambassador. The famous Brazilian footballer occasionally plays poker online at the site. Fans also had the opportunity to unlock a Neymar Jr Throwable, and can take part in a new football-themed PKO format game, Neymar Jr KickOff.
Team Pro switches focus
February 2015 marked a new chapter for Team Pro. Jason Somerville, then the most popular poker streamer on Twitch, signed with PokerStars. In September of the same year, he set the record for poker viewership on the platform with a peak audience of 27,000.
Jamie Staples, also popular in the Twitch community, joined in April, and soon after low-stakes grinder and streamer Kevin Martin became a member of Team Pro.
The revolution continued with the signing of Lex Veldhuis (also in 2015). Lex is now the top poker streamer on Twitch. He regularly pulls in tens of thousands of viewers and holds the overall record for peak poker viewership; 68,799 during his deep run in the 2020 SCOOP $10k Main Event.
Twitch continues to shine as a poker medium, the cards-up coverage and player commentary providing a thoroughly engaging experience for the audience. PokerStars encourages this growing community, welcoming players of all stakes who are building an audience. We all remember the 12 labors of Arlie Shaban?
In May 2019, the Twitch streamer roster grew from four players to 12. Among the new arrivals, PokerStars embraced Mason Pye, GJ Reggie, Tom Hayward and Alberto Perez.
The current PokerStars Team Pro roster is comprised of 13 players, including PSPC winner Ramon Colillas, chess champion Jennifer Shahade, and the most recent addition, Brazilian pro Rafael “GM_VALTER” Moreas.
Out of the 13 Team Pro members, many are Twitch streamers. Lex, Spraggy, Fintan, GJReggie and Mason Pye are among them, and we’ll soon be welcoming one more – the winner of the ongoing Dare2Stream competition.
You can find the full list of current Team Pro members here.
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
2006 – How poker prize pools ballooned
2005 – Reporting on poker will never catch on…
2004 – The Year of the EPT
2003 – Chris Moneymaker wins WSOP, sparks ‘poker boom’
2002 – The year of WCOOP
2001 – Electronic poker before PokerStars