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5 WSOP Hands that Changed the Course of Poker History

There have been plenty of exciting, history-making moments since ESPN expanded their World Series of Poker coverage in 2003. The dawn of poker on TV brought about instant classics such as Chris Moneymaker vs. Phil Ivey, Moneymaker’s bluff against Sammy Farha, Joe Hachem‘s flopped straight, and Mike Matusow‘s KK vs. AA. Thanks to the cameras these hands are etched in our minds, as are a few older hands like Johnny Chan‘s slowplayed straight against Erik Seidel and Doyle Brunson‘s back-to-back wins with Ten-Deuce.

These hands turned poker players into legends, and helped shape poker history. But there are other hands, hands few people have seen, that forever altered the course of poker history as well. Here are six of them.

1984 Main Event: Cowboy Bluffs Jesse Alto

Jesse Alto could very well be the best “old school” player never to win the World Series of Poker Main Event. Alto made the final table a remarkable seven times (six if you discount his 9th place finish in 1988), and he had several legitimate chances at winning the title.

Alto finished 6th in 1975, 2nd in 1976, 5th in 1978, 3rd in 1984, 6th in 1985, 4th in 1986, and 9th in 1988. Had he won the 1976 and/or the 1984 title he would likely be remembered as one of the game’s all-time greats.

While it wasn’t his best finish in the Main Event, the 1984 World Series of Poker was perhaps Alto’s best shot at the title before he was undone by a bluff.

In 1976 it was an improbable suckout by Doyle Brunson (with a Ten/Deuce) that denied Alto the WSOP crown, but in 1984 it was a bluff by Byron “Cowboy” Wolford that led to his unraveling when the tournament was down to three players. Wolford’s bluff, which he showed, so unnerved Alto that despite still holding the chip lead he moved all-in blind two hands in a row and lost both to eventual champion Jack Keller.

Here’s how it went down.

With Alto bullying his two opponents (Wolford and Keller) Wolford decided to make a stand regardless of his cards.

After calling a pre-flop raise by Alto, Wolford led at the A-K-9 flop for 10k. He was insta-called by Alto.

The turn brought a second King and Wolford fired 40k. Alto contemplated for a moment and once again called.

A 2 fell on the river and Wolford shoved the rest of his chips in the middle, about 100k. After a five-minute long deliberation, Alto folded. Wolford decided to show his hand, a 3 and a 5, which sent Alto on full blown tilt even though he still had control over the table and the chip lead.

1980 Main Event: Doyle gives Stuey the right odds

Doyle Brunson won back-to-back Main Event titles in 1976 and 1977, but few people realize how close he was to winning a third title in 1980, and how Brunson’s third WSOP victory may have affected another poker player’s legacy.

In 1980 the final two players in the Main Event were Doyle Brunson and a young, relatively unknown kid named Stu Ungar.

Doyle held A/7 on a A-7-2 and tried to “trap” Stuey with a small 10k bet into a pot of 17k. With the two players effective stacks this was an easy call for Stuey and the miracle 3 hit on the turn, ending Doyle’s bid for a third WSOP Championship and in the process kick starting the legend of Stu Ungar.

Stuey ended up catching a gutshot straight to bust Doyle (chasing gutterballs is normally the domain of fish), but this was one of those times where drawing to an inside straight was the right play, thanks to a small bet on the flop by Brunson that priced Stuey in.

2000 Main Event: TJ Cloutier Can’t Fade a 9

TJ Cloutier is one of the game’s all-time best tournament players, but the WSOP Main Event was one accolade that remained perpetually out of the Poker Hall of Famer’s reach.

TJ finished as the runner-up in 1985 to an on-top-of-his-game Bill Smith, and in 2000 he finished as the bridesmaid once again, this time in heartbreaking fashion.

Heads-up with Chris Ferguson, TJ was all-in with A/Q against Ferguson’s A/9 and was on his way to taking a stranglehold in the heads-up match when Ferguson caught a 9 on the river.

TJ is certainly one of the best tournament players in poker history, evidenced by his Hall of Fame induction, but Ferguson’s victory in 2000 robbed Cloutier of his place in the upper echelon of the Poker HOF.

1979 Main Event: Hal Fowler Draws to a Gutterball… and gets there

One of the defining early moments of the WSOP was when Hal Fowler, an amateur, won the 1979 Main Event. Fowler’s win gave casual players hope that they could also travel to Las Vegas, compete with the best players in the world, and perhaps, as Fowler did, come out victorious.

There were a lot of miraculous hands that contributed to Fowler’s win, but no hand better summarizes Fowler’s 1979 WSOP run than the hand he won the tournament with.

Facing off against one of the top players of the time, Bobby Hoff, Fowler made one of the worst calls in WSOP history, but the poker gods were smiling on him that day.

With the pot at 38k, Hoff, holding Pocket Aces, bet 40k on a flop of J-5-3, leaving himself just over 40k in chips. Fowler made the call with 6/7 offsuit, accepting 3/1 implied odds while chasing a gutshot straight, and made his hand – basically, Fowler was the anti-Ungar.

Hoff’s career spiraled out of control for many years following the devastating beat, while Fowler’s victory forever changed the way people looked at the WSOP. The tournament was no longer a collection of superstar players and hustlers; the WSOP was now a tournament for everyone, and all it took was one of the worst calls and bad beats of all time to make it happen.

1987 Main Event: Johnny Chan binks a 5 for a chop

The legend of Johnny Chan is fantastical on every level, but had the Orient Express not caught a miracle river card in 1987 the legend might never have gotten off the ground.

With close to 50 players remaining in the 1987 WSOP Main Event, Chan semi-bluffed on a 2-3-4 board with two hearts, holding just A/J, and his timing could not have been worse.

Richard Klamian flopped the world, holding A/5 of hearts and quickly called. Chan’s only hope was for a split pot which he got when a 5 hit on the river. Chan would go on to win the tournament and begin one of the most impressive runs in WSOP history: 1st in 1987, 1st in 1988, and 2nd in 1989.

Had Klamian knocked out Chan the current mantra of “Johnny F’ing Chan” might lead to curious looks as people would wonder why you would make a reference the 48th place finisher in the 1987 WSOP Main Event.


*I drew on several sources for this column:, Wikipedia, All In The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback, as well as video footage from the WSOP.



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Steve Ruddock

Steve is veteran of the the poker industry, first as a player and now as a writer focusing mainly on the regulated U.S. markets and the politics of poker. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveRuddock and at Google+.