Part I of this series ended with the WSOP of 1979, which was won by Hal Fowler. In Part II, we will continue with this journey down memory lane, remembering the names of those who managed to put their hands on the most coveted piece of jewelry in the poker world.
The World Series of Poker for the year 1980 was comprised of eleven events besides the Main Event, which attracted 73 players. It ended with a heads-up battle between two poker legends – Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar. In the end it was Ungar who brought the victory home, together with $365,000 in prize money and the additional title of the youngest player to ever win the Main Event at the time.
The story of Stu Ungar is that of poker greatness but also about the tragedy of a man who, despite his great talent, couldn’t find balance in his life as he fell victim to cocaine abuse and a gambling addiction. Born in 1953, Ungar grew up in New York City surrounded by all sorts of gambling activities. After dropping out of school to be able to help his family financially, Stu started playing gin rummy in NYC. He was practically unbeatable, so much that it didn’t take long for people to start refusing to play against him. After a while, he moved to Florida and eventually Las Vegas.
His natural talent for card games wasn’t limited to rummy. Not long after taking up poker, Ungar became one of the best and, arguably, the best player around. Other players nicknamed him ‘The Kid’ because of his youth and his ability to beat anyone he sat across.
‘The Kid’ confirmed his domination in poker by winning not only the WSOP Main Event of 1980, but he repeated the feat the very next year. In a field of 75 players, Stu walked away with the title for 1981, winning another $375,000 in the process.
During all this time, Ungar was fighting his personal demons of cocaine and gambling addiction – a battle he would eventually lose. He went broke on numerous occasions due to these problems and his health was visibly deteriorating. Despite all this, he went on to win his third WSOP Main Event bracelet in 1997, earning a full million for first place together with the new nickname – ‘The Comeback Kid.’ Sadly, it would turn out this was Ungar’s swan song, as he was found dead the next year in his hotel room with only $800 to his name.
After Ungar’s two-year domination, the WSOP of 1982 was won by Jack Straus. This was the first time the Main Event gathered more than a hundred players, 104 to be exact, and Straus took home $520,000 for his performance. His victory became famous, bringing the saying ‘a chip and a chair’ into existence. Straus was down to a single 500 chip during Day 2 of the event, the single chip that he had left under a napkin after moving all in. Since he didn’t verbally declare his all in, tournament directors allowed him to continue playing with that one chip. Straus went on to make probably the biggest comeback in poker history and went on to win the tournament. He didn’t get his bracelet, however, as this was the year WSOP decided to replace them with wrist watches. However, this practice did not take on and bracelets were reintroduced in 1983. Straus died in 1988 while playing in a high stakes game in LA.
The year 1983 saw fourteen events take place, including the Main, which gathered 108 players. Doyle Brunson fell short of winning, finishing in third place. The last man standing that year was Tom McEvoy, whose victory was worth $540,000. McEvoy was the first winner who earned his seat through a satellite. Apart from his poker success, which earned him nearly $3 million in tournament winnings, McEvoy was well-known for his campaign against smoking in casinos. He helped organize the first smoke-free tournament in 1998.
The series continued to grow with every new year. In 1984, 132 players flocked to compete on the green felt for the title of world poker champion. In the end, Jack Keller was the one whose wrist was decorated with a WSOP bracelet. With a greater number of entries, the prize pool naturally grew, so Keller took home $660.000. Although the WSOP win was his biggest live score, it was by no means his only one, as Keller has accumulated nearly $4 million in live tournament winnings, according to Hendon Mob, as well as two more WSOP bracelets from side events.
The year 1985 saw a long time pretender finally sit at the throne. Bill Smith got to the final tables of the Main Event in both 1981 and 1986, but in 1985 he managed to beat the other 140 players and bank $700,000. Apart from his poker achievements, he was known as the guy who always played drunk. According to T.J. Cloutier, who lost heads up to Smith that year, he would play his best game when he was half-way drunk. Bill Smith died in 1997, earning over a million during his poker career.
The 17th World Series of Poker Main Event welcomed 141 players once again. Eleven side events were also played during the series of 1986, but the most important bracelet went to Barry (Enfield) Johnston. With the nice piece of jewelry also came a bunch of hard, cold cash amounting to $570,000. Johnston, whose lifetime winnings are close to $3.5 million, was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2004. He holds the longest streak of WSOP cashes, as he has cashed in at least one event during every series held from 1982-2010. He collected four more WSOP bracelets during his career and has more than 60 WSOP cashes.
There aren’t that many players who belong to the group of poker legends; there are even fewer who belong to that group and are also holders of WSOP Main Event bracelets. Johnny Chan is amongst those few, as he managed to seal the deal in 1987. In the field of 152 players, Chan emerged victorious, earning himself $625,000. With 10 WSOP bracelets and more than $8.5 million in career winnings, Johnny Chan undoubtedly belongs at the very top of the poker elite. His fame was furthered with his appearance in one of the best known poker movies – Rounders.
Winning just one Main Event was apparently not enough for Chan as he went on to win the very next year. 1988 gathered 167 entrants and created a first place prize of $700,000. It was this year that he played heads-up for the title against Erik Seidel – another scene appearing in Rounders.
I will conclude Part II with arguably the most famous winner – Phil Hellmuth Jr. The series of 1989 had 178 entries and after beating Johnny Chan in the heads-up, stopping him from pulling a win three years in a row, Hellmuth won $755,000. With this win he became the youngest ever champion at the time. This constitutes only a small portion of his total winnings, as they are just a couple thousand short of $18 million, and he has 13 WSOP bracelets to his name. But the title of World Champion certainly has a lot of importance for the ‘Poker Brat,’ as he was nicknamed by fellow players and the media. It is not hard to understand how the nick came about since if there is one thing that Hellmuth is more famous for than his poker achievements, it is his whining at the table. It has become a part of his image to be that one guy who always complains about everything – other players playing bad, his bad luck and anything else that comes to mind. His saying, ‘If it weren’t for luck, I’d win every one’ has become quite famous and it is often used by other players when they want to tease him or cause one of his famous ‘blowups.’
The next part of this series on WSOP winners will cover the events from 1990 to the famous victory of Chris Moneymaker in 2003, the event that brought about the ‘poker boom.’