As the 40th World Series of Poker dawns upon us, we take time to look through forty of the tournaments defining moments.
40. The Curse of the 90 year-old man.
To the untrained eye, Victor Goulding is your regular 90 year-old guy. At the 2005 Main Event, he was actually given a ten-minute penalty for cursing at the table. British sweetheart Vicky Coren was sat next to the gentleman, although we can’t tell for sure if she was the cause of the senior citizen’s aberration.
39. Hellmuth Blow Ups
There’s the one where he calls the guy an idiot, or the time when he accuses a fellow player of being unable to spell ‘poker’, yet alone play it. With simply too many nuggets to choose from, WPT Magazine has opted to bunch them all in one collective group. Good work, Phil.
38. A Tricky Final Table
Last years’s WSOP Player of the Year Erick Lindgren final tabled three events but chose the toughest of them all to pick up his first bracelet. The players he had to dodge around to pick up the $5,000 Mixed Hold’em title included Justin Bonomo, Andrew Robl, Roland de Wolfe, David ‘Chino’ Rheem, Howard Lederer, David Williams, Pat Pezzin and Isaac Haxton. Easy.
37. Ante Depressants
In one of the more heated moments of WSOP history, Jeff Lisandro defending accusations made by Prahlad Friedman over not posting a $5,000 ante. Video cameras showed the Australian to be in the right, also capturing what became a decidedly heated ‘discussion’ between the two players.
36. Iranian Invades America
Mansour Matloubi becomes the first non-American Main Event winner in 1990 before final tabling again in 1993. He was eliminated in fourth place by eventual winner Jim Bechel, denying the poker world another two-time champion.
35. A Glimmer of Hope Against Gold
Coming to the final table of the 2006 World Series, many pinned their hopes on the remaining professional, Allen Cunningham. Contending with the blueberry eating steam train that was Jamie Gold, there was a glimmer of hope when Cunningham picked off a Gold bluff with just Ace-high. It wasn’t to be though, the Full Tilt pro finishing in 4th.
34. The Frankly Bizarre…
There can be no denying that the WSOP Main Event attracts all sorts. If it’s not Hevad Khan wielding his chair and dancing like a Red Bull fuelled Baloo or Joe Sebok turning up dressed as Batman’s sidekick, Robin (then a diaper-wearing bear, then Superman…), there’s always someone dressing up like a goofball. There’s also Phil Laak spending the day as an old man. The mind truly boggles.
33. Lederer Wins Bracelet…Eventually
We can’t figure out what took him so long, but Howard Lederer finally broke his WSOP bracelet voodoo when he won the $5,000 Limit Omaha event in 2000. The number of final tables he’d made before without winning the cheese? Twelve.
32. Las Vegas Pays Its Respects to Chip Reese
Poker lost one of its brightest lights in December 2007 when David ‘Chip’ Reese passed away. With every player queuing to pay homage to the man Doyle Brunson declared ‘the best player I’d ever played with’, the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E tournament was dedicated to the man who won the title in its inaugural year. The move was a class act; much like Chip himself.
31. Poker is So Rigged…
If you’ve ever wanted to throw your laptop into the pool after taking one of those bad beats, spare a thought for Harman and Hudson who had to endure a spanking from the fickle mistress called Fate:
Jennifer Harman vs. Corey Zeidman.
Harman’s raise with QQ is called by the Zeidman’s 9d-8d and one other. The chilly Ts-Jd-Qh flop saw Zeidman flop a straight and Harman top set. The diminutive lady pulled ahead on the Td, but the brutal one outer came when the dealer popped the 7d on the river. Ouch.
Oliver Hudson vs. Sammy Farha.
Stump up $10,000. Sit down, look down at pocket tens. Reraise the open from Sammy Farha, flop a full house. Slowplay, get your money in, realize you’ve been cold decked by A-T on the A-A-T flop, pick up your coat and leave. Thank you and goodnight.
30. 2005 – The Original ‘Year of the Pro’
Before all this hoo-ha about the ‘Year of the Pro’ last year, there was another year when the pro showed what they’re made of. 2005 saw bracelets for Allen Cunningham, Josh Arieh, Erik Seidel, TJ Cloutier, Barry Greenstein, Todd Brunson, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey, Mark Seif, Willie Tann…and Jennifer Tilly.
29. “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”
Joe Hachem: a thoroughly nice guy and a wonderful ambassador for poker, but strewth – does he have some noisy fans! The 2005 Main Event king had a cheering contingent more akin to a soccer game terrace, making the final table at the Rio a true carnival.
28. Cloutier The Bridesmaid Once More
TJ Cloutier is one of the most winningest poker players of all time, but one nut he’s been unable to crack is the $10,000 buy-in Main Event. He’s come second twice; first in 1985 (losing to Bill Smith) and then, more famously, against Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson in 2000, when Ferguson’s A-9 hit a miracle nine on the river to outdraw T.J.’s A-Q.
27. Annie Duke Wins 2004 Tournament of Champions
She might have lost to Joan Rivers in Celebrity Apprentice (you can stop booing now), but Annie Duke did have her moment in the limelight when she won the WSOP Tournament of Champions in 2004. Once again, she was at the center of some compelling television, including the moment she knocked out big brother Howard Lederer in third place. Cold hearted or what!?
26. Hollywood Hits Sin City
The stars turn out in earnest for the summer of mayhem in Las Vegas, with Oliver Hudson popping in very briefly (see no. 31), Jennifer Tilly picking up a bracelet, and the likes of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Tobey Maguire playing the game to a very competitive level. Anything which brings Shannon Elizabeth to the poker tables can’t be bad, right?
25. You Couldn’t Write About It…
Well, you can if you’re James McManus. Heading to the Series in 2000 to write a piece for a magazine, the journalist was soon caught in the trapping of Las Vegas and ended up blowing his advance on qualifying for the Main Event. He got in and ended up final tabling. The whole story has been immortalized in ‘Positively Fifth Street’ and is well worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
24. Demidov Goes Transatlantic.
After booking his place in the November Nine, Ivan Demidov decided one Main Event final table that year was not enough. Off to London he went, seeking to continue his good form at the World Series of Poker Europe. He eventually finished in third behind fellow Muscovite Stanislav Alekhin and champion John Juanda. The press relations dream began and Demidov came one step closer in Las Vegas before falling to the hands of Peter Eastgate heads-up.
23. Fossilman Fights to Retain the Crown.
With field sizes as huge as they are in the modern game, many believe Johnny Chan’s back-to-back wins in ’87 and ’88 will never be repeated. The sceptics had to hold their breath for five days though as Greg Raymer made it to the final four tables in 2005, ultimately busting in 25th.
22. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Robert Varkonyi’s 2002 victory was memorable not only for the unlikely victory nature of his $2m inheritance but also the bragging of Phil Hellmuth, which would eventually see him bald-headed. While commentating on the conclusion of the event, Phil Hellmuth claimed that should Varkonyi emerge victorious, he’d let the New Yorker shave his head. All thoughts of money disappeared and Varkonyi got the clippers out to leave The Poker Brat a slaphead.
21. The Tears of a Clown
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Mike Matusow is one of the most consistent Main Event players of the last 10 years. 2004 saw a fierce rivalry between ‘The Mouth’ and eventual winner Greg Raymer but it was the A-Q of Ed Foster which outdrew Matusow’s A-K to send the pro blubbing to the rail. Bad beats are part of the game, but you almost wish Mike could get lucky one time.
20. Internet Geeks Attack!
The 2006 World Series was the year which announced the arrival of the internet kids on the live scene, with Scott Clements, Brandon Cantu, William Chen and Eric Froehlich all taking the ‘fearsome online player’ moniker and converting it into ‘bracelet-winning pro’.
19. Barbara Enright – Doin’ It For The Ladies
While Dan Harrington was busy winning the Main Event in 1995, many dothed their cap to Barbara Enright who had become the first woman to reach the final table of The Big One. Helping to reinforce a well-known fact (women never, ever get their money in without the best of it), Enright’s run at the bracelet was halted when her pocket eights were outdrawn by 6-3s, eliminating the Hall of Famer in fifth. Men are such fish.
18. Galfond The Wizard
Another internet whizz-kid who has since become a recognized face away from his computer monitor is Phil Galfond. He picked up the first bracelet during the ’08 series at a fearsome $5,000 Pot-Limit Omaha w/ Rebuys final table that had railbirds clamouring. The veritable ‘who’s who’ included Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, John Juanda, Kirill Gerasimov, Johnny Chan, David Benyamine as well as online players Brian ‘tsarrast’ Rast and Adam ‘houdini’ Hourani.
17. The Original Poker ‘Young Gun’
Some spotty-faced kid bowls into Las Vegas, glasses perched on the end of his nose, and ends up taking the biggest prize of them all from the backyard of the pros. No, we’re not talking about Phil Hellmuth but rather Bobby Baldwin, who beat Crandell Addington heads-up in a rather chilly set-over-set scenario. Bloody internet kids…
16. A Chip and a Chair
In the most infamous of poker comebacks, Jack Straus won the 1982 Main Event after inadvertently leaving a single $500 chip behind when moving all in. As he got up from the table he noticed the chip under a napkin. Tournament directors let him play on and the comeback saw the oft-heard ‘chip and a chair’ expression launched. Straus collected $520,000 for the win.
15. 2008 – The Year of the Pro (Part Two)
Nemad Medic, David Singer, Erick Lindgren, Mike Matusow, Vanessa Selbst, Daniel Negreanu, Max Pescatori, Kenny Tran, Barry Greenstein, Phil Galfond, John Phan, Rob Hollink, Dario Minieri, Layne Flack, David Benyamine, Scotty Nguyen, JC Tran, and Marty Smyth – all bracelet winners. Enough said.
14. First Ever World Series of Poker
Of course, none of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the pioneering vision of Benny Binion. Inviting the six best players in the world to sit down and play at the Horseshoe was the birth of what has become the behemoth series that swarms around Vegas every summer. A little trivia for you; the first Series wasn’t decided by freezeout but by ballot, with Johnny Moss winning unanimously.
13. Goodbye to Binions
As the Series evolved, it became more and more apparent that the brainchild of Benny Binion would eventually outgrow its home. After 35 years of holding the event on home soil, July 2005 would the last time the Series would enter Binions, moving to the larger Rio just down the Strip.
12. Gold-en Year
2006 was a mind-blowing year for the Series; record-breaking prizepools, a Main Event champion who walked out with $12m (well, actually half of it) and over $156m handed out over the whole series. It seems only appropriate that the champ was called ‘Gold’, doesn’t it?
11. Doyle Does The Double
“Texas Dolly” may be the most recognisable poker player in the world but none of this would have happened unless Doyle had been the real deal. Brunson proved he was one of the all-time greats in 1976 and 1977 when he became the first player to successfully defend his World Series Main Event crown. As most of us know, the winning hand on both of the final hands was 10-2 offsuit, lending the hand to be named after Doyle himself.
10. “You Call It’s Gonna Be All Over, Baby”
Poker is not a card game with people, it is a people game with cards. So said Tom McEvoy, and while he’s not played a hand since 1994 while waiting for aces, the esteemed book author and WSOP Champion has a point.
One person who understood the psychology of the moment perfectly was beer-swilling Scotty Nguyen, who managed to goad a call from Kevin McBride in what has become an immortalised moment in poker history. As the amateur debated whether to call what seemed like a possible bluff, Scotty stood up, beer in hand, and uttered, “you call, it’s gonna be all over baby”. McBride fell for the bait, calling for the chop that never was. Scotty showed him the Jd-9c for the better full house and hence collected the 1998 title.
9. The November Nine Return
When Harrahs announced there would be a three-month hiatus before the final table of the Main Event regrouped to play out for the $9m first prize, there were furrowed brows in many quarters. It would be a bit like halting the Super Bowl final at half time for a week, argued some. As with any untried format, scepticism sprung forth.
By the time the final nine reconvened at the Rio, the atmosphere was electric. While the same cynics will argue the public relations efforts were saved by the final table appearance of Ivan Demidov at the WSOP Europe Main Event (see 29), the spectacle itself proved to be worth the wait. The hopes of the poker purists laid with Scot Montgomery and Chino Rheem, while the sentimental pined for a Kelly Kim comeback. It was Peter Eastgate who became king though, rounding off what had been an enthralling 2008 Main Event.
8. Harrington Goes Deep Two Years Running
While it’s not sound as impressive as winning two years in a row, there can be no underestimating Dan Harrington’s achievement in final tabling both the 2003 and 2004 Main Event. With fields of 839 and 2,576, ‘Action Dan’ finished third and fourth, collecting $2,150,000 – more than double the amount he netted for winning the whole thing in 1995. How times have changed.
7. Stu Ungar – Back to Back Champion.
They reckon he was the most naturally talent poker player of all time. Certainly without parallel in gin rummy, Ungar was literally forced to turn his hand to poker after the action dried up in his preferred game. The switch proved to be a wise one, and in 1980 the child-like Ungar ended up sitting opposite the Vegas legend that is Doyle Brunson heads-up for the lot – even more impressive when you consider he later claimed it was the first time he’d ever played Texas Hold’em.
While many might have been intimidated playing Brunson, Ungar’s self-belief was second to none. The final hand saw Doyle flop two pair with A-7 on an A-7-2 rainbow flop, and Ungar make a speculative call with his gutshot draw. The 3 on the turn gave Stuey the nuts, his 5-4 only needing to avoid an ace or seven by the time the money went in on fourth street. The river paired the deuce, leaving Ungar as the fresh-faced WSOP champion.
If Ungar’s win in 1980 had any suggestion of beginners luck about it, his repeat in 1981 left no one in doubt, defending his title after beating Perry Green heads-up. ‘The Kid’ had come to town and won – twice.
6. The Bracelet Battle
Some say that the measure of a great poker player is not necessarily the amount of money they’ve won, but the number of bracelets they have. Hellmuth, Brunson and Chan had led the way, with the triumvirate having nine apiece. In 2005 the race picked up pace, with Chan winning his tenth bracelet after beating Phil Laak heads-up in the $2,500 Pot Limit Hold’em bracelet. As if it were a firecracker to the begin the friendly rivalry, Chan’s short reign as the outright leader was negated when Doyle Brunson secured his tenth in the $5,000 Short-handed No Limit Hold’em event under a week later.
In case his hunger ever needed fuelling, Phil Hellmuth saw the two victories for his friends as a spur to hunt down championship gold with a new vigor. 2005 would prove fruitless for Hellmuth, but he didn’t have wait much longer before tieing for ten bracelets, winning the $1,000 No Limit Hold’em with rebuys. His eleventh came in the $1,500 No Limit Hold’em event, breaking all the records once again. Old habits die hard, seemingly.
5. Johnny Two Times
Brunson had been the first to win back-to-back, while Ungar tore up the history books with his feats in the early eighties. The most impressive of all the repeat champions though is Johnny Chan. The first of two victories came in 1987 when he outlasted a final table including Howard Lederer and Dan Harrington. It was the second final table that is best known, with this heads-up win against Erik Seidel later immortalised in ‘Rounders’. With the field sizes as big as they are in the modern game, Chan will quite possibly be the last man to ever defend the title successfully.
There are two ways to explain this hand; we can either talk about the cards, bets and action, or we could all just recount the quote made by Mike in ‘Rounders’.
“Johnny Chan flops the nut straight and has the discipline to wait him out. He knows Seidel’s gonna bluff at it. Johnny fucking Chan. Chan is trying to sucker him in by taking his time. Look at the control. Look at that fuck. He knows his man well enough to check it all the way and risk winning nothing with those cards. He owns him.”
It does help when you flop the nuts against top pair heads-up. Of course, it could have been a hat trick if it weren’t for a young man from Wisconsin who had all the self-belief of Ungar before him…
4. Hellmuth Becomes Youngest Ever Champ
From the moment the final table of the 1989 Main Event had been set, there was a sense that history would be made. Johnny Chan was seeking to become the first man to ever win three in a row, while a confident player by the name of Phil Hellmuth had the opportunity to surpass Stu Ungar’s record as the youngest ever Main Event winner. With the two outlasting a final table including Noel Furlong and Mr WPT himself, Lyle Berman, it came down to a Chan – Hellmuth finale that would see the record books rewritten. Chan had described Hellmuth’s play as aggressive, and when Hellmuth moved all in with pocket nines (yes, we know – very loose for Hellmuth), Chan made the call with As-7s. The nines held up and a new superstar was born. NASA also reported what they thought a new planet had been spotted in a neighbouring galaxy. It was later revealed to be Phil Hellmuth’s ego.
3. Moneymaker Wins
Chris Moneymaker’s win in 2003 literally reshaped poker. Heads-up against high-stakes gambler Sammy Farha, the accountant from Tennessee showed the world that anything is possible by becoming the first online satellite winner to win the Main Event. Having sat down one day to play a satellite on PokerStars, Chris bought into a $39 satellite and qualified for what would be his first live tournament. An unknown quantity, Moneymaker managed to knock out the likes of Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey on his way to collecting the $2.5m first prize.
The win opened the minds of the every day man on the street; when they saw an accountant had beat a pro, everyone thought they too could win $2.5m. The poker bug spread, magazines were printed and their journalists still entertain the idea of being World Champion. One of these days…
2. Chip Reese Wins Inaugural $50,000 H.O.R.S.E.
With so many players flooding the Main Event, many of the pros now consider the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E as the true test of the best all-round poker player. The event was introduced in 2006, and the final table certainly provided us with some of the games best – and most recognisable – players; Doyle Brunson, TJ Cloutier, Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey to name just four.
One name that might not have been known to the rail was that of David ‘Chip’ Reese. Recognised by his peers as perhaps the best cash game player in the world, Reese had never sought the limelight associated with winning poker tournaments. When the chance to play the best in the world in the biggest buy-in event at the Series came up, the lure was too much for Reese.
While it only took two and a half hours to lose the first seven, the heads-up battle between Reese and Andy Bloch was epic. Seven hours of play between the pair saw the lead change hands about a million times (ok, a slight exaggeration), and the duel was a testament to both players. As one moved to take charge, the other changed gear at just the right time.
It was cruel that someone would lose, but it was Reese’s resolve to win the event that proved stronger. Having suffered several harsh beats, Bloch found himself down to a proverbial bowl of rice and called his remaining chips off with 9-8 against Reese’s A-Q. Typical of Bloch’s luck in the key moments, he didn’t improve. Reese had proved to the world that he was truly one of the greats. As if we didn’t know already.
1. The Comeback Kid
To win the Main Event back to back was a feat that deserves recognition. To come back sixteen years, having been through drug abuse, arrests and debt, was unworldly. That word can summarise Stu Ungar in so many ways; the greatest poker talent to ever take to the felt, the come back in 1997 reminded the world what drugs had – and would forever – deprive the poker world of.
The years between 1981 and 1997 had been a hellacious repetition of drug abuse, gambling and personal torment. Married to a childhood sweetheart, Stuey had seen the birth of daughter Stephanie and the adoption of Madeline’s son from a previous marriage, Richie. Shortly after his high school prom, Richie committed suicide – an event that would drive Ungar to cocaine and an irreparable void in his family life. In 1986, Stu and Madeline divorced and Ungar hit drugs and gambling with a vengeance. The next decade saw ‘The Kid’ become a shadow of his former self, and even when backers stepped in to get Stuey back on the tournament trail, his weakness with cocaine cruelly intervened on any resurgence.
By 1997, Ungar was in huge debt, but old friend and fellow pro Billy Baxter looked to back him one more time. The backing came just moments before tournament entries closed. Ungar, showing the signs of years of drug abuse, sat down once again. Having spent the previous day trying to raise funds, he was exhausted, falling asleep at the table. Lifelong friend Mike Sexton, who was playing at the table, gave Ungar encouragement. Baxter gave him something a little more direct, tongue-lashing Ungar midway through the day. The approach worked, and Ungar returned to the table with a renewed vigor. Coming back on the second day, Ungar was a new man, rested and on top of his game. The rest was inevitable. Taking a huge chip lead into the final table, bookmakers made Ungar the favorite against the rest of the field, a compliment as much as it is a rarity.
The Kid did what everyone expected. With a photo of his daughter Stephanie by his side, he systematically schooled the final table before sending the last man,
Ungar did not disappoint and won the Main Event for the third time. As if the poker gods had some ironic sense of humor, the final hand saw Stuey outdraw Strempz’s A-8 with A-4, a deuce on the river giving Ungar a straight. ‘The Kid’ was the greatest card player of all time, and too good to be lucky.
The win meant Ungar would take half of the $1m he’d just won, the other half going to Baxter. The interview saw Gabe Kaplan ask if he would do things differently from there on. “Well, I hope so Gabe. You know, I’ve neglected my kids, you know, I’ve done a lot of stupid things to myself,” replied the straight-talking Ungar. You hoped the win would be the kick-start of a new life so that poker could enjoy his talents for years to come.
Tragically, Stuey fell into old trappings, and in 1998 when his body succumbed to the results of the sustained drug use. How can you ever summarize Stu Ungar? The man himself did it best in the same interview. “There’s nobody that ever beat me playing cards. The only one that ever beat me was myself and my bad habits.”